The walls surrounding the ivory tower have never seemed so high. U.S. President Barack Obama has picked the team of people who will craft his foreign policy, and guess who didn't make the A list? Only most of the experts tasked with explaining the way the world works. Unfortunately, professors of international relations and political science are often the last people a president turns to for advice on running the world. At least, that's what the professors say.
Every two years, we survey international relations faculty from every four-year college and university in the United States, as identified by U.S. News & World Report. The 2008 results include the responses of 1,743 scholars collected between August and November of last year. Now, we're revealing the role professors think they play in policymaking today, and, more often, the frustrating lack of influence they think they have from their perch above the fray of international politics. Most revealing? Nearly 40 percent of respondents reported that these scholars have "no impact" on foreign policy or even the public discourse about it. Indeed, the only academics judged less effectual in the policy realm were historians.
What is to blame for IR scholars' exile from the political process? In recent years, professors have become increasingly skeptical about the utility of much of their own research to policymakers. In 2006, 48 percent of respondents reported that contemporary case studies conducted by academics were "very useful" to policymakers, but by 2008 only 39 percent of respondents thought policymakers would find this work useful.
Despite their perceived lack of influence, respondents in this year's survey firmly believe that academic experts can and should play an important role in policymaking. It's a conclusion that begs a provocative question: What would U.S. foreign policy look like if there were no wall between the ivory tower and the White House?
If the Obama administration took as its blueprint the poll of views of international relations scholars on issues ranging from the economy to Iran, the results would be at once expected and surprising. It's a largely liberal internationalist agenda, one that names the most important foreign-policy priorities facing the United States as: global climate change (37 percent), the war in Iraq (35 percent), global reliance on oil (34 percent), armed conflict in the Middle East (32 percent), and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (27 percent). A large majority of the experts favor increases in foreign aid (85 percent), free trade agreements (70 percent), and increased spending on the global aids epidemic (59 percent). Although these scholars oppose using military force against Iran even as it allegedly pursues a nuclear weapons program, a clear majority favors humanitarian intervention in Sudan if conducted under the aegis of an international institution such as NATO or the United Nations. (It's worth noting that had the survey been sent in December, after the global economic collapse, financial issues likely would have secured a higher spot.)
President Obama clearly shares the experts' concerns. On global warming, he has appointed a climate czar; on oil, he favors strengthening fuel-economy standards; and on the Iraq war, he is sticking to his plan to withdraw U.S. troops. Having one of their "own" in the White House -- a law professor with a liberal, like-minded agenda on the policymaking table -- may already have scholars feeling more included.
Public Enemy No. 1
Political pundits and journalists may buzz reflexively over the latest economic stimulus package or saber-rattling by Iran. But scholars of international relations take a longer view, scanning the horizon for power shifts that could affect the global pecking order.
So, which countries pose the greatest threat to the U.S. position today? Forty-three percent of respondents agreed that China's growing military power could threaten international stability. In fact, specialists predict that the strategic importance of East Asia generally will continue to grow. Although only 30 percent see the region as the one of greatest concern for the United States today (up from 19 percent in 2006), 68 percent reported it would be the region of greatest strategic importance in 20 years.
What of the Middle East? Scholars seem to anticipate a dramatic easing of tensions in the region during the next two decades. Although 46 percent currently judge it the most vital region for the United States, only 11 percent say it will be the most strategically important in 20 years.
Relatively close on the heels of the threat from East Asia seems to be the troubling potential for a Russian resurgence. When asked which country they would least like to see displace the United States as hegemon, 60 percent said Russia. (Just 51 percent named China.) Sometimes, the oldest patterns are the hardest to break.