It's Commencement Day here at Harvard, and we are sending the Class of 2013 out into the world with congratulations, good wishes, and high hopes. My graduate students here at the Kennedy School are a remarkable group, and I look forward to watching them make their way in the complex and often troubling world of foreign policymaking.
At such times I tend to think about how we might have educated them better, and I want to draw an analogy to an interesting op-ed by Jacob Hamblin in today's New York Times. Hamblin's subject is biodiversity, and he traces the origins of our present concern for it to some rather chilling Cold War strategic planning. Specifically, war planners investigating ways to destroy enemy ecosystems gained new appreciation for the dangers of environments that were ecologically one-dimensional (such as vast farmlands sown with a single crop). In particular, loss of diversity leaves whole areas vulnerable to a single pathogen or event that wipes out the dominant species.
I would argue that the same is true of "intellectual ecosystems" as well. When academic disciplines become overly concentrated on one set of questions, one set of theoretical answers, one set of methods, or one body of data, what might seem at first glance to be a powerful engine of scholarly progress can be a source of danger as well. Having everyone working in more or less the same way can generate lots of publications and citations and even help knowledge advance in this particular area, but "normal science" of this sort also means that alternative approaches, questions, methods, or theories get short shrift. The danger is that scholars wake up one day and discover that the reigning method du jour has fatal limitations, or it turns out that some neglected skills (e.g., foreign languages, cultures, etc.) suddenly become very valuable.
In the IR field, for example, contemporary graduate training increasingly involves mastering an enormous arsenal of methodological skills, most of them statistical in nature. Because there are only 24 hours in a day and only five to six years in most Ph.D. programs, most students won't have the time to learn foreign languages, read broadly in history, do more than cursory field research on rather narrow topics, or even acquire a sophisticated understanding of social theory. There are important benefits to this type of training -- though perhaps fewer than is often alleged -- but privileging this particular set of skills comes with a cost as well. If today's graduate students increasingly resemble each other -- varying only in their raw talents or determination -- then we are in effect creating an intellectual monoculture that might leave us badly prepared for new developments. To take an obvious example: After the 9/11 attacks, wouldn't it have been nice to have had a few more people in academia who really understood Islam, the Middle East, the nature of terrorist movements, or even Arabic? Similarly, having a few more people who understood how financial markets and regulations really worked (as opposed to how they worked in theory) might have come in handy both before and after the Great Meltdown.
Of course, the combination of tenure and the abolition of mandatory retirement in the United States compounds this dilemma. Scholars rise to the top of their fields based mostly on their early work, which is bound to reflect the research norms and standards that prevailed at the time. Most academics try to grow and develop over time, and a few exhibit dramatic shifts in their thinking, but for the most part they tend to like scholars whose own work resembles their own. So they hire and promote people who are more or less like them, further diminishing the degree of intellectual diversity within the field.
I don't have an obvious antidote to this tendency. But one of the nice things about teaching at a public policy school is the presence of numerous disciplines within the same faculty (even if economists tend to dominate, or at least they often try to). In addition to being more interesting, such schools may be better equipped to handle new developments in the real world than most academic departments are. And because public policy schools are explicitly supposed to prepare students for careers in the real world (as opposed to the ivory tower), they are more likely to welcome practitioners, public intellectuals, and scholars who don't fit into neat categories. The result is a much richer intellectual environment and one that ought to be more adaptable over time.
If this theory is right, then public policy schools (and other explicitly inter- and multidisciplinary enterprises) should have an especially bright future -- not because they are necessarily better at any one thing, but because they will be less vulnerable to fads, changes of fashion, or shifts in the agenda of relevant problems. Like a diverse investment portfolio or a diverse ecosystem, building a diverse intellectual environment is the smart long-term strategy.
So to the graduates of the Class of 2013, I say: "Congratulations! Your degree is valuable today and is likely to be even more valuable in the future." At least I hope so, for their sake as well as my own.
Paul Marotta/Getty Images
You gotta give U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry credit for persistence -- or maybe just perverseness -- in his efforts to restart the Middle East "peace process." Given the complete failure of the past two decades of peace-processing, you might also wonder why he's bothering. My guess is that he does realize that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is still a significant problem for the United States, as well as a source of continued human suffering. The fighting in Syria and the continued struggles in Iraq, Egypt, and elsewhere may command more attention these days, but the situation in Israel/Palestine remains a potent source of anti-Americanism and a constant headache for every president. Plus, Kerry is an ambitious guy, and who wouldn't like to be the hero who finally managed to put this century-old conflict to rest?
News reports suggest that Kerry is trying to advance this goal by employing a time-honored tool of Middle East diplomacy: bribery. No, I don't mean direct under-the-table payoffs to key leaders (although the United States has done plenty of that in the past and I wouldn't rule it out here). Instead, I mean offering the various parties big economic incentives to lure them back to the table. Back in the 1970s, for example, Henry Kissinger got Israel to withdraw from the Sinai by promising it enormous military aid packages and assorted other concessions. Jimmy Carter did the same thing when he brokered that Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in 1979, and U.S. largesse also greased the subsequent peace deal between Israel and Jordan in 1994. When domestic politics make it impossible to use sticks, carrots are all you have left.
This time around, Kerry has reportedly assembled a $4 billion investment package for the Palestinian Authority, designed to improve economic conditions in the West Bank and demonstrate to the Palestinians the benefits of peace. Presumably all they need to do is agree to resume negotiations and the money will flow; the investment is supposedly not linked to a final-status agreement. This approach is also a familiar American tendency at work: The United States is happy if the parties are talking, even if they are simultaneously taking steps that are "not helpful" and if they never get to the finish line.
The real question is: Should Abbas & Co. take the money and resume discussions?
Of course they should, but not because it will produce an agreement. Any talks that do resume are going to lead nowhere, and the Palestinians might as well get paid for engaging in an otherwise meaningless activity. The talks are meaningless because Israel is not going to agree to a viable Palestinian state, and certainly not one based on the 1967 borders. Remember that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's entire career has been based on opposition to a Palestinian state and that the official platform of his Likud party "flatly rejects the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state west of the Jordan river." Netanyahu is under no domestic pressure to cut a deal either; on the contrary, he'd be in political hot water if he tried.
Ever since the Oslo Accords, the basic Israeli strategy has been to negotiate endlessly while continuing to expand settlements, with the number of settlers more than doubling since 1993. Even then Prime Minister Ehud Barak's supposedly "generous" offer at Camp David in 2000 fell well short of an acceptable deal, as his own foreign minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami, later acknowledged. Netanyahu now leads the most right-wing government in Israel's history, and his government would collapse if he were to agree to allow the Palestinians anything more than a handful of disconnected bantustans under complete Israeli control. That's why Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has been reluctant to resume the negotiations; he knows that talks merely provide a cover for further colonization.
But acknowledging that reality could also be
liberating. Given that negotiations are
pointless and that more and more people know it, the Palestinians should simply take
the money that Kerry has assembled and agree to the charade, while making it
clear that they will not settle for less than the Clinton parameters. They can also hint that if a viable and sovereign
state is not in the cards, then they will begin to campaign for full civil and political rights within the "Greater Israel" that now exists.
That's not the outcome Kerry has in mind, and it's not likely to materialize anytime soon. But neither will a final-status agreement, no matter how often Kerry drops in for a visit and how many dollar bills he waves.
In academic research, "rigor" is an especially cherished quality. If you want to praise a scholar's work, you talk about how "rigorous" it is. If you want to dis someone's scholarship politely, you might sniff and say, "Well, it's interesting, but it's not very rigorous."
But what we mean by "rigor" isn't always clear, and the way it is implemented in practice may even be counterproductive. Many academics tend to define "rigor" in narrow technical terms: 1) Did the researcher employ the most advanced methodological practices, 2) did he or she consider and debunk alternative explanations convincingly, 3) was the data-collection procedure especially careful, 4) did he or she examine all the relevant archives or only a few, 5) was the statistical model properly "identified"? Etc., etc. These criteria can be applied to both quantitative and qualitative research, by the way: In this sense, "rigor" is conceived as a measure of technical proficiency, designed to give us confidence that the claims being advanced are in fact valid.
The gold standard for "rigorous" research is publication in a "peer-reviewed" academic journal. By subjecting papers to anonymous peer review, academic fields supposedly weed out less "rigorous" works and publish only the best research. Different scholarly journals acquire reputations over time, and publishing in "top" journals is seen as the primary measure of a scholar's worth. University presses follow similar procedures when deciding which monographs to publish, and they too develop reputations of various sorts. Notice, however, that this is all inherently subjective: A journal or a publisher is regarded as prestigious if scholars in the field believe it is.
There's a lot to be said for this basic approach, which has generated a lot of progress in some fields. I've spent a lot of my own career writing articles for refereed journals, reviewing manuscripts for them, or co-editing a book series for a university press, so I'm hardly hostile to this way of doing business. But if we're really honest with ourselves, academics ought to acknowledge that the system is far from perfect and even encourages some counterproductive tendencies.
For starters, peer review doesn't guarantee that false results don't get published; academic journals are filled with articles that are subsequently shown to have contained significant errors. That's inevitable in the research enterprise, of course, but it is a reminder that peer review alone is not a guarantee of quality. And it certainly doesn't guarantee that a particular work of scholarship will be useful or important, because most published academic articles are read by very few people and essentially disappear without a trace.
Second, peer review isn't a mechanical process that automatically winnows the good from the bad. In my experience, journal editors play key independent roles in the evaluation process, and their autonomy can have a huge impact on which works actually get published. Editors don't have to blindly follow reviewers' advice if they think a particular manuscript has potential that the reviewers didn't see, and they can nurture a piece that they think makes a contribution. In this way, editors with a particular vision can guide journals in one direction or another. By the same token, lazy or narrow-minded editors can harm a journal (or a subfield) either by mindlessly following reviewers' advice or by relying too much on an intellectually narrow set of reviewers.
Third, peer review is probably overvalued because reviewers' comments are often less than helpful and rarely decisive. By the time most articles are submitted for publication, they've usually been presented at academic seminars and have gone through multiple drafts in response to suggestions from the authors' friends and colleagues. I've occasionally gotten useful suggestions from an anonymous reviewer's report, but I'd say that more than half the comments I've received over the years were of no value at all and I simply ignored them. Indeed, a dirty little secret is that a lot of "peer reviews" are no more than a couple of cursory paragraphs along with a recommendation to publish, reject, or revise and resubmit. If that's the reality of the review process, then why do we fetishize publication in "peer-reviewed" journals as much as we do? In other words, knowing that something got published in the American Political Science Review, World Politics, International Organization, or International Security doesn't tell you very much about its real value. You have to read it for yourself to make a firm judgment.
Fourth, fetishizing refereed journals (and their supposed rankings) encourages universities to make personnel decisions on the basis of supposedly "objective" indicators such as citation counts, number of "peer-reviewed" articles, and the like. These measures can be useful when used with caution, but they are at best an indirect measure of a scholar's real contribution. A high citation count may simply indicate that one is working in a faddish subfield and doing "normal science" that other scholars find acceptable but not necessarily pathbreaking. It may also be a sign that you've written something that got a lot of attention even though (or because) it was dead wrong. Again, the danger is that departments and university administrators will judge research output not by actually reading the work and making an informed assessment, but by looking at these various indirect indicators.
Fifth, this notion of rigor that is imbedded in these practices may actually make it easier for incorrect or trivial scholarship to survive. If the desire to be seen as "rigorous" leads scholars to produce works that are difficult to understand (either because they use lots of rarified techniques, specialized data, obscure historical sources, or arcane and confusing language), then it is going to be harder for anyone reading the work to evaluate their claims.
By contrast, a scholarly argument that is simple, straightforward, and fairly easy to grasp is inherently easier to evaluate. Accordingly, scholarship that is accessible -- i.e., that is easily read and understood -- will face a larger audience of potential critics than a piece of scholarship that can only be understood by a small, rarified group of readers, many of whom may share a lot of the presuppositions of the study's author(s).
In short, publications whose clarity widens the circle of potential challengers can actually contribute to scholarly advancement, because the larger the audience that can understand and evaluate an argument, the likelier it is that errors will be exposed and corrected and the better the argument will have to be to win or retain approval. By contrast, a dubious argument that is presented in an opaque or impenetrable way may survive simply because potential critics cannot figure out what the argument is or because it is too time-consuming and difficult to try to replicate the published results. As mathematician Melvyn Nathanson observes, "The more elementary the proof, the easier it is to check and the more reliable is its verification."
Please note: I am not suggesting that academia discard peer review and discourage scholars from publishing in prestigious journals. Rather, I'm suggesting that the social sciences would be more useful and more rigorous if members of these disciplines adopted a less hidebound approach to the merits of different types of publication. "Should it really be the case," Bruce Jentleson correctly asks, "that a book with a major university press and an article or two in [a refereed journal] ... can almost seal the deal on tenure, but books with even major commercial houses count so much less and articles in journals such as Foreign Affairs often count little if at all?"
Instead of privileging one sort of publication over others, based on a narrow notion of "rigor," we ought to recognize that different types of scholarly writing reach different audiences and are exposed to different forms of outside scrutiny. In most cases, an article published in a prominent economics, history, or political science journal will be read by relatively few people, one or two of whom may then take issue with the work and challenge its findings. By contrast, if that same author presented the results in an article or report intended for a broader audience, so that it was read by a much larger number of informed citizens and by well-informed practitioners in the real world, then this larger population of readers might be quick either to hail its contribution or to identify obvious mistakes. This capacity may be even more pronounced in the Internet age, which allows readers on every continent to challenge an author's claims -- assuming, of course, that they are not published in obscure venues or written in ways that make it harder for all but a few people to understand them.
Finally, fetishizing "peer review" is a good way to ensure that fewer and fewer people pay attention to what academics have to say about important world issues. This is especially true in fields like IR and public policy, whose main social value lies in what we (supposedly) can contribute to public and elite understanding of a complex world. But if universities only reward the things that scholars write solely for each other, we will be encouraging a narrow professionalism and contributing to the cult of irrelevance that rules many academic departments. And over time, we shouldn't be surprised if the outside world places less and less value on what we have to say and eventually decides to invest society's finite resources in other activities.
GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images
Permit me to indulge today in a bit of speculation, for which I don't have a lot of hard evidence. As I read this article yesterday on Hezbollah's involvement in the Syrian civil war, I began to wonder whether U.S. involvement in that conflict isn't more substantial than I have previously thought. And then I did a bit of web surfing and found this story, which seemed to confirm my suspicions. Here's my chain of reasoning:
1. The Syrian conflict has become a proxy fight between the opposition and its various allies (Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United States, Turkey, etc.) and Bashar al-Assad's regime and its various outsider supporters (Iran, Russia, Hezbollah).
2. For Washington, this war has become a golden opportunity to inflict a strategic defeat on Iran and its various local allies and thus shift the regional balance of power in a pro-American direction.
3. Israel's calculations are more complicated, given that it had a good working relationship with the Assad regime and is concerned about a failed state emerging next door. But on balance, a conflict that undermines Iran, further divides the Arab/Islamic world, and distracts people from the continued colonization of the West Bank is a net plus. So Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won't object if the United States gets more deeply engaged.
4. Consistent with its buck-passing instincts, Barack Obama's administration does not want to play a visible role in the conflict. This is partly because Americans are rightly tired of trying to govern war-torn countries, but also because America isn't very popular in the region and anyone who gets too close to the United States might actually lose popular support. So no boots on the ground, no "no-fly zones," and no big, highly visible shipments of U.S. arms. Instead, Washington can use Qatar and Saudi Arabia as its middlemen, roles they are all too happy to play for their own reasons.
5. Since taking office, Obama has shown a marked preference for covert actions that don't cost too much and don't attract much publicity, combined with energetic efforts to prosecute leakers. So an energetic covert effort in Syria would be consistent with past practice. Although there have been news reports that the CIA is involved in vetting and/or advising some opposition groups, we still don't know just how deeply involved the U.S. government is. (There has been a bit of speculation in the blogosphere that the attack on Benghazi involved "blowback" from the Syrian conflict, but I haven't seen any hard evidence to support this idea.)
6. In this scenario, the Obama administration may secretly welcome the repeated demands for direct U.S. involvement made by war hawks like Sen. John McCain. Rejecting the hawks' demands for airstrikes, "no-fly zones," or overt military aid makes it look like U.S. involvement is actually much smaller than it really is.
To repeat: The above analysis is mostly speculative on my part. I have no concrete evidence that the full scenario sketched above is correct, and I don't know what the level of U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war really is. But that's what troubles me: I don't like not knowing what my government is doing, allegedly to make me safer or to advance someone's idea of the "national interest." And if you're an American, neither should you. If the United States is now orchestrating a lot of arms shipments, trying to pick winners among the opposition, sending intelligence information to various militias, and generally meddling in a very complicated and uncertain conflict, don't you think the president owes us a more complete account of what America's public servants are or are not doing, and why?
Si Mitchell/AFP/Getty Images
Are you a liberal imperialist? Liberal imperialists are like kinder, gentler neoconservatives: Like neocons, they believe it's America's responsibility to right political and humanitarian wrongs around the world, and they're comfortable with the idea of the United States deciding who will run countries such as Libya, Syria, or Afghanistan. Unlike neocons, liberal imperialists embrace and support international institutions (like the United Nations), and they are driven more by concern for human rights than they are by blind nationalism or protecting the U.S.-Israel special relationship. Still, like the neocons, liberal imperialists are eager proponents for using American hard power, even in situations where it might easily do more harm than good. The odd-bedfellow combination of their idealism with neocons' ideology has given us a lot of bad foreign policy over the past decade, especially the decisions to intervene militarily in Iraq or nation-build in Afghanistan, and today's drumbeat to do the same in Syria.
It's not that the United States should never intervene in other countries or that its military should not undertake humanitarian missions (as it did in Indonesia following the Asian tsunami and in Haiti after a damaging earthquake). It should do so, however, only when there are vital national interests at stake or when sending U.S. troops or American arms is overwhelmingly likely to make things better. In short, decisions to intervene need to clear a very high bar and survive hardheaded questioning about what the use of force will actually accomplish.
So while I often sympathize with their intentions, I'm tempted to send all liberal imperialists a sampler cross-stitched with: "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." At a minimum, that warning might help them be just a bit more skeptical about the wisdom of their advice. But I'm lousy at needlepoint, so instead today I offer my "10 Warning Signs that You Are a Liberal Imperialist."
#1: You frequently find yourself advocating that the United States send troops, drones, weapons, Special Forces, or combat air patrols to some country that you have never visited, whose language(s) you don't speak, and that you never paid much attention to until bad things started happening there.
#2: You tend to argue that the United States is morally obligated to "do something" rather than just stay out of nasty internecine quarrels in faraway lands. In the global classroom that is our digitized current world, you believe that being a bystander -- even thousands of miles away -- is as bad as being the bully. So you hardly ever find yourself saying that "we should sit this one out."
#3: You think globally and speak, um, globally. You are quick to condemn human rights violations by other governments, but American abuses (e.g., torture, rendition, targeted assassinations, Guantánamo, etc.) and those of America's allies get a pass. You worry privately (and correctly) that aiming your critique homeward might get in the way of a future job.
#4: You are a strong proponent of international law, except when it gets in the way of Doing the Right Thing. Then you emphasize its limitations and explain why the United States doesn't need to be bound by it in this case.
#5: You belong to the respectful chorus of those who publicly praise the service of anyone in the U.S. military, but you would probably discourage your own progeny from pursuing a military career.
#6. Even if you don't know very much about military history, logistics, or modern military operations, you are still convinced that military power can achieve complex political objectives at relatively low cost.
#7: To your credit, you have powerful sympathies for anyone opposing a tyrant. Unfortunately, you tend not to ask whether rebels, exiles, and other anti-regime forces are trying to enlist your support by telling you what they think you want to hear. (Two words: Ahmed Chalabi.)
#8. You are convinced that the desire for freedom is hard-wired into human DNA and that Western-style liberal democracy is the only legitimate form of government. Accordingly, you believe that democracy can triumph anywhere -- even in deeply divided societies that have never been democratic before -- if outsiders provide enough help.
#9. You respect the arguments of those who are skeptical about intervening, but you secretly believe that they don't really care about saving human lives.
#10. You believe that if the United States does not try to stop a humanitarian outrage, its credibility as an ally will collapse and its moral authority as a defender of human rights will be tarnished, even if there are no vital strategic interests at stake.
If you are exhibiting some or all of these warning signs, you have two choices. Option #1: You can stick to your guns (literally) and proudly own up to your interventionist proclivities. Option #2: You can admit that you've been swept along by the interventionist tide and seek help. If you choose the latter course, I recommend that you start by reading Alexander Downes and Jonathan Monten's "Forced to Be Free?: Why Foreign-Imposed Regime Change Rarely Leads to Democratization" (International Security, 2013), along with Rajiv Chandrasekaran's Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan and Peter Van Buren's We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.
And if that doesn't work, maybe we need some sort of 12-step program…
MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/Getty Images
If you're troubled by the Justice Department's recent decision to secretly investigate the Associated Press and other journalists in an overzealous attempt to ferret out the source of some leaked information, you should be. But lost amid the outcry about this attempt to squelch press freedom is its connection to the broader thrust of U.S. foreign policy and our deeply ingrained tendency to exaggerate foreign threats. That tendency goes back at least to the early Cold War, when Dean Acheson told President Harry Truman to sell a proposed aid package to Greece and Turkey by going to Capitol Hill and giving a speech that would "scare the hell out of the American people." And he did.
When people are scared, they are more willing to let their government keep lots of secrets, lest supposed enemies find out about them and exploit them. Never mind that most of the mountains of classified information would be of little value to our foes, even if they got access to them. A population that is scared is also more willing to have the government go after anyone who tries to inform them by leaking information, even when knowing more might help ordinary citizens evaluate whether government programs were working as intended.
When people are scared, they are also more willing to support U.S. intervention in other countries, to prevent supposedly bad things from happening there or to prevent leaders we don't like from gaining or retaining power. In most cases, of course, neither U.S. prosperity nor security is directly affected by what happens in these various minor states, but threat-mongers are always good at inventing reasons why the outcome of some local struggle thousands of miles from our shores might actually threaten our prosperity or security. Remember domino theory? Fear, not greed, was the primary motivation behind U.S. interventions in the Korean War, in Iran, in Guatemala, in Lebanon, in Indochina, in the Dominican Republic, in Nicaragua, and in many other places, including more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. And that same fear that global trends might turn against us leads the United States to maintain a globe-encircling array of military bases and other installations, most of them completely unknown to the citizens whose taxes are paying for them. No other country -- not one! -- seems to think that its security depends on being able to wield lethal force on every single continent.
When people are scared, they are also more willing to support various sorts of covert operations, ranging from normal spying to the increasingly far-flung campaign of targeted assassinations and extra-judicial killings that the United States has been conducting for many years now. Never mind that a significant number of innocent foreign civilians have died as a result of these policies or that the net effect of such actions may be to make the problem of terrorism worse over time. It's impossible to know for certain, of course, because the U.S. government won't say exactly what it is doing.
Notice, however, that this cycle is self-reinforcing. The more places the U.S. intervenes, and the dirtier our methods, the more resentment we tend to generate. Sometimes entire populations turn against us (as in Pakistan), sometimes it may only be a small but violent minority. But either possibility creates another potential source of danger and another national security problem to be solved. If a local population doesn't like us very much, for example, then we may have to jump through lots of hoops to keep a supposedly pro-American leader in power.
To make all this work, of course, our leaders have to try to manage what we know and don't know. So they work hard at co-opting journalists and feeding them self-serving information -- which is often surprisingly easy to do -- or they try to keep a lot of what they are really doing classified. And when the country's national security policy is increasingly based on drone strikes, targeted killings, and covert operations -- as it has been under the Obama administration -- then the government has to go after anyone who tries to shed even partial light on all that stuff that most U.S. citizens don't know their government is doing.
Needless to say, it is all justified by the need to keep us safe. As Attorney General Eric Holder put it when asked about the investigation of AP, these leaks "required aggressive action ... They put the American people at risk."
The greater but more subtle danger, however, is that our society gradually acclimates to ever-increasing levels of secrecy and escalating levels of government monitoring, all of it justified by the need to "keep us safe." Instead of accepting that a (very small) amount of risk is inevitable in the modern world, our desire for total safety allows government officials to simultaneously shrink the circle of individual freedoms and to place more and more of what they are doing beyond our purview.
Don't misunderstand me. Civil liberties and press freedoms in the United States are still far greater than in many other countries, and the outcry over the Department of Justice's recent behavior reveals that politicians in both parties are aware that these principles are critical to sustaining a healthy democracy. My concern is that the trend is in the wrong direction and that the current drift -- under the leadership of a supposedly "liberal" president who used to teach Constitutional law! -- is an inevitable consequence of the quasi-imperial global role we have slid into over the past five decades.
In December 1917, in the middle of World War I, British Prime Minister Lloyd George told the editor of the Manchester Guardian that "if the people really knew, this war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don't know and can't know. The correspondents don't write and the censorship would not pass the truth." I sometimes wonder how Americans would react if we really knew everything that our government was doing. Or even just half of it.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
I learned this morning that Kenneth N. Waltz, who was arguably the preeminent theorist of international relations of the postwar period, had passed away at the age of 88. Ken was the author of several enduring classics of the field, including Man, the State, and War (1959), Foreign Policy and Democratic Politics (1967), and Theory of International Politics (1979). His 1980 Adelphi Paper on nuclear proliferation ("The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: More May Be Better"), was also a classic, albeit a controversial one. One of his lesser achievements was chairing my dissertation committee, and he was a source of inspiration throughout my career.
I've written a tribute to Waltz's scholarship before, in the preface to a festschrift for Ken edited by Andrew Hanami. But today I want to celebrate his role as a teacher, based on some remarks I made at the 2010 meeting of the International Studies Association, where Waltz received an award for lifetime achievement. With a few edits, here's what I said back then:
Ken Waltz is widely recognized as one of the preeminent IR scholars of the postwar period, but he was also responsible for training an impressive number of graduate students, including Barry Posen, Stephen Van Evera, Bob Powell, Avery Goldstein, Christopher Layne, Benny Miller, Karen Adams, Shibley Telhami, Jim Fearon, William Rose, Robert Gallucci, Andrew Hanami, and many others. I want to say a few words about what it was like to have him as a teacher and advisor, and why I think he was so effective at it.
First, Ken was trained in political theory and renowned as a theorist of international relations, but he was deeply interested in real-world issues and his example showed us how theory could be used to illuminate crucial policy issues. In addition to his own theoretical work, Ken wrote about Vietnam, nuclear strategy, economic interdependence and globalization, nuclear proliferation, the U.S. defense budget, and even the Rapid Deployment Force. For those of us who were interested in international security affairs, his model was wonderfully liberating. Ken showed that you could be a theorist and a social scientist without joining the "cult of irrelevance" that afflicts so much of academia.
Indeed, Ken's work on these topics underscored why theory is so important. Having lots of facts at one's disposal didn't help if you were thinking about those facts in the wrong way. In a world where most people think theory and practice have little in common, Ken was teaching us that they were inextricably intertwined. That's why he got a lot of things right that others got wrong. He was right about Vietnam, right about which side was winning the Cold War, right about the basic principles of nuclear deterrence, and right about the continued relevance of politics, even in the era of economic "globalization." A little theory can go a long way, and his case, it led in the right direction.
Second, Ken encouraged his students to ask big questions, largely by the force of his own example. Man, the State, and War organizes and critiques several centuries of writing on the causes of war. Theory of International Politics presents a powerful general theory explaining the behavior of self-regarding actors in anarchy. His essay on proliferation attacks the conventional wisdom with ruthless logic, just as his earlier essays on interdependence showed where liberal theories had gone off-course and why power was still central. Ken encouraged us to tackle puzzles whose answers were not immediately available and to be fearless about challenging entrenched orthodoxies.
Third, and perhaps most important, Ken held the bar high and encouraged his students to have equally high standards. The first time I laid eyes on Ken was the orientation meeting for new grad students at Berkeley in 1977. Ken was director of graduate studies that year and had to give the welcoming speech. I don't remember most of what he said, except that he emphasized that grad school took too damn long and that we should all plan on finishing in four years ... or at most five. His message was simple: "Get your coursework done, write your MA paper, pass your qualifying exams ... then write the thesis ... four years! Why wait?" The average at Berkeley in those days was more like seven or eight years, so he was raising the bar from the very start.
I also remember my first day in Poli Sci 223, his graduate seminar in IR theory. I was already convinced that everyone else in the room knew more than I did, and Ken began by setting out his basic ideas about the field and about theory. At one point he made some critical remarks about two professors I had studied with as an undergraduate -- nothing overly disparaging, just some critical comments on their conception of theory -- which immediately made me think that not only did I know less than every one else in the room, everything I had learned up till then was wrong. The real lesson, however, was that grad school was not about learning what other people thought, it was about learning to think for yourself. And Ken gave us the freedom to do that. He never tried to force his students to agree with his views or to write books and articles designed to reinforce his own work or burnish his own reputation.
Fourth, Ken placed great value on writing well. His students are a diverse group -- and certainly none of them are clones of Waltz himself -- but all of them are very clear writers, regardless of which methods or approaches they use. Ken used to tell us to read Fowler's Modern English Usage and Strunk and White's Elements of Style, and he'd give little mini-lectures on his linguisic pet peeves in the middle of a seminar. In Waltz's view, a scholar's first duty is to make it easy for the reader to figure out what you were saying. If the reader is confused, that's probably your fault.
This leads me to my most important encounter with him, which occurred as I was nearing the end of my dissertation. Writing a dissertation for Ken Waltz was intimidating from the start -- remember, his dissertation was Man, the State, and War -- and if you'd read that book and then read Theory of International Politics you knew you were dealing with someone with a razor-sharp ability to cut through a bloated argument and find the jugular. After two years of work I sent Ken the main analytical chapters of my thesis, and all I had left -- or so I thought -- was a short conclusion. Thinking I was nearly done, I accepted a post-doc for the following year.
And then I got a letter back from Ken, giving his comments on the chapters I had sent him earlier that month. His letter began by declaring that he had read the first twenty-five pages with "increasing dismay." "They are terrible," he wrote, and then went on: "Ask yourself why this is so. Were you trying to write too fast, or did you just not know what you were trying to say?" He continued in this vein for a few more paragraphs, making it clear that what I had sent was -- to quote the letter again -- "nowhere near ready to be an acceptable dissertation." His bracing conclusion: "You have to face this squarely, and you are the only one who can fix these problems. So enjoy a busy summer." By the way, there was little P.S. at the end, telling me that he thought it would be an excellent thesis once I had worked out the kinks.
I was basically curled up in a ball under my desk by the time I was finished reading this missive, and it was too early in the day to go for a stiff drink. I didn't enjoy the experience very much at the time, and you might think he was being harsh or even cruel. In fact, Ken had done me an enormous service. He was telling me that there were no short-cuts if I wanted to make a serious scholarly contribution and reminding me that hasty or poorly thought-out work deserved to be treated harshly.
Looking back, I'm grateful that he didn't spare my feelings, and there's a lesson there for all of us. Professors aren't really helping our students when we go easy on them, and students should in fact be grateful when their advisors occasionally take them to the woodshed.
So apart from his extraordinary scholarly achievements, Ken Waltz was also an inspiring and accomplished teacher. I was extraordinarily fortunate to have the opportunity to learn from him, and the study of international politics is much the richer for his remarkable contributions.
Addendum: All I would add to this today is the reminder of Waltz's deep aversion to foolish military excesses. He served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War and was a realist rather than a pacifist. But like Hans Morgenthau, he was an early opponent of the Vietnam War and deeply skeptical of the paranoid threat-inflation that has informed so much of U.S. foreign and defense policy. Like many other realists, he also opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The field of international relations would be better off with more people like Ken, and the world would be better off if more great powers -- especially the United States -- paid more attention to his insights.
I think I have finally figured out the essence of Barack Obama's approach to foreign policy. In a word, he is a "buck-passer." And despite my objections to some of what he is done, I think this approach reveals both a sound grasp of realpolitik and an appreciation of America's highly favorable geopolitical position.
In particular, the bedrock foundation of Obama's foreign policy is his recognition that the United States is very, very secure. That statement doesn't mean we have no interests elsewhere, but none of them are truly imminent or vital and thus they don't require overzealous, precipitous, or heroic responses. There's no peer competitor out there (yet) and apart from the very small risk of nuclear terrorism, there's hardly anything that could happen anywhere in the world that would put U.S. territory or U.S. citizens at serious risk. We will inevitably face occasional tragedies like the recent Boston bombing, but the actual risk that such dangers pose is far less than many other problems (traffic fatalities, industrial accidents, hurricanes, etc.), no matter how much they get hyped by the terror industry and our over-caffeinated media.
Instead, the greatest risk we face as a nation are self-inflicted wounds like the Iraq and Afghan wars or the long-term decline arising from a failue to invest wisely here at home. Recognizing these realities, Obama has reacted slowly and in a measured way to most international events. He takes his time, remains calm, and prefers to pass the buck to others whose interests are more directly affected. Unrepentant neocons and liberal imperialists scorn this approach, because they never lose their enthusiasm for new and costly crusades, but most Americans don't seem to mind. Why? Because they recognize what the foreign policy establishment can't admit: What happens in Syria, Mali, most of Central Asia, and even the Korean peninsula just doesn't matter that much to the United States, and the outcome in most of these places won't make Americans poorer or less safe unless Washington does something stupid (like intervening with military force).
After being burned by the Afghan surge (a decision I'll bet he secretly regrets) Obama has become more and more of a buck-passer with the passage of time. He's not an isolationist or even someone who favors drastic retrenchment; he's just the first president in a long while who understands that the United States is already remarkably secure and just doesn't have that much to gain by interfering in the world's trouble spots. He's even smart enough to recognize that having thousands of nuclear weapons isn't necessary for the U.S. to be safe and that we might actually be safer if the number of nukes around the world were lower and better guarded. As a result, he's happy to let local partners bear the main burden and to back them up as necessary.
The exception to the above, which still supports my main point, is his reliance on targeted assasinations of suspected terrorists. This policy is in fact consistent with Obama's basic approach, because the short-term costs are small and it insulates him against any charge of pacifism. Moreover, to the extent that nuclear terrorism is the one scenario where U.S. security could be seriously affected, keeping a full-court press on Al Qaeda (or like-minded groups) is undoubtedly tempting.
I have my doubts about the net benefits of the drone war and targeted assassination program, but the rest of Obama's approach makes eminently good sense to me. Indeed, I wish he could give one of his trademark speeches explaining this logic to the American people. He probably can't, alas, because this sort of realism cuts against the rhetoric of "global leadership" that has been part of the Establishment echo-chamber for decades, not to mention the self-conceit of American exceptionalists. So Obama will continue to sound like his predecessors when he talks about America's global role; he just won't do most of the foolish things that most of them would have. Good for him, and for us.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.