Monday, September 6, 2010

Why Don't Journalists Care About IR Scholarship? Because They Are Uneducated

. Monday, September 6, 2010

I have a ton of respect for Matthew Yglesias, but (you know there's a but) I'm not quite sure what he's thinking here:

The kinds of policy approaches that find support in the IR literature or can be usefully illuminated through it are just too far off the center of the American political consensus.

One reason that the field of economics plays a prominent role in popular discussions of politics is that you can find very credible academic economists with PhDs and everything on both sides of most of the big partisan battles in Washington. But that’s not really the case on the foreign policy side. The intellectual basis of modern-day rightwing foreign policy is DC think tanks and magazines and has nothing to do with scholarly controversies. This is a very very very bad thing for the world and leads us into some catastrophically misguided policy choices, and it also means that journalists attention tends to be focused on the bounds of the politicized DC debate which is unusually isolated from scholarly approaches to these topics.


There are all kinds of problems with this. To begin with, he basically starts by admitting that journalists really couldn't care less about educating their readers, at least if the prerequisite of that is having a basic familiarity with the subject they are covering. Instead, all journalists care about are the "bounds of the DC debate", not stupid boring messy things like facts or scientific inquiry. No, those get in the way of "catastrophically misguided" right-wing policies that Democrats supported, dammit! Better to have a purely insult-based foreign policy discussion, completely void of theory or substance.

Unfortunately it doesn't get better from there. I have no idea what Yglesias means by "kinds of policy approaches" or "center of the American political consensus". He doesn't elaborate, and I have no idea what IR literature he's actually read, so I have no way of understanding what he's talking about here. My twitter query went like this:

@mattyglesias Really? No controversies in academic IR? No rightwing IR academics? No idea why you think that. It's just wrong.

@whinecough Lots of controversies in academic IR and I never said otherwise. But they don't map onto political controversies in DC.


Not the most illuminating tweet-back, granted, but it gets to the heart of the matter. And the heart of the matter is that Yglesias has no idea what he's talking about. In fact, there are many IR debates and pretty much all of them map onto political controversies in DC. In a spur-of-the-moment twitter response I listed "Democratic peace theory. Interventionism. Soft power vs. hard power. Unilateralism vs. multilateralism. Role of Intl Institutions." To which one could easily add trade politics, exchange rate policy, financial regulation, environmental policy, nuclear proliferation, macroeconomic imbalances, counterterrorism, human rights treaties, Wikileaks, Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, Park51, and immigration. All of which are common themes on this blog, in the academic discourse, and in the "political controversies in DC". The idea that IR scholarship has nothing to add to those discussions is just wrong. It demonstrates a shocking lack of awareness from someone whose most serious contribution to the public policy discourse is a foreign policy book.

That's not all. Yglesias claims that right-wing foreign policy folks only exist in think tanks and the Weekly Standard, and never have PhDs (his criterion, with "and everything", for "credible" economists). Has he never heard of Condi Rice? Kissinger? Brent Scowcroft? Paul Wolfowitz? Peter Feaver? Robert Gates? They all have PhDs from prestigious universities, they can all be considered part of the "right-wing" according to some definition or other, and there's plenty more where those came from. Almost the entire past five decades of American foreign policy has been shaped by veterans of academia, mostly on the "right-wing" of IR theory, and has been hotly debated in academic circles. If Yglesias thinks that isn't the case, it's because he doesn't know his subject matter.

Then Yglesias says that politics "has nothing to do with scholarly controversies. This is a very very very bad thing for the world and leads us into some catastrophically misguided policy choices, and it also means that journalists attention tends to be focused on the bounds of the politicized DC debate which is unusually isolated from scholarly approaches to these topics."

I would be surprised if Yglesias could outline more than one or two "scholarly controversies" in IR in any detail, much less describe how foreign policy has no interaction with those arguments. Bush 43's entire foreign policy was based on a mutation of democratic peace theory, which is hotly contested in the academy and elsewhere. Clinton's foreign policy was the largest experiment in neoliberal institutionalism that the world has ever seen, and it too was vehemently debated in the scholarly circles, and still is. The whole Cold War was practically a petri dish for IR theory. In all cases American foreign policy was engineered in part or full by IR scholars. What on earth is Yglesias waiting for?

In other words, it's just not true that scholarly debates have nothing to say about political controversies, or that they are "too far off the center of American political consensus". Every foreign policy decision that governments make has been discussed and analyzed, however imperfectly, by IR scholars and has been adopted or denied by politicians and ideologues. Yglesias just hasn't done his homework. Which is sad, because "homework" in this case basically entails e-mailing Drezner. Or even me.

As I said... all I ask is that journalists do journalism.

UPDATE (shortly after posting): I'm guessing Thomas would say that journalists don't care about this stuff because they're interested primarily in normative theories (i.e. ideologies) rather than positive theories. This is kinda sorta reconcilable with what Yglesias is saying, except that IR has spent a lot of time searching for empirical and theoretical justifications for normative theories. Those arguments might not be settled, but it's not as if journalists have any idea why or where the fault-lines are.

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Why Don't Journalists Care About IR Scholarship? Because They Are Uneducated
 
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