Stanford University

News Service



CONTACT: Lisa Trei, News Service: (650) 725-0224,

Does the academic study of international relations matter in the real world of foreign policymaking?

Many scholars on campus have made the leap from academia to the world of policymaking by using their intellectual training to work on gritty real-life issues. At a Jan. 16 social sciences seminar organized by the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC), political science Professor Steve Krasner, who recently returned from a 14-month stint in Washington, D.C., shared his insights on the sometimes bumpy transition academics face.

"As an academic, you basically do retrospective analysis with more or less full information and lots of time," he said at the event. "When you're making foreign policy, you have no time and limited information."

Nevertheless, Krasner said, international relations scholarship can be relevant to policymakers because it can offer potentially important new insights into issues. Yet he cautioned academics to avoid policy-directed research and instead concentrate on doing "serious" work that might one day make a contribution -- although perhaps not in a predictable manner.

"Making foreign policy is extremely difficult -- it's a lot harder than rocket science," Krasner said after the talk. "Having a lot of ideas out there to choose from is helpful. Academia provides a lot of those ideas."

Krasner, an expert in American foreign policy, witnessed firsthand the often chaotic world of foreign policymaking as a member of the policy planning staff at the State Department and as director for governance and development at the National Security Council.

Formal training in academic international relations can be useful, Krasner said, because it teaches people how to think systematically and build frameworks for considering issues. "If you have a lot of social science training, you can write better memos," he said.

But Krasner cautioned that entering the world of policymaking as an academic can have its drawbacks. "I did this once and it was really stupid," he remarked. "I said, 'I have a Ph.D. and I know about this.' That's a completely worthless comment. No one cares about your credentials." He added that being addressed as a professor in policy circles "was a bad thing" because people thought you were "a snob."

Krasner noted that several influential people in the current administration have made the transition from academia -- for example, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz have doctorates in political science.

Krasner said it is not surprising that Rice, Stanford's former provost, does not regularly ask prominent international relations scholars for advice on making foreign policy. "If this was valuable for her, she would be doing it," he said. "She knows this [academic] stuff." Unlike the natural sciences, Krasner said, international relations scholarship is less likely to provide definitive answers that can be used systematically in tackling real-world problems. "Our ability to give conclusive findings with low residuals is low," he said.

At the seminar, Law School Professor Tom Heller added: "Most of the interesting, leading work in [international relations] is three degrees too subtle to make it into direct policy application."

Coit Blacker, deputy director of the Institute for International Studies, which houses CISAC, also weighed in on Krasner's presentation. During the second Clinton administration, Blacker was special assistant to the president for national security affairs and senior director of Russian, Ukrainian and Eurasian affairs at the National Security Council.

A "structural misfit" exists between academia and foreign policymaking, Blacker said. "You wouldn't necessarily expect a tight fit between the development and dissemination of knowledge and the taking of action in any domain," he said.

But, compared to the foreign policy decision-making systems in continental Europe and in most other developed nations, the American process is "extremely porous" in that many outsiders have access to government officials, he added. This creates opportunities for what Blacker called "policy entrepreneurs" -- people who move between the worlds of policymaking and academia carrying with them messages and ideas. He pointed out that big ideas, such as the "democratic peace" theory and the "rule of law" model, can come to dominate policymaking by migrating from academia to Washington in such ways.

"If you get a policy entrepreneur who has entered the system and can render into policy terms that kind of model, and there is no rival model, it can be enormously influential in setting the course, especially if [that person] captures the attention of the three, five or 12 people who are actually vested with the responsibility for making decisions," Blacker said. "It happens all the time."

For example, he noted that from 1993 to 2001 U.S. foreign policy toward Russia was basically driven by the fact that Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott supported the "democratic peace" notion. "He fundamentally believed that the road to a better Russia turned first and foremost on its ability to become a democratic polity," Blacker said. "Even if you didn't believe that, by and large you went along. The dominance that that simple understanding came to exercise in policy terms was extraordinary."

In contrast, in continental Europe, foreign policymaking is more or less "stovepiped," Blacker said, explaining that outsiders have less opportunity to influence the established policy-making elite. "There are no inners and outers."

Krasner argued that the American model makes it easier for good ideas to enter the political system. "Because there are so many influences, you're probably less likely to be stuck with a truly stupid idea than in a more closed system," he said.

The former Soviet Union is an example of a completely closed system, Blacker said. "They had a set of experts," he said. "The problem was, they were wrong because they didn't listen to what was going on around them. They had such confidence they were right."

Krasner concluded that the broad array of ideas constantly migrating to and from Washington can be a positive influence on American foreign policymaking. "I think ideas matter, but we can't predict how," he said. "Being the right person in the right place at the right time can really make a difference. But there is no guarantee that will happen."


By Lisa Trei

© Stanford University. All Rights Reserved. Stanford, CA 94305. (650) 723-2300. Terms of Use  |  Copyright Complaints