On the scholarship-policy gap in foreign politics

John Glaser has written an interesting commentary on War on the Rocks under the title “Truth, Power, and the Academy: A response to Hal Brands”. It is about the relationship between academic expertise and the political establishment in the United States.

Last fall, Hal Brands wrote an article in The American Interest in which he points out that there is a “scholarship-policy gap which is real and widening”. It seems that the scholars and politicians simply do not agree on any issues of importance, so there is little basis for the view that academia informs policy making. Hal Brands largely blames the scholars for this situation. Apparently academics work in a secluded universe where they don’t have to deal with the complex realities of the world and do not face any penalties for being wrong.

John Glaser agrees that there is a problem, but he very much disagrees with everything else in Hal Brands’ article.

“Most of Brands’ account, however, is just flat out wrong. The evidence repudiates the suggestion, for example, that policymakers are held accountable for their ideas. […] The scholarship-policy gap persists because the people and ideas that drive foreign policy in Washington are not held accountable for their failures, and instead are often rewarded with a lifetime of high-status revolving door positions in the policy and think tank worlds.”

I really enjoyed Glaser’s argument about a kind of perception bubble in the political establishment. If your views fall outside the established conventional truths, you are disregarded. This is a result of several factors such as government’s inherent resistance to challenges to the reigning doctrine, socialization and status quo bias, self-interests and palace politics, and the desire of think tanks to receive funding.

So if you want to remain in business in politics, it is much safer to work on how to operationalize the existing doctrine than to question the assumptions. But the trend is dangerous for the ability to make wise foreign policy decisions.

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