Why bridging the gap is hard

By Daniel W. Drezner, Professor of International Politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University

Discerning readers are no doubt aware that the crisis between Russia, Ukraine, NATO and the United States has been focusing the mind of many a commentator. The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alert has written a fair amount on the Ukraine crisis in recent days — first on sanctions and then on deterrence.

Musgrave subsequently described this as “the Rashomon of academic tweets,” and he ain’t wrong about that. At the risk of reading too much into his words, the tweet explains why, when policymakers and scholars talk to each other, they sometimes talk past each other.

Musgrave is right to note the disconnect between how policymakers and academics think about things. During a crisis, no policymaker wants to hear an autopsy of How We Got Here. And academics are primed for that autopsy, because that is what we love to study.

There is an additional disconnect as well. Policymakers care only about feasible options in which they possess some agency — i.e., have control over the levers. Many political scientists are interested in causal explanations that focus on structural factors outside the policymaker’s control. Telling a policymaker that this structural condition needs to change is of little use for a person whose idea of a long time horizon is two weeks.

Plenty of scholars have made this observation in the past on a general level. Thinking about particular policies and crises, however, there are additional hurdles to bridging the gap. Sometimes an academic possesses far deeper knowledge about a particular place or issue. That said, most scholars most of the time simply cannot know all the dimensions of a particular policy problem.

To use myself as an example: I knew that my suggestion Wednesday of seriously ramping up U.S. forces in Eastern Europe might run into constraints — but I wasn’t sure, and I was on the clock. Very often, think-tankers, whose full-time job is to focus on having an impact, can bridge the gap far better than a cranky academic who is more likely to say “travel back in time and undo the 2008 Bucharest Summit Declaration!”

Does this mean that academics should not try to bridge the gap? Of course not. But bridging that gap can look different to an academic than to someone in power. A policymaker wants good advice and then to be left alone. An academic might want to raise the costs of opting for what seems to them like a really bad decision. Criticism is entirely appropriate, whether it is swatting down a bad idea from a policy entrepreneur or pushing back against an unfortunate consensus of insiders.

Highlighting How We Got Here and the Mistakes We Made Along the Way are supremely unhelpful to current policymakers. Such critiques, however, can have profound effects on future policymakers. The reason that analogies like Munich keep getting bandied about is to stigmatize some past policy choice as an outcome that should be avoided. Munich itself was stigmatized that way during and after Word War II.

Some academics will highlight more recent policy missteps that have gotten the United States into its current fine mess (some think it’s the very idea of NATO expansion; for others, it’s that stupid Bucharest declaration). By highlighting such failures, maybe the next generation of aspiring policymakers will be able to avoid making the same mistakes (and make entirely new ones instead).

So I get why policymakers are persistently frustrated with academic policy advice. But asking for solutions to problems that might have been avoided had they consulted at earlier stages of policymaking is frustrating as well. Policymakers have all the power in the present; academics possess the comparative advantage of playing the long game.

This piece was re-published from The Washington Post

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