Daniel W. Drezner

On the matter of international relations theory and American political journalism

On the matter of international relations theory and American political journalism

The post-mortems on the political journalism and political science APSA panel have been pouring forth like the body count in The Expendables.  There’s one thread in particulat that has piqued my interest, however.  It starts with this Rob Farley observation

By and large, IR and comparative haven’t had the same impact on the journalist community in either their quantitative or qualitative forms.  I think that several major concepts/grand theories from both comparative and IR have found their way into the general policy conversation (deterrence theory, for example) but it’s more difficult to find uses of clear, sound political science research.  IPE might be an exception to this.  The immense political science literature on ethnic conflict seems utterly detached from the way that ethnic conflict is treated in the popular media.

To which, Matthew Yglesias responds:

I think you find almost no journalistic interest in comparative politics scholarship as just part and parcel of the overall solipsism of American popular political debates which take place in a kind of comparison-free void. The IR scholarship issue is quite different, since there’s tons and tons of journalistic work on subject matter to which scholarly IR research is plainly present. And the issue here, I think, is really primarily one of politics. The kinds of policy approaches that find support in the IR literature or can be usefully illuminated through it are just too far off the center of the American political consensus.

To which, William Winecoff responds with, er, some urgency:

There are all kinds of problems with this. To begin with, [Yglesias] basically starts by admitting that journalists really couldn’t care less about educating their readers, at least if the prerequisite of that is having a basic familiarity with the subject they are covering. Instead, all journalists care about are the "bounds of the DC debate", not stupid boring messy things like facts or scientific inquiry. No, those get in the way of "catastrophically misguided" right-wing policies that Democrats supported, dammit! Better to have a purely insult-based foreign policy discussion, completely void of theory or substance….

I would be surprised if Yglesias could outline more than one or two "scholarly controversies" in IR in any detail, much less describe how foreign policy has no interaction with those arguments. Bush 43’s entire foreign policy was based on a mutation of democratic peace theory, which is hotly contested in the academy and elsewhere. Clinton’s foreign policy was the largest experiment in neoliberal institutionalism that the world has ever seen, and it too was vehemently debated in the scholarly circles, and still is. The whole Cold War was practically a petri dish for IR theory. In all cases American foreign policy was engineered in part or full by IR scholars. What on earth is Yglesias waiting for?

In other words, it’s just not true that scholarly debates have nothing to say about political controversies, or that they are "too far off the center of American political consensus". Every foreign policy decision that governments make has been discussed and analyzed, however imperfectly, by IR scholars and has been adopted or denied by politicians and ideologues. Yglesias just hasn’t done his homework. Which is sad, because "homework" in this case basically entails e-mailing Drezner. Or even me.

Boys, boys!!  Everyone in a neutral corner please!! 

There are a few things to unpack here.  In essence, I have to take issue with all of these excerpts.  Part of the problem is that the panel that inspired this whole discussion in the first place was dominated by people who blog/write/care a hell of a lot more about American politics than world politics.    Not that there’s anything wrong with that — but it’s dangerous to tease out implications from such a group. 

As someone who has consumed and interacted with foreign affairs journalists from time to time, here are my observations: 

1)  The big mismatch between American journalists and IR academics is that when journalists are writing about international relations, they’re likely focusing on a single event or episode — a crisis with China, a disaster in Pakistan, sanctions against Iran, etc.  International relations scholars, on the other hand, tend to think in more abstract terms that involve multiple observations:  great power relations, humanitarian disasters, or sanctions episodes.  Because journalists are far more interested in the particulars of individual narratives, however, the skill set does not always match up.  Journalists writing about a particular case are understandably not fond of stating the average probability of policy success in a generic class of events.  Doing so eliminates the particularities and idiosyncracies of the individual event — i.e., the very value-added provided by the journalist. 

This doesn’t mean that IR scholars are completely ignored — I find I get calls/queries when journalists are writing their "news analysis" pieces that take stock of a particular policy.  It does mean that our research is not likely to appear in the first wave of stories about an event, however — and that wave has a way of framing the subsequent narrative.

2)  To be honest, I suspect that this state of affairs bothers IR scholars all that much, for two reasons.  First, as I suggested at the panel (and Yglesias blogged), there are a lot of professional reasons why political scientists don’t want their work to break through to the public sphere.  Second, good IR scholars care less about access to journalists because they have better access to the actors they really care about — the policymakers themselves.  There is a decent amount of interaction between mid-ranking officials and IR academics, and those channels can influence policy a lot more than talking to journalists.  Of course, this contributes to gaps between public opinion and foreign policy elites, but that’s been going on for many a decade already. 

3)  To be honest, I’m not sure what Yglesias is talking about with respect to IR scholarship and political partisanship.  It might be that the IR paradigms don’t map neatly onto political cleavages.  Realist and
liberal approaches can be found in the mainstream of both party’s foreign policy communities.  More broadly, rational choice thinking is shot through the foreign policy mainstream.  There are some schools of thought — constructivism, feminism, etc. — that might be thought of as outside the mainstream.  On the other hand, these approaches aren’t exactly mainstreamed within the scholarly community either. 

Scholars who advocate policy positions out of favor with the current administratio n have opportunities to exercise their voice, through op-eds, congressional testimony, etc.  Once they’ve done that, political journalists can find them to get critical quotes, etc. 

4)  Drezner to Yglesias:  please call Winecoff before calling me.  My cup, it runneth over right now. 

Am I missing anything?