Shadow Government

Maybe it is not so bleak on the academy-policy gap front

A favorite topic for FP bloggers is the so-called gap between practicing academics and practicing policymakers. I have weighed in, but see also contributions from Dan Drezner (here or here and Steve Walt). It is an important topic (at least to "yakademics" like me — I don’t sense it has quite the burning appeal for ...


A favorite topic for FP bloggers is the so-called gap between practicing academics and practicing policymakers. I have weighed in, but see also contributions from Dan Drezner (here or here and Steve Walt).

It is an important topic (at least to "yakademics" like me — I don’t sense it has quite the burning appeal for my non-academic Shadow Government teammates) and well worth the focused attention it has received. There are several excellent programs designed to help bridge it, including one run by Eliot Cohen and Tom Keaney at SAIS, another by my Duke colleague Bruce Jentleson and Berkeley’s Steve Weber and American U’s Jim Goldgeier, and a third by Dick Betts at Columbia. There is probably room for more such efforts.

But at the risk of undercutting the urgent language used in grant applications, I think it is only fair to point out that the situation may not be irredeemably bleak. I just had the pleasure of reading through the most recent issue of International Security, the top academic journal in the field of security studies and one of the highest-impact journals in the entire discipline of political science. I was struck by how policy relevant the issue was, without sacrificing in any way academic rigor. Mind you, the articles were too long and perhaps on the academic side to make the reading list of, say, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon. But policymakers would benefit from understanding the arguments contained therein and foreign policy specialists inside the administration would benefit from digging into some of the articles more closely. 

Consider the menu:

  • An article by Nuno Monteiro theorizing the conditions under which unipolarity conduces to peace or conflict. This is grand system theorizing in a form that is particularly "academic." I am not entirely persuaded by his argument, but I can easily see how speechwriters and strategists would benefit from understanding the framework. [Note to entering Ph.D. students seeking dissertation topics: this article also reflects the turning of the wheel of academic fashion as the field cycles through different levels of analysis. In the early 1980s, system-level work like neorealism and neoliberalism were hot; in the 1990’s state-level work like democratic peace theory was hot; in the early 2000’s transnational-level work on ethnic conflict and terrorism was hot; right now individual-level work on leaders is hot; it is about time for the system-level work like this about power transitions and polarity to have another run.]
  • An article by Michael Beckley rebutting the claims of declinists that a rising China is eclipsing the United States. Again, one can imagine ongoing academic (and policy) debate, but the work speaks directly to a topic of urgent policy priority.
  • An article by Ole Magnus Theisen, Helge Holtermann, and Halvard Buhaug presenting a sophisticated empirical test of the link between droughts and conflict and showing that, contra the repeated claims of policymakers, the systematic evidence of a link is missing. This is exactly the sort of policy relevant enterprise that academics are ideally suited to perform.
  • An article by David Elbladh tracing the influence of a Depression era historian on the formation of the security studies field. Ironically, in some ways, this is the article that is the least "useful" to policymakers, even though it is the one most directly focused on the gap question itself. It is, however, helpful to academics interested in closing the gap and so I still count it as supporting my thesis.
  • An article by David Kang reviewing three recent books on North Korean politics and economics. Given the long lead times of academic publishing, this is a serendipitous masterstroke. The sudden death of Kim Jong-Il has plunged North Korea into a regime crisis and the U.S. national security community is doing an urgent deep dive into the black box of North Korean politics. They couldn’t do better than reading this detailed and insightful book review (and, as needed, the underlying academic books themselves).
  • An exchange of letters between Michael McKoy and David Lake about bargaining theory and the origins of the Iraq war. Most policymakers might give this a miss, but that would be a shame. McKoy’s brief account of the bargaining dilemmas leading up to the Iraq war is one of the fairest and truest summaries of the dynamic that I have read. Academics have really struggled to explain the Iraq war and have all-too-often settled for distorted caricatures. This brief exchange rises well above that.
  • At the very end of the issue is an exchange of letters between me and two critics, Betts and Mike Desch, concerning my earlier article about civil-military relations and the surge. I will let readers decide who gets the better of the exchange, but regardless it, too, bridges the policy-academy gap.

Finally, note an interesting fact: the issue predominantly features the work of junior scholars, in some cases scholars not yet holding a tenure track position. (Interestingly, one of the IS authors has made his own useful contribution to the debate about the gap.) Perhaps the emerging generation has not gotten the word about the gap crisis. Or perhaps they are already well on their way to fixing it.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.

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