Are we in a 1914 scenario in East Asia? How often do guerrillas succeed? Did counterterrorism law erode national sovereignty? These are just a few of the important questions that political science has some bearing on. Yet barely a couple months goes by without an op-ed decrying political science's alleged lack of relevance to the outside world.
Political scientists are frequently told their research is too arcane, mathematical, and self-involved to be of possible value to anyone in Washington dealing with real-world policy problems. There's a grain of truth here. As international political economy whiz Kindred Winecoff observes, political scientists need to make a better “elevator pitch." But here's the problem: at the end of the day, there is a difference between what Max Weber dubbed science as a vocation and the subjective policy lessons we can take from our study. Part of that gap is reflected in the difficulties that people with purely policy interests inevitably encounter in PhD programs.
From my own (minor) experience so far, it is grueling, necessitates the assimilation of difficult methodologies, and involves having to think about intellectual questions that many people would regard as hopelessly arcane. Even a good PhD program that directly tackles policy questions will likely demand the student grapple with questions of esoteric theory and method. And not all research that tackles highly abstract questions is policy-irrelevant. Highly technical analysis of game theory and economics generated useful policy applications form the World War II convoy system to nuclear strategy and wargaming.
All of these advances began from the desire to grapple with difficult questions to produce knowledge, something many critics of political science research do not acknowledge. Take Greg Ferenstein, who penned an article supporting Eric Cantor's call to defund the NSF. His gripe is familiar. Political science is obscuratist, hyper-mathematical, and disconnected from the policy world. Political scientists don't do enough to make their research accessible to policymakers. Ferenstein wants a political science that his mother-in-law can understand, and he thinks starving academia of resources will motivate hungry researchers to do better. So is modern political science irrelevant to policy needs?
Contra Ferenstein, policymakers have thrown substantial $$ at the kind of research he regards as navel-gazing arcana. The RAND Corporation got a lot of mileage using what Ferenstein derides as "clever mathematical models" during the Cold War. I'm not sure that Jay Ulfelder, who worked for the intelligence community-funded Political Instability Task Force, would agree that his quantitative forecasting methodologies must pass a mother-in-law test to be valuable. And when New York University's game theory guru Bruce Bueno De Mesquita speaks, the CIA listens. Drew Conway, a man that could easily teach a computer programming course just as well as poli-sci 101, gives invited talks at West Point on analyzing terrorist networks. I don't think Ulfelder, Mesquita, or Conway have sleepless nights pondering the relevance of their research to the govermment!
Ferenstein also laments the decline of grand theory that policy-makers could comprehend and the rise of empirical research. Perhaps the most ironic thing about Ferenstein's citation of this trend as a bad thing is that the rise of empirical research actually does away with the worst tendencies of the "old" international relations. In the old days, people proclaimed their allegiance to warring theoretical tribes. Now the enterprising researcher will take whatever can get them from point A to B. That, and political scientists are actually interested in whether or not their theories are empirically correct! It is difficult to see why this is bad for policy and endless theological debates over theories first advanced in the middle of the 20th century is good.
Of course method isn’t everything. The aforementioned Ulfelder is conversant in both important theories of the state and rigorous methods. My friend Aaron Frank has built rigorous computer simulations based on deep thought about the philosophy of science and human cognition. Dare I say that Frank, before generating his quantitative simulations, has to deal with policy-unfriendly concepts like "ontology" and "epistemology?" But Ulfelder and Frank aren’t hung up about whether their theories confirm realism, liberalism, or constructivism. And they are not afraid to use the best methods available to pursue their research, no matter how challenging they may be. On the more qualitative side, someone like Ryan Evans uses field work to come to fine-ingrained analysis of civil wars. Ryan's work, though leaning towards qualitative political sociology, is equally as demanding as the most rigorous quant work. But Ryan also is informed by useful theory.
Ferenstein's "mother-in-law" test for policy relevance is also ridiculous. Economists looking to be policy-relevant don’t lose sleep over whether their mother-in-law gets their theories. Whether Timothy Geithner can pick it up matters. Much of what military historian (full disclosure: my military history instructor in Fall 2010) David Johnson writes about the future of land warfare is too esoteric for a mother-in-law without grounding in military history. But Johnson now heads a group that will likely decide the future of the Army. That's some policy relevance most academics can only dream of. And Ulfelder's mother-in-law would have to be down with Bayesian stats to get most of his work. Does the IC care?
I can't speak for Ferenstein, but I can't help but ask: when critics claim that political science research is too esoteric, mathematical, and self-involved, are they are really unhappy that it has become more rigorous and empirical? There was once a time when a policy thinker could converse about the social sciences without making an effort to grapple with the methodological tools and theories that underpin those disciplines. That era is over and won’t be coming back anytime soon. The policy-academic bridge certainly does need fixing. But this requires effort and understanding from both partners.
First, the blunt truth is that all of the policy-relevant research in the world won’t persuade a policymaker to deviate from something they ideologically believe in. And why should research alone dictate fundamentally political decisions? Politicians are not engineers or technocrats. Who believes political science research alone should decide the question of abortion? For supporters and detractors alike, it’s a question that touches on the most basic questions of human life and women’s autonomy.
Finally, op-eds like the piece Ferenstein penned offer no constructive advice for better academia-policy harmony. Political scientists already invest considerable effort and intellectual energy trying to “bridge the gap.” It’s time for the policy world to reciprocate. Yes, state of the art political science methods and theories take time and effort to learn. But couldn't a policymaker hire a political science grad to boil down research of interest to a few bullet points? There’s an army of Hill staffers already at work helping their bosses get smart on policy areas that Senator John or Jane Doe have to vote on. There really are many easy, commonsense solutions to the problem if one seriously thinks about it.
The academia-policy divide isn’t unbridgeable. Both sides just have to respect each other’s needs and culture. Policy enthusiasts should acknowledge and respect the inevitably arcane rigor needed to make good political science research instead of bashing it for not being immediately comprehensible to one’s mother-in-law. Academics must understand that policy makers have unique needs, don’t have tenure to insulate them from the consequences of getting an issue wrong, and make choices about fundamentally normative questions that science cannot conclusively answer.
More people get this than alarmist op-eds may lead us to believe. After all, love of Middle East studies and political violence research spurred a American University of Beirut and King's College London grad (who is now at the Pentagon in an one-year International Affairs Fellowship) to found this very blog. From late high school to the beginning of my PhD program, reading Andrew Exum's blogging of relevant political science research motivated me to view policy and academia as complementary. And surely I'm not the only one. Maybe the "policy relevant" crowd can take a hint too.
Here is another way of understanding some of the common themes that Dan Trombly and I have written about during our brief time blogging on Abu Muquwama:
For the purpose of argument, imagine American governance as a kind of market. A political process produces policy, and formulated policy has implications for the nature of the services required to implement it. Certainly there is nothing intrinsically valid about the preferences generated by a political process. The process itself is the product of a neverending struggle for influence between many kinds of governmental and extra-governmental actors. But provided that preferences hold constant and those who provide what policymaker preferences entail are rewarded with substantial material, psychological, or status benefits.....the need will likely be provided.
National security is a lucrative area where benefits can quickly and massively accrue to actors that fit policymaker needs. While undeniably true in the United States, it is even more true elsewhere in the world. The most lavishly rewarded American general is a pauper when measured against the mil/intel supremos that underpin Middle Eastern autocracies. What type of actor fulfills the stated need, and its organizational makeup, while obviously important, is also variable. Many writers on the subject of private security have an ideological belief, as Machiavelli did, that mercenary armies are inferior to national ones. But any objective reading of history suggests that the truth of such a prejudice is highly dependent on context. Contracting out national defense was essential to the early modern military revolution in Europe.
Second, institutions and those who seek to influence them may have their own deeply ingrained mythos about what kind of roles the institution should play. But confusing what an organization or would-be external reformer would like to believe about its proper role for what policymakers have regularly called on it to do is not useful. In the civilian economy, art graduates believe that their skills are useful, and they could very well be right. But the market disagrees. When it comes to national security policy, Platonic conceptions of role-sets crucial to long-held institutional culture matter only as much as they can be justified to those who hold the purse strings.
Left to its own devices, the Air Force is unlikely to emphasize close air support (CAS) missions. The Marine Corps’ MAGTF structure is evaluated on the basis of whether it serves the perceived needs of the National Command Authority, not whether the essence of Marine-ness can only be aesthetically satisfied by the MAGTF. Certainly there are good reasons for the Air Force to not emphasize CAS and for the Marines to keep a MAGTF structure. But those reasons do not derive from the idea that such capabilities (or the lack theorof) are crucial to the Marine or Air Force identity. Even if they did, it would be immaterial to what a policy process holds the organizations should do.
Much analysis on covert action and PMCs, like establishment conceptions of the drug war, focuses almost entirely on the supply side of the equation. The demand side reveals a set of uncomfortable truths. One of them is that reformers' ideas that the core function of an intelligence agency should be to supply intelligence does not reflect the preferences of a substantial range of policymakers throughout history. Like Machiavelli’s opinions about mercenary armies, the idea that the ideal function of an intelligence service is to collect intelligence is an political opinion rather than an empirically derived historical regularity. Most intelligence agencies do far more than collect intelligence, and the CIA is no exception to the rule.
But where does the demand come from? For better or worse, American policymakers have a consistent need to control the political composition of foreign societies, eliminate sub-state movements, and coerce in situations of short of general war. One can view it from an idealistic lens of spreading the democratic peace and/or combating violent extremism. Critics of American foreign policy take a different tack: imperialism. How such activities are ideologically justified or condemned is secondary to the empirical fact that they are consistent enough to reflect a recurring policymaker preference for institutions and entrepreneurs capable of providing them.
The United States has a governmental system that enables covert action, wars of choice, and discrete military interventions. Whether you believe that internationalism abroad and the coercive force it entails is right or wrong, it is a perennial aspect of American policy. Even in so-called “isolationist” epochs policymakers have consistently demonstrated a preference for flexible institutions that can deliver coercive intervention on a dime. Given the presence of such preferences and the allocatable material and symbolic capital potentially available to those who satisfy them it is highly likely that such demands will be met.
Supply-side, as opposed to demand-side analysis, has the pernicious effect of quibbling about the visible outward manifestation of a preference while rendering the process that produced it invisible. In the American governmental system, the executive has wide latitude over foreign policy and national security. And when a partisan consensus exists over an issue, as it currently does over American offensive counterterrorism and covert action efforts, demand-side will likely have more of a long-term impact on the nature of institutions than supply-side tinkering.
Supply-side tinkering to curb demand-based preferences can also sometimes have severe unintended consequences. As Dan has noted, the historical purpose of the draft was not to prevent war but to enable it by giving states a readily available pool of military manpower. Certainly the presence of draftees in Vietnam made for greater social divisions and antiwar activism. But Vietnam-era national security policies were themselves the unintended consequence of efforts to avoid a Korea-style continental deployment through light "advise and assist" missions. When decisionmakers (and the public), motivated by sunk costs, decided to commit general purpose forces they were not deterred by the draft. Without the draft, large-scale involvement in Vietnam simply would not have been possible to begin with. Politics, not technical setup, explains the Vietnam War.
Institutions can obviously resist and even shape policymaker demand themselves. But this resistance, like the military's Clinton-era resistance to gays in the military, largely works because other political actors' preferences make the cost of implementing an given policy undesirably high. The Clinton admistration could have devoted substantial political capital, but chose Don't Ask Don't Tell instead of clashing with institutional and likely bipartisan political resistance. When policymakers are cohesive in their demands, institutions find it difficult to resist. Civilian policymakers thwarted military reformers seeking a European-style general staff. It might have done a great deal to actually improve the organizational efficiency of defense planning. But policymakers were simply unwilling to surrender control to such a baldly Germanic defense planning apparatus. Likewise, politicization of intelligence can occur when administrations are determined to see what they want to see. They can set up their own policy shops when the main organization is resistant, like the Bush administration did with the Office of Special Plans during the runup to the Iraq war.
Of course, there is a strong benefit to a “politicized” natural security system that is worth its cost. The practice of political appointees with short terms prevents the rise of a “deep state” seen in other countries. The President does not have to worry about a rogue Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) or Secretary of Defense with substantial autonomy to make far-reaching decisions with potentially catastrophic consequences. The Japanese Imperial Army, on the other hand, dragged civilian policymakers into World War II and the Pakistani state today suffers from an inability to reign in the Interservices Intelligence (ISI) agency. But life is full of tradeoffs, and in this case the dominant consequence has to do with the shaping power of executive demand. A DCI can't resist the President's demands for covert action, but he also can't exercise an ISI-like hold on covert wars without cabinet oversight.
Somewhere in between is the sweet spot--the right mix of institutional latitude and oversight by the executive branch and the legislature. This is the holy grail of intelligence design and it remains an ideal. But from an institutional design perspective, it makes sense to build capabilities and organization around what the policy customer will likely demand, not what the outside critic believes they should demand. In The Wire, Stringer Bell rebukes his cronies running a front business for not understanding basic microeconomics:
You’re not gonna bring that corner b***t up in here, you hear me? You know, what we got here? We got is an elastic product. You know what that means? That means, when people can go elsewhere and get their printing and copying done, they gonna do it. You acting like we got an inelastic product and we don’t.
Now, the United States government is obviously highly different in form, function, and rationale from a Baltimore drug crew. But national power roles and functions are also more elastic than many would believe. In my Benghazi post, I noted that when foreign governments fail to protect American diplomats, the USG turns to men with black polos with billable hours. Domestically, the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force all jockey for a piece of Air-Sea Battle even if the objective characteristics of the mission set suggest a dominant role for seapower. Policymaker perception and the pot of available resources matter more in practice than whether a given mission set properly belongs to a certain institution.
With the knowledge of a market for covert action, intelligence reformers looking to improve the CIA should not confuse what they want the CIA to be (an intelligence-gathering organization with a circumscribed paramilitary action function) with what policymakers currently want (offensive counterterrorism and covert action). David Petraeus didn’t further militarize the CIA because he had a burning desire to make the Agency run like his HQ in Afghanistan. He did so because important policy entrepreneurs in the White House—like countless administrations before them---saw a need for a highly lethal kinetic fusion of intel and military operators. If that need goes away, the Agency will find it harder to justify its wide-ranging unmanned air fleet. But history suggests that even if preferences shift, they will likely re-emerge in a different form.
The dominant question should be: how do we—with knowledge of recurring trends of paramilitary and covert action—minimize the negative externalities from these activities? Among other constructive suggestions, Micah Zenko has sensibly suggested paring back signature strikes, as the best tools of violence in low-intensity wars are selective in nature. John Brennan himself, as Joshua Foust has noted on Twitter, has sought to create a better institutional framework for CIA paramilitary action. In the absence of a sudden and drastic shift in what seem to be recurring patterns of policymaker demand (which is not inherently impossible), customer-informed institutional design is likely the best way to deal with the substantial institutional challenges that the countrterror war poses for the CIA and the intelligence community.