The Duck of Minerva

Scholarship and Advocacy: Bomb Iran Edition (UPDATED)

22 December 2011

My colleague, Matt Kroenig, has generated a ton of buzz (and not a little vitriol) for his Foreign Affairs piece in which he advocates imminent US military action against Iran. What’s probably less well known, however, is that Matt and Mike Weintraub, a graduate student at Georgetown, have a working paper in which, as they write:

We argue that nuclear superiority, by increasing the expected costs of conflict, improves a state’s ability to deter potential adversaries. We then show that states that enjoy nuclear superiority over their opponents are less likely to be the targets of militarized challenges. Arguments that contend that a minimum deterrent posture is sufficient to deter militarized challenges do not find support in the data.

As I’ve been discussing with Matt on Facebook, I see a real tension between these findings and claims that a nuclear Iran poses such a grave danger to US national interests that Washington must, as soon as possible, launch a military strike against Iranian facilities. After all, if Matt and Mike are correct then we should expect both that the massive asymmetric nuclear advantage enjoyed by the US will deter Iran, and that Iran’s possession of a few nukes will not greatly alter its behavior.

If I am right, then Matt joins a long line of international-relations academics whose policy advocacy doesn’t entirely cohere with their scholarship. For example, a significant number of offensive realists signed letters opposing the Iraq war, even though their theories suggest that states should, and will, maximize power in the international system.

Given all this, I’m curious what other Duck readers and writers think should be the relationship between academic scholarship and policy advocacy.

Do we have an obligation to be completely consistent across both domains, or do the real differences between our political and academic roles suggest otherwise? How much “policy weight” we should give to any particular academic finding? If we are skeptical of extrapolating too much from one or more pieces of international-relations scholarship, does it matter if that scholarship is our own and we are making the policy recommendations? Does the methodology of the work matter, e.g., if the piece involves a linear regression such that we expect individual cases to be outliers? And what is the comparative “truth value” of our policy advocacy?

UPDATE: Matt weighs in below on the substantive merits. Someone also pointed to a draft of Matt’s forthcoming piece, which I think reinforces the questions I raise, insofar as it is an example of an academic paper with policy recommendations. For example:

Given that the most likely conflict scenarios between these two states would occur in the Middle East, the balance of political stakes in future confrontations would tend to favor Tehran. The brinkmanship approach adopted in this paper concurs that proliferation in Iran would disadvantage the United States by forcing it to compete with Iran in risk taking, rather than in more traditional arenas. On the other hand, the findings of this paper also suggest that the United States could fare well in future nuclear crises. As long as the United States maintains nuclear superiority over Iran, a prospect that seems highly likely for years to come, Washington will frequently be able to achieve its basic goals in nuclear confrontations with Tehran.

As we all agree, Matt’s model points to increased risk. But do such conclusions really support the notion that the United States must strike immediately or face apocalyptic consequences?