Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Irrelevance of Political Science

In a piece he wrote back in April, FT columnist Gideon Rachman wrote that "it is no longer fashionable to pick political scientists for the top positions making US foreign policy." The reason why is clear enough: "I looked at something called the Journal of Conflict Resolution and found articles about real-world political problems which seemed just to be a mass of quadratic equations. It is hard to believe that anybody actually trying to resolve a conflict would find this kind of stuff useful, or relevant." Joe Nye and Stephen Walt, both of whom teach at Harvard, have made similar observations.

As a result of the growing irrelevance of political science, it has become fashionable to recruit talent from Washington's think-tanks, institutions which are much more policy-oriented than the American academy. But this, Rachman points out, has in turn created another problem: "The transition must be extraordinary for these former analysts and scribblers. Many of them have never managed anything more than a research assistant. And suddenly, they are placed in the White House or the Pentagon and given real-world responsibilities and real soldiers to play with. It’s all a long way from the seminar room."

But a little school in the Federal City seeks to address some of these issues. The Institute of World Politics was founded in 1990 by a former member of the National Security Council Staff who noticed the very same problem Rachman points out: in spite of studying and teaching at the finest schools in the national security field, John Lenczowski discovered that these institutions had not prepared him for the actual work of national security. So he founded his own school, dedicated to the apprehension of intellectual tools which have a practical value for foreign policy practitioners. For faculty he has recruited a variety of men and women who are not only published scholars in their respective fields, but have also served in foreign policy and can bring real-life experience to bear on their teaching. Finally, recognizing that international affairs is not an amoral business, IWP insists that its students study the ideals and values of the American Founding and the Western moral tradition.

IWP has not yet achieved a perfect synthesis of study and practice, ideal and realpolitik. But it is definitely doing some interesting work and making a serious effort to train a rising generation of foreign policy practitioners in, well, the practice of foreign policy.

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