11th January 2012: Constructivism and the Scholar-Policymaker Disconnect

Andrew Carr blogged at The Interpreter on a new survey of international relations scholars:

While a colleague has noted that you’ll never hear the word ‘constructivism‘ inside the walls of DFAT*, it is the most popular IR discipline. In some ways this isn’t too surprising, as constructivism is a new field with high research energy. But given the traditional dominance of realism, and the return to great power studies that has accompanied China’s rise this century, I would have expected many more realists.

From my email reply to Carr:

There are several possible reasons for the high response rate of self-identified constructivists in the survey of US international relations scholars. A younger generation of IR scholars have been influenced by Alexander Wendt, Peter Katzenstein, John Ruggie, Martha Finnemore, Friedrich Kratochwil, and other constructivists. Professional associations have changed: the Perestroika Movement created a debate in the American Political Science Association about epistemic assumptions and research methodology, whilst the International Studies Association now hosts conference sessions on critical security studies and similar topics. However, realism still remains influential, through the enduring influence of Kenneth Waltz, John Mearsheimer, and Stephen Walt. The survey response to ‘I do not use paradigmatic analysis’ might include diplomatic historians and scholars who use inter-paradigmatic and multi-perspectival approaches.

Gyngell and Wesley’s observation about DFAT staff who are self-identified realists follows an historical trend in Australian policymaking. Several contributors to Graeme Cheeseman and Bruce Roberts’ critical anthology Discourses of Danger and Dread Frontiers (Allen & Unwin, 1996) complained that Australian defence and security policymaking was realist-dominated and that scholars from other traditions had few opportunities to influence or shape policymaking. The Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at Australian National University was usually singled out as the institutional villain. This past debate suggests a disconnect between Australian scholars and policymakers.

This scholar-policymaker disconnect plays out in the media, academia and in formulating specific strategies. Consider counter-terrorism. The 2006-08 campaign by James Cook University’s Mervyn F. Bendle in Quadrant and The Australian about ‘terrorism studies’ was essentially a disagreement between a realist and critical theory-influenced academics. There was little discussion of what was actually being taught in ‘terrorism studies’ courses. Australia’s Counter-Terrorism White Paper (2010) conceptualised terrorism in a similar fashion to debats within the Bush Administration in 2003-05 — but didn’t appear to include ‘lessons learned’ from researchers in Monash University’s Global Terrorism Centre, the Centre of Excellence in Policing and Security, and similar academic groups. Over the past decade, Australian Research Council grants awarded in defence, counter-terrorism and security have reflected the visibility and perceived urgency of topics — there are more opportunities for collaborative research teams.

What insights can constructivists share with DFAT and the Defence Department? Ideas matter. Institutions and non-state actors are important. Diplomacy and intelligence are crucial for dealing with ideational factors like culture, history, identity, and threat perception. These insights are echoed in recent non-constructivist work on perceiving enemies and strategic culture (Patrick Porter’s Military Orientalism); how the US Army and Marines developed new counter-insurgency doctrines (David Ucko’s The New Counterinsurgency Era); effective psychological operations (Ron Schleifer’s Psychological Warfare in the Intifada); decisions about nuclear weapons development (Jacques E.C. Hymans’ The Psychology of Nuclear Proliferation), and diffusion of military innovations (Michael Horowitz’s The Diffusion of Military Power). Constructivist insights can be seen in how the US State Department dealt with the Arab Spring and in the Obama administration’s Sustaining US Global Leadership (2012) which echoes John F. Kennedy’s ‘flexible response’ period. Theory can inform more robust and resilient policy formulation. But academics need to heed US Secretary of State George Marshall’s advice to grand strategist George Kennan: “Avoid trivia.”