How not to bridge the gap in international relations

Naazneen H. Barma and James Goldgeier discuss the risks of policy engagement and how to avoid them

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) talks to Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA) during a signing ceremony for The PACT Act in the East Room of the White House August 10, 2022 in Washington, DC. Photo by Chip Somodevilla via Getty Images.

Should academics stay in the ivory tower and stick to writing in highly specialized journals? Or should they try to share their ideas with policy-makers and the public through various forms of engagement, including writing for public consumption? The perception that international affairs scholars were developing a ‘cult of irrelevance’ led to a flourishing of programmes designed to help academics ‘bridge the gap’ with the policy community and public. But sceptics warn that scholarly ideas can act as the equivalent of ‘lab leaks’ that can lead to disastrous policy outcomes, thereby raising fears of a dangerous ‘cult of relevance’.

As scholars who have helped develop a Bridging the Gap initiative, we believe strongly in the importance of academics engaging with society. But we also want academics to be mindful of the risk that scholarship might contribute to bad policy-making.

Bridging gone bad

Perhaps most pernicious is when scholars find their ideas being used to justify policies they oppose. Scholars making the case that democracies don’t go to war with one another — the so-called ‘democratic peace’ — were not necessarily advocating the use of American military force to create democracies. Yet, that is precisely what seemed to occur in the George W. Bush administration’s disastrous invasion of Iraq.

The initial rationale for the Iraq War was that Saddam Hussein possessed nuclear weapons that he could pass on to Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. In September 2002, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer: ‘The problem here is that there will always be some uncertainty about how quickly he can acquire nuclear weapons. But we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.’ Only when such weapons were not discovered did the Bush administration’s rationale for the war shift from preventing nuclear catastrophe to building democracy.

While democratic peace research might have been less important in launching the Iraq War than in justifying it in the absence of weapons of mass destruction, that is of little solace to scholars whose work was used to support an ill-conceived military campaign.

Better bridging

Just as bridging gone bad gets noticed publicly, bridging done well often takes place behind the scenes. Such was the case with three giants in the nuclear field: John Steinbruner, Janne Nolan and Bruce Blair. Steinbruner developed the notion of cooperative security with William J. Perry and Ashton B. Carter that provided some of the initial impetus to the Nunn–Lugar programme, addressing fears of ‘loose nukes’ at the end of the Cold War. Nolan had enormous impact that extended well beyond her extraordinary scholarship. In particular, her efforts to provide opportunities for women seeking to enter a very male-dominated national security field, and her establishment of a programme placing nuclear experts in congressional offices to ensure bipartisan expertise on Capitol Hill left a lasting legacy. Blair, a Minuteman launch control officer early in his career, dedicated many years at the Brookings Institution to efforts aimed at reducing the risks of nuclear war.

Such hidden positive efforts, counterposed against the more well-known negative example of the democratic peace misapplied, highlight the importance of considering how not to bridge the gap. Scholars can avoid the most egregious instances of falling prey to a cult of relevance if they pay attention to these four ‘I’s:

1) Influence. Play the long game when trying to shape discourse and practice, instead of seeking influence for the sake of influence. Establish your expertise by identifying where your scholarship connects with policy, be patient, and build networks that will prepare you to engage when the right news hook or policy opportunity arrives.

2) Interlocutors. Connect with policy-makers who can have the type of impact you hope to achieve. Academics are unlikely to directly reach officials on the executive floors of the State Department or the UN with their work and instead should aim to connect with the longstanding bureaucrats who move policy agendas forward over time. Increasingly, policy-relevant academics conduct cutting-edge scholarly work in deliberate partnership with actors in civil society and the private sector as well as in government. But be aware that such partnerships, while often very productive, can be delicate to negotiate in terms of power hierarchy, positionality and other ethical concerns.

3) Integrity. Think in advance, and in explicitly ethical terms, about how your research might be used by various actors. For example, work on issues such as authoritarian regimes, mass propaganda and military intervention can be used in ways not envisaged by those doing the research, as those working on the democratic peace found out.

4) Inclusion. Make room for under-represented scholars — women, people of colour, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and global South scholars, among others — to engage too. Emmanuel Balogun has observed that ‘tokenization and the lack of racial representation might lead to underrepresented scholars not receiving the opportunities for policy engagement because of a perceived lack of expertise’. Responsible engagement means ensuring diverse identities and experiences are reflected in policy-making and the public conversation.

Conclusion

Mistakes and unintended consequences will continue to occur — but they do not diminish the goals of publicly engaged scholarship. Scholars can navigate the challenging path between the cult of relevance and the cult of irrelevance while keeping in mind advice about how not to bridge the gap. By proactively planning engagement with key policy-makers in ethical and inclusive ways, researchers can make a difference whilst reducing the risk of uncontrolled ‘lab leaks’.

Naazneen H. Barma is Associate Professor, Scrivner Chair of Public Policy, and Director of the Scrivner Institute of Public Policy at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies.

James Goldgeier is a professor of international relations at American University, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center on the U.S. and Europe, and a visiting scholar at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation.

Their article ‘How not to bridge the gap in international relations’ was published in the September 2022 issue of International Affairs.

All views expressed are individual not institutional.

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