Inside the Ivory Tower

Our third exclusive survey of international relations professors reveals they're worried about climate change, Russia's rise, and their own irrelevance. Plus: A ranking of the top schools for studying international relations.

The walls surrounding the ivory tower have never seemed so high. U.S. President Barack Obama has picked the team of people who will craft his foreign policy, and guess who didn’t make the A list? Only most of the experts tasked with explaining the way the world works. Unfortunately, professors of international relations and political science are often the last people a president turns to for advice on running the world. At least, that’s what the professors say.

Every two years, we survey international relations faculty from every four-year college and university in the United States, as identified by U.S. News & World Report. The 2008 results include the responses of 1,743 scholars collected between August and November of last year. Now, we’re revealing the role professors think they play in policymaking today, and, more often, the frustrating lack of influence they think they have from their perch above the fray of international politics. Most revealing? Nearly 40 percent of respondents reported that these scholars have "no impact" on foreign policy or even the public discourse about it. Indeed, the only academics judged less effectual in the policy realm were historians.

What is to blame for IR scholars’ exile from the political process? In recent years, professors have become increasingly skeptical about the utility of much of their own research to policymakers. In 2006, 48 percent of respondents reported that contemporary case studies conducted by academics were "very useful" to policymakers, but by 2008 only 39 percent of respondents thought policymakers would find this work useful.

Despite their perceived lack of influence, respondents in this year’s survey firmly believe that academic experts can and should play an important role in policymaking. It’s a conclusion that begs a provocative question: What would U.S. foreign policy look like if there were no wall between the ivory tower and the White House?

If the Obama administration took as its blueprint the poll of views of international relations scholars on issues ranging from the economy to Iran, the results would be at once expected and surprising. It’s a largely liberal internationalist agenda, one that names the most important foreign-policy priorities facing the United States as: global climate change (37 percent), the war in Iraq (35 percent), global reliance on oil (34 percent), armed conflict in the Middle East (32 percent), and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (27 percent). A large majority of the experts favor increases in foreign aid (85 percent), free trade agreements (70 percent), and increased spending on the global aids epidemic (59 percent). Although these scholars oppose using military force against Iran even as it allegedly pursues a nuclear weapons program, a clear majority favors humanitarian intervention in Sudan if conducted under the aegis of an international institution such as NATO or the United Nations. (It’s worth noting that had the survey been sent in December, after the global economic collapse, financial issues likely would have secured a higher spot.)

President Obama clearly shares the experts’ concerns. On global warming, he has appointed a climate czar; on oil, he favors strengthening fuel-economy standards; and on the Iraq war, he is sticking to his plan to withdraw U.S. troops. Having one of their "own" in the White House — a law professor with a liberal, like-minded agenda on the policymaking table — may already have scholars feeling more included.

Public Enemy No. 1

Political pundits and journalists may buzz reflexively over the latest economic stimulus package or saber-rattling by Iran. But scholars of international relations take a longer view, scanning the horizon for power shifts that could affect the global pecking order.

So, which countries pose the greatest threat to the U.S. position today? Forty-three percent of respondents agreed that China’s growing military power could threaten international stability. In fact, specialists predict that the strategic importance of East Asia generally will continue to grow. Although only 30 percent see the region as the one of greatest concern for the United States today (up from 19 percent in 2006), 68 percent reported it would be the region of greatest strategic importance in 20 years.

What of the Middle East? Scholars seem to anticipate a dramatic easing of tensions in the region during the next two decades. Although 46 percent currently judge it the most vital region for the United States, only 11 percent say it will be the most strategically important in 20 years.

Relatively close on the heels of the threat from East Asia seems to be the troubling potential for a Russian resurgence. When asked which country they would least like to see displace the United States as hegemon, 60 percent said Russia. (Just 51 percent named China.) Sometimes, the oldest patterns are the hardest to break.

Climate Change

What issue could possibly trump a major recession and not one but two foreign wars? Our warming planet. According to the scholars in this year’s survey, a U.S. commitment to take the lead on international climate treaties is long overdue. Although the election of President Obama — who has described the global climate change threat as "a matter of urgency" — promises movement on U.S. environmental policy, it might not be nearly high enough on Obama’s to-do list for these experts. Not only do academics consider the environment to be the greatest threat we face today, they predict it will be an even more important foreign-policy challenge for the United States in 10 years.

There remains, however, a disconnect between these findings and the type of research that scholars are conducting at leading educational institutions in the United States. The dialogue in scholarly journals often gives the impression that the United States is still fighting the Cold War — that threats to national security come largely from great powers and from states that have or seek nuclear weapons. Although 40 percent of the scholars who responded claim their primary or secondary research focus is on international security issues, only 7 percent of respondents focused on international environmental issues.

If They Had a Billion Dollars

What if President Obama allotted IR scholars a $1 billion budget to spend as they saw fit over the course of the next fiscal year?

Although 85 percent of academics report that the U.S. foreign-aid budget should expand overall, scholars also agree about where not to spend the money — the military. Sixty-four percent of experts say that U.S. spending on defense should decline. Instead, when security and economic issues are taken off the table and scholars are given a three-way choice among foreign aid, global AIDS spending, and climate change, the majority of these academics would spend any windfall on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Who’s at the Top of the Class?

Dramatic changes in the ranking of leading IR programs are rare. This year’s findings provide no exception; the perennial powers stay on top.

For the top two seats in all three categories — Ph.D., master’s, and undergraduate programs — Harvard and Princeton, Georgetown and Johns Hopkins, and Harvard and Princeton, respectively, maintained their slots. But that’s not to say nothing changed: Stanford unseated Columbia’s doctoral program and climbed to the No. 3 slot. In the undergraduate ranking, Yale took the No. 3 spot from Stanford.

With four of the top master’s programs located within or just outside the U.S. capital, the hot spot to pursue the policy track remains inside the Washington Beltway. Those more interested in purely academic pursuits will want to tread the coastlines; the northeast corridor is home to five of the top 10 Ph.D. programs, and California has three of its own in the top 10.

The 2008 survey also asked scholars to identify the top Ph.D. programs in the world for studying international relations. When forced to think beyond the American academy, respondents produced a British invasion. For the first time, three schools from Britain made the list of top programs for students wanting to pursue an academic career in IR: the London School of Economics (12), Oxford University (13), and Cambridge University (20). Competitive eyes should keep a steady watch — there may be more movement still to come from across the pond.

The Five International Relations Professors Named the Most Influential Answer:

What is the most dangerous and overlooked threat Obama neglects to his peril?

"The most dangerous, but relatively neglected security threat would be the ‘dark side’ implications of the rapid development and worldwide diffusion of biotechnology."

— James Fearon, Stanford University

"There is the very real possibility that Mexico will implode on Obama’s watch and become a failed state, which would surely cause serious problems north of the Rio Grande."

— John Mearsheimer, University of Chicago

"The most dangerous overlooked threat that we neglect at our peril? Ourselves. The imperative must be not only that ‘they’ recognize ‘us,’ but that ‘we’ recognize ‘them,’ too."

— Alexander Wendt, Ohio State University

"In the 1930s, economic crisis led to Nazism in Germany and militarism in Japan. We must not overlook the threat that global economic crisis could again have malign effects on world politics."

— Robert Keohane, Princeton University

"Throughout history overwhelmingly strong states have abused their power. Getting the defense budget under control is President Obama’s greatest, and I fear his least understood, challenge."

— Kenneth N. Waltz, Columbia University