The Ivory Tower survey is asking the wrong questions of the wrong people.

Steve Dunwell
Steve Dunwell

What are the three most important foreign-policy issues the United States will face over the next 10 years? If you answered global financial regulation, climate change, or ethnic and religious conflicts, just to name a few possibilities, the knowledge, theories and solutions required to address them are unlikely to come solely, or even primarily, from political scientists. They are issues that require input from scholars and practitioners working across a range of disciplines, including economists, scientists, anthropologists, and lawyers. Even if your answer is "rising powers," a traditional political science concern, scholars working in other fields have much to contribute when it comes to understanding and responding to economic, environmental, and cultural challenges.

The Teaching, Research and International Policy (TRIP) survey, which includes the question posed above, provides a much-needed overview of the traditional field of international relations, but has severe limitations due to its current design and focus. It has proven invaluable for understanding how political scientists rank undergraduate, master’s and Ph.D. programs in international relations. The survey also highlights whose work these scholars view as most influential, and what impact these academics believe IR scholars have on the policy community.  What it does not tell us is who is doing cutting-edge interdisciplinary work on international affairs and how that work might be applied to the critical problems we face. For all its virtues, the TRIP survey — which is sent primarily to political scientists — is capturing only one view of the international affairs academic world and, arguably, not the most vibrant and innovative one.

The Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs (APSIA) — a group of more than 30 full members worldwide as well as a number of affiliates — represents schools that offer students a multidisciplinary and policy-centered alternative to traditional political science. These schools supplement core insights from political science with instruction on economics, development, environmental policy, communications, international law, history, global public health, science, business and more. Graduates of APSIA schools are in high demand for a range of policy jobs across government, international organizations, the NGO world, and even the private sector. The top eight master’s degree programs according to the TRIP survey are at APSIA schools; in addition, four of the top 10 undergraduate IR programs identified in the survey (Princeton, Georgetown, George Washington, and American) are offered at APSIA schools. But while APSIA schools offer a broad range of high-quality international affairs instruction, which in some cases is not just multidisciplinary but truly interdisciplinary, many of their faculty members are not invited to respond to the survey.

APSIA schools have become leading voices in the international affairs field because they put problem-solving first, ahead of disciplinary boundaries and methodological constraints. They instruct students in core disciplines and equip them with the methods they need to refine and test the validity of arguments, but they do not presume that problems respect disciplinary boundaries, nor do they view methods as ends in themselves. Political science departments have, by and large, made different choices that prioritize theory over practice and sometimes allow methods to drive the discussion. Some people within political science have bemoaned what they see as a growing "cult of irrelevance" in their discipline, leading to a burgeoning movement to bridge theory and practice as well as to cultivate a new generation of more policy-relevant scholars. But for now, this work is mostly done in the APSIA schools.

As the TRIP survey seeks to capture the dynamics of the international relations field, it will remain limited in its effectiveness if it merely captures the sentiments of those engaged in the traditional debates among realists, liberals, and constructivists. As schools of international affairs continue to hire scholars and practitioners from disciplines other than political science, our conception of what it means to conduct research and train people in this field should broaden as well.

James Goldgeier is a Robert Bosch senior visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former dean of American University’s School of International Service.

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