A Student Responds: Interstate Conflict and the Theory-Practice Divide

by Mary Trimble

July 21, 2020

In their chapter, “Lost in Translation: Academics, Policymakers, and Research about Interstate Conflict,” Sarah Kreps and Jessica Weeks suggest that the gap between academics and practitioners in the area of interstate conflict isn’t so much a problem of demand as of supply. In other words, if academics were better at explaining their research to the policymaker, data from the 2011 TRIP survey of national security establishment shows that the policymaker would find it useful and relevant to their work.

Their data also show that where academic theories have saturated the practitioner world, like realism or “clash of civilizations” theory, they tend to be outdated or have fallen out of vogue in academia, which makes continuous sharing of scholarly research all the more important. This is an encouraging finding, because it is one which suggests an easy fix: scholars should write more op-eds for more mainstream publications, like Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, and The Washington Post’s The Monkey Cage.

While reading, it struck me that such a solution may present an opportunity during the Trump administration, for example in the Department of Defense, where there is currently significant turnover of officials in the politically-appointed upper echelons. This presents two possibilities as it relates to Kreps and Weeks’ research.

On the one hand, perennially new superiors might rely more heavily on well-informed, well-placed staffers and establishment folks, such as those in the survey sample in Avey and Desch 2014. Thus, where the national security establishment is engaging in scholarship, it may have an outsize effect in the context of the Trump administration; and if scholars wrote more well placed op-eds! What a utopia for the academia-policy pipeline.

On the other hand, with every new appointment, the work environment becomes more deeply polarized, as officials seen as disloyal are replaced with figures friendlier to the administration. One hallmark of the administration has been a disdain for expertise, and the tendency of politically appointed leadership to perform for an audience of one.  Would they be friendly to the scholarly argument, or simply to one that isn’t ideological?

In his response, Peter Feaver provides some potential answers. Theory is essential, but also often implicit: thus, a political official may never know a Foreign Policy article by an academic was the basis of their briefing, so the problem of hostility to the research is eliminated. However, Fever also notes that academic research tends to be more useful at providing context for a given scenario than concrete solutions. Theory can explain what actions states or individuals tend to take when confronted with similar scenarios, but it can’t necessarily tell you how to avoid war in the next fifteen minutes.

Feaver makes a clever suggestion, with which I agree: in the next survey, find out what policymakers are curious about in the world of interstate conflict. Perhaps academia already has the answer and need only point them to it, and perhaps it will open up new avenues for inquiry (that they can then write about in The Monkey Cage).

TRIP_Faculty_Survey2020_Jul_21

In comparing the academic and policy chapters, what emerges, for me, is an interesting question about what it is academics believe is the goal of research on interstate conflict, in real terms. In the 2017 TRIP Faculty Survey, IR scholars in international security were slightly more likely to say that their research was “basic” (done simply for the sake of knowledge) than “applied” (with a specific policy application in mind). Kreps and Weeks argue that scholars need only make their research available for it to be useful for policymakers, but the belief in that goal seems less than universal.

Preview or buy Bridging the Theory-Practice Divide in International Relations from Georgetown University Press here: bit.ly/Bridging-GUP