In my PhD thesis, I briefly discussed Michael C. Desch’s foray in the late 1990s into the debate between strategic culture and neorealist theorists in international relations. Recently, Desch wrote the book Cult of the Irrelevant: The Waning Influence of Social Science on National Security (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019). Lawrence Freedman’s review of Desch’s book for The Journal of Strategic Studies highlights several things, from Desch’s critique of strategist Thomas Schelling and the institutional impacts on Bernard Brodie’s research agenda to the need for academics to understand the contemporary policymaking environment. It’s a review that is well worth reading if you research in security studies or strategic studies.
But because academic disciplines are largely self-defining and self-policing (i.e., we determine the “criteria of merit” and success depends almost entirely on one’s reputation among fellow academics), there is the ever-present danger that academic disciplines spin off into solipsistic and self-regarding theorizing that is divorced from the real world (and therefore unlikely to be refuted by events) and of little value to our students, to policymakers, or even interested citizens. This tendency occurs primarily because proponents of one approach naturally tend to think that their way of doing business is superior, and some of them work overtime to promote people who look like them and to exclude people whose work is different. Anybody who has spent a few years in a contemporary political science department cannot fail to have observed this phenomenon at work; there just aren’t very many people who are genuinely catholic in their tastes and willing to embrace work that isn’t pretty much like their own.
I read Walt’s comment after re-reading Michael Desch‘s discussion of Waltzian structural neo-realism, constructivism, and strategic culture (PDF), which is shaped by how different proponents have approached their research programs.