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.