Daniel W. Drezner

Should the NSC advisor be a political scientist?

Your humble blogger has been rather persistent in pointing out the virtues of bridging the gap between international relations scholars and policymakers, and rather adamant in insisting why this hasn’t happened:  [T]he fundamental difference between economic policy and foreign policy is that the former community accepts the idea that economic methodologies and theory-building enterprises have ...

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Your humble blogger has been rather persistent in pointing out the virtues of bridging the gap between international relations scholars and policymakers, and rather adamant in insisting why this hasn’t happened

[T]he fundamental difference between economic policy and foreign policy is that the former community accepts the idea that economic methodologies and theory-building enterprises have value, and are worth using as a guide to policymaking.  This doesn’t mean economists agree on everything, but it does mean they are all speaking a common language and accept the notion of external validity checks on their arguments. 

That consensus simply does not exist within the foreign policy community…. Many members of the foreign policy community explicitly reject the notion that social science methodologies and techniques can explain much in world politics.  They therefore are predisposed to reject the kind of scholarship that political scientists of all stripes generate.   This might be for well-founded reasons, it might be simple innumeracy hostility to the academy, or it might be a combination of the two.  I’d love to have a debate about whether that’s a good or bad thing, but my point is that’s the reality we face.

Now I see in The Forum that James Lee Ray is also arguing that political science merits a greater role in foreign policymaking. The abstract for his article:

Foreign policy decision makers tend to rely on historical analogies. The “surge” in Afghanistan, for example, was inspired in part by the “surge” in Iraq. Processes for dealing with foreign policy issues involving the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were substantially different from those processes in the Bush and Obama administrations aimed at dealing with economic crises in 2008 and 2009. The latter processes were influenced extensively by economists, especially in the Obama administration. The decisions to send additional troops to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan involved relatively few political scientists. More substantial input from political scientists in the decision making process about the surge in Afghanistan might have produced more knowledgeable and informative analyses of relevant historical and political data in the form of structured focused comparisons of the wars and counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as analyses and interpretations of data on larger numbers of cases pertaining to broader phenomena of which the US interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan are examples. Perhaps political scientists deserve a role within foreign policy making processes more similar to that reserved for economists in processes focusing on economic issues.

Within the article itself, Ray is quite explicit in comparing the influence of political scientists to economists:

[I]t is probably safe to say that no President would consider appointing anyone but economists to the Council of Economic Advisers. So perhaps there could be a space for political scientists in foreign policy-making processes analogous to that niche for economists on the Council of Economic Advisers in processes set in place by the U.S. government to deal with economic issues?…

It is true, perhaps, that economics  is a more coherent academic field of inquiry than political science, or than the subfield that deals with international politics. Perhaps for that reason, economists are better placed to offer advice to governmental decision-makers than are political scientists. Nevertheless, the argument here is that the greater deference shown to economists by government officials when economic issues are dealt  with than that accorded to political scientists when foreign policy issues arise is not entirely justified….

If the argument here is valid, then perhaps there should be more space set aside in foreign policy-making processes  in the U.S. government for political scientists. For example, perhaps National Security Advisers should be political scientists, for reasons analogous to those  that have up to this time led to the appointment of nothing but economists to the Council of Economic Advisers. 

I pretty sympathetic with Ray’s conclusions, and therefore I really, really want to agree with his causal logic.  It’s just that I don’t. 

The gist of Ray’s evidence is that the Obama administration relied on analogical reasoning in deciding on the Afghan strategy in 2009, and therefore concluding that a "surge" there would work as it did in Iraq.  If more political scientists had been in the room, Ray posits, perhaps this cognitive failure would have been avoided.  In comparison, Ray observes that the Iraq surge decision was lousy with advanced poli sci degrees (including David Petraeus, William Luti, Eliot Cohen, J.D. Crouch, and FP’s own Peter Feaver). 

There are a few holes in this analysis.  First, I’m not totally sold on the cases used by Ray.  True, political scientists played a large role in the surge decision in Iraq, which is conventionally viewed as having worked.  The thing is, political scientists (Condoleezza Rice, Paul Wolfowitz, William Kristol) played an even larger role in the decision to invade Iraq , which is conventionally viewed as having not worked.  Ray’s case slection is too circumscribed. 

Second, had Obama consulted more international relations scholars, he would have received perfectly muddled advice.  Ray himself acknowledges this: 

The evidence just reviewed that is potentially relevant to the decision by the Obama Administration about the surge in Afghanistan tends to point in diverse directions. Some of it casts doubt on the prudence of the Obama Administration’s decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, while other findings could be used to support that decision.

Had Obama or his advisor consulted extensively with academic IR specialists, he still would have needed to exercise political judgment to determine which advice was worth following. 

To be clear, I strongly favor having more Ph.D.s in political science in the loop on foreign policy decisionmaking.  I’m just not sure Ray’s case is all that persuasive. 

What do you think? 

 Twitter: @dandrezner

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