Daniel W. Drezner

Joe Nye is right!! That is to say, he’s mostly right!! Well, it kind of depends, actually…..

Joe Nye is right!!  That is to say, he’s mostly right!!  Well, it kind of depends, actually…..

It’s not easy being an international relations scholar [Cue world’s smallest violin!–ed.]  When we’re not being compared to AIG executives, we’re being told that we are irrelevant to policymakers

Being  swamped with work yesterday, a typically out-of-touch academic, it took me 24 hours to notice Joseph Nye’s Washington Post op-ed about out-of-touch international relations scholars (thanks to Laura for flagging it): 

While important American scholars such as Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski took high-level foreign policy positions in the past, that path has tended to be a one-way street. Not many top-ranked scholars of international relations are going into government, and even fewer return to contribute to academic theory. The 2008 Teaching, Research and International Policy (TRIP) poll, by the Institute for Theory and Practice in International Relations, showed that of the 25 scholars rated as producing the most interesting scholarship during the past five years, only three had ever held policy positions (two in the U.S. government and one in the United Nations). The fault for this growing gap lies not with the government but with the academics.

But… but… but what about hip IR scholar-bloggers?!

Even when academics supplement their usual trickle-down approach to policy by writing in journals, newspapers or blogs, or by consulting for candidates or public officials, they face many competitors for attention. More than 1,200 think tanks in the United States provide not only ideas but also experts ready to comment or consult at a moment’s notice. Some of these new transmission belts serve as translators and additional outlets for academic ideas, but many add a bias provided by their founders and funders. As a group, think tanks are heterogeneous in scope, funding, ideology and location, but universities generally offer a more neutral viewpoint. While pluralism of institutional pathways is good for democracy, the policy process is diminished by the withdrawal of the academic community.

The solutions must come via a reappraisal within the academy itself. Departments should give greater weight to real-world relevance and impact in hiring and promoting young scholars. Journals could place greater weight on relevance in evaluating submissions. Studies of specific regions deserve more attention. Universities could facilitate interest in the world by giving junior faculty members greater incentives to participate in it. That should include greater toleration of unpopular policy positions. One could multiply such useful suggestions, but young people should not hold their breath waiting for them to be implemented. If anything, the trends in academic life seem to be headed in the opposite direction.

Nye is — mostly — preaching to the converted here.  Right now, the strictures against junior faculty taking an interest in the policymaking world are very, very strong.  A decade ago, for example, I received a fellowship that allowed me to spend a year in the government.  At the time, a senior member of my old department flat-out advised me against taking it because it would taint my career with the whiff of policy.  I showed him.  Oh, wait

That said, just to throw some sand in Nye’s gears, I don’t accept that this is only the academy’s fault.  Even when IR scholars try to speak with one loud voice, the result is often a deafening silence in the policy world. 

As for individual scholars, the political barriers to government service by aspiring academics are pretty high at this point.  Academics have long paper trails that are easy to manipulate, and politicians are well aware of this Achilles Heel.  Exhibit A:  the Obama administration’s vetting process.  Exhibit B:  Harold H. Koh

Note what I’ve just done here.  Rather than offer my full-throated support for Joe’s eminently sensible advice, I thought about this critically and then offered some… criticisms.  This skill lets academics excel at cutting down other ideas to size.  It makes it far harder, however, for IR scholars to offer constructive, useful policy advice. 

Which is why Joe is so unique. 

See Henry Farrell and Peter Howard for further academic-y reflections on Nye.