We Have to Talk: The Urgency of Dialogue between International Relations Scholarship and Policy

Good afternoon. It is a pleasure to be here at Bryn Mawr, and to acknowledge gratefully its many contributions to women’s education over a century and a quarter. 

I was honored when President McAuliffe invited me here. Jane and I had a number of productive, collegial, and happy years together as Deans of Georgetown University. Some of that involved conspiring to extract the most resources we could from the Provost and President need not demand further comment. Suffice it to say that a scarcity of resources, for whatever reason, made us more collaborators than competitors. 

When I speak, at colleges and elsewhere, I usually do my best to cause alarm and despondency. This is because I try to persuade people that nuclear terrorism in the United States is not only a credible possibility but a clear and present danger. It goes back two careers ago when I was in government service. Nuclear weapons and nuclear energy have played a large part in that career; one of the elements that attracted me to the MacArthur Foundation was its ongoing efforts to promote international nuclear security. 

Of course, MacArthur does much more.  We are one of the largest private philanthropies.  With an endowment of $5.6 billion, we make grants of more than $200 million each year to organizations working in 60 countries.  MacArthur aims to help build a more just, peaceful, and sustainable world. Oh, and a more verdant one too. We do so by funding research, helping to improve public policy, sometimes actually educating the public, and supporting organizations that work in fields ranging from conservation to juvenile justice, from education to human rights.

But for today, President McAuliffe pointed out to me that Bryn Mawr had recently started a program in International Studies, and asked me to reflect on recent trends and future directions in that field.

It was more than I could resist. As you may know, my other career was as a teacher and administrator in higher education, focusing on Political Science and International Relations. For me, it has always been obvious that the two worlds of policy-making and academic research should be in constant, productive conversation. But they are not. So today I will reflect on why that is, and make a few proposals for a way forward. 

My focus will be on the discipline of International Relations, with an emphasis on security and political issues.  

My principal theme is that something has gone seriously wrong in the relationship between universities and the policy world in the field of International Relations. Scholars and researchers should be an invaluable resource for policy makers. They are not, at present. I think there are ways to improve that situation. 

But first, I think I need to sketch out for you what I see as being at the core of International Relations as a discipline – and what (however important) is not. (Be forwarned: I plan to get into trouble with many of you here.)

There has been a tendency in recent years for all sorts of worthy issues to be presented as security issues. For example, we hear of “environmental security” – that is, the various threats to peace and to national self-determination posed by such factors as pressures on water supplies or arable land, or rapid changes in climate. 

Other issue areas make similar claims – economic development, demographics, the migration of people, and so on.  And I can see why they do. There certainly are implications for security that arise from drought, or gender imbalance, or gross inequality. But to say that they are intrinsically security issues is, in my view, a category error.

I do not dismiss the significance of these forces – far from it. But consider what they cause:  Diplomatic confrontations.  Hostile engagement. Skirmishes, or, in the worst case, outright war. These are things that people, through their governments or armies, do to other people.  Not something that simply happens to people, like an earthquake, an epidemic, or a meteor headed for New Jersey.

That, to me, is the nub. 

International security, which is (or ought to be) at the heart of International Relations, is about how people, organized in states, interact to protect or enhance their security. That is the drama. Its theme is power. The plot is made up of the acts states perform, and what reactions they provoke. All the other issues are, more or less, the set and stage on which the drama takes place – important, sometimes determining.  But not the show itself.  Another term for the show is “history,” and despite what Francis Fukuyama famously postulated, we are not at the end of it.

Of course the proponents of new interpretations have good reason to make their case. If your field is really about security, you are making a claim on the most important and best funded function of government. You have the attention of the most important policy makers, and access to scarce resources.  In the U.S., you are tapping into a security budget of close to $700 billion per annum.  Worth a shot, by any reckoning, but I remain unconvinced.

So that makes me a traditionalist or realist, perhaps a structural realist – or as my younger colleagues might say “a dead white guy.”  I think nation states are the fundamental unit of analysis and their security issues constitute the heart of global relations. Just as in earlier centuries, the players relate to one another --beneath the other currencies more frequently exchanged --through the medium of power politics. Despite “globalization,” there is a structural similarity between our world and the worlds of Teddy Roosevelt, or Bismark, or Metternich. 

But there are highly intelligent analysts who think that the game really has changed in the last few decades. They think that globalization has unleashed forces that are rendering the nation state, if not obsolete, at least very much less important. I think of a fine 1997 article entitled “Power Shift” by Jessica Tuchman Matthews in Foreign Affairs that makes this case extremely well. 

The liberal internationalists argue that in a globalized, interdependent world, there are issues that supersede the interests of individual sovereign states. The multiple international agencies and quasi-governmental bodies (from the UN down), corporations, NGOs, the systems through which goods, money, and people flow have displaced the nation state in importance. As a consequence, global interests must and will supersede national interests. Well, maybe they “must” – but in fact, they don’t.

The unkind term for such thinking is “globaloney.”

I follow the line of reasoning, but I do not recognize this as the world we actually live in. The current instruments that make a claim to global governance, such as the UN, have a spotty record of performance at best, on compelling compliance.  States may, for short or long term self-interest, act through or with international organizations. But when important disagreements arise, states still operate using the old tools of diplomacy, and the projection of force, or its anticipation, determines the outcome. 

An issue that brings this into sharp relief is that of human rights. If we claim these rights are universal, should they not be universally defended?

The international community has been asking this question at least since WWII. The impetus to enshrine in a norm, the principle of defending rights against the worst abuses, began soon after the appalling genocide in Rwanda in 1994. It led to the “Responsibility to Protect” (or R2P as it is known in NGO-land) – the principle that, when states fail to defend the basic human rights of their citizens (or even attack them directly), there is an obligation for the international community to intervene.  The MacArthur Foundation played a significant part in promoting R2P, and the United Nations adopted it in 2005. 

The principle is an attractive one, but R2P has not made much difference. It has certainly not put in place a global regimen to uphold universal rights. This is because, to have a genuine global policeman, one has to have a genuine global government. And we are not there. 

Now, this is not to say that I do not believe, in principle, in human rights norms or, in practice, in humanitarian interventions. 

Declarations of human rights can change priorities and values for the better – there is certainly a far higher premium put on human rights in the US Department of State today than there was during The Cold War, due in part to aspirational documents and persuasive advocates. 

But when it comes to defending human rights on the ground, the interventions that have been successful -- such as (for a while) America’s efforts in Somalia in 1992, or Britain’s action in Sierra Leone in 2000 – have been the work of determined nation states, not of international bodies. 

In my view, such interventions have value but should be undertaken only prudently, without fatal compromise of national interests, and after the multiple complex factors involved have been given due consideration.  There is a growing body of literature on the ethical basis for overriding sovereign interests: I recommend the collection of essays The Sacred and the Sovereign, edited by John Carlson and Erik Owens.

But I reiterate: so far, the game has not fundamentally changed. 

And this brings me, at last, to my real subject. One hears perennial laments from the academic world that their valuable work is being ignored by policymakers. And, on the other hand, policymakers complain they can get nothing useful from the academy. One fears they may both be right.

Yet the issues I have been discussing cry out for nuanced, sophisticated investigation that connects interpretive principles to actual places and situations. Why are scholars and policy people not having the interaction that we need – and say we want?

Let me share an anecdote, an incident which impressed on me how deep seated this failure to communicate "Cool Hand Luke" like has become. Some years ago, a former colleague of mine at Georgetown University, Joe Lepgold, co-authored a book on “the gap” between policy and academic worlds entitled Beyond the Ivory Tower: IR Theory and the Issue of Policy Relevance. He came to give me an advance copy of the book and I said: “Great idea. I suppose you spoke to Madeleine?”  [Madeleine Albright, former Secretary of State, was on our faculty.] “No,” he replied. “Or to Tony?” [Tony Lake, former National Security Advisor, was also on the faculty] “No.” again. “Don?” “No.” [Don McHenry, former Ambassador to the UN, also a faculty member] "No." It turned out that, despite having an office on the same floor as some of the leading policy makers of his generation, Joe had not knocked on a door and had a conversation with any of them. They were not his audience. He evidently didn’t think he had much to share with them. He was content to address “policy relevance” without reference to policy, or the people who’d made it. 

So how did we get here? I think much of the fault lies with what has happened in universities in recent decades. What are the factors at play?

First, there has been a theoretical turn across the social sciences and humanities that has cut off academic discourse from the way both ordinary people and working professionals speak and think; 

And second, the incentive structure in universities and disciplines has endorsed this emphasis on theory and methodology without concern for relevance of either to real world problems.

First, as to theory. I have no antipathy to theory per se.  I was trained by Kenneth Waltz, a scholar who defined the structural realist school. I was his Teaching Assistant and he and Bob Art were my thesis advisors.

Waltz’s view was that how states are internally organized makes no important difference to how they behave with each other in critical matters and over time.  When they clash, it is their power and need for security that determines whether or not there will be conflict and what the outcome will be.  I over simplify to be sure, but not by a lot. It is all very simple, and quite helpful.

Simplification is important. That’s how we begin to make sense of an extremely complex world and put an organizing frame on our thinking. But the place to start is not the place to finish. 

What has happened, in the IR field and others, is that the validity and elegance of the models and the methodology have become the center of attention, rather than whether the models can be used to understand real world situations. Conferences and symposia are devoted to differences in theoretical constructs; topics are chosen for research based not upon their importance, but on their accessibility to a particular methodology. Articles and books  are published to be read, if at all, only by colleagues who have the same high regard for methodology and theory, and disregard of practice. [I know, I have to learn to say what I think.] 

The situation has created a profession that is inward- looking, concerned with arcane debate; the worst kind of “inside baseball” – a result which provokes and deserves all the insults thrown at the ivory tower from the world of policy and practice. 

Now to incentive structure. One of the best things about universities is that they are self-governing entities. And one of the worst things about universities is that they are self-governing entities. When it comes to promoting academic staff and awarding tenure, departments are largely allowed to set their own standards – these are endorsed by the institution, usually without much question. And, of course, departments are made up of people who have succeeded in the profession and will perpetuate its values. So the university department can turn into a guild, favoring credentialing over relevance, and orthodoxy over impact. 

Enough bad things have been said about the tenure process over the years without my adding to the pile. (Yes, there are good things too, but that’s not my purpose today.) Enough to say that the tenure track has become, in many institutions, a deep rut and is not serving individuals, institutions, or our society particularly well. 

My concern is for the larger effects. The tenured professors construct courses, teach students, and train the next generation of scholars. The best young minds and young researchers are encouraged to replicate what their mentors think is important. But what if nobody who works in the world of policy and practice agrees that is important? Students are then being prepared for careers that do not exist outside of Academia, given tools that are not useful except to their discipline, and along the way they (or we) are paying handsomely for the privilege.  That is a genuine problem, and one universities would do well to address. If they do not, they undermine their credibility – and indeed their viability, since this situation strikes at the heart of their economic model.  

Now, I would care much less if we were talking about literary theory or art history – important, interesting, and rewarding though they may be. I care very much when we are talking about International Relations because this is a discipline that addresses what gets people killed, in the real world, here and now. 

And the people who are out there making policy, most trying to save lives and keep the peace, need all the help they can get in order to make better decisions. 

In a fine piece called “Mind the Gap: Why Policymakers and Scholars Ignore Each Other, and What Should Be Done About It,” Jim Steinberg and Francis Gavin (both at Syracuse) set up the dichotomy between policy and scholarship using a famous metaphor of Isaiah Berlin’s. 

Berlin, writing about Tolstoy’s view of history, contrasted two strategic approaches – that of the hedgehog, which has one maneuver (turning itself into a prickly ball) and that of the fox, which is to be as inventive as possible in defense and attack. 

Steinberg and Gavin suggest that scholars have become hedgehogs. In order to establish themselves in their profession, they are likely to adopt a single line of thinking, to be “parsimonious theorists”, and to take absolute positions about their theories. It all works very well – unless one actually tries to put it into practice. 

In Expert Political Judgment, a 20-year study of forecasts about world events, Philip Tetlock, who is at Princeton, found that the leading authorities in world affairs have a record of prediction whose accuracy is roughly similar to that of monkeys playing darts. 

So put yourself in the shoes of a policymaker needing to make a decision. Are you asking, “Quick, send in the monkey!”? Or hedgehog, as the case may be.

Policymakers Steinberg and Gavin say, are like foxes. They have to do many things, and cannot afford the luxury of intellectual purity. They are faced with irreducible complexity, radical uncertainty, and have to rely on absolutely inadequate information.  And “we need a decision today.” Most often, they have to settle for the least bad option.

Unsurprisingly, policymakers think practically, are prepared to do anything that looks as if it might succeed (whether or not it works in theory), and are reluctant to take big bets if they are not forced to. If they fail, there are likely to be dire consequences, both for themselves and others. 

So how could the academic experts be more helpful?

Twenty years ago, Alexander George, in Bridging the Gap: Theory and Practice in Foreign Policy, made some good suggestions:

First, he proposes interdisciplinary approaches. This, of course, is so common in the university as to be almost a pathological nervous twitch. But it is, in fact, hardly ever done. We talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk.

At Georgetown, we prided ourselves on how interdisciplinary we were. We noted that no policy maker ever had a staffer run in and say “We have a sociology problem developing in the Gulf.” We knew the world was not divided into disciplines and that our teaching should reflect that. And we set up courses that brought teachers from disparate disciplines together. 

So far, so good. Then one day, two earnest students who were in one of these courses came to see me and pointed out that their course on International Political Economy, taught by one economist and one political scientist, was not truly interdisciplinary since the professors spoke sequentially, in different disciplinary idioms, and past one another. They were right. Being really interdisciplinary is hard and requires deep, difficult engagement. 

The rub is that most academics who are experts in their disciplines are more interested in their theories than they are in interdisciplinary conversations or working together on problems. 

Policymakers, by contrast, have to deal with actual problems. They would benefit from having multiple views of the same issue in order to see all the consequences and the likely interdependencies of a line of action. 

Second, George suggests that researchers embrace what he calls “second best” theory. That is, rather than concentrating on a grand theory that explains everything, scholars could help provide policymakers with ways to assess whether their policies are working in real time. 

Policymakers in the throes of a crisis do not much care whether a theory is being proved true or false, but they badly need evidence of progress or emerging problems. In simpler terms, they need management tools, like dashboards or scorecards. Scholars could produce and help test these.

Lastly, George calls for mutual accountability, or (in his words) “a seat at the table.” If academics are invited in to the policy environment, decision-makers need to be invited back into the academy, and their views on curriculum and research taken seriously. 

These are good ideas. I would add another: A full reconsideration of both the standards by which excellence is assessed and the requirements for hiring, tenure, and promotion:  rigorous policy-relevant theory and analysis should have a place in all three.

MacArthur is supporting some efforts in this regard – I think in particular of the Tobin Project in Cambridge, Massachusetts that has, as its goal, the application of social science to real-world problems, both international and domestic. We are also investigating how to support policy-relevant strategic studies that would assist governments and diplomats.  Across our work, we try to use the best empirical research as a resource to improve policy and practice. 

So, in ending: I urge those who teach and study in International Relations to think about the problems we face as a nation, and those humankind faces across the planet. And think about jobs. Think about the needs of governments. Think about the needs of the world and the vast range of organizations at work in the world – foundations not the least of them. Find practical ways to prepare people to be useful and effective. 

Our nation and the world face large and pressing problems. You have the country’s intellectual firepower, trained expertise, and the careers of the most promising young people in your hands. I’m asking that you please do something useful with them. 

International Peace & Security, Peace & Security