International Relations Theory and the “Ivory Tower Problem”

An Interview with Stephen Walt

Stephen Walt
International Relations Theory and the “Ivory Tower Problem” : An Interview with Stephen Walt - Editorial Staff

It seems that International Relations, more so than some other disciplines, suffers from a gap between academics and policymakers. Could you explain why you think this might be the case?

People have complained about the gap between the ivory tower and the policy world for decades. You can go back and find Hans Morgenthau writing very angry essays about this problem, so it’s not as though it has just happened. But I do think the problem has gotten worse in recent years for several different reasons. First of all, you’ve had the emergence of what you might call a “shadow intellectual community” inside Washington, D.C. itself. Thirty or forty years ago, if you wanted to get detached policy advice, you pretty much had to go to universities. Now, if you’re a policymaker and you want to get some advice on what to do about say, India and Pakistan, or what the American role in Latin America should be, there are people inside the Beltway at various think tanks who are ready to pick up the phone and talk to you. That’s one reason.

A second reason is that in the academic world itself, there’s less and less interest in developing ideas that would be of direct relevance to policymakers. Younger academics have essentially no incentive whatsoever to be policy relevant. Their future depends on impressing other academics, who will be determining whether or not they get tenure, and therefore there’s just not much reason for them to care about policy issues or to get involved in the policy world at all. Some of them will decide to do that after they get tenure, when they get bored by writing articles for an audience of twenty or thirty people, but the vast majority probably will not.

A third contributing factor is that the methodologies that have become increasingly popular in the scholarly world make the work of many academics less accessible to policymakers. The point is that even if policymakers wanted to learn from what was going on in academia, a lot of it would be very time consuming for them to try to master, and very hard to understand if they did. As a result, they’re even more inclined to go and listen to people from think tanks, who are producing short little policy memos. So for all of these reasons, it seems to me that the gap between the policy world and the academic world is growing. I don’t think that this is a healthy development.

Is this the fault of academics, policymakers, or both? And how can we bring the two closer together?

I think it’s mutual, and probably even self- reinforcing. An academic wants to get as close to the right answer as possible, and if it takes an extra six months to do that they’re likely to take that extra six months. A policymaker doesn’t have the luxury of that kind of time. For a policymaker, getting a pretty good answer right away is more important than getting the absolutely right answer a year from now.

Also, academics tend to be interested in general tendencies, either universal laws or empirical generalizations that apply most of the time. But a policymaker might be interested not so much in what the general tendency is, but rather what’s going to happen in the particular case that’s on her desk this week. As a result, there are somewhat different incentives or goals that each group has.

That said, reminding people in the policy world that academics have the great luxury of being essentially independent thinkers is one thing that can be done. If you’re looking for creative thinking, or for people who can challenge the prevailing orthodoxies, I think you’re more likely to find them in the academic world.

In terms of academia, addressing this problem involves convincing people in the academic community to place more weight on scholarship that makes a real contribution to public and policy understanding of important issues. For example, instead of just giving scholars credit for articles in refereed academic journals or books published by university presses, we could try to give people credit for writing articles in journals like Foreign Policy or Foreign Affairs. Instead of looking only at how often scholars’ work is cited by other scholars, we could also look at how often a scholar’s work is mentioned in the New York Times or the Washington Post. To what extent is someone really contributing to public discourse on these issues?

And one final suggestion: very few universities will give academics any credit for actually working in government or in other forms of public service. But if they wished, universities could adopt policies that made it easier for scholars to acquire some real-world experience. You don’t have to give a junior scholar explicit credit towards tenure for this, but we shouldn’t penalize them for it. Why not agree to stop someone’s tenure clock if they take a year off to work in government? They would still have to do the usual academic writing, but they would have the same amount of time to do it and they wouldn’t face a stark trade-off between acquiring real-world knowledge or cranking out another academic article or two.

How do think tanks play a role here?

First of all, there is an activist bias in almost all of the major foreign policy think tanks. I’m thinking here of institutions such as the Council on Foreign Relations, Brookings, the American Enterprise Institute, Heritage or the Carnegie Endowment. These organizations don’t agree on every single policy issue, but all of them are strongly in favor of what you might call American global leadership. They think the United States should be actively involved in every corner of the world, and should generally be very energetic in trying to solve global problems. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but the central problem is that it means the intellectual community that tends to dominate the foreign policy establishment is almost always collectively in favor of doing more. By contrast, there are relatively few organizations whose purpose is to get the United States to be somewhat more restrained.

The second issue is the nature of the intellectual work that gets done in these organizations. I think a good example of this is what’s happened to the Brookings Institution over time, at least with respect to foreign policy. Back in the 1980’s, the staff of the Foreign Policy Studies group at Brookings was really quite impressive, and a number of the people who were scholars there could easily have gone to teach at universities. They wrote books and articles that academics took seriously. But if you look at the people who are now in the Foreign Policy Studies program today, hardly any of them would be qualified for a tenured appointment at a top-rank academic institution. I’m not saying they aren’t smart or anything like that; I’m saying that the priorities of the organization have shifted away from doing serious scholarship that really advances knowledge, and has moved towards doing the kind of short-term policy analysis (op-ed writing, memo writing, things like that) that is part of public discourse in Washington, D.C. If you’re looking for more rigorous or more long-lasting work, you can’t find it in most of these institutions anymore.

That makes sense. In a working paper with John Mearsheimer, you discuss the role of theory in the academic world of International Relations, and argue that the field may be deteriorating into what you call “simplistic hypothesis testing”. How is this notion connected to the idea of academics and policymakers developing a better working relationship?

I think the connection is straightforward. The basic problem we have, and it’s particularly true in the field of International Relations, is that this is a world of extraordinary complexity. There are millions of different things that might shape international outcomes or foreign policy behavior, and ordinary citizens (but also policymakers) need some way of making sense out of all this confusion. You need theory to do that, to tell you which factors are important and what the key causal relationships are. You particularly need that when you’re trying to look ahead and figure out what’s likely to be happening down the road and what steps you need to take in order to be ready for new circumstances. What developments in the world are likely to affect the policy agenda going forward? You can’t answer that question without at least some sort of theory, however crude and imperfect it might be.

Let me give you just one example. Trying to figure out what do to about the rise of China is an inherently theoretical question, because you can’t just look at Chinese behavior today, or Chinese behavior over the last ten years, and conclude we know what China is going to do in 2025 or 2030. Because if China’s power position shifts, if it continues to rise and becomes more-or-less equal to the United States, its leaders are likely to define China’s interests differently and its behavior is likely to change. So you have to look at different theories of international politics and see what they tell you about the behavior of states when the balance of power is shifting.

Moreover, if you look at the current debate about how the United States should respond to a rising China, it breaks out along theoretical lines. You have realists like me who would argue that the rise of China is likely to produce an intense security competition between the United States, China, and perhaps some other countries. And you have people of a more liberal persuasion, who argue that in fact this conflict won’t be that severe, that there are tight economic ties already between the United States and China, and a number of other states, and that that will significantly attenuate any possibility of real competition. This is a theoretical argument we’re having, but it’s a theoretical argument of tremendous policy importance.

Now, going back to where we started, one of the things that has tended to make I.R. scholarship less and less relevant to policymakers is that it’s become the narrow testing of increasingly a-theoretical hypotheses. There are times when that can be useful for a policymaker who just wants to know what the general tendencies are, but the problem is that if hypothesis testing isn’t guided by a clear and well-articulated theory, it usually yields unreliable results. This sort of work also tends not to cumulate over time: you just get lots of different social scientists touting their particular model and mostly arguing past each other. That’s not very useful for policy.

What do you think the dominant theoretical perspective has been in terms of American leadership in recent years?

I’ll tell you something that maybe won’t surprise anybody, and that’s to say that I’m convinced the United States has almost always followed fairly Realist policies in terms of the way we’ve actually behaved in the world. But we always dress it up with a lot of self-serving liberal rhetoric. You never hear American politicians, or politicians in most countries for that matter, saying they’re doing things strictly to enhance their own power position, that they’re making sure they continue to be the world’s number one power and don’t allow any competitors to emerge, that we’re going to take advantage of our adversaries when they’re weak and play hardball with them when they’re strong. You don’t find people saying things like that, but that’s basically what the United States has done throughout most of its history, I think even going back to before we were a great power. American leaders were always sensitive to the balance of power and bent on dominating the Western hemisphere. Once we did, we also wanted to make sure nobody else established a similar position of power in their neighborhood.

What I think you see with Barack Obama is very much a sort of Realist adjustment to a sense of American over- commitment, but one that’s designed primarily to restore America’s position in the world and defend what he regards as key American interests. He wants to do this with support from lots of other countries, but if he doesn’t have their support then to go ahead anyway. The Obama administration has been willing to rely upon drone attacks in a variety of other countries, which is something we would find completely unacceptable if someone was doing it to us. The administration has also relied on special forces in various places, which again we would not regard as acceptable if someone were doing it to us, and it has threatened the use of military force in a number of other contexts. The bottom line here is that great powers tend to act more or less the way that Realist theory depicts, but great powers like the United States rarely talk that way openly because we like to think of ourselves as much more idealistic than we really are.

We’re curious, do you think your own work has had an effect on policymaking?

That’s a great question. I think some of my earlier theoretical work may have had a very modest impact in shaping how some people thought about alliance relations, but I can’t say that it had sort of an immediate direct impact that I could point to a policy initiative or a body of legislation or some aspect of military doctrine that’s directly traceable to my own work. My greatest impact as a scholar came from the book that John Mearsheimer and I wrote about the Israel lobby and US foreign policy. There, the impact was not so much directly on policy as in altering popular discussions of this issue. I think we helped open the door to a much broader and healthier discussion of the U.S.-Israeli relationship and where it comes from, but also some of the problems that this causes for American policy in the Middle East.

For a variety of reasons, you haven’t seen American policy shift dramatically, because you’re not going to stop a powerful interest group in its tracks just by writing a book. But once we do get a more open discussion, then it at least creates the possibility that the policy will begin to shift over time. You could argue that we had some indirect impact in some other developments—such as the emergence of groups like J Street and others—but you’d have to do a more detailed investigation to verify that. But I think we were clearly part of a shift in the overall constellation of political forces revolving around that issue.

Stephen M. Walt is a realist with Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, where he is the Robert and Renée Belfer Professor of International Relations. He is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy’s blog and the author of several books, including Taming American Power: The Global Response to U.S. Primacy and, with John Mearsheimer, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. He previously taught at Princeton University and the University of Chicago.