Best Defense

Why Tom is so damn wrong about the relevancy of political science

By Stephen Saideman Best Defense guest respondent Last night, my chain got pulled by Tom Ricks, who has written some fine books on the U.S. military including the well-named Fiasco about the Iraq war. He was frustrated with the content of International Security and then went on a tear about how irrelevant and "made up" political science ...

via Wikimedia/Jebulon
via Wikimedia/Jebulon

By Stephen Saideman

Best Defense guest respondent

Last night, my chain got pulled by Tom Ricks, who has written some fine books on the U.S. military including the well-named Fiasco about the Iraq war. He was frustrated with the content of International Security and then went on a tear about how irrelevant and "made up" political science is. Given my respect for his work and the importance of his blog within the policy community, I found this view profoundly frustrating. I promised to come up with a list of relevant poli-sci stuff, and here I shall do so. 

But I would like to start with a few comments. First, this entire effort may be wasted since Ricks believes that politics is an art and not a science. He, like others, may think that we cannot generalize about political behavior, that there are not recurrent patterns of which we cannot make sense. This post might be akin to a climate scientist explaining climate change to someone who does not believe in science. He asked whether political science will be around in 200 years. Well, since it has been around in one form or another since either Thucydides or Aristotle, and that politics is not going away anytime too soon, I doubt that people will stop trying to figure it out.

Second, Ricks in his books admires Gen. David Petraeus. While his record may not be spiffy in retrospect, there is no doubt that Petraeus was influenced by people who study political science. Even if we forget about Petraeus having a Ph.D. from Princeton in international affairs (which is just chock full of poli sci), Petraeus included all kinds of social scientists in the making of counter-insurgency doctrine. So, there is some inconsistency there.

Third, Ricks needs to look around his office. Nora Bensahel should kick his butt, given that she is a top analyst on alliances and other security stuff, and she happens to have a Ph.D. from Stanford in political science. My guess is that she ain’t the only one at CNAS.

Fourth, one criticism of some political science work is that the findings of x or y are just "common sense." Maybe. But common sense is often not all that common. Sometimes there is more than one thing that seems to be common sense but they are in conflict — how do those different views get adjudicated? Perhaps with some analysis. Sometimes the common sense is wrong. Also, the best work takes something that people have thought about, points out a new perspective, and makes people think "huh, why didn’t I think of that before, that makes so much sense," which then becomes common sense.

Fifth, it is strange for me to argue on behalf of International Security since I have never reviewed for them, nor have I have published anything in it. I have tried, with the most recent effort turning into an ISQ piece because it was not sufficiently mature when we submitted it to IS. The feedback we received from the IS reviewers helped us revise the piece so that it could make it into another journal. That article and the related book are very much policy-relevant as they seek to explain why the various members of NATO behaved differently in Afghanistan. This was not just a theoretical question but one so interesting to the policy community that the military head of NATO at the time, Admiral Stavridis, asked us if he could share the PDF version of the book with his staff.

I could go on to address all of the debates about the policy relevance of political science, but let’s get to a list of ten works (fairly randomly selected) that is quite relevant for the people who analyze/write about international security. At the end of this post, I will list a bunch of stuff people recommended but not provide any comments (this post is already long).

1.             Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works, convincingly demonstrates that the best way for movements to get their way is not to use violence. This work has gained attention around the world from governments and private actors. The International Security version of the book is here. Chenoweth also works on terrorism, and has gotten the attention of multiple governments for her insights in that area (IS piece here).

2.            Kelly Greenhill, Weapons of Mass Migration. A work that simply altered the way I viewed the flow of peoples. Countries with lower standards of behavior can use the threat of forcing their people to leave, which would send a flow of unwanted migrants/refugees to democracies that would then have to deal with them. It is very much an asymmetric approach for weaker authoritarian regimes to mess with advanced democracies. Is this policy relevant? You betcha, as democracies such as the United States have to figure out how to react to these kinds of threats. It certainly pressured France and Italy in different ways when Qaddafi was threatening to send refugees to Europe. The article version is at Civil Wars, volume 10, issue 1, pages 6-21.

3.            Debbi Avant is one of many scholars taking seriously the challenge of private military contractors. How do governments grapple with their new dependence on these firms that they use in wartime? I am sure you, Tom, have had questions about PMCs in Iraq, right? Her first book is a nice companion to Feaver’s stuff as she uses a similar framework but compares the British and Americans and how they adapt when faced with insurgencies.

4.            Jennifer Lind has written pieces in Foreign Affairs and Security Studies on apologies in international affairs along with a book. You might not think this is policy-relevant, but the policy people do. She has been sought out by the governments of the United States, Japan and South Korea to share her work. 

5.            Page Fortna, Does Peacekeeping Work? Is that relevant for policy-makers? Probably.

6.            Scott Sagan has written so much it is hard to choose, but how about this IS piece on nuclear proliferation? If we want to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons, we need to know why countries develop them. And it is not as simple as people think.

7.            David Edelstein on Military Occupation. Not that we really need to understand that in the 21st century, right? The IS piece is here.

8.             Jonathan Mercer, Reputation and International Relations, is one of those books that changed how I viewed pretty much everything. The basic idea is that we attribute the behavior of our friends differently than the behavior of our adversaries, so that our friends can rarely fail us and our adversaries can rarely be seen as anything but implacable.

9.            Michael Horowitz, Diffusion of Military Power. Pretty sure we care about which military technologies spread and why. He also wrote on the duration of crusading. Given the rise of ISIS, that might just be a bit relevant too.

10.         Risa Brooks, Shaping Strategy: The Civil-Military Relations of Strategic Assessment. Her work focuses mostly on Mideast militaries, and this book considers how the relationship of the civilians and the military affect how countries assess threats. Given yet another American involvement in the Mideast, it might just be handy to understand how our adversaries and our "allies" assess the various threats they face — ISIS, the United States, each other. Like other folks, she is now doing some terrorism stuff. Link is to a piece in Security Studies, which may actually have better stuff than IS (and I am not just saying that because I have a couple of SS pieces. Ok, sort of).

I could go on and on. As someone tweeted to me last night, people who study international security start not with data and often not with theory but a policy problem that they seek to understand. They then get the best ideas together to figure out how to explain that puzzle and then subject it to some tests (of logic, using simulations, experiments, case studies or even, dare I say it, statistics) to see if the idea holds up. Articles and books contain a lot of stuff that may seem boring to outsiders — the "how do you know what you think you know" sections — but that is where we claim to be political scientists. That we are not just speculating about stuff — that would be Sam Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations — which is horrible social science — but also, alas, policy relevant. 

The best work these days communicates clearly to non-academics what the claims are and their relevance while communicating to academics how that knowledge was gained. Blogs, such as Monkey Cage, Duck of Minvera, Political Violence at a Glance, and others, do an excellent job of providing the wider community with the punchlines of the scholarly work. But to be clear, without that scholarly effort to see how the question fits into past work (literature reviews), what the causal dynamics at work (theory) are, and testing (that methods stuff), the punchlines have no set-up, no legitimacy, and no veracity. And, of course, even after all of that work is done, we will still disagree and argue with each other. Out of that process comes stuff that policy-makers take seriously either directly (SACEUR reading our book) or indirectly (Nora Bensahel at CNAS providing keen analyses based on what she had learned in her training as a political scientist). 

So, Tom, if you don’t have the time to read a bunch of books, do visit the blogs to find the interesting stuff, and then maybe chase down a few articles and see what you find. You might just learn something. 

People also recommended:
Robert Jervis, Perception and Misperception
Alexander Downes, Targeting Civilians in War 
Erin Baines, Vulnerable Bodies (on U.N. refugee policy)
Daryl Press, Calculating Credibility: How Leaders Assess Military Threats
Max Abrahms, Why Terrorism Does Not Work 
Stephen Rosen, Winning the Next War; Societies and Military Power; War and Human Nature
Lieber and Press, "Why States Won’t Give Nuclear Weapons to Terrorists," IS
Peter Feaver, heaps and heaps of stuff on civil-military relations.
Robert Farley, Grounded (on how the USAF should be disbanded, 
and on and on)

I have class now so I will not list yet more work. Please do not take omissions as insults –just finite time and too much policy relevant security stuff to discuss in a "short" blog post.

This is a cross-post from Professor Saideman’s blog, posted with his permission. 

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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