Breaking Ranks in Academia

Why does so much of the academic writing on international affairs seem to be of little practical value, mired in a "cult of irrelevance"? Is it because IR scholars are pursuing a misleading model of "science," patterned after physics, chemistry, or biology? Or is it because many prominent academics fear criticism and are deathly afraid of being controversial, and prefer to hide behind arcane vocabulary, abstruse mathematics, or incomprehensible postmodern jargon?

Both motivations are probably at work to some degree, but I would argue that academics are for the most part just responding to the prevailing incentive structures and metrics that are used to evaluate scholarly merit. This point is made abundantly clear in an important new article by Peter Campbell and Michael Desch of the University of Notre Dame, titled "Rank Irrelevance: How Academia Lost Its Way." Campbell and Desch examine the methodology behind the National Research Council rankings of graduate programs in political science, and argue that the methods used are both "systematically biased" and analytically flawed.

National Research Council (NRC) rankings carry a fair bit of weight in academia. As I know from my own experience, deans, provosts, and presidents pay attention to where departments are ranked. A department chair who presides over a significant improvement in his/her department's ranking will be viewed favorably, while a decline sets off warning bells. Similarly, if a junior faculty member is up for tenure and gets an "outside offer" from a more highly ranked department, that will be taken as a strong signal of that faculty member's perceived value. By contrast, if you're up for tenure and get an offer from a department ranked further down the food chain, it will be a positive sign but not necessarily dispositive. For these and other reasons, these rankings matter.

The problem, as Campbell and Desch show, is that the rankings are seriously flawed. The current NRC methodology emphasizes scholarly publications in "peer-reviewed" journals, for example, because that is what the natural sciences do. That sounds like a sensible approach at first hearing, but this procedures biases the assessment in favor of subfields where scholars tend to publish journal articles (such as American politics) and undervalues subfields where books are more common (such as international relations). It also gives little or no weight to publications in journals such as Foreign Affairs or Foreign Policy (i.e., the sort of publication that a policymaker might actually read and that might actually have some impact in the real world). Given how the rankings are calculated, in short, it is inevitable that most political scientists concentrate on writing things that hardly anyone reads.

To drive this point home, Campbell and Desch show how different evaluation schemes would have a dramatic effect on the rankings of various graduate programs. (See here for a compelling chart and here for their full results.) Their point -- and it is a good one -- is that the standards and methods used to evaluate graduate programs are inherently arbitrary, and if you reward only those publications that are least likely to generate policy-relevant research, you are going to get an academic world that tends to be inward-looking and of less practical value.

In other words, most academic scholars -- and especially the younger ones whose careers are still in flux -- are just responding to the set of incentives and standards that currently prevail. But these standards are not cast in stone, and there is no a priori reason why scholars could not employ a broader set of criteria when judging candidates for hiring and promotion and when ranking departments. That is indeed what Campbell and Desch recommend. Money quotation:

Simply put, when you rank political science departments by disciplinary, subfield, and broader relevance criteria, you get very different results. Given that, we believe that broader criteria of scholarly excellence and relevance ought to be part of how all departments are ranked. We are not advocating junking traditional criteria for academic rankings; rather, we urge that such narrow and disciplinarily focused criteria simply be balanced with some consideration of the unique aspects of international relations and also take account of the broader impact of scholarly work.

Good advice. Assuming, of course, that you think academia ought to play an important role in helping society address important social and political problems.

Photo: Flickr/Nayu Kim/nayukim

Stephen M. Walt

Iran Is the Real Prize for Obama's Foreign Policy

After President Barack Obama was re-elected last year, I wrote that I didn't expect him to devote much attention to foreign affairs and that we should not expect any major breakthroughs in that arena. In light of recent events (e.g., Syria, the relaunching of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, etc.), does my position need rethinking?

Yes and no.

It is true that the Syria business has forced Obama to spend more time on foreign affairs than he probably wanted to, but let's not forget that what happens in Syria is not that important in the larger scheme of things. Yes, it is obviously important to the people of Syria and to some of their immediate neighbors, but Syria itself is just not that powerful or influential. No matter what happens in Syria -- a victory for Bashar al-Assad's thugs, the removal of all the chemical weapons, a complete rebel triumph, the establishment of genuine democracy, or the creation of an Islamist state, etc. -- the broader trajectory of world politics isn't going to change very much. So even if the deal in Geneva works out as well as one might hope, and even if I gave Obama & Co. full credit for the deal (which they don't deserve), I wouldn't score it as a "major" foreign-policy achievement.

Now for some more bad news. Right now, it doesn't look like the main currents of the so-called "Arab Spring" are going to turn out well either, at least not in the short term. Given that Obama pushed for greater openness throughout the region, having to tacitly support a military coup and crackdown in Egypt hardly seems like a big win for U.S. policy. Similarly, the resumption of "peace talks" between Israel and the Palestinians is not a success unless it actually gets all the way to the finish line and produces a viable Palestinian state. How many of you would bet $5 on that outcome? Instead, as Ian Lustick laid out clearly in the New York Times yesterday, what we have is a "peace process" that does far more harm than good. Actually achieving a genuine Israeli-Palestinian peace would be a major achievement, but is the talks are far, far more likely to end in another ignominious failure.

So where might a genuine foreign-policy accomplishment be found? The obvious place is the troubled U.S. relationship with Iran. Iran is a potentially powerful and influential state (though not the looming danger that threat-mongers often depict), and a positive relationship between Tehran and Washington would benefit both countries. Indeed, even having a more normal sort of rivalry -- including diplomatic recognition -- would make it easier to deal with the various areas of friction that might remain. That is why people like Jessica Mathews of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former diplomat Thomas Pickering see the present moment as a golden opportunity to explore a fundamentally different relationship with Tehran.

Remember also that Obama took office hoping to both get a deal on Iran's nuclear program and turn the broader relationship in a positive direction. He failed, partly because the 2009 presidential election in Iran went the wrong way and turned violent and partly because the administration made several key mistakes of its own (as detailed by Trita Parsi here).

But right now a lot of the stars are lining up differently. Iran's new president seems to be genuinely interested in resolving a lot of the existing differences and has been sending all sorts of positive signals. The Obama administration seems receptive and has subtly acknowledged the reality that Iran is a major stakeholder in regional security and cannot be excluded or ostracized forever. Despite the occasional bluster and the need to appease domestic pressure for a hard-line stance, nobody in the administration seems to be genuinely interested in so-called "kinetic options" (i.e., using force). The State Department, armed services, and intelligence agencies don't seem to be pushing for military confrontation either.

Moreover, the basic outlines of a nuclear deal are well-known to all the parties. It is unrealistic to expect Iran to give up all nuclear enrichment, but it is realistic to imagine the Iranians agreeing to limit their activities in various ways and stay some distance away from a "breakout" capability. They won't stay that far, of course, because Iran has good security-related reasons to want a nuclear weapons option (just as Japan and some other countries do). So the question to negotiate is, just how far is far enough?

Will Obama and President Hasan Rouhani be able to pull this off? I don't know. Previous Iranian and U.S. presidents have tried (somewhat halfheartedly), and their efforts have been derailed by domestic opposition. Today, we don't know whether Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will let Rouhani go as far as he will need to, just as we don't know whether the various yahoos in Congress and other hard-line groups will go to the mattresses to prevent Obama from pursuing a sensible deal. (To show you the foolish lengths that some of these groups will go to derail progress, last week the lobbying group United Against Nuclear Iran issued a press release demanding that a New York hotel refuse to allow Rouhani to stay there when he visits for the opening of the U.N. General Assembly session later this month. The only purpose behind such a silly and vindictive proposal is to toss another roadblock in the face of negotiations; fortunately, nobody seems to be paying much attention to them.)

The recent brouhaha over striking Syria suggests that a lot of Americans (and more than a few Congresspersons) have no interest in another Middle Eastern war, which is good news for those who favor diplomacy. But that episode also suggests that Obama doesn't have a lot of clout on the Hill these days and that any attempt at a genuine détente with Iran is bound to face a lot of vocal opposition up there. Nor does the administration's handling of the Syria business give one confidence that it knows how to orchestrate a complicated, protracted process that will involve negotiations with a prickly adversary while simultaneously building support for that policy at home. I may be underestimating the administration, but that's what the record shows so far.

In his first term, Obama's foreign-policy achievements were limited by his reluctance to take bold action and face down domestic opposition. He gave a lot of good speeches and showed a lot of the right instincts, but he backed down whenever he faced domestic pushback. If he is hoping for a legacy beyond Obamacare, progress on gay rights, and a less-than-sensational economic recovery, he's going to have to be bolder and he's going to have to pay less attention to the people and groups who have derailed a more sensible U.S. policy for decades. And he should. Because the Syria business also suggests that a lot of the foreign-policy establishment (in both parties) is out of step with the broader public, and in this case the public is right.

And if the president can't ignore foolish advice from hawkish special interest groups -- and especially those whose prior track record is abysmal -- then what's the point of being a lame duck?

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