The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Theory and Policy


April 14, 2009

Joe Nye has an op-ed in Monday’s Washington Post decrying the gap between theory and policy in political science. You should read it, in part because its the most press our discipline is likely to get this year, which almost proves his point. I am largely sympathetic to his view, and I lament the fact that our profession, which professes to understand how the world works, has seemingly so little to offer in terms of useful insight to those who might benefit from it. One would think, given all our collective study of foreign policies and state interactions, we might have something helpful that would construct better foreign policies and better state interactions. I recognize that, per Weber, politics and academics are two different vocations, but that doesn’t preclude the study of one from assisting in the practice of the other.

That said, I want to take issues with two of Nye’s points.

First, Nye says: “Yet too often scholars teach theory and methods that are relevant to other academics but not to the majority of the students sitting in the classroom before them.” While I want to agree with Nye here, I refrain because to do so, I will end up denigrating the IR theories I don’t like. Now, there are plenty of IR theories out there not to like, but one of the marks of a good theory is that it has some larger lesson for its adherents. All theories have this, when well taught. What bothers me about Nye’s assertion is that it can too easily be read as a back-door critique of all theories “post”—the typical slam against post-positivist, post-structural, and thicker construstivist theories is that they are too “impenetrable” and need to be more relevant to the real world. Now, as a card-carrying constructivist, I think that my approach to the analysis of world politics has plenty to offer policy makers, students, and other academics. There is a barrier to entry, though, in that you have to learn some terminology and a few foundational concepts from basic social theory. It’s the same way with a lot of the quantitative and formal theory. That stuff is not my cup of tea, but the good versions of it do hold powerful lessons for policymakers and academics alike. Don’t denigrate the theory for being difficult, sophisticated, or challenging. Denigrate a theory for being useless, offering empty ideas and unsupported conclusions.

The lack of theory speaking to policy is the Academy’s own fault. Nye is correct in identifying the most significant mechanism for change: “Departments should give greater weight to real-world relevance and impact in hiring and promoting young scholars.” Graduate Students and Junior faculty are driven by what they are told they will need for hiring and tenure. That is academic oriented work. The oft-repeated advice is wait until after tenure to dabble in policy. Unfortunately, this is not something that Joe Nye, scholar / practitioner can remedy. Rather, it takes Dean Joe Nye to offer a job to a policy-relevant, young scholars and provide tenure to that scholar for a portfolio of policy-relevant work.

Second, I do want to disagree with Nye on one major point. While much of the academy is at fault for marginalizing itself, policymakers deserve some share of the blame. In particular, I think that policy makers need to promote a greater appreciation for theory and method that the academy brings to its work and preparing its analysis. What passes for analysis, reasoning, and research in many government briefings is anecdotal analysis, poorly deployed historical analogies, and assertions. Policymakers should perhaps expect more rigor in their analytical work. Far too many line-officers in key national security agencies lack the methodological training to produce solid analysis. There is a culture to drafting cables and writing reports, but that culture doesn’t include some of the basics I teach in my undergraduate research methods class. A better appreciation of theory and method, and demanding that in new hires might help policy makers receive the better advice they seek.

Moreover, the policy world similarly needs to reward the type of work Nye seeks from academics. Nye calls for more regional expertise, and yet, the government policy making structure is designed to mute regional expertise. Foreign Service officers are expected to be generalists, regularly rotated in and out of assignments. Foreign Area Officers in the military are rarely (never?) promoted to flag rank. Making a career as a regional expert in the government service is not rewarded. There is substantial regional expertise, but all too often, policymakers are reluctant to tap into it, let alone create the institutional incentives to promote those individuals to positions of senior authority. While some areas of federal service have a highly educated workforce, replete with Ph.D.’s, there is rampant anti-intellectualism, particularly in the military, that dissuades the deployment of more sophisticated, academic arguments based on theoretical insights, researched conclusions, and sound methodological investigation. Read Tom Ricks’ account of the Army War College essentially blackballing authors who disagree with them.

Theory and Policy exist on a two way street. Theory informs policy, policy decisions and implementation form the material that we scholars study to generate our theories. For academics to be policy relevant, they must, as Nye suggests, emerge from self-imposed isolation. But policymakers need to meet them half way and be willing and able to listen.

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Dr. Peter Howard focuses on US foreign policy and international security. He studies how the implementation of foreign policy programs produces rule-based regional security regimes, conducting research in Estonia on NATO Expansion and US Military Exchange programs and South Korea on nuclear negotiations with North Korea.