Why Foreign Affairs Policymakers are More Prejudiced than Economic Policymakers

Yesterday I was intermittently watching Janet Yellen's testimony before the Senate Banking Committee, and I was struck by how often she relied on the guidance of "studies" to explain her worldview on monetary policy.  By "studies," Yellen was referring to the policy-relevant academic literature. 

This, in and of itself, is not extraordinary -- you'd find the same trope when Ben Bernanke testified.  But it got me to thinking,. and then to tweeting


My point is that no foreign policy principal, in testifying before Congress, would ever think of saying that the academic literature guides their thinking on a particular policy issue. 

In response to that tweet, Chris Blattman -- a strange economist in the stranger land of political science -- offered a response

[An] immense amount of what the best political scientists are doing is irrelevant to what State or the NSC does, and what is relevant is often of mediocre quality. I think this is improving but I’m not very sure. (emphasis added)

Now it's possible that Blattman is correct -- but I don't think so.  First, I'm unconvinced that political scientists are doing as much irrelevant scholarship as he suggests.  More importantly, I'm extremely dubious of the implicit contention that a greater fraction of political scientists are doing policy irrelevant work than, say, economists. 

I'd offer an alternative hypothesis -- prejudice.  The issue isn't the poverty of political science research, but rather that foreign affairs policymakers view their relevant academic literature very differently from the way economic policymakers view their relevant academic literature.  To repeat myself

[T[he fundamental difference between economic policy and foreign policy is that the former community accepts the idea that economic methodologies and theory-building enterprises have value, and are worth using as a guide to policymaking.  This doesn't mean economists agree on everything, but it does mean they are all speaking a common language and accept the notion of external validity checks on their arguments. 

That consensus simply does not exist within the foreign policy community....  Many members of the foreign policy community explicitly reject the notion that social science methodologies and techniques can explain much in world politics.  They therefore are predisposed to reject the kind of scholarship that political scientists of all stripes generate.   This might be for well-founded reasons, it might be simple innumeracy hostility to the academy, or it might be a combination of the two.  I'd love to have a debate about whether that's a good or bad thing, but my point is that's the reality we face. 

For evidence to back up my assertion, see this forthcoming International Studies Quarterly paper by Michael Desch and Paul Avey entitled "What Do Policymakers Want From Us?"  They find that senior foreign affairs policymakers are extremely dubious about the utility of political science scholarship.  The interesting finding is why: 

[T]he more sophisticated social science methods such as formal models, operations research, theoretical analysis, and quantitative analysis tended to be categorized more often as “not very useful” or “not useful at all,” calling into question the direct influence of these approaches to international relations. Indeed, the only methodology that more than half the respondents characterized as “not very useful” or “not useful at all” was formal models. As Table 4 shows, the higher the rank of the government official, the less likely he or she was to think that formal models were useful for policymaking (p. 11).

Now here's the thing -- as Desch and Avey note, these very same policymakers have a very different attitude about economics:  "Respondents were more tolerant of 'highly theoretical writings [and] complex statistical analysis of social science topics' in the realm of Economics (p. 9)."  Indeed, they note at the end of their paper that an outstanding question remains:  "why is it that policymakers are relatively tolerant of complex modeling and statistical work in Economics and survey research but not in other areas of political science and international relations? (p. 35)"

Maybe this is because economists are really just far more sophisticated in their research than political scientists -- but I don't think so.  Maybe, as Desch and Avey postulate, it's because foreign affairs policymakers exaggerate how important these methodologies are to economic policymakers.  Or maybe it's something different:  it's that economic policymakers have imbibed the methodology and jargon of economists in a way that foreign policymakers have not with international relations.  They don't reflexively pre-judge such scholarship in a negative light. 

What do you think? 

Daniel W. Drezner

A Short Q&A on Sanctioning Iran

So I see that Secretary of State John Kerry's efforts to brief the Senate on why it should cool it with the Iran sanctions did not go terribly wellAt all

Republican senators sharply criticized the administration’s closed-door presentation to the Senate Banking Committee on Wednesday, an appeal that was designed to convince them to hold off on a new round of sanctions against Iran. The committee chairman said he was left “undecided.”

“It was an emotional appeal,” Sen. Bob Corker told reporters after the briefing. “I have to tell you, I was very disappointed in the presentation.”

Corker said that senators were given no details of the interim deal being formulated in negotiations between Iran and world powers in Geneva this month. Secretary of State John Kerry briefed the committee, along with Vice President Joe Biden and the State Department’s lead Iran negotiator Wendy Sherman....

“Today is the day I witnessed the future of nuclear war in the Middle East,” Kirk said, also comparing the administration to Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister who signed away the Sudetenland to Hitler’s Germany in 1938. “How do you define an Iranian moderate? An Iranian who is out of bullets and out of money.”

OK then. 

I'm pretty much a generalist when it comes to international relations, but when it comes to economic sanctions, I'm going to go out on a limb and claim some greater expertise.  Sooo.... here's a more fact-based Q&A for senators trying to figure out whether they should vote to ratchet up the sanctions on Iran: 

Q:  So what should I do, Dan? 

A:  Well, this depends crucially on what you want the sanctions to accomplish vis-à-vis Iran.  Are you interested in a nuclear deal or something more? 

Q:  For me it's something more.  I think the regime in Iran is an inherently destabilizing force in the region, and I want the sanctions to force a regime change.  What should I do? 

A:  Oh, then you should totally vote for harsher sanctions.  But after that, go home and find a four-leaf clover and wish for a pony/Batmobile/intimate dinner with Salma Hayek while you're at it, because those outcomes will be just as likely to happen. 

Repeat after me:  sanctions, on their own, will not lead to a regime change in Iran.  Over the past five years this regime has made it pretty clear what it is willing to do to stay in power. That trumps any ratcheting up of the sanctions.  Economic coercion imposes some serious economic costs on the regime, which is why they're willing to talk about a nuclear deal.  But that's a tangible negotiation.  Regime change is more existential threat, and if that's the goal of the sanctions, then the sanctions will fail and fail spectacularly. 

Q:  I want a nuclear deal, and I believe that it's the sanctions that got Iran to the negotiating table to begin with.  Therefore, more sanctions will make them more willing to deal, right? 

A:  The marginal impact of the extra sanctions will be outweighed by the fact that you've undercut your president, who's been asking you not to impose extra sanctions.  From Iran's perspective, there is no point negotiating with the Obama administration if the president can't get Congress to lift sanctions if a deal is reached.  So this wouldn't be a very smart gambit.

Q:  I care deeply about Israel's security, and therefore worry that even negotiating with Iran will be the sequel to Munich 1938.  What should I do? 

A:  Vote for more sanctions.  Then go read up on a) history; and b) the logic of nuclear deterrence. Then go into a corner, feel shame for using dumbass historical analogies, and shut the hell up. 

Q:  I want to see a deal with Iran's regime, but Tehran's past record of evading the IAEA and the Obama administration's distinguished record of bollixing up its Middle East diplomacy have me very, very skittish.  What should I do? 

A:  You raise some valid points -- some very valid points.  But it's not like this will be your only opportunity to vote on these sanctions.  Let the negotiators meet in Geneva next week and see how things plays out.  Link the progress in Geneva to not moving forward on more sanctions. 

Any more questions?