Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

The Academic-Policy Divide

Reading Time: 12 minutesScholars have less influence over Washington policymaking than they like to think.
Reading Time: 12 minutes

Illustration: Chris Gash

Reading Time: 12 minutes

As senior officials in President Barack Obama’s administration deliberated during the summer of 2009 over how to respond to the ouster of leftist Honduran President Manuel (Mel) Zelaya, one American political scientist suggested at a State Department-sponsored forum that the administration “should just bring him back.” At the time, I was an Obama appointee at the Pentagon involved in the Zelaya deliberations. What amused me was the scholar’s belief that the U.S. could just wish Zelaya back to Honduras and that he remained away because the U.S. didn’t want him there.

What was not readily apparent to the interested public–and certainly not this noted U.S. scholar–was that we had already decided to pressure the de facto regime to allow for Zelaya’s return via revoking the U.S. visas of some key members of the de facto regime.

As we were wrapping up these internal discussions, in my scholar-cum-political appointment, policy-neophyte state, I realized that I had little sense of how to actually pull visas, something that more seasoned career foreign policy hands would know intimately. I also didn’t know what would happen if not all the government agencies affected by this decision agreed. Our decision would mean nothing if it was not implemented speedily and effectively. Then I realized that perhaps the often clunky government bureaucratic process would mean that the visas would not be revoked immediately, as I had naively assumed.

I was reminded that deciding to set a policy is often entirely distinct from implementing it—or, for that matter, having it work.

For anyone with even the most cursory experience inside Washington’s decision-making apparatus, this will seem like Policymaking 101. But in retrospect, what I would have told that political scientist who offered his easy advice on returning Zelaya to Honduras is that pursuing any particular policy is simply a lot harder and less coherent than what observers assume on the outside. The truth is, academics specializing in U.S. policy toward the Americas too often have simplistic assumptions about the decision-making process. At the heart of such assumptions is the underlying perception that Washington is both omniscient and omnipotent. If Obama wants Zelaya back, he can have him back; it’s just a matter of will. Or, if the U.S. government says or does something it is because that is what it intended.

There are multiple reasons why this belief is not only misguided but corrosive to our understanding of hemisphere realities. And at the same time, it undermines the genuine contributions the academic community can make to policymaking. President Obama hinted at this in August 2009 when he took on critics who said he had not done enough to “bring back Zelaya.” “The same critics who say that the United States has not intervened enough in Honduras are the same people who say that we’re always intervening and the Yankees need to get out of Latin America. You can’t have it both ways.”

The Gap: How Washington’s Policy Bureaucracy Is Perceived and How It Actually Works

Ironically, the academic lens on U.S. policy in Latin America may give too much credit to Washington for crafting and implementing coherent and rational policies. This is partly a result of the truism that U.S. policymaking tends to get more rational the higher up in the decision-making process you go. Thus, for example, a senior-level interagency meeting in the summer of 2009 about the U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan would undoubtedly include the most vital policymakers concerned with that region. In contrast, the Zelaya impasse was an issue that could not compete with the Afghanistans, Iraqs, and North Koreas of the world that were demanding the President and his high-level advisors’ time.

This reality represents a sort of bitter paradox for Latin America: the more stable it becomes, the less likely it’s going to get high-level—rational—consideration from the Executive Branch. And when matters are not considered priorities, there is a tendency for bureaucratic imperatives (read: inertia and risk avoidance) to win out over the well-considered decisions of a presidential administration. In other words, many of the policy decisions concerning Latin America end up hostage to more bureaucratic, and less practical, policy processes.

Another tendency among academics and outsiders in general is to assume policies are pursued if the particular presidential administration mandates them. Everyone in the bureaucracy, it is supposed, follows in lockstep. The permanent foreign policy bureaucracy often plays a far greater role than many believe, and often isn’t—for reasons of their own interests or lack of coordination—in synch with the administration’s views and intentions. For example, in 2010, Larry Palmer, then ambassador-designate to Venezuela, mentioned the Venezuelan military’s low morale in response to questioning from senators during his confirmation hearings. The press and other observers quickly took this as proof of the administration’s hardening position toward Caracas. The less scintillating reality, however, was that political and career government officials had failed to coordinate their briefings to Palmer in advance of the hearings, leaving him to declare a view that was not aligned with administration positions at the time.

For that matter, what constituted the “Obama administration’s” policies versus the U.S. foreign policy bureaucracy’s was often never fully apparent to me. Yet administration officials never like admitting that they messed up or were asleep at the wheel, so the default is to not publicly correct the impression, however erroneous, that policies are coherent. The differences between actual policymaking and how it is viewed from the outside might appear subtle distinctions, but I believe they go a long way to explain why the premises that underlie academic analysis of U.S. policy in Latin America are often inadequate.

There is another truth to the inner workings of the permanent foreign policy bureaucracy that serves to minimize the weight of even the most practical, focused scholarship or scholarly advice given to U.S. policymakers. Within many of these institutions are thoughtful, seasoned public officials who are often better connected on the ground than many academics.

In the spring of 2005, during my first stint at the National Security Council working on the Western Hemisphere portfolio, a political crisis erupted in Ecuador that resulted in the ouster of President Lucio Gutiérrez. Amid reams of reports coming from our intelligence agencies, I read a State Department cable (think George Kennan’s Long Telegram, Andean style) written by a political officer in our embassy in Quito that was easily one of the most astute essays on Latin American politics I have ever read—both inside and outside government. With a clear intent to make sense of what appeared to the uninformed upper levels of decision making in Washington to be yet more political chaos in a chronically unstable region, the 3,000-or-so-word cable wove the broader context of the country’s tortured political, social and economic history with the current state of the various factions behind the political tumult.

Relying on first-hand interviews with representatives from various sectors of society, the cable combined the keen observations and inimitable prose of a first-rate journalist with the intellectual rigor of a top academic. I lamented that while the paper was an invaluable guide for our handling of the Ecuador crisis, if ever read on the outside its old-fashioned methodology would likely receive little attention from the academic political science community.

To be sure, most State Department cables are not of this singular quality or value to policymakers—though in this instance the cable was invaluable to me as the dramatic events unfolded in Ecuador. It is one lasting effect of the WikiLeaks scandal: the cables revealed that American diplomats often were more astute than they appeared at the U.S. Embassy’s Fourth of July cookout. Nevertheless, this sort of deeper thinking and reporting with policy significance should be a central goal of those Latin Americanists, especially political scientists, who want to be policy relevant.

But all too often, scholars and policymakers are on different wavelengths. I sometimes wonder whether the amount of time academics spend advising policymakers is inversely proportional to the value of their advice. Many researchers simply assume that the lack of comments from policymakers in the audience is an indication that the latter are learning from them. In fact, political scientists too often forget the old Washington maxim that people who talk don’t know, and people who know don’t talk.

Inside government, scholars who consult with policymakers are often called SMEs or subject matter experts. Policymakers will often laud the SMEs’ narrow expertise, given that it usually far exceeds their own. Yet what the SMEs often don’t recognize is that this same policymaker is now going to her next meeting (and maybe another chat with an SME) while the SME is confined to doing the same thing (often with the same content) the next time a policymaker rotates onto her narrow topic of expertise. That U.S. policymakers tend to spend about a year or two in any position ensures that there will be a lot of ignorance—and by extension, praise, for the wise SMEs.

Which brings me to the other side of the equation.

The Real Gap: Academic Research and Writing on Latin America and Policy Needs

There is likely no single reason why academia does not provide more commentary and analysis relevant to the needs of policymaking, or even why it is so rare that the field’s star scholars serve in government.

One important factor is the direction graduate studies have taken in recent years. Graduate students studying politics in Latin America no longer spend as much time in countries doing research. It used to be the norm for a student writing a doctoral thesis to spend six months or a year doing fieldwork. Today, however, modeling and data have replaced the language and cultural immersion necessary to provide the nuance and depth required to get a feel for the politics and policy elements of a region or country. Imagine, for example, if a doctoral student from Latin America had compiled data and created a complex model of the U.S.’s political system without bothering to learn English or actually spending time in Washington. I suspect that we might be less than impressed if we ever asked him to explain the subtleties of Beltway politics.

All of this might explain why, contrary to what we’d imagine, political scientists are often less qualified than their colleagues from other disciplines—say anthropologists and historians—to provide useful analysis on contemporary issues in Latin America. The latter at least tend to spend more time in communities or immersed in archives. Even if their primary mission is not to study politics and policy, such immersion gives them a more holistic feel for the societies in question. An anthropologist who observes societies in Ayacucho, Peru, or Oaxaca, Mexico, is likely to gain the sort of ethnographic exposure that would produce the kind of penetrating analysis a lone foreign service office in Ecuador penned a decade ago.

Political scientists will undoubtedly counter that while their ostensibly universal models might be sterile, they hold the key to understanding the most fundamental forces of politics—and, by extension, human behavior. But that is questionable. Let me return to my example of a Latin American doctoral student doing a quantitative study of U.S. politics. With a model generated from data sets, would we have confidence that this scholar would have a good way to explain the rise of the Tea Party movement since Obama took office? There is simply too much spontaneity, chaos and irrationality in our nature for such models to be a reliable predictor of the most salient current events. This is of course not to say that political models don’t have their place; but it is a fallacy to assume they are inherently superior to other forms of inquiry. My fear is that these now-orthodox methods are being prioritized over the issues being studied. It’s as if we study the political phenomena simply to confirm the model’s supposed validity.

At present, Washington policymakers looking for context and analysis in the hemisphere are better served by intrepid journalists like Jon Lee Anderson or Michael Reid for the highest quality of analysis, even though they of course are writing for a broader readership.

Along these lines, another reason for the reduced influence of political scientists who study Latin America is their tendency to focus on defining and categorizing political behavior and regime types. I’m frequently astounded when political scientists continue to invent new categories to describe new political phenomena, and then attempt to bring policymakers into those discussions as if those held the key to their ability to understand a situation.

Take the debate over whether former President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela was a liberal autocrat or vice versa. As Chávez changed his policies and approaches over the course of his administration, scholars produced new categories to describe him. He was variously categorized as a “competitive autocrat,” a “democratic authoritarian,” an “authoritarian democrat.” Making things worse, academics spend a great deal of their time interacting at conferences with others who share their methodological and intellectual assumptions and speak the same jargon—often failing to realize that the policymaking community does not share their strong need for a “big think” political analysis.

Categories should be the means and not ends of our analysis. And yet category-making is all too often the prevailing mode of academic presentation at policymaking forums.

I recall during my first year in the Obama administration sitting in on a National Intelligence Council conference that included academics. When the discussion turned to Argentina’s troubles, a political scientist from a prestigious university cited as an authority for his perspective a recent phone conversation he had with former Argentine President Eduardo Duhalde, by then largely marginal to national politics. It’s an illustration of a certain hubris among political scientists who, even as they dismiss policy research, are eager to trumpet their close access to any politician or policymaker. What such academics do not fully appreciate is that, contrary to what their elevated status inside their academic wombs leads them to believe about their work, access to the Duhaldes of the world does not necessarily produce the kind of nuanced, on-the-ground analysis found in that cable from Ecuador.

 It is my gut sense that the academy studies Latin America as an inherently moral realm. This is not helped by the fact that we have a generation of scholars at the top of their fields whose formative experiences were in the 1970s and 1980s, drastically different eras from the present. All too often, Latin American scholars lapse into moralizing, making us impassioned activists instead of disinterested scholars. While this might satisfy our consciences, it retards our ability to serve as sober interpreters of political events in this fascinating region.

Some are not bothered by this advocacy-infused scholarship, believing that it serves to ensure that the U.S. is held responsible for past wrongs in the region. Those wrongs are often beyond dispute, but this approach does not make for dispassionate, objective scholarship.

We don’t seem to apply quite so readily the same moral framework when we study other parts of the world. For example, the interventions of the Harry Truman administration and the Vatican on the anti-communist side in Italy’s April 1948 elections are described in historical analyses without the same air of disapproval that scholars use when describing similar actions by Washington in Latin America. Or consider the more recent episode of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s seizure of Crimea last year. From what I could tell, most scholars provided pragmatic analyses of Russia’s motives, such as its interest in preserving strategic access to the Black Sea or in undermining Ukraine’s rapprochement with Europe. In other words, most scholars were as interested in addressing the underlying drivers of modern Russian policy as in pointing their fingers at Russian “neo-imperialism.” Yet when it comes to Latin America, this default realist framework often vanishes, replaced by emotion and advocacy.

But while academic Latin Americanists might suffer from over-moralizing, the other half of the problem stems from what I call the “Bacardi right”—a group of policy officials and think tankers that acts as though any manifestation of politics or any deviation from their perception of free market economics is by definition Marxist drivel or agitation. I call them the Bacardi right because while their rhetoric is ostensibly about free markets and individual liberties, their true comfort zone is the more traditional political, social and economic realm when they were the comfortable aristocracy or quasi aristocracy. In fact, often the market they seek to protect is the monopolistic one that has benefited them, not a truly free one.

I too would love “property rights” if I owned all the property. Their public theologian being the Wall Street Journal’s editorialist Mary O’Grady, the Bacardi right treats the sanctity of private property as the foundation of civilization, a convenient creed given that this entails their businesses and families owning all of this sacred property.

The Bacardi right was decidedly anti-communist during the Cold War, for obvious reasons. Part of this has been replaced by their skewed free market fundamentalism, although they often view Latin America as though the Cold War were still going on.

What is remarkable is that both the academic left and the Bacardi right often have a blind spot for autocrats if these rulers appear to be promoting their own ideologies. Thus, the left will overlook the Castro regime’s police state for the admired social gains. The right, by contrast, will applaud Peruvian autocrat, former President Alberto Fujimori’s free market opening despite his government’s egregious human rights record.

Bridging the Gaps

This is not to say that writing and analysis from thoughtful U.S. foreign service officers in the field is always superior, or that it obviates the need for outside scholarly analysis. Indeed, one of my biggest and most constant frustrations during government service was how the intelligence community—ostensibly the eyes and ears of decision makers—almost instinctively interpreted information and events in a negative light, often as threats.

Policymakers are fed a daily diet of “dark” analyses from the intelligence community, focused on apparent hot spots and threats. That information and how it is processed can easily fall into a needless and inaccurate adversarial outlook.

What often occurs is that policymakers and the intelligence community become codependent. What better way to keep your readership up or support your views than by emphasizing the most troubling interpretations of motives and events? (Side note: I was at the National Security Council in September 2010 when a police mutiny in Ecuador momentarily threatened President Rafael Correa’s government. Taken completely by surprise, I made my “911” call to the CIA, yet they were as much in the dark as I was. The irony was thick: Correa’s supporters were alleging the CIA was behind an uprising that the CIA didn’t even know about.)

This is where scholarship can and must play a role. If there is a maxim I attempt to impart to my undergraduate students at Davidson College, it is that our role as scholars is to explain, not justify. However, so often in the academic discourse of Latin American politics and U.S.-Latin American relations, this key distinction is muddled or lost entirely. We all need to refresh our ideological lens when it comes to Latin America and the role the U.S. plays in this region, given how quickly the region is changing.

One key to that reassessment is getting more of our political scientists out in the field, either in Latin America to conduct actual on-the-ground research or in government positions inside the Beltway, rather than ineffectively opining and exhorting from the outside about what should be done. While it may be too late to change the approach of many of our current crop of academics, I hope today’s and future generations of students will take this advice to heart.

We cannot allow our own ideological or methodological rigidities to distort the interpretations (or kill the curiosity) of budding scholars. Only with such a fresh approach can we begin to sharpen our understanding of twenty-first-century Latin America, and the U.S. role. More empiricism, more nuance, more sobriety (and less emotion and ideology) are critical.

If our academic community doesn’t rise to this challenge, we might wake up one day to discover that the region we thought we knew everything about has left us behind.

Tags: Academia, U.S. Foreign Policy
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