In Need of Nuance: What the Academy Can Teach

By Barnett, Michael | Harvard International Review, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

In Need of Nuance: What the Academy Can Teach


Barnett, Michael, Harvard International Review


Over the years I have had a recurring encounter at professional meetings: a cluster of academics, discussing the implications of their research, worry that the findings, if ripped out of context and misappropriated by government officials, could have unintended consequences. A debate follows about whether academics are responsible for how their research is used and, if so, how they can control its interpretation and appropriation. I have always been bemused by these exchanges--academics worry about the implementation of their ideas, without realizing that policymakers simply might not care what international relations scholars have to say, let alone listen to their opinions. At these moments I am reminded of a classic exchange in Casablanca between Peter Lorre and Humphrey Bogart. Lorre asks, "You despise me, don't you, Rick?" Bogart replies, "I guess I would if I thought about you."

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Although US government officials are not nearly as dismissive of academics and their ideas as Bogart was of Lorre, they certainly have a low threshold for academic research. Some of their dismissiveness is understandable. Policymakers need to act in complex situations defined by tremendous uncertainty and with some knowledge of the key participants before deciding what to do. Academic knowledge rarely meets this standard of "usability." Yet the impatience of policymakers cannot be completely attributed to the kind of knowledge they desire. It also is a result of a general intolerance for theory and frustration with the ways in which academics collect and analyze information. This dismissal of scholarly knowledge and research can be dangerous in several ways, including a failure both to acknowledge important developments in world affairs that should affect policy and to recognize the positive effects of thinking like a scholar.

Two Worlds Apart?

My views are influenced by my one-year term at the US Mission to the United Nations over a decade ago and by intermittent encounters with policymakers since then. My transition from the "ivory tower" to the US Mission was difficult for various reasons, mainly because I had to retrain my brain to think like a policymaker and learn how to produce and package knowledge in a very different manner. Academics and policymakers, I soon learned, inhabit different knowledge communities. Each community has its own style of reasoning, arguing, and presenting information.

Academics pay considerable attention to sources, data, methods, and research design. While there are places in the foreign policy bureaucracy that approximate this logic of inquiry, often what passes for research in government is not scientifically driven observation but rather arguments that conform to the political realities of the moment. Academics consider alternative hypotheses and appeal to evidence to show why their proposed argument is superior to existing explanations. Many policymakers do not. Academics privilege relatively long, exhaustive, footnote-crowded papers that methodically consider an issue from all angles. Policymakers, as they rise in status, become less likely to read anything longer than three pages. I learned the art of writing memos that did not exceed two pages, stripped complex processes down to their bare bones, and simplified issues to the point of being simple-minded and one-dimensional. The immediate victims of this makeover were nuance, complexity, and contingency. Academics tend toward probabilistic statements, while policymakers favor deterministic, "if-then" statements. Academics tend to favor conclusions that are provisional and invariably call for further study, while policymakers assert their findings with an air of confidence that suggests that no further debate is needed.

Although policymakers tend to treat academics as the "other," they are still open to international relations theory and ideas from the scholarly world. …

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