“Academia and the Foreign Policy-making Process” Speech by Robert Gallucci
May 7, 2014 | Speech

The following speech was presented at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington by Foundation President Robert Gallucci.

Thank you for that kind introduction. It is a great pleasure for me to be here, at home among those who have devoted their careers to educating and working in international relations.

I am privileged to be asked by the Jackson School to be a part of this conference. For over a century, the Jackson School has promoted academic excellence and, with signal success, equipped its students to understand other countries and cultures and to translate them for other Americans.

The Jackson School and its history exemplify what I would like to speak about today—which is the relationship between scholarship, learning, and the academy and the foreign policy process in which national interests and security are at stake.

I was originally asked to provide a survey of all that international affairs education and language studies have contributed to U.S. policy in a range of fields over 60 years. That task, I’m afraid, was beyond my powers to undertake. I might have tried, actually, were I not so intimidated by you—the audience. This, international affairs education, is what many of you do. You’re not just “passing through” as I have. Indeed, I am doubly chastened, by the presence of my brother—my slightly older but substantially wiser brother—who has taught and done research in the area of science and international affairs all around the world for four decades and who works in three languages. As you will soon see, I struggle with English. So, I respectfully defer to brother Vincent on the historical survey. I may have been born at night, but I wasn’t born last night.  

Instead, I will concentrate on the present. I do know that universities have played a valuable role in developing the insights and activities of policymakers in the past.

And I hope that they will do so in the future. But I am not convinced that their current contribution is adequate.

That gives cause for concern. We are at a point in history when deep and broad international knowledge is more vital than ever. The last great period of globalization, at the end of the nineteenth century, ended with the cataclysm of World War I—which set off the long crisis of the 20th century and transformed America’s relationship to the rest of the world. Hindsight lends us a sense of impending disaster not available to those making decisions a century ago, but today we look back at the build-up to the Great War appalled and mesmerized. How could the statesmen of that age allow the most advanced and prosperous region of the world to descend into a conflict of unprecedented magnitude?

But we may be in just such a period today. Profound changes in the global order are underway.

We do not yet know how China will behave as a great power or how it will reshape relations with its rivals and neighbors in the Koreas and Japan. A new social turmoil and old political rivalries are playing out in the Middle East, and we can see the effects across the Muslim world. Russia is once more altering the contours of Europe, and we cannot tell how well NATO, never mind the European Union, will weather the storm. The India-Pakistan relationship remains deeply problematic. And these essentially political conflicts are in a context of other profoundly significant changes—in demography, in economies and interdependence, in the environment, and in how information is created and shared.

In short, this is a time when policymakers need more help than ever to understand the world not as an abstract set of generalities but as a finely-grained, complex, and unpredictable environment shaped by culture, language, religion, and history.

This knowledge is not “academic” in the pejorative sense of being essentially useless. (My apologies to those of you who had never thought of the words “academic” and “useless” as synonymous.) It is, rather, essential if policymakers are to reach informed, intelligent, constructive solutions.

That they do so is also not academic. It is in the national interest—which is to say in all of our interests. Bad international policy can cost lives.

The need is not restricted to diplomacy and the State Department, or other areas within the U.S. government. There is a panoply of international organizations that need such human resources—the UN and its agencies, the World Bank, NGOs and foundations, and also a globalized private sector.

Each of these is looking for people who have that deep knowledge of the language, geography, culture, politics, and religion of specific nations and regions. If they also have substantive functional expertise in fields (such as security, economics, finance, development, health, the environment) so much the better.

So how are we doing in meeting this need?

In terms of university education, there are many positive indicators as well as important warning signs.

I am concerned principally with graduate education, but I think it is worth noting that undergraduate education seems more international and globally minded than ever. It seems that American parents and students are demanding exposure to other cultures—the number of undergraduates who study abroad has doubled over the last decade. And the number of international students, more than 800,000, is at a record high and has tripled over the last decade. Universities have responded and provided opportunities in response to market forces.

While I see this as a positive trend, I worry that a kind of “finishing school” internationalism may give young people the impression that they know more than they really do about another country.

It is at the graduate level where young professionals are trained for jobs both in the policy world, with government and international organizations, and in the academic world.

It seems to me we face two major problems. The first is that we are not producing enough deep expertise in languages and area studies, nor sustaining viable career paths for people with this kind of training. The second is the dynamics within the disciplines themselves, which reward “insider baseball” rather than policy relevance and are at risk of self-absorption.

First to area studies.

In a New York Times op-ed published a few years ago, Larry Summers questioned the value of devoting “the substantial investment necessary to speak a foreign tongue,” given the global penetration of English. If the former president of Harvard University could say that, we have a lot of work to do, folks.

And right now there is a perfect storm of forces aligned against area studies. A substantial portion of the teaching opportunities offered in foreign languages are for adjuncts and instructors—poorly paid and non-tenure track. I can’t think of a more effective disincentive to pursue this career path. But this aligns with broader trends in higher education toward devaluing the humanities, and relying on low cost teaching by graduate students, adjuncts, and non-tenure track faculty.

The brutal cuts to Title VI were undeniably poorly conceived and short-sighted. Their real impact is not in the funding loss alone, but its multiplier effect.

This means lost opportunities for National Resource Centers to leverage federal funds, and foregone careers—which would have been based on area knowledge—whose loss will be felt for decades. In this area, market forces are not serving the needs of the country, and we need to change that dynamic.

Within area studies, there has been a turn away from interdisciplinarity, leading to fewer social scientists in the field. Political scientists, for example, like economists before them, are finding it more professionally advantageous to identify with disciplinary departments which provide specialized credentials and clearer career paths. Political science departments don’t want area specialists, they want to recruit and turn out academics who think about models and the international system.

This, I think, is an indicator of a deeper issue—that is, how the disciplines operate and the resulting dearth of policy-relevant work.

To be healthy, disciplines need both to maintain their integrity and also be in productive conversation with the world.

This includes preparing young people for meaningful careers, but it should also mean serving the public good.

Yet this is not what is happening in our field. In my view, the turn toward highly theoretical and quantitative work in political science and international relations over recent decades has not served the profession well. Granted, it reflects a mania for measurement and metrics that extends far beyond the university and pervades practically all realms of contemporary endeavor, with the possible exception of poetry. But, this quantitative dominance that seeks to exclude other methods of inquiry has made the disciplines abstract, arcane, and sometimes unfit for practical use.

Now I respect and understand the importance of theory.

Perhaps the most important influence in my academic training was Kenneth Waltz and structural realism. I was his teaching assistant at Brandeis.

From him I learned how vital it was to have an intellectual model that simplified and organized the world, a map that lent coherence and allowed for considered prediction. It seems to me that one of the most valuable things universities do is to expose young people to such intellectual models—both to equip them for professional analysis and to bring them to the realization that there is more than one such model in existence. Far too many policymakers assume that their frame of analysis simply reflects reality rather than interpreting it.

I respect and understand that scholarship is also valuable in being disinterested. Complete objectivity is an unachievable ideal. But scholars are not bound to serve national interests or obey bureaucratic orders and they bring a valuable detachment that can criticize and correct official positions.

So I recognize that much of the work in political science is not immediately policy relevant. It is often the starting point for later, more relevant research, or an exploration of an untested new idea. Nevertheless, these valuable contributions are obscured when academic work focuses on proving the strength of an intellectual model for its own sake, or on engineering complex tests that prove something entirely obvious, or devolves into a competition between rival schools of thought. Such work is, to be blunt, not useful.

Or perhaps more accurately, it is useful only to junior academics seeking tenure, and tenured professors seeking promotion—which reaffirms to me that the core of the problem is disciplinary.

My complaint is neither new nor original—people in the field have been saying things like this for decades. And I have been accused of being out-of-date and attacking a problem that no longer exists.

Some 18 months ago, I spoke at Bryn Mawr where a new program of International Studies has been established. I made similar points about the disconnect between the disciplines of international studies and political science, on the one hand, and how working professionals think, on the other.

In response, one critic pointed out that younger scholars are more engaged with the public and policy than I allowed. He asserted that blogs, in particular, have transformed the landscape and made scholarly thinking available in an accessible way. And he reminded us that outfits such as the Tobin Project, the Bridging the Gap Initiative, and The Scholars Strategy Network are in conversation with policymakers.

All well and good. But where the critic saw a situation trending in a positive direction, I see a dire situation with a few points of light.

I doubt that the trends he describes are powerful enough to change the fundamental situation, spur structural reforms, or attract the talent we need.

Recently, Paul Avey and Michael Desch ran a survey of the highest-level national security decision-makers asking, “What, precisely, do the most senior national security policymakers want from international relations scholars?” The results confirm my diagnosis. Not only did political science fare poorly among the disciplines, but the decision makers with the highest level of academic training were the most skeptical of dominant approaches—formal and “quant” in particular. In fact, more than half the respondents categorized such formal models as “not very useful” or “not useful at all.”

What did they find useful? Economics, areas studies, and history. Contemporary case studies, historical case studies, and policy analysis.

But genuinely surprising, Avey and Desch found that scholars and practitioners have roughly the same view of what the useful methodological approaches are—something they were able to establish using the 2011 TRIP survey of scholars. Why scholars are pursuing approaches that most of them do not think will be of use is a question well worth pondering.

There are two issues here, it seems to me. The first is the incentive structure in the disciplines that I discussed earlier.

Instead of that inward-looking conversation and credentialing process, we need a closer, more productive synergy between our best intellects and those who have to make vital policy decisions. We need to change incentives in the academy to spur policy-relevant work in order to make that happen.

We also need to recognize that endogenous market forces (in this case, students who want to sign up for courses) are not going to be enough to build a stable base of expertise in all the areas we need. Here, government and other international organizations will need to play a larger role ideally with incentives. The current situation, in which funding is being stripped from area and language studies, creates disincentives. We need to do what we can to reverse it.

What would an ideal situation look like? Please forgive a reference here to my own experiences in government and academic administration.

I think of the balance as being captured in the best Department of State memos. The first part of the memo must address America’s national interests and policy objectives.

Of course one needs to know what our nation’s general posture should be, and why. But the second part of the memo, the bit that includes how you should act, has to be deeply informed by place, relationships, culture, and the integrated insights of appropriate disciplines.

No senior official ever has someone knock on his door with the news that there is a crisis in the international system, yelling, “Quick, get me an IR theorist.” No, there is a crisis in (for example) Kenya, and the first thing one needs is knowledge about the country and its ten major ethnic groups, power structure, geography, and recent trends.  And the first question is, “Who knows this stuff?” There is no substitute for those people and their educated intuition. You can’t Google judgment.

I had been working on North Korea for two years and was in Europe trying to secure funding from European leaders to underwrite the deal we had made with the DPRK when I suddenly had a call from the Deputy Secretary of State telling me that I would now be working on Bosnia, about which I knew almost nothing.

The first thing I did was to stop at a Borders bookstore on the way home from the airport and buy every book they had on the Balkans. Both of them. The following Monday I was negotiating, under Richard Holbrooke’s gentle guidance, the terms that eventually became pieces of the Dayton Accord.

My speed reading didn’t hurt, but I needed area experts to help me every step of the way – just as I did when I was negotiating with North Korea. And I got them.

There is a curious pathology in government—the “crème effect”—that decisions rise to the top and are taken by senior officials, generalists in most cases, who have to take into account issues of minute detail that can only be known by area specialists. When the generalists ignore the area specialists (who are often not in the room when decisions are taken), or have a theory that blithely trumps reality, there can be bad consequences.

Recall Iraq circa 2003 and the wishful thinking passing for analysis in the White House and at Defense that US troops invading Iraq would be greeted as saviors after the shooting stopped. The State-NEA team of area experts which had been assembled was removed, and post-conflict reconstruction was overseen by others who had clear ideological positions but not area expertise. What followed was a tragedy for Iraq and for the United States.

So what should we be doing to remedy the situation?

Of course, we need more resources. But so does everyone. And more money does not, in itself, solve problems that are persistent and systemic. It is quite possible to go on making expensive mistakes, more expensively. 

Substantively, I have a few prescriptions. Some “whats” and “hows.”

      1. We clearly need to address area studies, which are in free-fall.

We will have to change how area studies are valued institutionally. That will not be easy when area studies are, to most observers, arcane, difficult, and unlikely to lead to lucrative employment. Concerted efforts to link students with career opportunities would be a start.

To have teachers and researchers at all, we need to ensure that there are career paths that are survivable, not one-way tickets to becoming a permanent adjunct. It may no longer be possible for a faculty member to focus only on, for example, the political system in Bangladesh full time—we may need to cross connect that expertise to cognate areas across the academy so that the staff member can teach in other language and disciplinary departments.

Clustering has been around for quite some time; it may be a good way forward in this instance.

      2. We must address the crisis in language teaching, which is the foundation of true area expertise (and I speak as a regretful monoglot).

Language study needs to start earlier, and go deeper. Public schools around the country, it is good to see, are offering an increasing number of immersion programs, bilingual classrooms, and specialist language schools. I have not seen a similar commitment from universities.

We should reinforce our commitment to language proficiency by requiring more disciplinary academics to acquire foreign languages and area studies expertise and by strengthening language requirements in the professional schools.

That also means we need language specialists who will actually teach people how to speak a foreign language. In my experience, too many language faculty are uninterested in such instruction and prefer to spend time on theoretical issues in linguistics.

We should think of language as more than a functional skill. Learning a language that will yield profound insights into a culture needs a deeper, longer immersion in its native setting, and we should insist on significant time abroad as a part of that process. We should also consider study abroad in other subjects in the curriculum that is conducted in the local language.

      3. We need to broaden and open our criteria for tenure and professional advancement.

I know a good case can be made that young scholars on the tenure track should be focusing on the core skills of their discipline, building expertise, and gaining credibility. Once tenured, they can reach a broader audience and speak with greater authority.

I am not sure that this argument is as powerful as it once was.

We have a communication and information environment in which analysis is needed more immediately and in which younger researchers are comfortable and can play a significant part.

In other fields, careers have become less unitary and restricted. People are expected to master new skills and fields of expertise quickly and change when necessary. Universities have, in general, preferred to reward long-term commitment to the same area. I am not recommending that this be overturned, just suggesting that we could be more flexible in how we assess quality. That could include tenure review by a less restricted pool—policy people as well as disciplinary experts.

      4. We need more genuine interdisciplinarity.  Much is spoken about the importance of crossing disciplinary boundaries, but it is exceedingly hard to do well. Talking the talk is easier than walking the walk.

Courses that feature an economist and an anthropologist giving alternate lectures are not enough—there must be sustained engagement between the disciplines on theory, methods, and approaches. And, in our field, this should be done in the international context.

      5. We should expand the reach of the curriculum in our professional schools, looking for gaps, such as law, business, public health, education, or conservation. Having such options would both increase the professional relevance of our offerings and build strategic alliances with other professional schools—some of them with more generous budgets than others.

      6. We need to build greater communication and co-operation between the disciplines and the professional schools. This should begin with the respect of each for what the other brings to the table intellectually.

Regarding the “how” prescription, we need to identify the points of leverage. Who are those in positions of influence at individual institutions who might be sympathetic to the cause and could be persuaded to do something about the need? What examples can we make to illustrate the problem and what arguments can we levy to get them to take the action that is within their power? This is exactly what we, at MacArthur, are contemplating. Perhaps they are university presidents, who respond to boards, trustees, or legislators. Perhaps they are provosts.

Perhaps they are deans, who respond to student and faculty demand. Perhaps it’s the alumni who work in these sectors. Perhaps it’s the parents who want their children to have an education that responds to growing globalization.

Maybe there are individual institutions with nascent conditions that make them conducive to change, but could do with some encouragement and assistance to make it a reality. Perhaps there are clusters of scholars at particular institutions where their approach has not yet taken hold. Perhaps with some additional support, we could make a program that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Certainly, government can recognize the policy need, society’s need, for area and language expertise with Title VI funding.


I know, intuitively and from experience, how valuable the contribution of international affairs education and foreign language studies is to this nation and to the global community.

We have more to offer in the future, a still more significant part to play in our institutions of learning and in the public sphere. We need to commit ourselves to promoting rigorous but relevant work in the disciplines, and intellectually sophisticated training in the policy schools. We must encourage deep analytical thinking as a life-long commitment in our profession, and build the infrastructure that makes it possible and vibrant.

Most of all, we must be willing to serve our communities and nation freely and effectively.

Thank you for your attention.

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