Henry Kissinger, former U.S. Secretary of State and former Harvard University professor, delivers his keynote address at the opening ceremony of the Second Global Think Tank Summit in Beijing, China, June 25, 2011.
"International Affairs and the Public Sphere"
Academia & the Public Sphere Essay Series
Magazine or Newspaper Article, Transformations of the Public Sphere
July 21, 2011
Author: Stephen M. Walt, Robert and Renée Belfer Professor of International Affairs; Faculty Chair, International Security Program
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security
Most social scientists would like to believe that their profession contributes to solving pressing global problems. Indeed, the United States and many other modern societies subsidize university-based research and teaching on the assumption that scholars will develop useful knowledge about today’s world, communicate that knowledge to their students and to the broader public, and, where appropriate, offer rigorous, well-informed advice to interested policymakers.
There is today no shortage of global problems that social scientists should study in depth: ethnic and religious conflict within and between states, the challenge of economic development, terrorism, the management of a fragile world economy, climate change and other forms of environmental degradation, the origins and impact of great power rivalries, the spread of weapons of mass destruction, just to mention a few. In this complex and contentious world, one might think that academic expertise about global affairs would be a highly valued commodity. Scholars would strive to produce useful knowledge, students would flock to courses that helped them understand the world in which they will live and work, and policymakers and the broader public would be eager to hear what academic experts had to say.
One might also expect scholars of international relations to play a prominent role in public debates about foreign policy, along with government officials, business interests, representatives of special interest groups, and other concerned citizens. Social scientists are far from omniscient, but the rigor of the scientific process and the core values of academia should give university-based scholars an especially valuable role within the broader public discourse on world affairs. At its best, academic scholarship privileges creativity, validity, accuracy, and rigor and places little explicit value on political expediency. The norms and procedures of the academic profession make it less likely that scholarly work will be tailored to fit pre-conceived political agendas. When this does occur, the self-correcting nature of academic research makes it more likely that politically motivated biases or other sources of error will be exposed. Although we know that scholarly communities do not always live up to this ideal picture, the existence of these basic norms gives the academic world some important advantages over think tanks, media pundits, and other knowledge-producing institutions.
Yet the precise role that academic scholars of international affairs should play is not easy to specify. Indeed, there appear to be two conflicting ways of thinking about this matter.
On the one hand, there is a widespread sense that academic research on global affairs is of declining practical value, either as a guide to policymakers or as part of broader public discourse about world affairs. Former policymakers complain that academic writing is "either irrelevant or inaccessible to policy-makers. . . locked within the circle of esoteric scholarly discussion." This tendency helps explain Alexander George's recollection that policymakers' eyes "would glaze as soon as I used the word theory."1 As Lawrence Mead noted in 2010: "Today's political scientists often address very narrow questions and they are often preoccupied with method and past literature. Scholars are focusing more on themselves, less on the real world. . . . Research questions are getting smaller and data-gathering is contracting. Inquiry is becoming obscurantist and ingrown."2
Within the field of international affairs, this trend has led to repeated calls to "bridge the gap" between the ivory tower and the policy community.3 Consistent with that aim, a number of prominent scholars have recently organized workshops or research projects seeking to challenge this "cult of irrelevance" and deprogram its adherents, although it is not clear whether these efforts will succeed in reversing the current drift.4 This online symposium reflects a similar concern: how can the academic world contribute to a healthy public conversation about our collective fate, one that leads to more effective or just solutions to contemporary problems and helps humankind avoid major policy disasters?
On the other hand, closer engagement with the policy world and more explicit efforts at public outreach are not without their own pitfalls. Scholars who enter government service or participate in policy debates may believe that they are "speaking truth to power," but they run the risk of being corrupted or co-opted in subtle and not-so-subtle ways by the same individuals and institutions that they initially hoped to sway. Powerful interests are all-too-willing to use the prestige associated with academic scholars to advance particular policy goals, and scholars are hardly immune to temptations that may cloud their judgment or compromise their objectivity. Furthermore, scholars who embrace the role of a "public intellectual" may be tempted to sensationalize their findings to attract a larger audience or find themselves opining on topics on which they have no particular expertise. Instead of improving the quality of public discourse, such behavior may actually degrade it.
The remainder of this essay explores these themes in greater detail. I begin by discussing the unique contributions that academic scholars could make to public discourse on world affairs—at least in theory—highlighting their capacity to serve as an authoritative source of knowledge about the world and as an independent voice in debates about contemporary issues (→Why Is Academic Scholarship Valuable?). I then consider why there is a growing gap between university-based scholars and both the policy world and the public sphere, and suggest that this trend is due largely to the professionalization of academic disciplines and the concomitant rise of a quasi-academic community of think tanks with explicit political agendas (→Why Is There a Gap between Academia and the Public Sphere?). Next, I identify some of the pitfalls that scholars face when they become more active participants in the public sphere (→The Pitfalls of Engagement). I conclude by proposing several reforms that could help the social sciences make a more vital contribution to public understanding and policy formation in the broad domain of global affairs (→What Is To Be Done?)....
1 See David Newsom, "Foreign Policy and Academia," Foreign Policy 101 (1995–96); and Alexander L. George, "Foreword," in Miroslav Nincic and Joseph Lepgold, eds., Being Useful: Policy Relevance and International Relations Theory (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000). This sense of dissatisfaction is not a new phenomenon. Nearly sixty years ago, Hans J. Morgenthau complained that "the retreat into the trivial, the formal, the methodological, the purely theoretical, the remotely historical—in short, the politically irrelevant—is the unmistakable sign of a 'non-controversial' political science that has neither friends nor enemies because it has no relevance for the great political issues in which society has a stake." See M. Benjamin Mollov, Power and Transcendance: Hans J. Morgenthau and the Jewish Experience (Lexington: Lexington Books, 2002), p. 42.
2 Lawrence Mead, "Scholasticism in Political Science," Perspectives on Politics 8, no. 2 (June 2010).
3 See, among others: Peter Feaver, "The Theory-Policy Debate in Political Science and Nuclear Proliferation," National Security Studies Quarterly 5, no. 3 (1999); Christopher Hill and Pamela Beshoff, eds., The Two Worlds of International Relations: Academics, Practitioners, and the Trade in Ideas (London: Routledge, 1994); Joseph Lepgold, "Is Anyone Listening?: International Relations Theory and Policy Relevance" Political Science Quarterly 113, no. 3 (1998); Bruce Jentleson, "The Need for Praxis: Bringing Policy Relevance Back In," International Security 26, no. 4 (2002); Joseph Nye, "Scholars on the Sidelines," Washington Post, April 13, 2009; and Stephen M. Walt, "The Relationship between Theory and Policy in International Relations," Annual Review of Political Science 8 (2005).
4 Such efforts include: 1) the Tobin Project, which describes itself as "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"; 2) the "Bridging the Gap" workshop organized by Bruce Jentleson, Steven Weber, and James Goldgeier, and a recent workshop on the "cult of irrelevance" sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
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