Stephen Walt’s school season trend piece, Top 10 Things Would Be Foreign Policy Wonks Should Study (notice the meme-friendly Top 10ism) deserves a Gentleman’s C+/B-.
His list is safe. History? Check. Economics? And so on. Granted, Walt’s list is click bait for Volvo Moms and Dads driving Little Ones to a dorm for the first time. Walt still demonstrates after 2001-2011 that Realists aren’t about cadre-building or meme promotion.
Area Studies As Key For Foreign Policy
To be blunt, the American foreign policy field suffers from an acute and growing shortage of area specialists. At both undergraduate and graduate levels area studies sink further into eclipse. Abstraction permeates as ‘terrorism’ studies, ‘national security studies’ and yes, ‘foreign policy’ – even when seemingly rigorous with phony statistical analysis. Former Neocon militant romanticisms are temporarily quiescent. Yet their replacement as a dominant academic trend, for example, is the equally disassociated development theory. Area studies’ eclipse is particularly stark post-graduate.
Area studies’ empirical, granular focus on the specific was and remains the antidote for Neocon manipulated simplicities. One reason Neocons are so hostile to native language speakers, specific histories and facts in context. Indeed, to understand the Neocon war on what once was CIA (Soviets before, ‘terrorism’ 2001-2007) or the Foreign Service is to discover this truth.
Area studies is a relatively new concept in American foreign policy and academic thinking. For decades after WW II, American foreign policy cadres evolved from Euro-centric and British-derived experiences. Even Kissinger’s at-the-time novel Metternichian formulations a variation.
America began to invest in area studies really only beginning in the 1960s. Too late to impact the tragedy in Southeast Asia. Area studies briefly flourished. Even so, Americans prefer to substitute technology for area studies’ tedious discipline. Before it was FBIS (Foreign Broadcast Intercept Service), now it’s automated computer translation. George Schultz was probably the only Secretary of State to support and promote unreservedly area studies (given his Princeton and Stanford experiences).
The results? You know what happened in 2003-06. And later with Afghanistan, COIN and the bogus 3 Cups of Tea, for example.
Specific Quibbles With Walt’s List
Regarding Walt’s list, learning a foreign language is good discipline. Like playing a musical instrument. Languages develop memory and neural pathways. And any language creates linkages with another culture. As to which language? The romance languages are easiest but also least useful. Some languages are strategic and others aren’t.
Similarly, history without focus has little value. Unconnected with language and other studies, it’s utility for foreign policy is hit or miss. History does inculcate respect for facts. Yet, again, some history yields more returns than others. The last thing a job applicant and the Nation need is another forced march through McNeil’s “Rise of the West”.
‘Economics’ similarly on its own has only tenuous connection to foreign policy, empiricism or professional advancement. We agree that most foreign policy ‘wonks’ understand economics like a GOSPLAN apparatchik. So some quant work good training.
The key is again to seek comparative studies. To recognize that other non-Western prisms are effective, such as the initial and widely copied 1955-1989 Japanese phenomenon, the Soviet (for a time) and current German managed export-led growth.
Economics as taught in American schools is ideology cloaked by the trappings of rigorous empiricism. Aside from quant training, economics’ true value is placing Anglo-American ideology-cum-‘science’ in perspective with other regions. One can then grasp the global implications. Comparative economics will reveal how others have succeeded in overtaking the American/British ideological fixations. So yes, learn macro and micro theory. It’s useful as a beginning. But to be useful for realism or foreign policy? More.
We understand Walt’s list was a toss off and possible troll bait. A conversation would likely develop quickly into nuance.
Similarly, our emphasis on area studies is perhaps addressed best at the post-graduate level. But our central point remains: a French-speaking (say Foreign Service level 2), European history major with a smattering of pareto-efficient economics and ‘counter-terrorism’ studies does little to advance their career, realism or what the Nation needs.
Freshmen and parents, listen to us. There’s always time in life to become generalists. The best ones have tactile and specific training.