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Bridging the Gap between Theory and Policy Author(s): Joseph S. Nye, Jr. Source: Political Psychology, Vol.

29, No. 4, The Enduring Legacy of Alexander L. George: A Symposium (Aug., 2008), pp. 593-603 Published by: International Society of Political Psychology Stable URL: . Accessed: 06/02/2014 15:00
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Vol. 29, No. 4, 2008

Bridging theGap between Theory and Policy

Joseph S. Nye, Jr. Harvard University

Two decades ago, Alexander George observed a growinggap between academic theorists and practitioners in the formulation offoreign policy. The significance of thegap has been debated, but trendsin theacademy, society,and government suggest it is likelytogrow. KEY WORDS: research theory, practice,foreign policy,power, in and outers, universities, think tanks,

In Bridging theGap: Theory and Practice in Foreign Policy, Alex George outlined various dimensions of wisdom in policymaking. He himself was the embodiment of such wisdom. When I served in government, I often remembered his cautionary words against premature closure ofminds, uncertain evidence, and multiple advocacy. And inmy scholarly work, I had frequent cause to refer to his writing. He was a major participant and influence on the Harvard Project on Avoiding Nuclear War that produced several volumes in the 1980s. I learned greatly from him. Alex exemplified the thoughtful and careful scholar who was nonetheless concerned thathis work help produce better policy. Alex was also realistic about the relationship between theory and practice. As he said about why his title referred to "bridging" rather than "eliminating" the gap, "the choice of words is deliberate and of considerable importance." He often referred to "generic" knowledge rather than theory. As he wrote, "scholars may not be in a good position to advise policymakers how best to deal with a specific instance of a general problem that requires urgent and timely action," but "they can often provide a useful, broader discussion of how to think about and understand that general problem.. ." (George, 1993, pp. xix, xxiv). Alex was realistic in his aspirations, but also optimistic that scholars could make a and a half since he wrote, however, there has been concern that the gap between academic theory and foreign policy practice has been growing. difference. In the decade

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Of course, the gap is not new. As Alex noted, mentioning theory has long been a sure way tomake policy makers' eyes glaze over. Paul Nitze, a relatively intellectual policy maker, once observed that "most of what has been written and taughtunder theheading of 'political science' byAmericans sinceWorld War II has been contrary to experience and to common sense. Ithas also been of limited value, ifnot counterproductive, as a guide to theactual conduct of policy" (1993, p. 3). And the situation is no better inother countries, where thegap is often greater.A number of observers have noted a growing gulf between theorists and practitioners. Joseph Lepgold andMiroslav Nincic argue that"the professional gap between academics and practitioners has widened in recent years.Many scholars no longer tryto reach beyond the IvoryTower, and officials seem increasingly content to ignore it" (2001, p. 3). Or as Bruce Jentleson reports, "the problem is not just thegap between theory and policy but its chasmlike widening in recent years" (2002, p. 169). The United States has a traditionof political appointments that is amenable to "in and out" circulation between government and academia. While a number of American scholars such as Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski important have entered high-level foreign policy positions in thepast, thatpath has tended to become a one-way street.Not many top-ranked scholars are currently going into government, and even fewer return to contribute to academic theory.Of the 25 most influential scholars listed by Foreign Policy, only four have held top-level policy positions, two in the U.S. government and two in the United Nations (Peterson, Tierney, & Maliniak, 2005, p. 62). Another two held staff jobs in government, but the vast majority did not have direct policy experience. At the same time, as Alex pointed out, the problem may be better at lower levels. "Since somany individuals who serve as policy specialists and in staffroles in government have previously studied international relations in academic centers, they can and do serve as informal intellectual brokers between the two cultures" (George, 1993, p. 17). But there is still a concern about how they and other students are taught in the universities. As a recent survey of course syllabi on American foreign policy concluded, "the courses under review reveal a quite surprising degree of distance between the subfield ofAmerican foreign policy and the theoretical debates and issues thathave dominated recent research and teaching

within international relations" (Hurrell, 2004, p. 101). Is the Gap Good? Some academics celebrate the appropriateness of the gap. After all, academic theorists and policy makers fill different roles in society. A British scholar, Chris topher Hill, has argued that if scholars seek "policy relevance, even if only to more difficult itbecomes to justify our existence in the eyes of society at large, the maintain intellectual integrity"(Hill, 1994, p. 16). Alex George acknowledged and respected "the reluctance of some scholars, particularly when they disagree with the government's foreign policies, to serve as 'technicians' for the state by

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Bridging the Gap


providing specialized knowledge that may be 'misused.' Such scholars prefer the roles of critic and 'unattached' intellectual" (George, 1993, p. 4). The tensions between description and prescription are dealt with in an interesting companion essay in this volume by Robert Jervis. As Machiavelli discovered four centuries ago, it is risky to try to speak truth to power when you are in themidst of the struggle for power. Not only is there a danger of analysts trimming their political sails to accommodate prevailing political winds, but there is a more subtle risk that the search for short-term relevance will lead theorists to forgo levels of abstraction and elegance that may

sometimes be essential to academic progress. From this perspective, the isolation of the ivory tower serves as a buffer against these temptations and encourages a useful division of labor. Academic theorists should not confuse their roles with those of political activists or even employees of think tanks who have a more direct relationship to power. Thus many academic departments pride themselves on eschewing an interest in policy and promote young people by narrow profes sional standards. Some academics criticize this narrow professional orientation and engage in politics or policy advocacy, but they argue that the role of academics and univer sities is to use their independence to criticize the power structure,not support it. Whether throughpolitical activism or through thedevelopment of "post-positivist" critical theory, theybelieve that theorists should criticize the powerful, no matter how little relevance their theory appears to have in the eyes of policy makers or how little it conforms to the central professional standards of the discipline. There ismuch to be said for the view thatuniversities are unique institutions, but the imagined trade-off between corruption and relevance need not be so acute. An intermediate position on the appropriateness issue iswhat I call the "balanced portfolio" approach. When I served as dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, I tried tomaintain a faculty on which some members had govern ment experience while others were purely academic. The latterensured rigor and the formerbrought relevance, and the combination meant that the institutionfilled a different role on the research spectrum than either aWashington think tank or a typical academic department. But theportfolio analogy works best when there are a number of people who have occupied both positions in the division of labor at different times and are able to act as bridges. As the above cited evidence suggests, however, "in and outers" who contribute to both practice and theory are increas ingly rare. The key to the success of such a facultymix is the ability and willingness of members to interact and communicate with each other. This is easier in a profes sional school than in a purely academic department. But even in the latter case, theorists and practice-oriented scholars can communicate if they are interested in policy problems. The communication gap does not belong solely to international relations or foreign policy. A survey of articles published over the lifetime of the American Political Science Review found that about one in five dealt with policy

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prescription or criticism in the first half of the century, while only a handful did so after 1967. As journal editor Lee Sigelman observed, "if 'speaking truthto power' and contributing directly to public dialogue about themerits and demerits of various courses of action were still numbered among the functions of the profes sion, one would not have know it from leafing through its leading journal" (2006, pp. 463-478). Bruce Jentleson has summarized this middle position, "it is not that all intellectuals must do stints in government, or even make policy relevance a priority for their research and scholarship. But the reverse is too true: as a disci pline we place too littlevalue on these kinds of hands-on experiences and thiskind of scholarship, toour own detriment as scholars and teachers-and (2002, p. 130). If the gap becomes or at arms length. A Friedrich, McGeorge few decades as a discipline" too large, something is lost forboth sides. ago, academics like Arnold Wolfers, Carl

In thepast, academics have made useful contributions to policy, either directly Bundy, Thomas Schelling, and others felt it proper to be

engaged with thepolicy process. Some academic ideas have been quite significant in framing policy. Through a combination of writing and consulting, Schelling, Bernard Brodie, Albert Wohlstetter,William Kaufmann, and others developed and refined theories of nuclear strategy and arms control thatwere widely used by practitioners in the Cold War. (In Bridging the Gap, Alex cites the impact of Michael Doyle, Rudolph Brodie, Kauffmann, and Herman Kahn.) More recently, Rummel, Bruce Russett, and others helped to update Kant's theoryof the demo cratic peace ("liberal democracies tend not to fighteach other"), and ithas entered into popular political discourse and policy (Siverson, 2000, pp. 59-64). In addition to such large ideas, academics have provided many middle-level theories and generalizations that are based upon specific functional or regional knowledge and have proved useful to policy makers (Lieberthal, 2006, pp. 7-15). Theories about deterrence, balance of terror,interdependence, and bipolarity have helped shape the vocabulary that policy makers depend upon. As Alex put it, "scholars also perform a useful, indeed a necessary, task by developing better which should assist policymakers inorienting concepts and conceptual frameworks, themselves to the phenomena and the problems with which theymust deal" (George, 1993, p. xxiv). Historical analogies are a frequent form of ideas used by policy makers, often in a crude and misleading way. Academics can help to discipline theuse andmisuse of such analogies (Neustadt & May, 1986, pp. 34-58). Academics can also help the public and policy makers by framing, mapping, Wilson and raising questions even when theydo not provide answers. As Ernest J. III argues, "by mapping I mean the identification and explication of the defining dimensions of a new problem, its constituent elements, and its general contours and boundaries" (Wilson, 2000, p. 122). Framing a question is often as important to policy as providing answers. At the end of the Cold War, two of themost influential "mapping" ideas-Francis Fukuyama's idea that class based ideologi cally driven history had come to an end, and Samuel Huntington's idea of clashes based on cultures and civilizations-were examples of influential academic ideas.

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Bridging the Gap


From a normative perspective, this record can be used to bolster the argument that academics, as citizens, have an obligation to help to improve policy ideas when theycan. Moreover, such engagement in thepolicy debates can enhance and enrich academic work, and thus the ability of academics to teach the next genera tion.As Ambassador David D. Newsom has written, "the growing withdrawal of university scholars behind curtains of theory and modeling would not have wider significance if this trenddid not raise questions regarding the preparation of new generations and the future influence of the academic community on public and official perceptions of international issues and events. Teachers plant seeds that shape the thinkingof each new generation; this is probably the academic world's most lasting contribution" (1995-96, p. 52). Alternatively, one can argue that while the gap between theory and policy has grown in recent decades and may have costs for policy, the growing gap has produced better political theory, and that is more important than whether it is relevant. To some extent the gap is an inevitable result of the growth and special ization of knowledge. Few people can keep up with their subfields,much less all of social science. But there are costs as well as benefits. Lepgold and Nincic summarize the trade-offs,"the Ivory Tower exists for a good reason: we expect university-based intellectuals to reflect on the world at some distance, and not simply to do thework of policy commentators or journalists at a slower pace. But.... it is odd to think thatno practical implications should follow from a better understanding of theworld. If scholars address important, real-world issues, they will more often thannot improve theirown work and have more to sharewith those who must act" (2002, p. 185). Or as Robert Putnam has put it, "simple questions about major real-world events have driven great research. Worrying about the same 'big' issues as our fellow citizens is not a distraction from our best professional work, but often a goad to it" (2003, pp. 313-314). Regardless of one's normative views about the correct relationship of aca demia to policy, the fields of international relations and foreign policy are not nearly so distant from the influences of the practical world as some scholars like to think.The gap is bridged all too easily in thatdirection. To paraphrase Keynes, academic theorists, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any practical influence, are usually slaves of unseen largerworld events. At times, academic trends and fads have proven to be too influenced by events. Theoretical trends in the field have always been strongly influenced by the outside world. Naturally, if our purpose is to understand the world, current change will drive changes in theorybuilding, but often the swings in academic fashion are excessive and lack balance. Why theGap Grows

That a gap exists between academia and the policy world is both natural and a good thingup to a point, assuming that some effortsare made to bridge it.The

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academic ethic is to offer elegant theoretical answers to general questions while thepolicy maker seeks definite answers toparticular questions. But in recent years, the gap has been widening and bridging effortshave become more difficult.The

of knowledge, growingspecialization methodological the increasing scientific

orientation of academic disciplines, and development of new institutional trans mission belts helps to account for the change. Some aspects of the gap, however, are not new. The world of the academic theorist and theworld of the policy practitioner have always involved very differ ent cultures. As an academic going into a policy position at the State Department threedecades ago, Iwas struck by the fact thatbureaucracy is a huge machine for turningout reams of paper, but the top policy world is really an oral culture. As I wrote of that experience, "the pace did not permit wide reading or detailed contemplation. I was often bemused by colleagues who sentme thirtyor forty would be helpful. Itwas all I could do to get through the page articles they thought parts of the intelligence briefings and government papers that my various special assistants underlined for thehour of two of reading possible on a good day" (Nye, 1989, p. 206). As a result, effective policy memos are often one or two pages long, and concise oral briefings are oftenmore influential thanmemos. As Ezra Vogel reports fromhis experience as an academic ingovernment in the 1990s, "generally speaking ... academic books and articles are useless for policymakers. Even if were not filledwith what policymakers consider arcane theories and esoteric they details written solely for other academics, these publications are simply too lengthy for policymakers to go through the haystack looking for the needle they might use" (2006, p. 33). A premium on time is a major difference between the two cultures. For the academic, time is a secondary consideration, while accuracy and elegance are primary.As Alex George noted, "Academics aim at increasing general knowledge and wisdom about international relations; practitioners are more interested in the typeof knowledge that increases theirability to influence and control the course of events." They want short quick answers while formany academics such short answers are not answers (1993, p. 9). For practitioners, timing is everything.A "B" quality memo written to brief the president for his meeting with a foreign dignitary at 3 pm is a success, while an "A" memo that arrives at 4 pm is a total failure. In the university, the pri orities are (properly) reversed. Another difference is the importance of group work as opposed to individual creativity. In the university, plagiarism is a car dinal sin. In government policy work, ideas are a public good and it is often most effective not to attribute credit. Finally, in the academy, the highest value is to ignore politics and speak truth to power, while in the policy world some political trimming and appreciation of "applied truth" may be essential for effec tiveness. It is not always easy to straddle these two cultures. I used fiction to dramatize some of themoral dilemmas that arise in The Power Game: A Wash ingtonNovel.

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Bridging the Gap


But the inherentculture gap has grown wider in recent years largely because of trends in academic disciplines and in the institutions of foreign policy. As Stephen Walt explains, the incentive structures -and professional ethos of the academic world have changed, and the trickle-down model linking theory and policy has weakened academic life have as a transmission belt. In his view, "the prevailing norms of increasingly discouraged scholars from doing work that

would be directly relevant to policy makers" (2005, pp. 26-38). General theories such as structural realism and liberal institutionalism have become more rational choice models, while stimulating to theorists, often reflectwhat Stanley Hoffmann has called "economics envy" (2006, p. 4). Middle-range generalizations, historical cases, and regional expertise-the abstract, and some accorded types of theory most accessible and most useful to practice-are reinforces the less prestige in the disciplinary pecking order. Methodology trend. As Bruce Jentleson argues, "dominant approaches to methodology give short shrift to policy analysis, to the analytic skills for addressing questions of strategy and for assessing policy options. It is one thing to train Ph.D.s primarily for academic careers; it is another to have this be virtually the only purpose of most major international relations/political science Ph.D. pro grams. The job market for new Ph.D.s operationalizes this incentive structure" (2002, p. 178). Professors spend most of their energies reproducing little

The problem is furthercompounded by the use of academic jargon and the lack of interest in communicating in plain language to a policy public. As Alex George put it, "not a few policy specialists exposed to the scholarly literaturehave concluded thatmost university professors seem towrite largely for one another and have little inclination or ability to communicate their knowledge in terms comprehensible to policy makers" (1993, p. 7). Young scholars are rated and promoted by their contributions to refereed academic journals and citations by other scholars in those same journals where there is littlepremium on writing in clear and accessible English. They get little credit for contributions to policy journals edited for a broader audience. In institutional terms, the transmission belts between academia and govern ment have also changed. Universities are less dominant sources of policy ideas would than in the past. In the traditionalmodel, professors produced theories that trickle down (or out) to the policy world through the articles theywrote and the students they taught.As Walt describes it, "the trickle-downmodel assumes that new ideas emerge from academic 'ivory towers' (i.e., as abstract theory),gradually filterdown into thework of applied analysts (and especially people working in public policy 'think tanks'), and finally reach theperceptions and actions of policy makers. In practice, however, the process by which ideas come to shape policy is idiosyncratic and haphazard" (2005, p. 40). Or as Jentleson writes, "whereas thirtyor forty years ago academics were themain if not sole cohort of experts on international affairs outside of government and international farmore

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600 institutions, today' s world expertise" (2002, p. 181). is a more competitive marketplace

Nye of ideas and

Even when academics supplement the trickle down approach with articles in policy journals, op-eds innewspapers, blogs, consulting forcandidates or officials, and appearance in the media, they find many more competitors for attention. Some of these transmission belts serve as translators and additional outlets for academic ideas, butmany add a bias provided by their founders and funders.There aremore than 1,200 think tanks in theUnited States alone, and they are very heterogeneous in scope, funding, ideology, and location, but universities generally offer a more neutral viewpoint. The think tanks provide not only ideas but also experts ready to comment or consult at a moments notice (Haass, 2002, pp. 5-8). journalists, public In addition, intellectuals, nongovernmental organizations, trade associa tions, private contractors, and others are involved in providing policy ideas. As Ernest Wilson points out, while the pluralism of institutional pathways may be good for democracy, many of the nonuniversity institutionshave narrow interests and tailor theirpolicy advice to fitparticular agendas (2007, pp. 147-151). policy process in democracies The is diminished by thewithdrawal of an academic

community which has broader agendas and more rigorous intellectual standards. One of the most effective transmission belts for ideas to travel from the outers" (a mechanism minds of "in and academy togovernmentmight be called "embedded capital" in the that Walt largely ignores). As Henry Kissinger once pointed

out, thepressure on time thatbears upon policy makers means thattheyrelyon ideas and intellectual capital created before theyentered the maelstrom. I found this tobe true in my own experience. Theoretical ideas produced and stored up in a university setting were useful in making policy changes inWashington. Political science theorywas crucial to theway inwhich I framed and crafted solutions to practical policy issues. It came less fromoutside articles and consultants (though theyplayed some role) than in the formof embedded intellectual capital. In termsof the earlier discussion, some criticsmay say this mechanism is too costly, and that I and others would have been better off staying in the university and developing more academic ideas. Perhaps. Choice involves trade-offs, and there are always opportunity costs. Nonetheless, I am glad I paid them.Not only was I able to contribute to policy on important issues I cared about, but I believe that my writing and teachingwere enriched rather thandiminished when I returned world to theuniversity. I had a better sense of the relationship between theoryand the real than some others. For example, JohnMearsheimer, a highly respected realist theorist, has written that "American academics are especially good at

promoting liberal thinking in the marketplace of ideas. Behind closed doors, however, the elites who make national security policy speak mostly in the lan guage of power, not of principle" (2001, p. 25). Inmy experience in the State and Defense Departments in two Democratic administrations, power and principle were oftenmuch more closely and subtly intertwined thanhis academic theoretical account implies.

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Bridgingthe Gap


Government practice is a deepening but narrowing experience. There is little timeor license for the free-wheeling exploration that is possible in a university.For example, when dealing with nuclear nonproliferation in theCarter Administration, I had no time to explore thebroad ethical issues when foreign officials would ask why itwas all right for theUnited States to have nuclear weapons while trying to prevent them from obtaining the bomb. When I returned to the university, I used write a book on the lack of pressure on time and politics to teach a course and then Nuclear Ethics. And after I returned from thePentagon and my work on East Asia in the Clinton Administration, I turnedmy attention to a book about the future distribution of power inThe Paradox ofAmerican Power. For better orworse, both works were heavily influenced by my experience in government. My experience of a fruitful interaction between theory and practice may be subjective, but it is not unique. As Ezra Vogel has written: "when I went to Washington and firsthad to write one-page briefs, I despaired of substituting sound bites for real thinking. I came to appreciate, however, that one pagers can force intellectual discipline. Such space limits impel us to thinkabout what is the we want to communicate, and to decide absolutely most important idea or two that most effectiveway. As a result, I returned how to communicate those ideas in the to theuniversity and began to encourage students to spend more time compressing their thinking and towork harder to express ideas in a precise and concise way" (2006, p. 34). If such experiences serve as an existence theorem that academic theory and policy practice can interact fruitfully in both directions, what could be done to increase it and bridge thewidening gap? On the official side, former ambassador David Newsom advised his colleagues to broaden State Department research grants, to increase scholar-diplomat programs, and to encourage senior officials to participate in scholarly association meetings. The Intelligence community, par National Intelligence Council, holds regular unclassified seminars and ticularly the conferences with academics. Internships and exchanges such as the Foreign Affairs fellowships sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations (that Alex George extolled in his book) have also helped to introduce young American academics to a policy environment, though of the dozen or so annual fellowships, the percentage from universities has declined over time. Increased lateral entry at middle levels would be good both for thecivil service and for the academy, but this is particularly difficult in countries with a strong civil service tradition. The internetand blogs also provide new opportunities for scholars to become involved in policy debates on a global basis. On theuniversity side, StephenWalt argues for "a conscious effort to alter the prevailing norms of the discipline."' Departments should give greater weight to real-world relevance and impact in hiring and promotion decisions, and journals could place greater weight on relevance in evaluating submissions. Universities could facilitate interest in the realworld by giving junior faculty greater incentives forparticipating in it (Walt, 2005, p. 41). Scholars could avoid choosing research

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topics that are so manageable that they wind up saying more and more about less and less (which is a current academic affliction).They would do better to heed the advice of Robert Putnam: "Better an approximate answer to an importantquestion than an exact answer to a trivialquestion" (2003, p. 251). They would also do well to follow the example of Alex George with his long-term concern about the importance of bridging the gap between theory and practice, between scholar and citizen. "In 1966, while still a member of theRAND Corporation, I saw the need to supplement efforts to formulate general theories of international relations with theories thataremore relevant for the conduct of foreign policy" (1993, p. xxi). We are all in his debt thathe did.

Iwould like to thankBruce Jentleson, Peter Katzenstein, Robert 0. Keohane, JohnOwen, and Stephen Walt forhelpful comments. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Joseph S. Nye, Jr.,John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, 79 JFK Street, Cambridge MA,

@ joseph_nye

01238. Email:

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