Policy Relevant Scholarship: What’s Chutzpah Got to Do with It?

July 6, 2015

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One important component of policy relevance has thus far received little attention in the Schoolhouse series here at War on the Rocks: chutzpah. It often requires courage for a scholar to take a position on an important policy issue and to argue for it publicly, whether in an op-ed, on television, online, or through other mediums. You expose yourself to a new and enlarged audience for critique. You may be labeled an activist, which is a dirty word in academia. You may become associated with a certain political party or position regardless of your actual political beliefs. You may provoke disdain from your colleagues, who, in addition to disagreeing with your argument, might disagree with your choice to be engaged in policy debates in the first place. You could even alienate organizations that might have funded your research. The more controversial the topic, the more likely these consequences. In short, being policy relevant takes guts.

Examples of gutsy policy relevant writings from the international relations and security fields are numerous: Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations; Barry Posen’s Restraint; Robert Kagan’s The World America Made; Kenneth Pollack’s The Threatening Storm; Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers and other writings on decline; several works by Stephen Van Evera from the War on Terror to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the respective work of Kenneth Waltz, Alan Kuperman, Frank Gavin, Nick Miller, and Or Rabinowitz on the Iranian nuclear program; and the advertisement signed by thirty-three senior security scholars against the war in Iraq in the New York Times on September 26, 2002. These intellectuals all took a highly public position on important subjects, and many of them faced intense and at times highly personal criticism in the wake of their publications and commentary. They argued in academic publications, on the radio, in America’s magazines, and in think tank forums. One need not agree with their positions to acknowledge that they adopted a clear and unambiguous stance on an issue, and that they were forced to weather the subsequent reaction.

This is policy relevance in one of its most effective forms. You can’t miss it. When you take a public position as these scholars did, no one wonders where you stand. Case in point: Does anyone question Barry Posen’s position on U.S. engagement with the world and American grand strategy? Can we say the same about everyone who claims to do policy relevant research? If we can’t, is that problematic?

It would seem that if you don’t know where someone stands, it is because that person has never taken a stand at all. Indeed, when it comes to policy relevance, where you stand may be more important than where you sit. Standing up requires chutzpah. If you never take a clear position publicly on an important policy issue, you can remain in perpetual intellectual anonymity. No one will know what you think, which means very few will care what you think. You will likely escape the aforementioned consequences of public commentary. Yet your impact and the policy relevance of your research are also likely to be minimal.

All of this is not to say that those who scream the loudest, most frequently, or most predictably are necessarily the most effective or even the most beneficial voices in the public debate. Nuanced, thoughtful commentary is of course much better than provocative writing intended solely to create controversy where perhaps none exists, or to shine the spotlight a little brighter on the author. Some stand up bravely better than others. Commentary that furthers civil debate and discussion is more valuable than commentary that merely boils the blood.

Policy relevance also comes in many forms, as noted recently by Michael Horowitz. Perhaps one of the most admirable forms of policy relevance is public service, which often happens quietly, without fanfare, on sabbaticals or summer breaks. These people contribute gracefully behind closed doors, away from the blogs, microphones, and op-ed pages.

Nevertheless, in international relations and security, we are studying issues with critical stakes for the world. Applying our research to these issues often necessitates entering the public debate and taking a position. As a result, we would be wise to cultivate a culture of intellectual bravery. Yes, all of us, from the first-year graduate student to the tenured professor, should learn to ask big questions, to write on important subjects, and to disseminate our work to the wider world in whichever outlet we feel most comfortable with. Yet we should also recognize that our discipline, the study of politics in various forms, requires those who speak out to take risks, to be bold in contributing to the world around us, to be a little scrappy, and to be intrepid. We have knowledge that can make a difference. Do we have the chutzpah to apply it?


Amanda J. Rothschild is a PhD Candidate in Political Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a research fellow in the International Security Program at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Her research focuses on U.S. foreign policy, human rights, and leadership in national and international security. Frank Gavin and Stephen Van Evera provided valuable comments on this piece. Their discussion was particularly helpful in clarifying my thoughts.


Photo credit: Jon S

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3 thoughts on “Policy Relevant Scholarship: What’s Chutzpah Got to Do with It?

  1. I remember an earlier work by Samuel Huntington,Political Order in Changing Societies,
    and Huntington’s subsequent forecasts on the success of U.S.policy in Vietnam. Plenty of Chutzpah but not much wisdom

  2. It is important to note that those whom you cite as examples of showing chutzpah are very senior, world-renowned scholars whose positions and place in the academy are not at risk. What about emerging scholars who are still trying to make a name for themselves and/or secure tenure? It is harder for them to be quite as bold as you suggest. Do such scholars have the same freedom to take risks? I would like to believe so but I have my doubts.

  3. Although 60+ days after the fact, I can not help but reply.


    “Appy describes Professor Huntington as another action intellectual with an unfailing facility for seeing the upside of catastrophe. In Huntington’s view, the internal displacement of South Vietnamese caused by the excessive use of American firepower, along with the failure of Rostow’s Strategic Hamlets, was actually good news. It promised, he insisted, to give the Americans an edge over the insurgents. The key to final victory, Huntington wrote, was “forced-draft urbanization and modernization which rapidly brings the country in question out of the phase in which a rural revolutionary movement can hope to generate sufficient strength to come to power.” By emptying out the countryside, the U.S. could win the war in the cities. “The urban slum, which seems so horrible to middle-class Americans, often becomes for the poor peasant a gateway to a new and better way of life.” The language may be a tad antiseptic, but the point is clear enough: the challenges of city life in a state of utter immiseration would miraculously transform those same peasants into go-getters more interested in making a buck than in signing up for social revolution.”

    Intellectuals are the bane of American foreign policy.