This week, courtesy of my colleague Adam Stulberg and the Center for International Strategy, Technology, and Policy, our department hosted Matthew Kroenig. When I first learned of Kroenig’s visit, my initial thought was that it would be a great opportunity to do (yet another) take on his arguments regarding the possible use of force against Iran. But I think there is little value added to such an exercise. It has been done, not only here on the Duck but in other venues as well. What I think might be a more fruitful way to take advantage of Kroenig’s visit is to think about some of the challenges of bridging the gap between academics and policymakers.
Specifically, I am thinking here about the possible parallels with Jef Huysmans’ examination of the normative dilemma of writing security. Like myself, Huysmans is writing from a social constructivist perspective, and as such understands “the creation of a security problem as a social phenomenon.” Security then is the “result of a practice of definition: security is what agents make of it.” These insights inform discourse-oriented constructivist approaches to security like securitization theory. Turning issues into security then involves, among other things, “…a particular kind of knowledge (security knowledge)”. This is where the dilemma comes in: by analyzing and writing about the practices and discourses of security, scholars may in turn reinforce and reify those practices and discourses. This occurs not only through the repetition of the security claims, but also through the legitimacy imparted through association with the authority of academia. As Huysmans points out, in this discursive interpretation, “speaking and writing about security is never innocent.”
What if the normative dilemma of writing is not constrained to security, but to the larger interface between the academy and the policy world? That is, in seeking to influence/provide value to policymakers, scholars unavoidably shift themselves from the position of analyst to the position of political actors, and in the process create and reify policy dynamics. Which brings me back to Kroenig. A skim of his CV quickly reveals that he has built his career in a substantial way on bridging the gap between academia and policy. While I suspect that Kroenig does not accept the epistemological or ontological precursors to Huysmans’ arguments, I thought it worthwhile nonetheless to ask Kroenig what he thought of the dilemma. He answered, more or less, that he felt there was a substantial amount of misinformation regarding US policy (and policy options) toward Iran’s nuclear program, and he sought to rectify that misinformation. Therein I suspect lies a substantial part of the charm for academics regarding bridging the academy-policy gap. By contributing to the policy discussion, academics improve the marketplace of ideas that underpins policymaking. That is a powerful lure, and in some ways gets scholars out of the dilemma by reversing the normative dilemma into a normative imperative: it is a socially good and normatively desirable for scholars, with their carefully considered arguments, deep knowledge, emphasis on analytical and theoretical thinking, and focus on linking theory with empirics to enrich the public/policy discourses and as a consequence improve the store of ideas from which policymakers make their withdrawals.
I don’t know if there is an answer to the dilemma of writing policy or security. And perhaps the dilemma for policy broadly is less problematic than for security specifically. Or perhaps the dilemma of writing security does not translate at all to policy writ large. Nonetheless, I am left with a nagging concern. As I watched Kroenig’s public talk (which is impressive) I found myself analyzing him as a securitizing actor. How was he making his arguments about Iran as a threat to the United States? What social and discursive tools was he drawing on? Therein lies the source of my concern. In bridging the gap, at least on this security related issue, Kroenig (perhaps unavoidably) goes from being a security analyst to a security actor. He is in his own way creating a specific security knowledge, of Iran and its nuclear program (and possible nuclear weapons) as a threat to the United States. I suspect for Kroenig that is not a problem because he does not share my or Huysmans theoretical orientation. But for those that do, it becomes very challenging to think about how to bridge the gap without becoming a part of the very security/policy practices we seek to examine, uncover, and problematize.