Friday, May 29, 2009

On the (Ir)relevance of IR Scholarship to Policy Makers

. Friday, May 29, 2009

In April, Joseph Nye initiated a discussion about the policy relevance of contemporary international relations research. Dan Drezner pushed the discussion further, inviting academics to weigh in. (Will posted the blogging heads version last week). The central questions are two: why does contemporary IR scholarship have so little impact on policy? What, if anything, should or could be done about this lack of influence? Answers focus on the incentives that scholars face within the academy, with some focus on the supposed methodization of IR scholarship.

Yet to be articulated is the recognition that given what IR strives to do as a social science, any advice we might offer to policy makers must be either redundant or wrong. This is probably overstated, but let me defend it before I qualify it.

As a social science, IR strives to explain the choices that politicians make. The models we develop therefore either accurately explain governments' policy choices or they are wrong. IR models that accurately explain the decisions that governments make offer no insights to the politicians whose behavior they model. In fact, the more our models become grounded in empirical observation, that is, the more they summarize how politicians typically behave, the less useful they become to the politicians whose behavior they summarize. On the other hand, when politicians make choices that our models do not explain, our models must be wrong; after all, our models purport to explain politicians’ choices. Consequently, the only policy-relevant advice that IR can offer must be either redundant or wrong.

This problem is compounded by the incentive problem. Contemporary IR models assume that politicians respond rationally to incentives. What this means concretely will obviously depend upon context. Yet, the notion that a politician would adopt a fundamentally different policy than the one currently in place after learning about a piece of IR scholarship assumes that policy choice is predominantly a matter of intellectual persuasion. Thus, what we assume to be true in our models (politicians respond to incentives) is inconsistent with what must be true in order for our models to influence governments’ policy choices (politicians respond to intellectual persuasion). This implies that contemporary IR models can influence policy only if they fundamentally mischaracterize the nature of political decision making.

Contemporary IR’s lack of policy influence is therefore the inevitable consequence of the field’s effort to become more scientific given what we seek to explain. Although economics has powerfully influenced our quest for rigor, the belief that policy influence is the natural consequence of this endeavor suggests that we have lost sight of how IR differs from economics. Economics as a social science (along with sociology and perhaps psychology) tells politicians how to use policy to change social outcomes. IR as a social science explains why governments adopt some policies rather than others. The better we are at explaining the choices that governments make, the fewer novel insights we can offer to policy makers.

The subtext of the broader discussion seems to suggest that we should lament this. I don't see why. We give up the opportunity to offer poorly-conceived policy advice in favor of gaining systematic knowledge. We could benefit by being more self-consciousness about the consequences of the choices we make. In particular, because our commitment to social science necessarily renders us less useful as policy advisers, we must invent new justifications for the project in which we are engaged. That, however, must be the topic of another post.


On the (Ir)relevance of IR Scholarship to Policy Makers
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