What role should IR scholars play in policy-making?

I’m off to Brown University today to deliver a lecture at the Watson Institute on "International Relations and the Public Sphere: Some Personal Reflections." I’m going to be talking about: 1) the contributions that university-based scholars can make to public discourse on global affairs, 2) the reasons why university-based scholars seem to be contributing less ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
NIGEL TREBLIN/AFP/Getty Images
NIGEL TREBLIN/AFP/Getty Images
NIGEL TREBLIN/AFP/Getty Images

I'm off to Brown University today to deliver a lecture at the Watson Institute on "International Relations and the Public Sphere: Some Personal Reflections." I'm going to be talking about: 1) the contributions that university-based scholars can make to public discourse on global affairs, 2) the reasons why university-based scholars seem to be contributing less than they once did, and 3) some specific measures that could encourage academics to be more fully engaged in public discourse.

For those of you who are interested and don't live in Providence, check the Institute's website for a video here.  As an alternative, you can also read my earlier post on this topic here. Or you can take a look at the article on which the talk is based, just published in the Yale Journal of International Affairs. Here's a teaser:

"Academic scholars -- including IR theorists -- have at least three useful roles to play in the broader public discourse on international affairs. First, those who have thought longest and hardest about the nature of modern world politics can help their fellow citizens make sense out of our "globalized" world. Ordinary people often know a great deal about local affairs, but understanding what is happening overseas generally requires relying on the knowledge of specialists. For this reason alone, university-based academics should be actively encouraged to write for and speak to broader audiences, instead of engaging solely in a dialogue with each other.

I’m off to Brown University today to deliver a lecture at the Watson Institute on "International Relations and the Public Sphere: Some Personal Reflections." I’m going to be talking about: 1) the contributions that university-based scholars can make to public discourse on global affairs, 2) the reasons why university-based scholars seem to be contributing less than they once did, and 3) some specific measures that could encourage academics to be more fully engaged in public discourse.

For those of you who are interested and don’t live in Providence, check the Institute’s website for a video here.  As an alternative, you can also read my earlier post on this topic here. Or you can take a look at the article on which the talk is based, just published in the Yale Journal of International Affairs. Here’s a teaser:

"Academic scholars — including IR theorists — have at least three useful roles to play in the broader public discourse on international affairs. First, those who have thought longest and hardest about the nature of modern world politics can help their fellow citizens make sense out of our "globalized" world. Ordinary people often know a great deal about local affairs, but understanding what is happening overseas generally requires relying on the knowledge of specialists. For this reason alone, university-based academics should be actively encouraged to write for and speak to broader audiences, instead of engaging solely in a dialogue with each other.

Second, an engaged academic community is an essential counterweight to governmental efforts to manipulate public perceptions. Governments have vastly greater access to information than most (all?) citizens do, especially when it comes to foreign and defense policy, and public officials routinely exploit these information asymmetries to advance their own agendas. Because government officials are fallible, society needs alternative voices to challenge their rationales and suggest different solutions. Academic scholars are protected by tenure and not directly dependent on government support for their livelihoods, so they are uniquely positioned to challenge prevailing narratives and conventional wisdoms. For these reasons, a diverse and engaged academic community is integral to healthy democratic politics.

Third, the scholarly community also offers a useful model of constructive debate. Although scholarly disputes are sometimes heated, they rarely descend to the level of ad hominem attack and character assassination that increasingly characterizes political discourse today. Indeed, academics who use these tactics in a scholarly article would probably discredit themselves rather than their targets. By bringing the norms of academic discourse into the public sphere, academic scholars could help restore some of the civility that has been lost in contemporary public life.

How might these miracles be accomplished? I have no illusions about creating some sort of philosopher kingdom where academics rule, and thirty years at three different universities and three different think tanks have convinced me that such a world would almost certainly not be an improvement. But should academic scholars of international relations really be proud that so few people care about what we have to say?"

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.