Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Bridging the Academic-Civilian Gap

One of the things that has struck me about the debates and comments on Iran has been the sharp disagreement between the American academy and American civilians. Look at the comments below any article about Iran and you will find many of them express hardline views about Islam, the Iranian regime, and the use of force against Iran. But its more than just talk by a handful of Americans. According to a Gallup poll, respondents stated that Iran is America's biggest state-based enemy. And a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey is even more revealing: 71 percent of Americans believe Iran has nuclear weapons; 60 percent want the U.S. to pursue economic and diplomatic efforts to get Iran to shutter its nuclear activities, while only 25 percent support immediate military force against Iran. But if these efforts do not succeed, "support for military action rises to 59 percent, with only 39 percent opposing military action under those circumstances."  

Meantime, a number of academics, such as Colin Kahl, John Mueller, Stephen Walt, Jacques Hymans, and Matthew Fuhrmann and Sarah Kreps, have been trying to induce some caution on the Iran debate. In short, they are against the use of force (either by the U.S. or Israel) against Iran, for a number of reasons. They don't see Iran an as immediate threat. Air strikes on would probably only delay and invigorate, not scupper, Iran's work to join the nuclear club, assuming that this is what Tehran really wants. Moreover, they see military force as causing unnecessary deaths and casualties, disastrous regional consequences, and danger to American interests. In fact, some scholars don't even think there's a good justification for force against Iran. Mueller, for instance, argues that the Iranian threat is far overblown.

And of course, there is the longstanding argument, made popular by Kenneth Waltz, that seemingly crazy leaders, like Ahmadinejad and the clerics in Iran, are far more rational and calculating than conventional wisdom often suggests. If Iran does acquire the capability to weaponize and launch nuclear weapons, so goes the logic, it's leaders are not going to do anything too destabilizing to world politics and human security. The politico-religious regime will not blow up Israel or Saudi Arabia or any other country. Iranian leaders know that using force--either nuclear weapons or conventional means under the cover of its nuclear arsenal--carries great risks. Iran could face a devastating counter-attack that targets its military and communication installations. The clerics could face regime change, and possibly find their personal freedom and security in peril, by countries that have long sought a justification to topple the anti-Western political system. Additionally, overtly militant and reckless actions against foreign opponents, if unpopular enough, run the risk of stirring up and provoking opponents back home into agitating against the state.

In the end, as Mueller writes, "Iran would most likely "use" any nuclear capacity in the same way all other nuclear states have: for prestige (or ego‑stoking) and to deter real or perceived threats. Historical experience strongly suggests that new nuclear countries, even ones that once seemed hugely threatening, like communist China in the 1960s, are content to use their weapons for such purposes."  

My take: What if these scholars are right? Shouldn't they and (the many, I suspect) other like-minded scholars aim to communicate to wider audience, at least more often they currently do? Simply put, the issue of Iran and its nuclear capabilities is extremely serious and important, and they have specialized knowledge. Why sit back and let the Iran issue be dominated by political partisanship and demagoguery (from inside and outside the U.S.)? With a more focused and substantial effort, academics might be able to play a relatively prominent, perhaps decisive, role in the current debates on Iran. 

In some ways, these questions remind me of the work Alexander George completed on academic-policymaker relations. George in part explored how academics could better communicate with policymakers by making their research more digestible and consumable by decision makers in Washington. Here, in this blog post, I'm interested in how academics can "bridge the gap" with ordinary citizens. What can academics do to reach out to citizens and explain their research and writings and thoughts in a clear and intelligible manner.

In this vein, there are multiple things academics can do. They can author blogs. They can write opinion pieces and magazine articles in mainstream, popular publications. Academics can produce manuscripts for publication at popular presses like Random House and W.W. Norton. They can make appearances on news/current affairs shows on television and radio. They can organize and participate in community conferences and meetings. And if they want to get really ambitious, they could coordinate their outreach activities, making them more powerful. All of these are ways for academics to disseminate their work and ideas jargon-fee to a larger, non-academic audience.

To be clear, some scholars do some of what I mentioned above. Anne-Marie Slaughter, Joseph Nye, Andrew Bacevich, and Vali Nasr, among others, routinely pen incisive opinion pieces in leading American newspapers. And some academics do actively blog. Slaughter, Stephen Walt, Daniel Drezner, Joshua Landis, Juan Cole and Walter Russell Mead have excellent blogs. And there are several collaborative efforts, such as The Monkey Cage and The Duck of Minerva. Scholars are also periodic guests on NPR and Charlie Rose and The Daily Show.

But let's not kid ourselves. The bulk of what academics do is churn out work that's primarily directed at other scholars. As we all know, they are specialists conducting research and writing on narrow scholarly debates and literatures

Unfortunately, my proposal for improved engagement between academics and civilians does not come without problems. Let's briefly look at some of them.

(1) There are academic disincentives to get more involved in public policy debates. Academics don't get professionally rewarded for penning blog posts, opinion pieces, or magazine articles. All of those things are work outside of their standard, expected scholarly responsibilities. And they take up time for things that academics usually get rewarded for--publishing, teaching, university service, and so on.

(2) Many scholars don't see themselves as participants in politics, that they're outside of the game, serving as observers, analysts, and critics. As a result, they are disinclined to participate in foreign policy advocacy.

(3) Even if more academics spend more of their time in foreign policy debates, Americans have to seek out what they say and pay attention. Which isn't something we should assume will happen. After all, we know that Americans tend to stick to their preferred niche sources of information (by issue area, ideology, etc.), and those sources understandably rarely include work from academia. The hardest group to attract will likely be hardcore conservatives, who view academics as biased and liberal.

(4) Relatedly, even if Americans access information from academics, as the psychology literature shows us, it is unlikely that they'll change their minds about policy issues, especially if they are really committed in their beliefs. Instead, the group to target is probably the uncommitted, those who don't have a set of beliefs that's already entrenched and resistant to change.

In sum, there are no easy solutions. It would be helpful if academic schools and departments more greatly valued non-academic work (blogging, opinion pieces, etc.) when making decisions about tenure and pay raises. It would change incentive structures, and might alter how academics view themselves. But even here, this doesn't come without a host of problems. For instance, academics might resist changes in how they conduct their business. Bureaucratic changes in how departments and schools operate takes a long time. And with more academic voices in the field, we're likely to see public disagreements among scholars, which would only create confusion among citizens. Who do we believe? Which academic, which expert, is right?  (Matthew Kroenig's piece in Foreign Affairs is the most prominent example right now of an academic stoking the fires of war against Iran.)

In this post, above all, I'm mostly hoping to start a conversation about the role of academics in pressing policy debates, such as possible military conflict in Iran. Clearly, they can engage more with American citizens. But do they want to? And do they have a responsibility to do so, as I suggested above?   

What do you think? Let us know.

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