Stephen M. Walt

International affairs and the ‘public sphere’

What role should academics play in public discourse about major social issues, including foreign policy? I’ve taken up this issue in the past, as has FP colleague Dan Drezner. The Social Science Research Council has a continuing project on the topic of "Academia and the Public Sphere," and they asked me to contribute an essay on the ...

Scott Olson/Getty Images
Scott Olson/Getty Images

What role should academics play in public discourse about major social issues, including foreign policy? I’ve taken up this issue in the past, as has FP colleague Dan Drezner. The Social Science Research Council has a continuing project on the topic of "Academia and the Public Sphere," and they asked me to contribute an essay on the topic of "International Affairs and the Public Sphere." It just went up on the SSRC website, and you can find it here.

Briefly, in this paper I argue that academic scholars have a unique role to play in public discourse — primarily as an independent source of information and critical commentary — as well as an obligation to use their knowledge for the betterment of society. In particular, university-based scholars should resist the "cult of irrelevance" that leads many to limit their work to a narrow, obscure, and self-referential dialogue among academicians. But I also argue that greater involvement in public life has its own risks, most notably the danger of being co-opted or corrupted by powerful institutions who may be eager to enlist academics to help them justify policies that will benefit those same institutions. "Speaking truth to power" is not simple.

The article also includes six recommendations for improving academic participation in the public sphere. They are:

  1. Give Greater Weight to Real World Impact when Evaluating Individual Scholars and Academic Departments
  2. Encourage Professional Associations to Honor Public Impact
  3. Encourage Younger Scholars to Participate in Policy-Related Activities
  4. Engage Policymakers and Knowledgeable Citizens in the Research Process
  5. Convince University Administrators to Value Participation in the Public Sphere
  6. Broaden the Discussion of Academic Ethics and Responsibilities

I lay out the rationale for these suggestions in the paper, and you’ll have to read it for yourself to find out what they are. But here’s the bottom line:

If scholars working on global affairs are content with having little to say to their fellow citizens and public officials and little to contribute to solving public problems, then we can expect even less attention and fewer resources over time (and to be frank, we won’t deserve either). By contrast, if the academic community decides to use its privileged position and professional expertise to address an overcrowded global agenda in a useful way, then it will have taken a large step toward fulfilling its true social purpose. Therein lies the good news: the fate of the social sciences is largely in our own hands.

Discuss.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. @stephenwalt

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