America’s IR Schools Are Broken
There’s a lot of innovation on the surface, but the rot runs deep. Here’s how to fix it.
Nobody can deny this is a fascinating time to study international affairs. Societies are connected in more ways than ever before. States continue to compete and cooperate, and to co-exist, cooperate, and compete with corporations, social movements, nongovernmental organizations, criminals, and many other social forms. Institutions and orthodoxies that were once unquestioned are now under siege, and the world order we have known for decades may be undergoing fundamental changes. Great power politics is back (after a brief hiatus), balances of power are shifting with far-reaching effects, and the complex interplay between politics and international economics becomes more apparent every year. And the planet is heating up, which heralds wide-ranging and mostly negative consequences in the decades to come. Given all that (and more!), it is easy to understand why so many young people are interested in the subject.
Yet even if our endowments are growing and our classrooms are filled with eager students, those of us who teach in schools of public policy and international affairs have no reason to be complacent. Why? Because it’s not clear we’re doing the best job we could.
We may attract a lot of inspired (and inspiring) students, and we are quick to point with pride to their subsequent achievements. But for all that, the growth of professional education in international affairs in the last 50 years does not seem to be inspiring consistently better foreign-policy conduct or producing better outcomes. I’m not blaming schools of international affairs for all these failings, but is it possible we aren’t helping as much as we think we are?
Top U.S. Undergraduate Institutions to Study International Relations
- 1.Harvard University51.10%
- 2.Princeton University49.14%
- 3.Stanford University41.67%
- 4.Georgetown University39.46%
- 5.Columbia University32.97%
- 6.Yale University21.08%
- 7.University of Chicago20.96%
- 8.George Washington University17.40%
- 9.American University15.20%
- 10.University of California—Berkeley11.64%
Foreign-policy making in the United States was once the preoccupation of the old “Eastern establishment” as embodied by institutions like the Council on Foreign Relations and “wise men” like George Kennan, Dean Acheson, John McCloy, and others who played key roles in creating the post-World War II order. With few exceptions, however, none of these people had any graduate training in international affairs. Kennan, for example, had a bachelor’s degree in history and joined the foreign service right after graduation. Yet on the whole, their achievements were pretty impressive.
But as America’s global role grew, foreign-policy making seemed to require more specialized expertise. By the 1960s, according to I.M. Destler, Leslie Gelb, and Anthony Lake, “a revolution was taking place in the structure of America’s foreign-policy leadership. Power was passing almost imperceptibly from the old Eastern Establishment to a new Professional Elite, from bankers and lawyers who would take time off to help manage the affairs of government to full-time foreign-policy experts.”
One might think this expansion of professional expertise would have been a huge improvement over the inbred “old guard” establishment, and that it would produce more intelligent and successful policy decisions. Instead of relying on a self-selected group of elites drawn primarily from the corporate world, U.S. foreign policy would be handled by a more diverse group of experts with specialized training in economics, military affairs, history, diplomacy, or regional studies. In theory, the clash of competing views among these well-informed professionals would generate livelier debates, thereby ensuring that alternative policy choices were vetted in advance and making major blunders less likely. When mistakes did occur — as they inevitably would — this same well-trained and highly professional policy community would quickly identify the missteps and alter course appropriately.
Unfortunately, this appealing image of a disciplined professional caste doesn’t fully describe the reality of the contemporary foreign-policy community, where consensus and conformity reign despite perennial infighting over tactics, position, and status. And the vast expansion of professional expertise does not seem to translate reliably into more sensible and effective policies.
Why might this be the case?
One obvious problem is that the conduct of “international affairs” is not really a professional vocation, but rather a political one. Influential foreign-policy leaders are not chosen strictly for their expertise but also for their ideological convictions, reputations, personal connections, and political loyalty. No one has to pass the equivalent of the bar exam to practice “foreign policy,” or get certified by a professional board of experts as a heart surgeon must. To be sure, plenty of people working in think tanks and government agencies have considerable advanced training in relevant areas, but there are also plenty of people who rise to the top without the benefit of any advanced training at all. Think of U.S. President Donald Trump’s senior advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner, whose sole qualification for his influential post was his choice of spouse, or even Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. Former President Barack Obama’s deputy national security advisor was Ben Rhodes, an aspiring novelist with a B.A. in political science and a master’s of fine arts in creative writing (admittedly, not a bad credential for a speechwriter). And let’s not forget one of former President Ronald Reagan’s national security advisors, William Clark, who never completed college at all.
The point is not that these people were necessarily incompetent; it is that they all acquired extraordinary foreign-policy responsibilities despite a lack of serious professional training in international affairs. In the United States, at least, an advanced degree in international affairs or a related discipline might be desirable, but it is hardly a prerequisite for a top foreign-policy job.
A second and even more sobering reason is that advanced training is no guarantee of success. Running foreign policy is a complex and challenging endeavor — especially for an ambitious great power — and even smart, hardworking, and well-educated people can screw up big-time. The “Vulcans” who ran foreign policy for George W. Bush had glittering resumes (and several had prestigious Ph.D.s), yet their stewardship of U.S. foreign policy was mostly a disaster. Similarly, Obama had plenty of smart and well-educated people working for him too, and they managed to make the wrong call in Afghanistan in 2009 and stumble badly over Libya and Ukraine as well.
Mind you, I am not making an argument for ignorance or suggesting we’d do better if public officials knew even less. On the contrary, I am 100 percent certain that the many thousands of people who have received advanced training in international affairs are doing their jobs in government, business, or the nonprofit sector more effectively as a result. Nonetheless, our schools of international affairs could still do a much better job of preparing them for those positions. Having spent the better part of my professional life at an international affairs school (five years at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School and 18 years now at Harvard University’s Kennedy School), here are five ways the experience could be improved.
Top Master’s Programs for Policy Career in International Relations
- 1.Georgetown University60.53%
- 2.Harvard University49.43%
- 3.Johns Hopkins University48.30%
- 4.Princeton University37.58%
- 5.Columbia University37.45%
- 6.Tufts University30.90%
- 7.George Washington University29.38%
- 8.American University21.06%
- 9.London School of Economics18.16%
- 10.University of Chicago13.75%
1. Connecting theory and policy. As some of you know, I think theory is simply indispensable for good policy analysis and prescription. The world is infinitely complex, and we need simple causal maps to make sense of it, to identify what is most important, and to help us anticipate the likely results of a policy decision. Without theory, the best we can do is extrapolate from present conditions, and that approach rarely works. Moreover, a powerful commitment to a bad theory (e.g., mercantilism, Marxism-Leninism, the domino theory, etc.) can cause enormous hardship. Although policymakers sometimes deride “ivory tower theoreticians,” the fact is that everyone uses some sort of crude theory to make sense of what is happening around them, and a thorough grounding in theory is invaluable for developing our critical faculties and our ability to see the “big picture.”
Unfortunately, none of our existing theories — neither grand theories like realism or liberalism nor the middle-range theories that deal with things like alliances, coercion, and sanctions — is perfectly valid, which leads to endless disputes among their proponents and leads some to conclude, incorrectly, that international relations theory is of no value at all. Moreover, connecting theory to policy and showing how it can illuminate and clarify policy choices isn’t easy. I’ve taught a class that tries to do just that for more than 15 years, and while the course has been popular with students, I think I’ve only been partly successful, and I keep searching for better ways to impart the simple analytical tools and capacity for critical thinking that future leaders need.
2. Teaching a more useful economics. International economists are very good at teaching their professional canon: the theory of comparative advantage, the basic principles of international finance, and the growing body of literature on development. With some important exceptions (including, if I may say so, several of my colleagues here at the Kennedy School), they aren’t as good at teaching the actual mechanics of the international financial order. (How exactly does the SWIFT system work? What really happens during a multilateral trade negotiation?) And schools of public policy are still not very good at exploring the connection between economics and politics and helping our students understand how each affects the other. My colleague Dani Rodrik has done some great work on the latter issue, but my sense is that a lot of economics teaching in schools of international affairs doesn’t get much beyond the advanced micro and macro courses you might get in a good undergraduate economics program. Such knowledge is not without value, of course, but schools of international affairs could do even better if they were less obsessed with impressing their colleagues over in the economics department.
3. History. A more serious deficiency is the neglect of history. Diplomatic and international history have fallen on hard times in most history departments, and it has been interesting to observe how schools of international affairs have been able to pick up the slack. (Frank Gavin’s recent appointment at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies is a case in point, as is the presence of Fred Logevall, Arne Westad, and Moshik Temkin here at the Kennedy School.) There’s an obvious reason for this trend: There are hardly any important international issues that can be understood, let alone solved, without knowing a lot about the historical processes that created them. How could one possibly comprehend the crisis in Ukraine — or get an intelligent bead on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s behavior — without knowing a lot about the history of Ukraine, Crimea, and Russia itself? Could anyone possibly grasp the complex relationship between the United States and Iran, or between Israelis and Palestinians, without knowing how these relationships evolved over time? Ever wonder why South Korea and Japan don’t get along very well? If you don’t know their history, you won’t have a clue. And here’s a pro tip: Although these societies all lived through the same events, the histories they tell themselves about them are radically different.
That last point is critical: Students need to understand that history isn’t just a collection of names and dates, but also a set of competing, overlapping, but still distinct narratives. The past does not reveal itself to us openly; it is interpreted, debated, and constructed for us by historians of various kinds and by society as a whole. There’s a critical lesson there that all practitioners of international affairs should have tattooed on their eyelids: Different people and different nations do not see the past in the same way and thus do not see present problems in the same light. One need not agree with another’s view of the past, but understanding that these alternative views exist and recognizing that the people you may have to deal with see things differently is a crucial insight. This isn’t about being “politically correct” or “culturally sensitive”; it’s recognizing that if your goal is persuading someone to do what you want, it’s essential to know where they are starting from and what misconceptions you’ll need to overcome.
In short, policymaking in international affairs would be vastly improved if students of policy received serious historical training. Public policy schools may have hired a few more historians, but are courses in history or historical method part of their core requirements, the same way that economics or other analytic methods are? Like the study of theory, historical training is all about learning how to sift, weigh, and assess evidence, which is a skill we need more than ever in this era of fake news and ubiquitous state propaganda. Students who had really studied history would write better, spot bullshit more reliably, and have a better idea of how today’s problems came about. When they didn’t know, they would know how to find out. Such training might not work miracles, but it couldn’t hurt and would almost certainly help.
4. Everybody talks about “strategy,” but nobody does anything to improve it. Perhaps the most common complaint directed at government officials is that they lack a clear strategy. I’ve leveled this charge plenty of times myself, and I still think most of my complaints were justified. But in fairness, those of us who teach international affairs haven’t done a very good job of teaching our students how to think strategically. Even Yale University’s vaunted program on grand strategy (which to its credit does emphasize the role of history) may have done a better job of catering to its students’ leadership pretentions than of providing the tools that would allow them to create a coherent strategy for a real country.
In America today, what passes for “grand strategy” is either the empty, ahistorical bombast of former President George W. Bush’s second inaugural speech, or the lists of ringing proclamations (“We shall do X, we shall do Y, and we shall triumphantly guarantee Z”) that White House staffers assemble when they are forced by law to release an official National Security Strategy. What these efforts typically lack is a clear statement of vital interests (including an explanation of why they are vital), along with a specific program for advancing those interests that anticipates the likely responses of other relevant actors. Strategy is about connecting means and ends, and in international affairs, the choice of means and the ways they are deployed and justified depend on one’s expectations of how other relevant players will react. Military commanders like to remind us that “the enemy gets a vote,” but so do allies, neutrals, and others who may respond in ways that either hinder or help. And a good grand strategy has to be comprehensive, by which I mean it has to consider how actions in one issue area or region will affect what one is trying to do somewhere else.
In other words, thinking strategically requires a sense of the “big picture” and a clear idea of how actors, trends, and problems fit together. Without a clear and accurate picture of the world — one that identifies what matters and how different actions will affect others — it is hard to imagine how anyone could hope to act effectively on the world stage. And for that, one needs theory (Point #1 above), as informed and verified by history (Point #3).
Top Ph.D. Programs for Academic Career in International Relations
- 1.Harvard University68.13%
- 2.Princeton University60.78%
- 3.Stanford University57.35%
- 4.Columbia University39.45%
- 5.University of Chicago27.61%
- 6.Yale University25.83%
- 7.University of California—San Diego21.45%
- 8.Massachusetts Institute of Technology19.19%
- 9.University of Michigan14.45%
- 10.University of California—Berkeley14.34%
5. Incubators of conformity? But perhaps the biggest limitation in today’s schools of international affairs — at least here in the United States — is their tendency to reinforce the stale bipartisan consensus behind “liberal hegemony” and the necessity for “U.S. leadership.” The deans and faculty at many of these institutions are a who’s who of leading figures in the foreign-policy community, and most of them remain strongly committed to exercising U.S. power far and wide. Not surprisingly, the faculty at these institutions are mostly made up of policy-oriented academics and former government officials, people who are unlikely to question the central premises that have underpinned U.S. foreign policy for many years.
This tendency pattern makes perfect sense, of course, and has some obvious virtues. Schools of international affairs attract students who are curious about the world, interested in concrete policy issues, and who in most cases are eager to make the world a better place. The same description applies to most of the faculty who teach at these institutions. And surely it is good idea for students to learn from people who care about the real world and from people who have genuine experience in the professional milieu they hope to join.
But there is a cost. Instead of doing what academic institutions are ideally suited for — that is, taking an independent, critical look at contemporary issues and trying to figure out what is working, what is failing, and how we could do better — the desire to be closely tied to the policy world inevitably tempts most schools of international affairs to gravitate toward a familiar mainstream consensus. To be sure, there will sometimes be sharp disagreements on specific policy questions (i.e., should we have intervened in Syria or not?), but hardly any will question the more fundamental orthodoxies that have informed U.S. foreign policy for many years.
Unfortunately, graduate school is often the only opportunity many students get to re-examine their own worldviews and question received wisdoms; it is often their last chance to build the intellectual capital that must sustain them as their careers advance. It follows that schools of international affairs should devote more attention to questioning the conventional wisdom, instead of simply trying to create well-trained cogs for the existing machinery. After all, independent and wide-ranging inquiry is a university’s comparative advantage, which is why large endowments are useful and why tenure remains a valuable institution.
Does this mean that aspiring foreign-policy wonks should eschew graduate training in international affairs and go to law school or business school instead? By no means. Rather, they should take a hard look at different programs and seek out those that offer them a lot of intellectual diversity. Diversity of other kinds is important too, including diversity in the student body, because graduate students always learn as much from one another as they do from the faculty. You want to acquire the basic skills you need — and especially those that might get you your first job after graduation — but you also want to have your preconceived notions challenged, even if you eventually decide that your initial beliefs were right all along. You want to the opportunity to hear what professors with different views have to say and then figure out for yourself which perspective you think is right. In short, you want your experience in graduate school to make you a broader, better-informed, and more confident thinker, and not just someone with a more impressive resume and a toolbox of technical skills. And that’s precisely what these schools should aim to produce.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.