Does American International Relations Have a Regional Studies Problem?

The title of this post asks, Does American International Relations Have a Regional Studies Problem? My initial reaction—and probably yours too—is that the answer must obviously be yes. But it’s a bit more complicated than that.

To see why, let’s step back to look at a recent Twitter exchange between my Brookings colleague Sheena Greitens and historian Gregg Brazinsky. The subject was DC’s (and academia’s) abundance of Iran non-experts selling advice about how to think about President Trump’s decision to assassinate Qassem Soleimani. It began with a snarky tweet that I wish I had thought to write:

If you’ve spent any time looking at the DC and academic chatter since January 2, you’ve seen a bunch of people who have no particular expertise in Iranian anything—but who do consider themselves Serious Conflict Scholars and Strategic Thinkers—discussing the likely retaliatory steps that Iran would take, the impacts on Iranian domestic politics, and so forth. I too wish to lampoon these insta-experts.* Sheena preempted me, though, by standing up to the snark.

Her point is important: sometimes the expertise needed to manage a foreign policy crisis is knowing how militaries make decisions, the strategic logic of limited warfare, and so forth, not the ins and outs of Iranian politics and culture. Sure, that’s important too, but country specialists do not have a monopoly on policy relevant insight. Yes, non-Iranian specialists, you too might have something to say; don’t be shy about saying so.

Still, Brazinsky’s original tweet is on to something. The DC/policy world does contain a fair number of actual Iran experts with significant linguistic expertise and in-country experience. (Still too few relative to people who confidently claim to be able to predict the consequences for Iranian politics, but this group does exist.) But academic political science, and in particular, academic international relations? Not so much. What’s going on?

Country Knowledge and the Academic Division of Labor

The answer, in my experience, has to do with the unproductive division of labor between international relations and comparative politics in the United States.** Political scientists have been lamenting this state of affairs for at least half a century, and Helen Milner predicted a “synthesis” of IR, CP, and American politics over two decades ago. But historical trajectories are hard to change, as are disciplinary conventions. And one convention that has stuck is that IR scholars do not need to develop country or regional expertise at the level of being able to speak national languages and speak knowledgeably about domestic politics, whereas comparativists do.

This is not universally the case. It is possible to do comparative politics without significant country expertise. Many comparativists specialize in aggregate or cross-national analyses, or on institutions or themes that do not require specific knowledge of any particular place. But although this is possible, true generalists are rarer than one might think. Even generalists tend to have specialized knowledge of one or two countries.

It is also the case that some countries are important enough that their international behavior can form a specialization on its own. Today, the best example is China. My own department has faculty who specialize in the international relations of China as well as the domestic politics of China. Historically, this was also true about the Soviet Union: one could study IR and specialize in Soviet/Russian international politics. For a period in the 1970s-1990s, this was also true of Japan and Japanese international relations.

Thinking regionally, another—partial—exception is Europe, with specialists in European international relations employed in American political science departments whose specialty is French, German, or British foreign relations (although this becoming less common). The same is true for the Middle East, and Israeli foreign relations.

But that is nearly it. There are very few American international specialists in the politics of, say, Iran or North Korean who speak Persian or Korean and have amassed significant in-country experience. This is also true about countries like Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria, South Africa, even India/Pakistan. I don’t mean to say that the number is precisely zero; we have, for example, Vali Nasr on Iran and Victor Cha on Korea. There are South Asian security scholars in international relations. But these are rare voices in American international relations (and these groups almost always lean heavily into the policy world as well).

To convince you that what I’ve just said is true, rather than just my impressions, I’ve looked at some data from the 2014 TRIP Faculty Survey in United States. The graph below is a bit hard to read, but it breaks down American international relations faculty by region of expertise and subject area within international relations. We are particularly interested here in the purple area, international security.

The most common regions of expertise for American IR faculty are (1) nowhere, (2) everywhere, (3) transnational actors, and (4) the US. The Middle East and East Asia do OK, I suppose, but how many of these faculty who responded are truly country experts? And how many of those data points are China and Israel/KSA?

A Personal Aside

These data ought to raise more questions than they answer. There are obviously people who are interested in both Iranian politics and culture and Iranian foreign relations and international behavior, and who go into PhD programs in political science. What happens to them?

In my experience, American PhD students who have specific interests in particular countries—even if they start from an international relations perspective—face strong pressures to “become” comparativists. I know this because it happened to me.

Q: What do you call an international relations PhD student who learns Indonesian to study the politics of international financial crises?
A: A comparativist.***

Once one is classified this way, it shapes professional incentives.**** I follow details about Indonesian elite politics that I don’t find particularly interesting or illuminating, and I almost never pay attention to Indonesian-Chinese relations in the East Vietnam Sea.

This is not to say that all is well in comparative politics either; for some rumination on the distribution of country expertise in academic comparative politics, see here (PDF), pp. 197-199. I realize that it is rather uncommon to be an Iranianist or a Koreanist in American comparative politics too. But if one were to style oneself as an expert in Iranian or North Korean domestic politics, the expectation would be that one has real country knowledge and at least some linguistic competence.

A Defensible Status Quo?

We are now in the position to return to the question posed above. Here is a summary of the premises thus far:

  1. International relations in the United States tends not to encourage scholars to develop in-depth knowledge about particular countries (exceptions noted above).
  2. Comparative politics does.
  3. Sometimes—like right now—particular countries are important for international security questions.
  4. Comparative politics scholars tend not to study those questions.

Is this a problem for American international relations?

I would normally conclude that the answer is yes, but Sheena also added one final thought that may have changed my mind.

She’s right. The conclusion that the absence of country knowledge is a problem for international relations questions rests on the premise that country knowledge provides a superior basis for action or decisionmaking than do other forms of knowledge (thematic, comparative, theoretical, technical, and so forth). Call that Premise 5. Premises 1-4 can all be true, and it still might not be a problem for American international relations. I tend to believe that Premise 5 is also true, but it is not self-evident to me that it is. And I will be the first to attest that sometimes country knowledge can be overwhelming, to the point of being directly counterproductive for making accurate predictions about complex questions.

What, then, do we conclude? Could it actually be the case that American international relations has just about the right amount of country expertise? I feel compelled to answer in the negative, but without evidence on Premise 5, I cannot confidently do so. Nevertheless, there is one final piece of information that pushes me in that direction. The Avey and Desch (PDF) survey of former national security policymakers finds that both scholars and policymakers consider area studies to be the most useful thing that academia can contribute to national security policymaking (see Figure 2 and Table 5).

Unless policymakers are wrong about what they need, or unless they mean “area studies” is some kind of superficial way, this tells me that yes, American international relations has a regional studies problem.


* The tweet I had been pondering was something along the lines of

as an expert in early colonial Malagasy topiaries, the assassination of Soleimani bears eerie resemblance to…

but I couldn’t figure out how to finish it.

** To clarify: my discussion here is about academic political science and punditry in the United States.

*** I conjecture that this will happen to anyone learning a less-commonly taught language in the United States (Mandarin, Arabic, and Russian excepted). See, e.g., Vietnamese.

**** The other thing that can happen to country experts in international relations is that they leave US political science altogether.