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International Studies: A Dying Discipline?

By Amitav Acharya

Is the field of international studies relevant to the needs of today's policymakers? In a fast-changing and increasingly interdependent world, many policy wonks and media analysts doubt the relevance of the historically Western field of international studies, also known as international relations. Bilahari Kausikan, a former head of Singapore’s Foreign Ministry says, “International relations…is the worst possible training for a career in the foreign service.”

But the field, interdisciplinary in nature, is one of the fastest growing academic disciplines in countries across the globe. If able to keep up with changing nature of world politics, international relations will continue to educate the next generation of global citizens and leaders in ways other fields cannot. In a 2009 report, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities urged U.S. institutions to “emphasize math, science and international studies,” or risk becoming “less globally competitive.”

In a recent column for The New York Times, Nicholas Kristoff argued, “most of them [political scientists] just don’t matter in today’s great debates.” Kristoff's opinion is at the heart of the academic-professional debate. Many argue that such an academic emphasis on the nature of world politics defeats the purpose of truly understanding the world - first through specializing in a specific area, and then through professional experience.

Two key issues arise from this divide. The first is whether the study of international relations is all that useful if one wants a career in global policymaking. The second is whether IR scholars do enough outreach to connect with policymakers.

It is obvious that many prominent foreign policy practitioners have been trained in IR. In the United States, some names would include Henry Kissinger, Madeline Albright, and Condoleezza Rice. In Asia, former South Korean Foreign Minister Han Sung-Joo and current Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa hold doctorates in IR. Similarly, Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh and Singapore’s former ambassador to the U.S., Chan Heng Chee, were trained in political science.

International relations has strong academic advantages. As an interdisciplinary field, it attracts all types of minds– quantitative and qualitative alike. Given the diversity of students, we can argue that the study of IR is vital to understanding and managing globalization–arguably the most important trend of our time–in all its complexity. No other discipline does this so comprehensively.

Many ‘professional’ IR schools (such as John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Georgetown University and University of Denver) have recently appointed former diplomats as deans. While traditionalists may bemoan this practice for diluting academic rigor, it broadens the appeal of IR, making it more relevant to policymaking. IR closely engages leaders of civil society organizations, as well as the business community.

This leads to the second issue: do academics make enough effort to reach out to policy makers? There are several examples where academics have shaped big policy ideas. Samuel Huntington and Francis Fukuyama (a SAIS professor) defined two of the main debates of the post-Cold War: Clash of Civilizations and End of History. Another example is the development of the Responsibility to Protect norm (Ramesh Thakur, Tom Weiss, and Francis Deng). Proposals for multilateral institutions in Asia, such as Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN ) Regional Forum, Asia-Pacific Economic Community and ASEAN Security Community were substantially the handiwork of academics.

But policy relevant work/public affairs commentary is not [and should not] be everyone's choice and it has its dangers. In Asia and other parts of the world far from being an 'academia-policy gap', the situation may be the other way around: too many academics are doing (or trying to do) too much policy work to find time for serious academic research and writing.

One way to make international studies more relevant is to encourage universities to broaden the curriculum so that it reflects the history, culture, politics, and ideas of the whole world, and not just the West. That would address a frequent and justified complaint against the international studies education is that it is too Western-centric, or as the Harvard Professor Stanley Hoffmann put it, an “American social science.” Whether America is declining or not, the study of international relations needs to adapt to the accelerating global diffusion of power.

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Amitav Acharya is a professor at American University and President of the International Studies Association. Connect with him on Twitter.

[Photo courtsey of Kenneth Lu and SUNY Geneseo]

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