Geneva 1.5 (Or, So You Want to Bridge the Theory/Policy Divide)

Jul 1, 2008

After rejections from two other policy journals and ten days of wrangling with the editors, my first policy-article on the rules of war has just appeared in The National Interest. In a nutshell:

“The arguments of the Bush administration when it comes to torture, prisoner-of-war status and extraordinary rendition have been met with outrage by the international community, constitutional scholars and human-rights organizations like Amnesty International, which has referred to Guantánamo Bay as the ‘gulag of our times.’ But the polarization of these two camps obscures the broad middle ground that exists between them.

The contemporary problem—for both governments and transnational rights advocates—is that neither sovereignty nor battle space is what it used to be. The solution is neither to blindly promote adherence to the letter of the law nor to continue to willfully flout its spirit. Instead, both the U.S. government and members of the transnational human-rights network should seek to update and clarify these rules through an international conference that would lead toward a new additional protocol to the Geneva Conventions.”

The title, “Geneva 2.0” is a bit of a misnomer, however, since I’m calling for an Additional Protocol, not a whole new convention. As such we are talking AP 5.0 (or perhaps, Geneva 1.5?), because the Geneva Conventions have already been addended four times previously. Nonetheless this title, the outcome of a last minute negotiation with the TNI editor, is far superior (in my admittedly humorless opinion) to her earlier suggestion: “Can Geneva Get Her Groove Back?” (My original title, “Reviving Geneva,” was apparently too stale and geeky to attract the attention of TNI’s readership.)

Though it’s pleasing to have broken into the foreign policy press (if only because I now have a shred of cred when I preach to my students about policy-relevant social science) I am left with mixed feelings. Translating serious research into something appropriate for a beltway journal turned out to be like knitting socks with fishline. Of course, I knew a bit in the abstract about the challenges of “bridging the theory/policy divide” from reading Steve Smith and Stephen Walt and listening to Joseph Nye ruminate at ISA. But that didn’t prepare me at all for the nuts and bolts of it.

Besides not getting to pick a title, here are some other things I now know to expect, should I ever try this again:

No Footnotes Required… or Allowed. As a social scientist, this really gave me pause. Particularly when crafting a fairly outside the box argument that is sure to attract criticism, how could I not cite my sources as backup for my claims? Fortunately for readers of the Duck, those with inquiring minds can access the fully-cited version of the article here.

Don’t Bother Acknowledging Your Priors. In scholarly journals one rarely takes sole credit for a piece, since it usually evolves from conversations, peer feedback and the intellectual legacy of earlier scholarship. Policy journals don’t waste space acknowledging such niceties. But since the article evolved largely from teaching my course “Rules of War” for the past four years at University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, it would hardly be appropriate to publish my insights without mentioning the contributions of my many students who refined, reshaped and challenged my thinking, particularly those who remain in touch with me. These include Jeff Smith, Roy Nickerson, Rebecca Wall, Betcy Jose-Thota, Justin Reed, Vanja Lundell, Ben Rubin, Andrew Blake, Chris Farnsworth, Irene Tzinis, Hans Brun, and Thomas Helms.

Editorial License is Par for the Course. I was completely unprepared for the loss of autonomy over one’s work you experience when you attempt to publish inside the beltway. Editors of academic journals offer iterated feed-back, declining to publish until the author produces a text in accordance with their guidelines, and they copy-edit the final draft for typos. Editors of policy journals take the original manuscript and rewrite/restructure/interpolate it to suit their own ideas, then put your byline on it. And, they believe they are doing you a favor by taking on the job of the “heavy lifting” the manuscript from misbegotten draft to publishable masterpiece.

Don’t Expect Time to Reflect. After all the above changes are introduced, the author may be offered as much as 24 hours to “approve” the changes. Compare this to the standard several weeks to review proofs or months to make revisions offered by academic journals. You’d better not be in the field doing interviews with your six-year-old in tow when a policy journal decides they want to “fast-track” your piece into the next issue. Or, prepare to subsist on Vivarin for several days. (One wonders how many aspiring policy-writers steeped in academic norms just give up at this stage – someone should study the clash of expectations as an impediment to bridging the theory/policy gap.)

Know Your Bottom Line. The only leverage you have in the end is to decline publication if you don’t like what the editor has done with your piece. As academics, we’re unaccustomed to dealing with that tradeoff, but it’s clear to me that aspiring policy writers must develop the skill to make ethical judgments about the content and language we associate with our byline. (I could live with “Geneva 2.0” but the other title was just too frivolous for a piece on something as grave as war crimes.)

Who knew it would be so tricky? Those with experience, of course, who are no doubt chortling at my cluelessness. (Also, the patient beltway editors who have the thankless task of tutoring us sheltered eggheads in their own rules and norms). Well, if the academy aims to bridge the theory/policy divide better, we should help budding political scientists cultivate this experience earlier in their careers. Perhaps instead of yet another methods seminar, we need policy-writing courses for our doctoral students that would help them develop their own skill-sets / strategies / codes of conduct before they throw their hat, haplessly, into the ring.

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Charli Carpenter is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is the author of 'Innocent Women and Children': Gender, Norms and the Protection of Civilians (Ashgate, 2006), Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights
Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond (Columbia, 2010), and ‘Lost’ Causes: Agenda-Setting in Global Issue Networks and the Shaping of Human Security (Cornell, 2014). Her main research interests include national security ethics, the protection of civilians, the laws of war, global agenda-setting, gender and political violence, humanitarian affairs, the role of information technology in human security, and the gap between intentions and outcomes among advocates of human security.