Debating the Role of International Affairs & Political Science in the Public Sphere


Over at the SSRC’s Transformations of the Public Sphere, Stephen Walt, Rogers Smith and Lisa Anderson discuss the role that scholars of international affairs should play in the public sphere. Walt:

Social scientists are far from omniscient, but the rigor of the scientific process and the core values of academia should give university-based scholars an especially valuable role within the broader public discourse on world affairs. At its best, academic scholarship privileges creativity, validity, accuracy, and rigor and places little explicit value on political expediency. The norms and procedures of the academic profession make it less likely that scholarly work will be tailored to fit pre-conceived political agendas. When this does occur, the self-correcting nature of academic research makes it more likely that politically motivated biases or other sources of error will be exposed. Although we know that scholarly communities do not always live up to this ideal picture, the existence of these basic norms gives the academic world some important advantages over think tanks, media pundits, and other knowledge-producing institutions.

Yet the precise role that academic scholars of international affairs should play is not easy to specify. Indeed, there appear to be two conflicting ways of thinking about this matter.

On the one hand, there is a widespread sense that academic research on global affairs is of declining practical value, either as a guide to policymakers or as part of broader public discourse about world affairs.


Not only is the list of American political scientists whose professional scholarship has had a substantial public impact very short. It also has a political tilt that is in my view understandable but disturbing. Even though the authors of these works are by no means all conservatives or neo-conservatives—only George and at times Fukuyama have been politically active in those circles—their messages have nonetheless been broadly consonant with the conservative tide in American politics over the past generation. These works tend to celebrate many traditional American values and institutions, to express concern about loss of older civic virtues, and most importantly, to favor decentralized, civil society solutions to common problems—not big government, certainly not any radical egalitarian reform agendas. It is not surprising that political science scholarship that is more in keeping with the dominant political mood of an era should attract more attention than work that is out of step.


Presenting the finished, polished, completed findings from research conducted in a political science department to policymakers today is rather like drawing a map of Europe on a blackboard: it is neither what today’s policymakers want—it takes too long to produce, it is not interactive or mobile, it precludes questions; in short, it does not reflect the needs of the audience, any audience, today–nor is it what a true political scientist is, or should be, really good at, which is the sort of restless questioning, ceaseless learning, generous teaching that provokes novel interpretations and inventive solutions for the challenges of living in and governing human communities. The joy of learning is a spirit that can be reflected and replicated elsewhere—the “campuses” of Google and Microsoft come to mind—but should be the hallmark of university life, and it should be reflected in the interaction of the denizens of university with their communities, whether policymakers, neighborhood communities or, not least, students.

Thus, to return to Professor Walt’s observations, “engagement” may have “pitfalls” but it is the social physics of the twenty-first century—there is no avoiding it and not much point in worrying over it. Efforts to persuade universities and professional associations to change their criteria for hiring, promoting and rewarding our colleagues are certainly harmless, and may be useful, but they are unlikely to be the principal incentives for political scientists to acknowledge and embrace the changing opportunities presented by our new environment.