Friday, November 16, 2007

November's Books of the Month

This month's international relations book is Dani Rodrik's One Economics, Many Recipes: Globalization, Institutions, and Economic Growth. After having read an ever-increasing number of economic development treatises, Rodrik's book is one of the best and describing the current state of play. Of course, this earns him tons of flak -- as he says on his own blog, "[my work] is perfectly calibrated to annoy both the adherents and opponents of the standard way of doing economics."

It is also the subject of a Crooked Timber seminar, in which your humble blogger contributes a review. Other contributors include Adam Przeworski, David Warsh, and Jack Knight. Go check them all out.

The general interest book is Walter Russell Mead's God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World. Mead's objective in the book is to explain how and why Great Britain and the United States have defined the global order, for good or for ill. This is an engaging, fun and provocative book. Mead does an outstanding job of burrowing deeper and deeper into the mysteries of the Anglo-American psyche without forgetting the big picture. It's a little heavy on the Friedmanesque metaphors, but it's a small price to pay for an interesting read.

posted by Dan at 04:16 PM | Comments (2) | Trackbacks (0)

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

What's in an M.A., redux

Patrick Thaddeus Jackson and Rob Farley have fired additional volleys on the utility of an M.A. in international relations.

Except that with this round, the debate is actually about something more fundamental -- the utility of international relations theory to policymaking.

These paragraphs suggest where Jackson is coming from:

[W]here it gets controversial is the relationship between scholarship and object. We have two ideal-typical positions on this: scholarship ought to improve practice, and scholarship can't possibly improve practice, at least not directly. Rob clearly prefers door #1; I prefer door #2. Rob's position is the classic Enlightenment hope for the sciences of society: place practice on a more rational basis, achieve better results, produce a world that looks more like the world we want to live in; I think that's both dangerous and a little naive -- dangerous because it puts a potential transcendental justification for coercion in the hands of would-be reformers (after all, if the experts told us that we can do this, and you disagree, then you're either stupid or obstinate, and in either way you're in the way so forcibly removing you starts to look like a good idea) and naive because it presumes that scholarly knowledge translates more or less simply to the actual world (and once again, if it doesn't, maybe we ought to use force to make the world look more like the model . . .).

I prefer option #2 -- scholarship can't possibly improve practice, at least not directly -- in part because people claiming to have Reason/God/Truth on their sides ("Jesus/Buddha/Muhammad/science likes my policy better!") have been responsible for most of the senseless death in human history, in part because systematic scholarly knowledge is by nature an abstraction (and sometimes a severe abstraction, in which the actual practice of anyone in particular disappears -- the sports analogy here would be to sabremetric analyses of baseball, and we've seen what happens when actual baseball teams try to directly implement strategies that look valid sabremetrically) and therefore not fit for any sort of direct translation into practice, and in part because scholarly knowledge is irreducibly perspectival and thus does not seem to me to be a good solid basis for decision-making (although it can certainly inform decision-making as one element among others).

Farley's response to this is here. My response is below the fold....

From this excerpt, I've concluded that Jackson is likely correct that he should not be teaching anyone in an M.A. program. I am more skeptical that this stricture should be applied to others.

The problem with Jackson's argument is that it sets up a false dichotomy. Neither ideal type holds, and most profs in policy schools are smart enough to know that. International relations theory provides some useful constructs through which one can interpret world politics. Now -- and this is important -- they are far from perfect. Most IR theories -- hell, most social science theories -- do a much better job at after-the-fact explanation than before-the-fact prediction. In teaching them, therefore, one has to be wary of having your students believe that what they are learning is some sort of gospel. [This, by the way, is one reason why an M.A. has value-added -- most M.A. students eventually realize that sometime there is no right answer to a question. B.A. students are more reluctant to believe that the Wizards of IR are not all-powerful.]

Why teach theory at all, then? Two quick answers. First. to paraphrase Churchill, IR theory is a lousy rotten way of understanding the world -- until you consider the alternatives. Policymakers who claim to disdain abstract theories just use implicit ones -- poorly chosen historical analogies, bad metaphors, you name it. Jackson's "intellectually isolationist" approach to teaching policy doesn't make the situation any better -- it just deprives would-be policymakers of a component in their analytical tool kit.

Second, good teachers don't just teach the strengths of a particular theoretical approach -- they also teach the weaknesses and blind spots of each approach. This is the "procedural liberalism" that Michael Berube is so fond of. As Farley puts it:

Why wouldn't it be better if the policymakers in question had some theoretical training, such that they could, on their own, evaluate elements of the claims that the scholars are making? This IS teaching students; it's teaching students to be better, more critical policymakers.
Teaching students theoretical concepts and how to critique them is a two-fer. Hopefully, it provides them with some useful knowledge about how the world works. More importantly, however, it should teach them how to judge for themselves about how the world works. That's the best way to get students to temper the idealism that scares the crap out of Jackson.

Oh, one last point -- Jackson's sabremetric metaphor is crap. The Boston Red Sox have been successful in the past half-decade because of a combination of sabremetric analysis, traditional scouting, and a larger budget to fill out the roster. Sabremetrics was not solely responsible -- but without it, there's no way they win two World Series either.

This is how IR scholarship should be viewed as well -- an insufficient but necessary base of knowledge from which one can craft effective policies.

posted by Dan at 11:58 PM | Comments (11) | Trackbacks (0)

Just to play devil's advocate....

For many Americans, bashing the United Nations is like bashing the French -- it's easy and fun! And there's plenty to criticize, as anyone who observes the workings of the UN Human Rights Council can attest. Both realists and neoconservatives argue that a hegemon like the United States has greater freedom of action outside the strictures of the UN than within it.

Here's a question, then. Compare the recent crackdowns in Myanmar and Pakistan. The American response to the former country's crackdown has largely been carried out through the United Nations, whereas the Security Council has been mum on Pakistan.

Which is not to say that the U.S. has been inactive -- clearly, George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice have been been directly pressuring Pervez Musharraf to reverse his course of action, respect the rule of law and allow the secular parties to participate in upcoming elections.

What does it say, then, that Myanmar seems to be taking tentative steps in a liberalizing direction, while Pakistan is moving in the opposite direction?

(To be clear, Pakistan remains a much more open society than Myanmar -- I'm talking about recent trends and not overall status.)

posted by Dan at 09:14 AM | Comments (10) | Trackbacks (0)

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The New York Times op-ed page mimics the blogosphere

As a blogger, I've been bemused by the exchanges between Paul Krugman, David Brooks, and Bob Herbert on the meaning of Ronald Reagan's 1980 campaign kickoff in Philadelphia, Mississippi.

They're exactly like a typical blog exchange, in that the debate quickly devolves from Big Questions to minutiae.

Unlike a typical blog exchange, none of the participants have linked/mentioned the others by name. Also, instead of taking a few days to play out, this will take two months.

In that spirit, the hard-working staff here at urges its readers to participate in its first ever Mimic the New York Times Op-ed Columnist Contest!!

To enter, just submit, via a comment to this post, the opening paragraph of either Maureen Dowd or Thomas Friedman's op-ed contributions on this subject. Winners will be lifted from comments and promoted to the hilt by this mighty blog.

I just can't write Dowd, but here's my sample Friedman entry:

RIYADH, KSA: If you want to smoke at King Khaled International Airport in Riyadh, you have to brave the 120 degree outdoor heat. I wanted to continue my conversation with Prince Bandar, however, so I took my ice water from the first class lounge and followed him outside. He tapped his cigar ash on the round and said, "What the Middle East needs right now is its own sunny optimist -- it's own Ronald Reagan." I sipped my Evian and told him how the cradle of Reagan's political successes could be found in Philadelphia. Not the one in Pennsylvania, but the one in Mississippi. Let's call it the Philadelphia Story.....

posted by Dan at 08:44 AM | Comments (6) | Trackbacks (0)

Monday, November 12, 2007

So you want to get a job in the foreign policy world....

At work, the question I am most often asked that I am most ill-equipped to answer is, "How do you successfully pursue a career in the foreign policy world?"

To be fair, I don't think anyone is really well-equipped to answer this question. Unlike medicine, law, or other professions, there is no routinized, codified career track for the foreign policy community.

In my experience, most successful people make the mistake of generalizing from their own experience in proffering career advice in this field. If I did that, I'd have to say something like, "Here's what you should do.... start out pursuing a Ph.D. in economics, and then change your mind after the first-year sequence...."

Still, over at Passport, Peter Singer makes a game effort in providing advice for those who wish to pursue a career in foreign policy analysis. [Who the f@%& is Peter Singer?--ed. Why, he's the youngest person to be named a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.]

Here's how he closes:

[M]ulti-taskers tend to advance further than pure specialists. People who can also convene and bring people, programs, and events together are more likely to advance to the leadership level than people who lock themselves away and only write. That is, when you look around at who is in the leadership positions in this field at think tanks, NGOs and the like, it is not merely people who are good writers but people who bring other skills to the table: management, organizational process, strategy, budgeting, fundraising, etc. The funny thing is that many of these skills get absolutely no nourishment within the education backgrounds that typically bring people into the foreign-policy field. Most people either come in with a politics degree or a law degree, but the skills often called upon at the leadership level are of the MBA variety. As you focus on what sort of activities to undertake and skills to build on early in your career, I would keep this in mind.
Singer is much more plugged into intellectual-industrial complex than I, but I'm not entirely sure that answer is completely correct. I think it depends on what you want to do in your career.

If you want to move up the bureaucratic food chain, then by all means Singer is correct. If, on the other hand, you actually want to influence a specific set of policies, then specialization also has its merits.

Commenters well-versed in this world are heartily encouraged to proffer their own advice on this question.

posted by Dan at 09:49 PM | Comments (10) | Trackbacks (0)

Time to collect my Gore bets

Some colleaues at Fletcher -- who shall remain nameless -- were convinced Al Gore was going to run for President in 2008. When informed of this conviction, I quickly put down bets.

This Fortune story by Marc Gunther and Adam Lashinsky makes me think it's time to collect:

The recovering politician, environmental activist, and Nobel laureate is adding another title to his résumé: venture capitalist. After "a conversation that's gone on for a year and a half," according to Gore, he has decided to join his old pal John Doerr as an active, hands-on partner at Kleiner Perkins, Silicon Valley's preeminent venture firm.

The move is more than another Colin Powell moment (the former Secretary of State signed on as a Kleiner "strategic limited partner" two years ago and has hardly been heard from since). Gore is joining the firm as Kleiner makes a risky move beyond information technology and health-care investing into the fast-growing and increasingly competitive arena of "clean technology."

According to Doerr, by 2009 more than a third of Kleiner's latest fund, which was raised in 2006 and totals $600 million, will be invested in technologies that aim to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide. Already Kleiner has invested more than $270 million from various funds in 26 companies that make everything from microbes that scrub old oil wells to electric cars to noncorn ethanol. Twelve of Kleiner's 22 partners now spend some or all of their time on green investments.

posted by Dan at 01:34 PM | Comments (2) | Trackbacks (0)