Daniel W. Drezner

The academy strikes back

The academy strikes back

Joe Nye has clearly touched a nerve.  

There’s been a lot of e-mail chatter among international relations professors about Nye’s Washington Post op-ed arguing that IR scholars are cloister-bound and not policy relevant.

Some of these scholars have some interesting points/objections to make, but where oh where can they voice these points?   

Why, this very blog!  If you want to respond to Nye but don’t want to set up your own blog about it, feel free to e-mail me your response for publication here.  Assuming your response meets my personal standard of propriety (i.e., you don’t personally insult Nye, myself, or Salma Hayek) I will publish it in the hallowed… er… website of Foreign Policy.  [Can a website be hallowed?–ed.  I’m announcing that policy, yes.] 

Without further ado, here’s the first response, from Georgetown University’s Raj M. Desai and James Raymond Vreeland

Coaching from the Sidelines

Professor Joseph Nye ("Scholars on the Sidelines"), who has a well-deserved reputation as both an eminent scholar of international relations and as a government official with experience in several previous administrations, laments a growing gap between academia and government. He asserts that the fault "lies not with the government but with the academics." This is unfair.

Nye complains about the methodological rigor in contemporary political science as an impediment to its relevance. This is ironic, given that it is precisely this rigor that has allowed modern political science to improve its forecasting power – something that is presumably vital to policymaking. We now have better statistical tools to predict, for example, the likelihood of state failure, civil conflict, democratic breakdown, and other changes in governments. Game-theoretic models can be used to analyze trade disputes and war, as well as the behavior of international organizations, terrorist movements, and nuclear states with greater precision and clarity than just a few decades before.

In our classes, we give students assignments designed to bridge what they learn in the classroom to the real world. There is certainly a connection, and our job is to teach our students to see it. We hope such a pedagogy is in the spirit of what Nye calls for, but we find his piece frustrating as he implies that such endeavors are fruitless because contemporary political science has nothing to say to the broader audience. This is just not true.

Nye is correct that much of this analysis does not get translated into policymaking. There is surely something to be said for the failure of some scholars to disseminate their research more broadly, and he is also right that academia does not provide strong incentives to do so. But a part of this fault may also lie within the halls of certain government agencies. Nye also points to a strong connection between economists and policy makers. No wonder. Staffers at the US Treasury, the Fed, the National Economic Council (to name a few places) are comfortable reading cutting-edge economic analyses because they have been trained to understand mathematical models and statistical results. If people at the State Department or the National Security Council have not been comparably trained, however, they will not understand contemporary political science or its capacity to inform policy. Academic political science can do a much better job of reaching out to policymakers. But governmental agencies need to focus some effort on recruiting individuals who have the background and skills needed to apply modern political science to their daily work. Both sides need to make an effort.

Raj M. Desai and James Raymond Vreeland
Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service
Georgetown University