war on the rocks

Political Science and Policy: It Ain’t Just Academic

September 29, 2014

Earlier this month, well-known defense reporter Thomas Ricks wrote a scathing review of the current issue of International Security. Ricks writes that he was excited to see it in his mailbox, but was so turned off by the article titles that he couldn’t get past the table of contents. What he saw was a list of arcane topics that had nothing to do with real-world policy problems, and he lamented that the “extraordinary irrelevance of political science is creeping into the magazine’s approach to the world.” In a follow-up post, Ricks cites an article by Michael Desch and myself in which we report the results from a survey of 234 former U.S. national security officials to support his earlier claims, noting that “the more something looks like contemporary political science … the less useful it tends to be.”

There is no doubt cause for concern that political science is becoming less relevant to policymakers. I want to focus here on the more narrow issue that inspired Ricks’ initial review because it is particularly troubling. International Security is generally viewed as one of the more policy-relevant political science journals. Ricks is an influential and thoughtful commentator on national security issues, and he has an audience within military and policymaking circles. International relations scholars should be especially concerned when someone like Ricks seems so disenchanted with their work. It suggests that the many efforts to bridge the gap between scholarship and policy – such as the Tobin Project and American University’s aptly named Bridging the Gap initiative – are inadequate.

Is International Security really becoming irrelevant? Are policymakers likely to turn away from the kind of research it publishes?

Answering these questions first requires addressing what policymakers want from social scientists. In our article, we found that national security policymakers do follow academic research, but are skeptical of analyses that privilege technique over substantive importance. As Ricks notes, we argued that policymakers are not inclined to read articles with esoteric language and exotic methods, though we are careful to add that this finding is most applicable when there is no clear policy implication to the article. Method is not automatically an enemy of relevance. In addition, policymakers seek what Alexander George called “mid-range theories” that attempt to explain subclasses of more general phenomena. At their best, such theories can illuminate necessary elements for strategies to succeed in specific cases. Good scholarship, in short, helps policymakers make sense of the world in brief, jargon-free articles.

When judged by these criteria, the recent issue of International Security does quite well. Take the article by Ja Ian Chong and Todd H. Hall, which examines the relevance of pre-World War I Europe to contemporary East Asia. This analogy is commonplace in Washington. But Chong and Hall argue against the tendency to focus on the Anglo-German power transition before WWI and draw lessons for the rise of China today. The reason is simple: the power transition was not central to the outbreak of WWI. Other factors were far more important. This is significant because if rising power was the main culprit, then U.S. policy should focus on either doubling down on containment or moving aside to accommodate a rising China. Instead, their analysis points to different policy solutions, including efforts to effectively manage East Asian security commitments, work with regional actors to reign in nationalism, and prevent disagreements from festering into repeated crises.

Or consider Jerry Mark Long and Alex S. Winer’s article, “Delegitimizing al-Qaida.” Long and Winer argue that undermining the al-Qaida narrative may be more important to U.S. strategy than military strikes. Their mid-range theory about political persuasion speaks not just to the war on al-Qaida but also to ongoing efforts against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), clearly an issue front and center in the national security debate. If al-Qaida’s “message loses credibility,” they note, “al-Qaida loses adherents – a cost to the organization and its leadership.” And they do more than present a theory by providing recommendations to show susceptible audiences that al-Qaida’s presentation of itself and its portrayal of the West are wrong.

Finally, Liam Anderson wrestles with the problem of governing ethnically riven countries like Iraq. This obviously matters for the United States. After all, no less a policymaker than President Obama has acknowledged that military action alone will not be enough to stop ISIL if Iraq is unable to forge a durable political order. Anderson takes issue with critics of ethnofederalism – a constitutional arrangement wherein the territory of federal units matches ethnic group boundaries. He shows that it often succeeds, and in cases where it has failed it is unclear that there was any viable alternative. Though the term is cumbersome, this analysis is relevant to American policymakers confronting a fluid situation in the Middle East, especially because Iraq is at least a partial ethnofederation in which “one or more (but not all) of the subunits are ethnically defined.” The analysis does not necessarily provide reasons to be optimistic about Iraq’s future, and unfortunately Anderson does not directly address the Iraq case in the article (though he has elsewhere). At the least, though, he points out that policymakers will need to look beyond its particular institutional structure if Iraq is to remain a unified political entity.

These are not short articles, to be sure, and policymakers may not have the time or inclination to read them. Yet as Desch and I note, rigorous evidence for an argument remains necessary to reach sound conclusions. So scholars have a dual responsibility: they must continue to write long-form research articles while simultaneously distilling them into shorter and more accessible policy pieces. Outlets like War on the Rocks, The Duck of Minerva, and Monkey Cage are at the forefront of disseminating these types of scholarly arguments. Policymakers can read these and, if they wish to see more in-depth analyses, they can turn to the academic outlets—in this case, the articles in the most recent issue of International Security.


Paul Avey is a postdoctoral fellow at the Tower Center for Political Studies at SMU. Prior to joining the Tower Center, he was a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at MIT and a fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard, and earned his Ph.D. from Notre Dame. His research focuses on the academic-policy divide, U.S. foreign policy, and nuclear politics.


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