What I Learned Teaching IR in Asia (2): Show me the Policy Relevance!

The robot special effects are pretty funny

Part one is here, where I noted how teaching IR in Asia taught me to stop worrying and love American empire, and that American social science’ monolinguism is actually a highly responsible research technique. Here are a few more:

4. Imperial Star‘Fleet Professors, or why everyone seems to want to work for MOFAT. In his essay in Cooperation under Anarchy (btw, was that sorta the bible for anyone else in their first year of IR grad school?), Van Evera had that good remark about ‘fleet professors.’ The German navy, in the race with the Royal Navy, coopted professors, through money, access, and prestige, to make an intellectual case for expansion and competition. We used that term in grad school to indicate PhDs who wanted to work for the government or DoD, or more generally, had possible conflicts of interest because of relations with the state. Yet connection to the state is fairly common in Korea and smiled upon by university administration. Everyone (yes, me too) seems to have some relation to government-affiliated think-tanks and such (here, here, here). Conferences routinely and explicitly invite policy-makers and expect academics to comment on current issues. I worry about this, because government preferences inevitably influence positions, and it is so easy to get pulled into predictions for which you have little knowledge beyond a few articles you’ve read. I am regularly asked when NK will collapse, e.g., or who should own the Liancourt Rocks, but as Saideman noted, it’s so easy to put your foot in your mouth when you reach like that. It’s also kind of easy for this to turn into an academic food-fight, as it did the first time I debated a Chinese IR academic. By contrast, I find Korean colleagues quite excited to engage in the policy-making joust. 

The idea that this might damage the ‘speaking truth to power’ role of the professoriate is generally not worried about. (Read this on the issue.) Instead, following the yangban legacy (similar to the Chinese mandarins), the idea is that PhDs, with all their accumulated wisdom (hah! somebody call the Tea Party!), should help guide the state better. On the one hand, this is terribly flattering. Koreans, and east Asians generally, respect academics in a way I was wholly unprepared for, especially given the widespread American attitude that we are either overintellectualized ballonheads who lose our glasses on our foreheads, or a liberal atheist threat to the good values of Christian America. I get invited to speak at think-tanks and public events, talk on the radio, and write in newspapers in way I never was at home. On the other hand, it does raise the next issue…

5. Enough of your model-building, Poindexter! We need policy relevance! Walt regularly laments that IR, and political science generally, are too abstract and too distant from reality (certainly grad school was). Korea and China (although not Japan so much in my experience) are the opposite. Political science is so policy relevant that it often threatens to become public policy prescription instead. I remember this issue of ISR which pretty much found that outside the US and a few other places, political science isn’t really about basic research at all. I understand in Korea, with the enormous pressure of NK on everything we do in IR here, why this is so; bizarre and terrifying, NK inevitably dominates a huge amount of my teaching and conference time. But I do think this impoverishes Korean IR theoretically. (Here is the best IR journal to come out of Korea; let me know what you think.) And with Chinese colleagues, it is worse. It is hard to tell how much of their policy edge comes from ties to the state, and how much is ‘overseen’ by the state or required by the party (although like most people, I have found Chinese scholars in private to be far less ideological and aggressive than at the conference table). My experience is that Chinese political science is pretty much public policy, not what Duck methodologists would consider social science. At some point, this will have to change in order to address issue 3 (American IR dominance). In the Korean case, given the enormous amount of time devoted to NK in IR here, I can’t see this until after unification.

6. Springer’s Final Thought: Nobody wins when IR theory cheats on its cases. Dave Kang once told me that East Asia is a ‘candy store’ of cases for IR, and they are terribly under-researched. Teaching here has really shown me that. Forget all your standard (i.e., western) IR examples like the Cuban Missile Crisis, the inter-war period, or Napoleon. Undergrads here only know this stuff vaguely, and you can’t connect with them if all you’ve got are stories about white guys. Start thinking about the Imjin War or Qianlong, and if you don’t know what that means, that’s the whole point. There are lots of good puzzles. For example, why don’t Japan and SK ally balance against China as realism/balance of power theory says they should? What about a pre-modern Confucian peace? It is unfortunate that Asian work on this is underdeveloped. Asian history has many good cases that we don’t know about, because we are overfocused on conflicts that are both modern (after Columbus) and Western.  That space-time limit (Western, post-1500) has really struck me most as an IR theorist living here. Just within the West, consider that Rome and Carthage have scarcely been explored a as bipolar system, even though modern IR is pretty much built on cold war bipolarity. Then think about the fact that China has been a reasonably coherent entity for something like 2200 years. The room for IR theory application and improved generalizability is huge.

Cross-posted at Duck of Minerva.

6 thoughts on “What I Learned Teaching IR in Asia (2): Show me the Policy Relevance!

  1. Good posting! It reminds me of Amitav Acharya’s book about the lack of non western IR theories. Some of the chapters describe the development of IR in China and S. Korea. And just like some of the points you mentioned: political science in China is basically the description of public policy, and IR in S.Korea is pretty much occupied with security dilemma between them and N. Korea.


    • Thanks. I think you are right. I was at a confernce last year with Acharya and Kang where we discussed this in some detail. What book by Acharya were you thinking of?

      Thanks for reading and commenting.


      • The title is Non-Western International Relations Theory: Perspectives On and Beyond Asia (Politics in Asia). Edited by Amitav Acharya and Barry Buzan.
        I am an IR lecturer from Indonesia and one of the problems that I’m facing when teaching IR theories is that not all of IR theories can be applied to explain the situation in non western world.


  2. Pingback: Why don’t Korean and Japan Align, even though IR says they should? | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

  3. Pingback: What I Learned Teaching IR in Asia (1): Learning to Love US Hegemony | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

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