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Truth, Power, and the Academy: A Response to Hal Brands

March 26, 2018 in Economics

By John Glaser

John Glaser

Academic expertise should guide U.S. foreign policy.
Unfortunately, it does not really work that way. On a host of
issues, there is an enormous gap between scholarship on
international relations and the policy consensus in Washington. The
United States persistently pursues foreign strategies that run
contrary to the policy implications of the academic consensus. And
on questions that are hotly debated in academia, Washington
displays inviolable bipartisan unity.

Hal Brands addressed the gap in an article in the American Interest last
fall that was recently the subject of renewed interest on social
media. There is “systematic evidence,” he writes,
“that the scholarship-policy gap is real and widening.”
And he accurately identifies the many disparities.

“For decades, there has been a bipartisan policy
consensus” that U.S. non-proliferation policies are vital for
global security. “Scholars, however, are generally more
sanguine.” Policymakers in the post-Cold War era arrived at a
consensus to expand NATO eastward, while international relations
scholars “overwhelmingly opposed” it. Washington thinks
credibility is so important that it is worth fighting elective wars
to preserve it, while “most scholars argue that credibility
is a chimera.” On Iraq, “most foreign policy elites,
and significant bipartisan majorities in the Congress”
supported the case for war, which was “vociferously rejected
by most international relations scholars.” And in Washington,
“there has long been an unassailable consensus” around
a grand strategy of primacy, Brands notes; “within the
academy, however…the dominant school of thought favors American
retrenchment.”

Why this gap? According to Brands, scholars are “first and
foremost citizens of the world,” and therefore less
interested in pursuing the “national interest” than
policymakers. Academics “see patriotic fervor as the enemy of
objectivity,” and are therefore skeptical of “American
power.” Third, scholars emphasize the costs of action while
neglecting the costs of inaction. Fourth, they get swept up by
“beautiful concepts” and elegant theories, naively
blinding themselves to “the messiness of reality.”
Prudent practitioners, he insists, incorporate unlikely worst-case
scenarios into their policy decisions, while academics are free to
privilege abstract risk assessment. Finally, policymakers face
penalties for being wrong, whereas scholars get to spout off ideas
while escaping the consequences.

Brands is likely correct that scholars are more inclined to
think systematically about issues than policymakers. Indeed,
scholars are privileged in having positions that
encourage them to think rigorously. And it might be true
that academics care more about objectivity than patriotic zeal
— thankfully so, given the deleterious effects exuberant
patriotism can have on foreign policy. Brands doesn’t
argue for unhinged nationalism, but he does seem to look favorably
on the fact that much Washington-based analysis is tinged with love
of country and patriotic puffery, emphasizing America’s
enlightened intentions and special …read more

Source: OP-EDS

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