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March 8, 2021

Academics and politicians

A posting on a blog I regularly follow – the one of US Professor Daniel W.  Drezner, who frequently contributes to the online ‘Foreign Policy’ magazine – caught my attention mainly because of the idea it suggests for the readers’ debate. Which are – Drezner asks – the essays, articles, academic studies in the field of international politics that have had a major influence on those? Or – as Drezner says – ‘if one could point to essays that really did affect the contours of world politics. The effect couldn’t just be because of who the author was/…/but rather the content of the ideas.’ And the US expert quotes five such academic essays which, in his opinion, share the quality of having shaped international politics. Here is his list: 1. George Kennan,

The Sources of Soviet Conduct, 1947; this essay, published by the ‘Foreign Affairs’ magazine (signed X, Kennan  having a diplomatic rank) is very well known including to 1st year international relations students, together with ‘Long Telegram’ sent by the same person the previous year from his post to the European capital where he was serving;

he traced the main lines of the American policy of containment of the USSR, which, by the end of the Cold War, remained the fundamental characteristic of the confrontation of the two super-powers; 2. Jean Kirkpatrick, ‘Dictatorship and Double Standards’ (November 1979), with a remarkable influence on the shaping of international policies in the area of human rights.

The celebrity of his article prompted in-coming US President Ronald Regan, elected in 1979, to name the author US Ambassador to the UN. The main idea of this essay is that, while the engagement of communist states in such undertaking was useless, anti-communist dictatorships on the other hand might respond to the policy; 3. Francis Fukuyama, ‘The End of History’ (published in the summer of 1989), which turned out to have faithfully anticipated the wave of liberal revolutions in the East of Europe that ended the Soviet type of communism in 1989 (the study, turned into a book, brought the author a huge notoriety  and triggered a huge literature, mainly in its favour); 4. Samuel Huntington, ‘The Clash of Civilisations’, published in ‘Foreign Affairs in the summer of 1993, offered a paradigm of understanding of conflicts having developed after the Cold War, especially after September 11, 2001, and the waging of war on terrorism; Zheng Bijian, ‘China <Peaceful Rice> to Great Power Status’ , published in ‘Foreign Affairs’ in the autumn of 2005 – it was the first time the American academic and political community was able to ‘read something about China’s worldview written by a Chinese national. Still, much like Kennan’s <containment> language, it was impossible to talk about China during the last decade without <peaceful rise> being part of the conversation,’ Drezner notes.As one can notice, the author is an ‘Americano-centric’ (except for the last selected study), which is nonetheless explicable by the role the US had in the Cold War developments and in the subsequent stage. Commentators have also sought to reveal the existence of studies in other geographical and linguistic areas, the ideas of which have had a certain role in driving international relations. While one such author – probably from Turkey – offers a list opened by a book by the current foreign minister of the country, written as an academic,  A. Davutoglu, ‘Stratejik Derinlik’, believed to be the ‘guidebook’ for the current foreign policy of Ankara, other readers offer more choices.

The names they cite are quite known, ranging from Alex Wendt’s ‘Anarchy is what states make of it?’ (1992, the constructivism foundation book, introducing a social meaning to international relations) to John Ikenberry’s ‘After Victory’ (2000, initiator of the direction for the foundation of international order 3.0.) to Robert Kaplan’s ‘Coming Anarchy’ (a study published in 1994, a sagacious analysis unfairly dismissed by Drezner as ‘unacademic’) and Charles Krauthammer’s ‘Unipolar Moment’ (1990, celebrating the end of the bipolar clash and the consolidation of ‘Pax Americana‘). Of course, all these had and still have influence in the world of ideas, but also in the elitist segment of political decision-makers. The blog readers also propose Robert Kagan with his ‘Power and Weakness’ ( 2002, with reference to the synuosities of trans-Atlantic relations still going on) as well as George Orwell  for his  ‘1984 ‘ (a premonition of the collapse of communism, written in 1948), with  ‘Shooting the Elephant’ (influencing the global anti-colonial movement, published prior to WWII in 1936).Studies and books fundamental to the understanding of the world of today and of the way we should build the world of tomorrow, well known to political decision-makers in all countries, to which more could still be added. However, the mentioning of this blog post carries other meaning as far as we are concerned. In order to capture it, I shall quote one of the things that made Drezner write this post: ‘some mistakes in a Carmen Reinhart- Kenneth Rogoff paper and weather the Reinhert-Rogoff argument contributed to the wave of austerity policies that swept the developed world starting around 2009.’A study prepared by these two reputable economists – Reinhert-Rogoff – backed by empirical data collected the past two hundred years, has had a remarkable influence on the governments of developed states in the adoption of austerity policies in 2010. The conclusion of these two authors – now seriously challenged – is that, once a country’s public debt has gone beyond 90% of the GDP, economic growth – if any – slows down considerably compared to the situation where public debt is below that critical threshold. The practical consequences of the theory are not hard to grasp and can be summarised in one word: austerity.

The critical article also published in ‘The New York Times’ last week demonstrates there is virtually no such connection, and that has caused a major academic and public opinion dispute (the contagion having now spread to the blogs of numerous experts everywhere). The ramifications of this criticism are evident: the author challenges the austerity implemented since 2010 which has led to a deep economic, financial and political crisis in the European Union still in progress. In order to have a qualified opinion on this academic debate, the last postings on the blog of the acclaimed American economist Paul Krugman – and the relevant readers’ comments, very numerous – give the true measure of the entirely exceptional importance of academic mistakes in political decision-making. Even if the authors of the study – they offered a public answer a few days ago – still support their opinion, the criticism against them, made by three economists with a well-known American university, continues with fury. To criticise Paul Krugman, ‘So this is really disappointing; they’re basically evading the critique. And that’s a terrible thing when so much is at stake.’In not so many words, reminded of what a 17th century Romanian historiographer (Ion Neculce) said, academics must ‘give account’ of what they write, especially when dealing with crucial subjects such as a country’s or the global economy, where decisions are made by politicians who, in their turn, are ‘guided’ by experts, in this particular case reputable economists. The Reinhert-Rogoff case and their academic error is a warning to the world of today and of tomorrow. Its huge complexity calls for an at least equal responsibility of academics, especially top ones, to the one of politicians of international size.

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