Adolf Hitler announces the occupation of the Rhineland in the Kroll Opera House, Berlin, in March 1936. Three months later, Louis Brownlow, chair of President Roosevelt’s Committee on Administrative Management, gave a speech from the same spot. Scherl/Süddeutsche Zeitung Photo.

Speaking up for liberal democracy

Alasdair Roberts
5 min readDec 12, 2018


This is an excerpt from “Shaking Hands with Hitler: The Politics-Administration Dichotomy and Engagement with Fascism,” published in November 2018 by Public Administration Review. This excerpt is reproduced with permission. Read the full article here. Free access until January 31, 2019.

Brownlow and his colleagues always believed in democracy and freedom. For several years, though, they hesitated to talk about their commitment to these values, especially when abroad. They tried to ignore grand politics and focus on administration alone. Maybe they hoped that the three-way struggle of the 1930s — between liberal democracy, fascism, and communism — would work out favorably on its own. Eventually, though, it became clear to them that it was necessary to take a stand in defense of democratic values. We might be at a similar crossroads today.

Overseas engagement by American scholars in public administration is more extensive now that in the 1930s. It increased rapidly in the 1990s and early 2000s — so much that it became commonplace to talk about the “globalization of public administration” (Farazmand 1999; Walker 2011). American specialists went abroad more frequently to attend conferences, teach and conduct research, and advise governments. At the same time, American journals rebranded themselves as international journals. The American Society of Public Administration (ASPA) claimed a place “at the forefront of the international public administration community” (Guy 1997). The U.S. accrediting body, the National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration (NASPAA), announced that it would set a “global standard” and accredit degree programs around the world (Knott 2013, 4).

Debates on questions of grand politics were often avoided by specialists in public administration at this time. Some scholars tacitly applied Wilson’s formula, believing that it was possible to talk about problems of administration — or public management, to use the more fashionable phrase — without addressing stark differences in political values. In addition, Western specialists may have believed that divergences in political values would eventually disappear, so that it was unnecessary to address them directly. At the time, the whole world seemed to be converging toward liberal democracy. Francis Fukuyama had declared its “unabashed victory” over fascism and communism (Fukuyama 1989). Democracy, the Clinton administration said in 2000, was “triumphant”(U.S. Department of State 2000, 2). The George W. Bush administration celebrated free-market democracy as the “single sustainable model for national success” (Executive Office of the President 2002, iv). Even China seemed likely to experience political liberalization within a few years (Gilboy and Heginbotham 2001, 37–38).

Perhaps because the arc of history seemed to favor democratic values, some important documents produced in this era said little about them. For example, NASPAA’s accreditation standards emphasize the importance of “public service values,” but its description of these values makes no references to democracy, the rule of law, and human rights. (Nor do the standards make reference to the concept of academic freedom.) The code of ethics of the American Society of Public Administration, meanwhile, appears to focus exclusively on the conduct of ASPA members within the United States alone (ASPA 2013). The code offers no explicit guidance about the obligation of ASPA members to promote democracy, the rule of law, and human rights while working abroad.

Unfortunately, we can no longer take for granted that time will work in favor of democracy and human rights. Around the world, democracy appears to be in retreat, and some worry that it is close to collapse (Kurlantzick 2013; Luce 2017, Chapter 3). Many countries have witnessed a resurgence of authoritarian populism (Mounk 2018). And in China, authoritarian rule is being consolidated (BBC News 2017; The Economist 2018). This includes tighter control of universities, which are expected to “adhere to correct political orientation . . . [and]party leadership” (Phillips 2016). Many Chinese policymakers and intellectuals are forthright about the virtues of their approach to governance. Western governance is seen to have “deep-seated problems” (Zhang 2012, 152).

No major state today behaves as terribly as Nazi Germany did. Still, there are similarities between this historical moment and the 1930s. Democracy is being challenged, and its survival cannot be taken for granted. Around the world, governments are more brazen about neglecting the rule of law and human rights. As a result, scholars and practitioners in public administration confront an intellectual predicament much like that faced by their predecessors in the 1930s. Do they have an obligation to address questions of grand politics, and speak up for democracy and human rights — or can they focus narrowly on problems of administration and management? And there are practical questions too, just as in the 1930s. For example, is it appropriate to attend a conference in a country whose government does not respect democracy and human rights? Is there a point at which it would wrong to collaborate with practitioners or academics, or to accredit a degree program, in such countries? And how should journal editors respond to submissions from countries where academic freedom is not respected?

These are hard questions, but it is increasingly difficult to avoid them. In 2014, for example, the International Studies Association moved a conference from Thailand to protest violations of human rights (International Studies Association 2014). In 2016, the International Political Science Association moved a conference from Turkey, and the Public Management Research Association moved a conference from North Carolina, for similar reasons (Fishman 2016; Public Management Research Association 2016). In 2017, many scholars called for a break with universities in Myanmar in response to the persecution of Rohingya Muslims (Bothwell 2017). And some have demanded an academic boycott of Israel institutions in response to Israeli policies toward Palestine (Salaita 2016). The American Association of University Professors questions whether systematic boycotts of institutions in other countries are ever justified (AAUP 2006). Still, it recognizes the need to think carefully about the complexities of international engagement.

This is the task that confronts scholars and practitioners in public administration today. To be clear, the debate is not just about conference boycotts. The challenge is to develop a framework for thinking systematically about the role of scholars in advocating for democracy and human rights around the world, and about the boundaries of engagement abroad. Until 1936, Brownlow and his colleagues refused to think deliberately about this subject. They thought that they could sidestep awkward conversations about grand politics. In Berlin and Warsaw, they finally realized the folly of this position, and acknowledged their obligation to speak up for democracy and human rights.

This is an excerpt from “Shaking Hands with Hitler: The Politics-Administration Dichotomy and Engagement with Fascism,” published in November 2018 by Public Administration Review. This excerpt is reproduced with permission. Read the full article here.



Alasdair Roberts

Professor of Political Science and Director, School of Public Policy, University of Massachusetts Amherst