Why Scholars and Policymakers Disagree

Searching for something recently, I came across this 2017 article (“Why Scholars and Policymakers Disagree”) by Hal Brands from the American Interest. Its subject is exactly the mission of this project — the policy-academic divide in foreign policy and international relations. That author does a great job at framing some of the familiar reasons this divide exists:


“The explanations are diverse, and the reasons offered many. International relations scholars—particularly political scientists—increasingly emphasize abstruse methodologies and write in impenetrable prose. The professionalization of the disciplines has pushed scholars to focus on filling trivial lacunae in the literature rather than on addressing real-world problems. The tenure process punishes young scholars for “sucking up to power” and cultivating audiences beyond the academy. The long timelines of academic research and publishing make it difficult even for the most engaged scholars to offer prompt policy advice. Busy policymakers, for their part, simply lack time to engage academia as much as they might like.”


However, as the article goes on, the bias many academics who address this issue have are illustrated here in reducing much of the debate to one of grand strategy. Brands writes the academic-policy divide “results…from the fact that academics and policymakers operate according to very different intellectual paradigms that lead to very different ways of viewing the world.” That may be true if one views the gap as one over worldview and grand strategy; but foreign policy is so much more than that and there are many issue areas where worldview would have little affect on policy prescriptions from academics. Take the question of whether poverty breeds terrorism. Academics have a lot to say about this. It’s not clear to me where worldview would influence either what academics would have to say to policymakers nor receptivity among policymakers.


Overall the argument suffers from a few issues:


  1. Like so many academics, the article seemingly reduces foreign policy to high politics issues — alliance behavior, nuclear proliferation, war, great power competition. It says nothing about the myriad foreign policy issues that are important and for which academics have much to say that could be put in policy relevant terms. What about terrorism and political violence? Transnational organized crime? Cyberwarfare? Intelligence analysis? Diplomacy and negotiation? Nation building? COIN?

  2. The article makes much of the US decision to go to war with Iraq in 2003, framing the episode as one where views of WMD proliferation differed among academics and policymakers with the policy folks seeing an emerging threat versus academics who saw the risk of nuclear war as very small. But the Bush administration, as so many books and articles have demonstrated, was driven by many things. As one points out, WMD was something all the Bush people could agree on as a pretext. It hardly explains the war, discounts the dissenting voices, and ignores the complicated story of the role of the intelligence community in the run up to the war.


The article is well worth a read and valuable in that it keeps the conversation going. But it at the same time needlessly muddies the waters.