Monday, July 25, 2011

Key Limit to Scholarly Relevance

Dan Drezner has a great post today about how the foreign policy smart set (his phrase) gets so frustrated by domestic politics that they tend to recommend domestic political changes that are never going to happen.

I would go one step further and suggest that one of the key problems for scholars who want to be relevant for policy debates is that we tend to make recommendations that are "incentive incompatible."  I love that phrase.  What is best for policy may not be what is best for politics, and so we may think we have a good idea about what to recommend but get frustrated when our ideas do not get that far. 

Lots of folks talking about early warning about genocide, intervention into civil wars and the like blame "political will."  That countries lack, for whatever reason, the compulsion to act.  Well, that is another way of saying that domestic politics matters, but we don't want to think about it. 

Dan's piece contains an implication which is often false--that IR folks have little grasp of domestic politics.  Many IR folks do tend to ignore or simplify the domestic side too much, but there is plenty of scholarship on the domestic determinants of foreign policy/grand strategy/war/trade/etc.  Plenty of folks look at how domestic institutions and dynamics can cause countries to engage in sub-optimal foreign policies (hence the tradeoff implied in my second book--For Kin or Country). 

The challenge, then, is to figure out what would be a cool policy and how that cool policy could resonate with those who are relevant domestically.  That is not easy, but it is what is necessary.  To be policy relevant requires both parts--articulating a policy alternative that would improve things and some thought about how the alternative could be politically appealing.

Otherwise, we can just dream about the right policy and gnash our teeth when it never happens.

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