Remarks as prepared for delivery.
The trouble with weapons of mass destruction is that they occupy a space in the data set somewhere between rumor, silence, and apocalypse. Indeed, I spent a good deal of my career doing things that I can’t tell you about.
Working on nuclear non-proliferation, as I have, one has to make hard decisions based on slender, incomplete, and often unreliable information. But, to keep the peace, decisions have to be made and acted upon. It is a practical craft, and I think an honorable one.
What, you may ask, does that dilemma have to do with the social sciences?
A great deal, in fact. Let me explain.
Nation states, understandably, have to take a position on the most destructive force available to humanity. Their decisions to acquire, or dispose of, or renounce nuclear weapons are, also understandably, at the center of our global security concerns.
There are almost two hundred sovereign states, each with its own aspirations, fears, internal politics, and regional relationships. It is not possible for us to know enough about every country, about every leader, or about every nuance of inter-state rivalry to assess how they are likely to act. We have to make assumptions – intelligent assumptions.
In short, we need a theory.
My first job I can tell you about. I was Kenneth Waltz's teaching assistant as a graduate student at Brandeis, direly underprepared to work with one of the most profound thinkers in political science. But that predicament has a way of concentrating, and enlarging, the mind. It did mine.
From Ken Waltz, I learned the power of theory, or, perhaps better, “systematic thinking.” (He also made me a member of the realist school of international relations, but that is another narrative.)
Systematic thinking about how humanity behaves has been the core contribution of the social sciences since economics emerged from ledger books and counting houses. The Physiocrats and political economists rose above everyday epiphenomena and found, among myriad transactions, rule-governed patterns.
It was a process of radical simplification, and also of intellectual liberation. Having a clear mental image of a social system allows us to see, and then to isolate, causes and variables, testing our model in the laboratory of history and events.
How does that help us better grasp international relations? In Man, the State, and War, Waltz directs us away from the nature of the human subject or the internal organization of particular states. Instead, he advises us to look at the internal dynamics of the international system in which nations interact – to use a common analogy – like billiard balls. Their color does not matter; the force and direction they carry decide the game.
We have no world government. The international system is organized on the principle of anarchy. And in that context, autonomous nation states tend to make rational decisions – to survive, to deter others from attacking them, to make alliances with stronger powers.
Similarly powerful states will act in similar ways. The U.S. and the U.S.S.R., though quite different societies, built vast armories, recruited client states, conducted covert operations in tandem throughout the Cold War.
In this paradigm, it makes sense for North Korea, a state which is weak and failing, to seek the trump card of nuclear capability – as it does our allies to accept American protection, or a democratic South Africa to dismantle its nuclear arsenal.
What does this all mean in practical terms? Simply, robust theory serves as a necessary corrective to the stridency of facts. If we do not have a clear grasp of what is likely to be the case, we may act on what is improbable. Nowhere is this more important than in questions of national security.
As I said at the start, intelligence can be cryptic – or plain wrong, as we have learned to our cost. Effective security analysis depends on a dialogue between what seems to be empirically established and how we understand the world to work.
When we are clear about our assumptions, we gain clarity about the assumptions of those who disagree with us. We can cultivate empathy as an aid to understanding. We are more able to guard against misperception and deflect the arguments of interested parties. Clear assumptions can be challenged, tested, and debated.
This conversation between theory and practice, deduction and induction characterizes any discipline or pursuit that is mature and complex. And those are practiced in it develop what Aristotle called phronesis, or “practical judgment.” Practical judgment grasps the big theoretical picture, has an eye for relevant detail, and has a developed instinct for when either side of the equation should be called into question. We need more of it.
We need it now in situations festering in the Middle East, Northeast Asia, and South Asia in particular.
Modern government could do with a large dose of good social science. Politics, necessarily, is governed by rhetoric and short-term calculations. It should be balanced by policy discussion that is theoretically sophisticated and empirically rigorous.
When I left the State Department for Georgetown’s Walsh School of Foreign Service, I made it a priority to encourage more interaction between the academy and government. At the MacArthur Foundation, I was pleased to find an institution that had for decades valued research into persistent social problems, fostered interdisciplinary research networks in neglected areas, funded demonstration projects that had implications for government policy.
But we need to do more to close the gap.
It is time for more adventurous academic programs for our students, with broader or permeable disciplinary boundaries, and an emphasis on developing practical judgment. We need to rethink our system of tenure and academic incentives, giving credit not only for specialized research and publication but also for engagement with policymakers and the public.
MacArthur funds (and I participate in) a promising collaborative venture: the Tobin Project. Tobin is “an alliance of the nation’s leading academics united by a belief in the power of ideas and a shared commitment to using ideas to improve the lives of their fellow citizens.” It is based right here in Cambridge, MA.
America and the world face challenges that demand our best intellectual efforts. My aspiration is for “shared intelligence,” an ongoing exchange between our best conceptual thinkers, sharpest researchers, and most accomplished policymakers.
But in this I am preaching to the choir. The American Academy has helped pioneer interdisciplinary thinking, links between policy and research, and attention to large social issues. That is one reason, among many, that I feel honored to be admitted to the Academy with the other inductees in this class today. This is a choir I am glad to sing in.
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