One problem with such arguments is that it just isn’t true that academics are failing to produce policy‐relevant scholarship. Academics are asking all manner of relevant questions about civil wars, terrorism and counterinsurgency (.pdf), in particular, that are directly applicable to current American policy. As for those who argue that international relations theory is too theoretically or methodologically challenging for harried foreign policy decision‐makers to keep up with, it would be difficult to imagine the same excuse being offered on behalf of Supreme Court justices and legal scholarship, for instance, or Treasury Department policymakers and economics research.
Indeed, the gap between policymakers and IR academics is more easily explained by the fact that the two groups simply disagree in important ways about U.S. grand strategy.
The Institute for the Theory and Practice of International Relations (ITPIR), a project at the College of William and Mary, has been conducting surveys of IR academics for years, and the results have been striking. In a 2004–2005 survey (.pdf), one question asked “Do you think that the United States should increase its spending on national defense, keep it about the same, or cut it back?” Just short of half — 49 percent — answered, “Cut,” while 41 percent chose, “Keep same.” Just 10 percent answered, “Increase.” When the researchers asked the same question (.pdf) in 2008–2009, 64 percent said, “Cut,” 30 percent chose, “Keep the same,” and only 6 percent called for an increase. Yet, on taking office in 2009, Barack Obama, the most liberal American president in at least 30 years, proceeded to increase the defense budget. Only a faint squeak of dissent could be heard in Washington.
Other questions in the survey highlight a similar dissonance: Roughly 80 percent of IR academics report having opposed the war in Iraq, while the war was wildly popular in Washington. In ITPIR’s 2006–2007 survey (.pdf), 56 percent of IR academics either strongly or somewhat agreed with the statement, “The ‘Israel lobby’ has too much influence on U.S. foreign policy.” Just 20 percent either somewhat or strongly disagreed.
These are not the sort of views one hears aired in Washington. In short, beyond any methodological or epistemological disputes, security studies experts in academia disagree with basic elements of American strategy.
Grand Strategy as Sausage‐Making
Part of the reason for this fundamental disagreement over basic principles is that the FPE has largely abandoned clear strategic thought, focusing instead on narrow tactical or operational questions. In lieu of a debate over strategy in Washington, the FPE focuses on news‐cycle minutiae and the domestic politics of strategy. In a 2007 Foreign Affairs essay on defense spending, Columbia University’s Richard Betts lamented that, “Washington spends so much and yet feels so insecure because U.S. policymakers have lost the ability to think clearly about defense policy.”
While it is difficult to prove whether policymakers have lost the ability — as opposed to the will — to think clearly about defense and foreign policy, it is clear that they have failed to do so. Take, for example, one exchange that took place in Washington on the subject of the Obama administration’s decision to send additional troops and funds into Afghanistan:
During the summer of 2009, at a panel discussing U.S. policy in Afghanistan sponsored by the Center for a New American Security, Boston University’s Andrew Bacevich pressed other participants to defend — or at least state — the strategic justification for the escalation in the Afghanistan war effort, as well as for the broader “War on Terrorism” of which it is a part. His call was met with furrowed brows and quizzical looks. One panelist — who had co‐authored the think tank’s policy paper on the Afghanistan war — complimented Bacevich for his contribution, saying it “starts asking these questions about where exactly our interests are.” But he subsequently dismissed Bacevich’s alternate strategy — abandoning the war on terror — for being “completely divorced from the political realities facing this administration.”
John J. Mearsheimer, an influential security studies scholar, assessed the president’s decision‐making process involving the Afghanistan “surge” this way: