Shadow Government

Musings on the gap between academic theory and foreign-policy practice

Two apparently unrelated snapshots have got me thinking about the hoary topic of the gap between academic political science and the nitty-gritty world of foreign policymaking. Snapshot 1: The story about the haggling between Chinese and U.S. aides over protocol niceties for the state visit of Chinese leader Hu. The report vividly conveys the back-and-forth ...

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Two apparently unrelated snapshots have got me thinking about the hoary topic of the gap between academic political science and the nitty-gritty world of foreign policymaking.

Snapshot 1: The story about the haggling between Chinese and U.S. aides over protocol niceties for the state visit of Chinese leader Hu. The report vividly conveys the back-and-forth that is the daily grind of diplomacy in the trenches. I could well recall how doggedly the Chinese aides pursued a diplomatic nicety here or a protocol advantage there, all the while blocking the efforts of U.S. aides to add elements that would highlight U.S. priorities. And I cringed once again at the account of the gaffes that accompanied the welcome ceremony of Hu’s visit back in 2006.

Snapshot 2: My program here just hosted Farah Pandith, who is special representative to Muslim communities in the State Department, a relatively new post that was set up to help implement the vision President Obama outlined in his June 2009 Cairo speech. Ms. Pandith is a rarity — she has served as a political appointee in both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations — and she delighted the students with a vivid account of her engagement with Muslims around the world on behalf of Obama and Secretary Clinton. She focuses on the under-30 generation and, naturally, this led my students to ask about recent dramatic events in Tunisia and Lebanon in which the younger generation seems to be playing a particularly influential role. However, Ms. Pandith deftly shifted from expansive to circumspect to avoid saying anything that might roil the diplomatic waters at this delicate time; "I would refer you to the remarks made by Assistant Secretary Feltman," was about all she would say. And rightly so, because in her position a stray remark might wreck carefully calibrated (at least, I hope they are carefully calibrated) strategies being pursued at the top level.

Both these snapshots are good teaching moments, precisely because they are at such variance with the daily fare of a typical political science course, including my courses. Very few theories of U.S. foreign policy cover adequately the nuances of summit protocol staff negotiations, and it is hard to capture such detail in class discussion anyway. Yet, I indulge the conceit that I am training the next generation of staffers who will do it. Likewise, my students hear me speculate widely and wildly about every current event, precisely because in my current position and in my classroom there is very little harm done — nothing protects the country from my errors quite so much as towering irrelevance. Yet, if I were in Ms. Pandith’s shoes, I would have to adopt as circumspect a posture. The challenge is for trained-in-the-general and free-to-be-irresponsible academics to cultivate an appreciation for nuance and an attention to circumspection in one’s students.

The best way to do that, I guess, is to keep introducing my students to practitioners and to remind them that, as good as political science can be, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in [my] philosophy."

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

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