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H-Diplo’s Roundtable: On “Politics and Scholarship”

Friday, June 11th, 2010

H-Diplo, the H-Net listserv for Diplomatic History, has an outstanding set of essays by prominent historians and political scientists on the subject of “Politics and Scholarship” (hat tip to Bruce Kesler and the Warlord Loop):

NOTE TO READERS: I am having some difficulty fixing the links, notably to Jervis and Cumings, due to site problems at H-Diplo so I am going with Phil’s suggestion in the comments and posting a link to the PDF VERSION here.

Commissioned for H-Diplo/ISSF by Robert Jervis, Columbia University

….This is a slippery slope, and as academics we should worry about it.  Perhaps the most important thing we can do is to remind ourselves that our policy judgment is likely to be considerably more fallible than our scholarly expertise. Most intelligent people know this, which is why mass letters to the editor by professors protesting or advocating some policy carry so little weight.  By and large, the policy world does not think of professors as being any wiser than any other class, and they are correct to do so.  The ancient distinction between theoretical and prudential wisdom holds as strongly as ever. Humility is not, alas, a common academic virtue, and someone involved in the hurly burly of political discourse should try to make a clear distinction, at least in his or her own mind, about what he knows as a professor, and what he thinks as a citizen or policymaker.  The most troubling area of pseudo-scholarship is likely to be that kind which nominally deals with policy in a scholarly way, but is, in fact, nothing more than a polemic masquerading as something else.

….We are told by many people – for example by Nobel scientist E. O. Wilson in his best-selling book Consilience – that the hard sciences and the social sciences are coalescing in the use of mathematical modeling, computers, game theory, and various other methods to finally get to the bottom of what makes human beings tick. I would argue the exact opposite: both the hard and soft sciences are in crisis. From my point of view the social sciences should have seen this crisis coming long ago (in fact many did – long ago, but they did not redefine the disciplines), but much more significant is the turn toward uncertainty in the hard sciences, as Newtonian mechanics, empiricism, and the scientific method show themselves incapable of comprehending the complexities of the physical world.

Q: Does being in the minority ever annoy you?A: Yes, some aspects of this minority status are annoying.  For instance, it is annoying that my peers presume that I “have an ideology” whereas they do not.  It is very reminiscent of African-Americans in the academy several decades ago; they were presumed to have “race” and “racially tinged views” whereas Caucasians did not.  For that matter, the racial analogy suggests another curious burden: being assigned the role of token on panels.  Some of my peers believe that a balanced panel on foreign policy is one that has a critique of Democrats from the left along with two shades of Democratic perspective, say center-left and center.  However, most recognize that it would be better if they could find just one person, me, to offer the “whacky conservative view” – here they hope I will represent not just my own actual views but also cover, or be held responsible for, everything to the right.  And this leads to my biggest gripe: feeling obligated to defend, or at least explain, the position of anyone to the right of Joe Biden, because if I don’t then no one will.  Because liberals do not have a monopoly on nonsense, there is plenty of bone-headedness from conservatives and Republicans for my colleagues to highlight and go after.  Often the attacks are legitimate and fair, but when they cross over into caricature and canard I am left with a tough choice: do I inject a clarification or do I let it pass?

….Instead of this kind of variation, however, what we typically see is stability both across time and across issues that are at most loosely connected.   For example, during the Cold War, hawks and doves rarely changed their assessment of Soviet motives, which had decisive impacts on their policy prescriptions, with hawks favoring many variations of competitive military and political policies and doves favoring none.  Proponents and opponents of ballistic missile defense have rarely changed their assessments of the feasibility of effective defense: proponents have consistently found significantly greater prospects for technically feasible defenses, which they believe would provide substantial strategic advantages; in contrast, opponents have as regularly found that the prospects for  effective defenses have been poor, and worried that these missile defenses would generate strategic dangers whether or not they were effective.  And Cold War hawks were more likely than doves to believe the effective missile defense were feasible, even though their hawkishness stemmed primarily from assessments of Soviet motives, not technology.  Scholars’ overall assessments of the danger posed by nuclear proliferation appear to be stubbornly constant in the face of evolving circumstances and possibilities, reinforcing their established preferences for adopting more or less costly policies in response. 

….The scholarly critics’ stance is predicated on a crucial, often unacknowledged, assumption (shared by my American students and their parents): that they themselves are non-ideological, personally and in their analysis of events, though they may hold personal ideological beliefs.   This is even true of many self-identified orthodox Marxists, liberals, socialists, political religionists, realists, and other believers with universalist truth claims or political goals: they personally are not ideologists because what they believe is true, not some metaphysical scheme that only the foolish or the dangerous could believe. 

It is my contention that this assumption of non-ideological pragmatism, or presumed normative detachment, in the critics’ point of view is not sustainable upon examination.  Scholars have found that even in the natural sciences certain beliefs can be held or supported largely because they are congruent with ideological norms, e.g., in liberal societies the assumed symmetrical, random distribution of human intelligence.

Presumably Niebuhr would have seen what so many fail to see still today, that by becoming a “science,” DPT-in conjunction with democratic transition theory and liberal international jurisprudence-blinded American policy makers to many dangers they might otherwise have perceived.  In this respect we might recall how the “Washington Consensus,” the package of ideas behind economic globalization that included deregulation, privatization, and openness, contributed to the blindness that allowed the economic crash of 2008 to occur. In each case, the wounds have been self-inflicted; American hubris has been our own worst enemy. How united the American economics profession seemed at the time and indeed for the most part still today, just as political science seems unwilling to recognize the damage its theorizing underwrote. Democratic Peace Theory, like the Washington Consensus, reminds us of the famous words of John Maynard Keynes:The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood.  Indeed the world is ruled by little else.  Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.

Diplomatic History and IR

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2009

 Social scientist and eminent IR scholar Robert Jervis gave an interesting keynote speech to the H-Diplo Conference on the relationship between diplomatic history and IR.

International Politics and Diplomatic History: Fruitful Differences” (PDF)

….We both want to explain international history. When I said this at Williams, Randy Schweller objected that IR scholars seek to develop and test theories rather than to explain events. I do not entirely disagree with him, but would reply that although we have differences in our stance towards facts and generalizations, IR scholars want to develop theories that are not only parsimonious and rooted in general social science, but that shed light on (i.e., explain at least in part) events and patterns in international history.
There are important differences in style, aesthetics, and approaches, and my brief remarks can hardly do justice to all
of them. But a minor point may be worth making at the start. It seems to many of us in IR that historians are gluttons for punishment, and we marvel at their linguistic competence and ability to penetrate and synthesize enormous amounts of material. Years ago I was talking to my good friend Bob Dallek about whether he was going to take a break now that he had finished the enormous effort of producing his two-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. He said he had originally planned to, “but I just learned that they are opening a million new pages of material on Kennedy and I just can’t resist.” Most of us in IR would have a quite a different reaction, but we are very glad that Bob and his colleague produce such books.

There is a perhaps associated difference between the scholars in their stance toward facts. I do not want to get into the difficult and important question of what exactly we mean by facts, whether they can exist independently of our interpretations, and related issues of epistemology and ontology. But for all the debate, everyone agrees both that facts do not speak for themselves and that not all interpretations have equal claims on our beliefs. That said, Schweller’s point is relevant here. IR scholars generally seek theories of some generality and in pursuit of them the field has provided license to do some but not unlimited injustice to facts and individual cases. There is no easy way to sum up community norms here, and I will just say that while IR scholars cannot give the facts the third degree to get them to tell us what we need for our theories, we can rough them up a bit. We should be aware of what we are doing, however, and alert our readers of this, taking special care to point them to alternative interpretations. Since we are often painting in broader strokes and looking for ways to explain a great deal with a relatively few factors and relationships, we can utilize understandings of history that simplify and trim it. In this way, IR scholars have something in common with postmodernists in our willingness to draw on interpretations that we know are partial and contested

Read the rest here.

I am no IR or polisci guy but my intellectual predispositions have always been more speculative or predictive than most historians are comfortable with, while being too historical in my argumentation to be even close to IR. Therefore, any effort to close the gap between these cognate fields is welcome from my perspective.

Tuesday, September 25th, 2007


Swedish Meatballs Confidential:

“If we are to take the idea and actions of the Long War seriously then we must immediately come to terms with the full spectrum of consequences of our nation engaged in COIN everywhere and always. For this, only IO against self can provide us the slightest of chances for persevering without being sundered from within by the trauma of old school losses coming back to gnaw at a Will reared on the decisive and temporally compartmentalized wins of the history books that have reared us. Otherwise we would do best in working for outlooks and solutions beyond the framework of the Long War. However, such choices are perhaps best left for consideration by more driven and invested minds.

So what do you say, Bernays – any hidden costs? Is this where democracy ends or perhaps where democracy only truly can begin?”

Matt at MountainRunner:

“The answer: Yes and no to both. In part, Smith-Mundt is a response to Bernays’ activities thirty-five years earlier. During the massive restructuring of the United States to counter the emerging ideological threat coming from all angles (remember the National Security Act of 1947 was passed during the two years of debate on Smith-Mundt), Smith-Mundt was to protect democracy, not from itself but from the outside. Protection inside was mainly for the broadcasters, which Benton vigorously and successfully courted the broadcasters and continued to do so afterward its passage in a period of increasingly rapid (relatively) news cycles and accessibility.

The Swede is right, something significant needs to be done with Smith-Mundt, but attempts at an outright dismissal will be met by a swift and emotional counter-reaction. What is necessary is a conversation on the topic to understand its purpose and intent. “


A few days ago, I discussed H-Diplo (a Listserv) as weaker platform than a blog, despite the past richness as a community of interest ( some folks feel the time of H-Net is long over). Today, I featured an H-Diplo roundtable that could only be most easily put together by a high-powered community of vertical-thinking experts. That is a listserv operating at it’s best, showcasing an exchange of real scholarly depth and nuance.

Nevertheless, the exchange that just occurred between SMC and Matt would never have happened on a moderated forum like H-Diplo. Too cross-disciplinary. Too idiosyncratic. Too controversial. Too much a square peg in the round hole. Too…too…undisciplinary!

Either platform serves a purpose but one is fading and the other is rising.

Monday, September 24th, 2007


H-Diplo released a roundtable discussion (PDF) on the recent books about Richard Nixon by the following scholars:

Robert DallekNixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power

Margaret MacMillanNixon and Mao: The Week that Changed the World

Tuesday, February 27th, 2007


In a Sunday New York Times book review, eminent diplomatic historian, John Lewis Gaddis examined Nixon and Mao by Margaret MacMillian. Gaddis writes:

“A professor of history at the University of Toronto, soon to move to Oxford as warden of St. Antony’s College, MacMillan in her earlier book defended the peacemakers of 1919 against the charge that they had failed. The outbreak of a new world war two decades later, she argued, resulted not from their mistakes but from those of their successors. She has little need, in “Nixon and Mao,” to defend the peacemakers of 1972, for in the three and a half decades since they met, regrets have been remarkably few. An event that seemed inconceivable before it happened was instantly regarded by almost everyone after it happened as having made perfect sense. Rarely has foresight been so at odds with hindsight.

When Nixon took office in 1969, he inherited a war in Vietnam that was costing the United States far more in lives, money and reputation than is the current war in Iraq. The strategic arms balance had shifted in favor of the Soviet Union, whose leaders had crushed dissent in Czechoslovakia and were promising to do so elsewhere. Meanwhile race riots, antiwar protests and an emerging culture of youthful rebellion were making the United States, in the eyes of its new president, almost ungovernable: the nation, Nixon worried, was on the verge of going “down the drain as a great power.”

Playing the “China card” did not resolve these difficulties, but it did regain the initiative. With this single act, Nixon and Kissinger dazzled their domestic critics, rattled the Soviet Union, impressed allies (despite their exasperation at not having been consulted) and set up an exit strategy for a war that had become unwinnable: the United States might indeed “lose” South Vietnam, but it would “gain” China. Despite its implications for the unfortunate Vietnamese, this was an outcome with which it was hard to argue. “

Read the whole review here.

Yet there are those who would. H-Diplo is running a thread on Nixon and Mao as well as having an upcoming roundtable planned. I intend to put my two cents in as the debate develops.

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