Should Political Scientist Prescribe Public Policy?

Happy Holidays!

I hope everyone is having a great holiday season and enjoying time with family and friends.

Prescriptive Realism

I just received the December 2011 copy of Perspectives on Politics. As I was flipping through an article immediately caught my eye: “A Realist Foreign Policy for the United States” by Rosato and Schuessler. In this piece the authors set out to. “develop a prescriptive realist theory that tells great powers such as the United States how they should behave if they want to ensure their security” (p. 805).

Daniel Drezner had a post in which he was sympathetic to the argument that political scientists (specifically IR scholars) should play a larger role in (foreign) policy. However, his postulated reason that this doesn’t happen is because the IR policy community fails to reach a consensus on whether political science is valuable (also see here). In fact, he compares the way policy communities view economic and IR theories and methodology and argues that,

“[T]he fundamental difference between economic policy and foreign policy is that the former community accepts the idea that economic methodologies and theory-building enterprises have value, and are worth using as a guide to policymaking. This doesn’t mean economists agree on everything, but it does mean they are all speaking a common language and accept the notion of external validity checks on their arguments”

Drezner’s post was a response to an article written by  James Lee Ray which was also arguing that political scientists require a greater role in foreign policy. Ray argues that had more political scientists been in on the surge decision in Afghanistan the Obama administration would have come to a different conclusion. But the truth is that political scientists did not have a consensus on the effectiveness of the surge either. Speaking about the decision to replicate a “surge” strategy in Afghanistan Drezner writes.

“had Obama consulted more international relations scholars, he would have received perfectly muddled advice… The evidence… relevant to the decision by the Obama Administration about the surge in Afghanistan tends to point in diverse directions. Some of it casts doubt on the prudence of the Obama Administration’s decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, while other findings could be used to support that decision.”

These are two great points: (1) Policymakers do not view political science theories and methodology with as much value as they do economics and (2) political science is often divided within its own community on theories, methods, and findings. Moreover, it is also possible that policymakers will simply use whatever political science theories and empirical evidence to simply add credibility to desired policy actions (possible like using democratic peace theory to justify invading Iraq).

The recent PS article is another attempt, from political scientists, to influence or “advise” public policy. The prescription from the authors is to balance against other super powers and strategic (i.e. located in regions with natural resources such as oil) minor powers, while taking a more relaxed view toward minor powers which are not in a strategic region. Minor powers should be contained while the U.S. should build up its military and economic resources to balance against great powers. The scholars sum their argument by quoting Glaser,

“All else being equal, a state is more secure when it possess the military capabilities required to protect its territory from attack. These capabilities could include those required to directly protect the state” (p. 805)

and Mearsheimer

“Balancing also has a crucial signaling component to it… “the balancer draws a line in the sand and warns the aggressor not to cross it” (p. 806).

After laying out their theory (which they acknowledge is basically Waltz’s structural or what is sometimes called modern realism) and the liberal alternative, the authors use a series of important cases and claim that had balancing been used war may not have broken out. These cases include World War I, World War II, Vietnam, and the second Iraq War.

One criticism of the piece is that the authors tend to conflate liberalism (democratic peace, economic interdependence) with neo-liberal institutionalism; when describing “liberal” theories they do state that there are many variants , but when comparing realism and liberalism in regards to the cases they are much less careful. These theories are based on different levels of analysis and make different assumptions and thus should be compared separately to realism. This point is a minor one. My real concern is that this policy perception fails to take into account new research, specifically from the bargaining literature.

Balancing, Bargaining, and Information

Since Fearon (1995) scholars have understood the importance of information. Reed (2003) formalized the logic of both balance of power and power transition theory. The former argues that when states are at power parity war is least likely (which is what the above prescriptive realism relies on) and the later argues that when one state has a preponderance of power war is least likely. Reed’s formal analysis is based on the ultimatum bargaining game where the challenger is uncertain about the defender’s reservation value for war. The theoretical analysis demonstrated that when states approached power parity, uncertainty was at its greatest, and the probability of conflict was at its highest. The empirical analysis which followed corroborated the theoretical implications.

The theoretical conclusions logically followed from similar assumptions which  Rosato and Schuessler claim to rely on when developing their prescriptive realism:

“We begin with three core assumptions. First, the international system is anarchic – there is no government above states to enforce agreements among them or to protect them form one another. Second, states cannot know the present and, especially, the future intentions of others. Third, interstate war is an unpredictable enterprise with potentially devastating consequences” (pp. 804-805).

Those familiar with the ultimatum bargaining game will see the similarities. The game is non-cooperative (anarchic); the challenger does not know the reservation value of the outside option – war- of the defender (uncertain intentions over the value of war and peace); and war is represented as a costly lottery (war is an unpredictable enterprise with potentially devastating consequent). Another assumption in the bargaining game is that the good in dispute (territory, policy, etc.) is divisible. Thus, the logically consistent conclusion which follows from these assumptions is that parity is associated with an increased risk of conflict. Thus, it would seem to be that advocating “balancing” as a prescriptive foreign policy may be a little premature.

Recent research by Reed et. al. (2008) also suggests that the effect of power on war may depend on the distribution of benefits within the international system. Essentially, when the distribution of power is equal to the distribution of benefits the probability of war will be at its lowest. Reed et. al. (2008) presents an interesting test of this theory which is formally derived from the work of Powell (1999). Again, balancing may not be be effective in situations where states that are rapidly growing in power are also failing to receive an increased distribution of benefits. These are two (of what I think are some of the best) examples of recent research which directly looks at the balance of power, power transition, and the distribution of power relative to the distribution of benefits in a bargaining context.

I am in no way claiming that we have a perfect understanding of power, information, and the probability of war. However, I do think that recent research has presented some problems with balance of power theory (and the prescriptive policy of balancing). It seems logical to conclude that if power balances have a higher probability of war, a foreign policy of super power (internal or external) balancing  would lead to similar conclusions. Moreover, if realism is supposed to be a descriptive theory, then why do we need to prescribe anything to foreign policy actors. Of course theories in the social sciences are probabilistic and I do not expect actors to always act in the ways a theory describes. However, the “way the world actually works” and “outcomes that are preferable by policymakers” are not always the same thing. Nevertheless, it seems to me that research suggests that balancing isn’t associated with greater peace and thus may not be the “correct” foreign policy to prescribe to policymakers.

This brings me to the final part of this rather long blog post: Should Political Scientists be in the business of prescribing public policy?

Prescriptive Theory and Public Policy?

First, I would like to note that I do believe that a lot of political science is policy relevant (see Bennett and Ikenberry (2006) for a discussion of the APSR’s relevance for U.S. foreign policy since 1906) . What I do not necessarily think is that political scientists should be trying to actively participate in policy debates under the premise that they know the correct policy action.

Rosato and Schuessler seem to think that political scientists as a community are biased against policy relevant work and have “retreated to an ivory tower”. Rosato and Schuessler argue that policy makers use “theory” when they make policy even if it is an unconscious effort, so political scientists might as well shed some light on which theories are more useful.*

Thus, given that theory can be useful, should political scientists participate in policy debates (see Farr et. al. (2006) for a discussion of Lasswell’s “Policy Scientist of Democracy”)?  Before asking ourselves this question we should ask ourselves what criteria we should use to designate a theory good enough to be advocated to policymakers. Rosato and Schuessler state that political scientists are in the best position to give advise to policy makers as scholars because, “they must be attentive to logic and evidence”. They go on to say that scholars that want to give good prescriptive theory should complete two tasks:

“First we must take a handful of plausible assumptions and logically deduce a set of foreign policy prescriptions. Second, we must show – through a detailed examination of the historical record – that had states adhered to these prescriptions, they would likely have enhances their security without going to war, and conversely, that their embrace of alternative theories of action led them down the path to war” (p. 804).

As I have already outlined, others, using bargaining theory, have logically deduced conclusions from a set of plausible assumptions and come to different conclusions than the authors. These same scholars have also examined the historical record with the same outcome.

Nevertheless, if we argue that these are the criteria for good prescriptive theory we should also consider how confident we are in our empirical work.  As some of my previous posts have discussed observational data (and even poorly designed experiments) can give us the wrong conclusions (let alone counterfactual reasoning based on what states should have done and what outcome could have arisen given alternative actions). I am not saying that political science cannot be policy relevant – it can. What I am saying is that as a scientific enterprise we do not need to be policy relevant nor should that be our aim. In fact, political scientists (in foreign policy especially) – let alone the policy community – have not formed a consensus on which theories or methodologies have value. There are competing theories and even if these theories are presented to policymakers they would still have to decide which one to use when addressing a given situation. This also means that the people which surround a given policymaker will be able to filter the information that these people view (not to mention the intentions of policy entrepreneurs). Those in the policy world may not be so interested in the insights of political science as much as the “credibility” that it may bring to already concocted policies (see this post by Erik Gartzke from Daniel Drezner for more details on this and other views).

I study the policy process and I want to understand why policymakers do the things they do. I want to increase our understanding of the world via positive research. I also think there is a place for policy analysis and an objective look at specific public policies. Yet it is up to policymakers (and those that surround them) to decide whether research is policy relevant . But don’t be surprised if policymakers pick and choose which theory is relevant based on which policy track they are already on. Also, I am not so sure that political scientists should be so quick to think that they have the policy answers to political problems.


* I would agree but refine the argument slightly. Policy makers have a tendency to use simplified heuristics when deciding which policy to choose; instead of well thought-out theorizing, officials often make comparisons between the status quo policy and some change which alters the status quo only slightly or has already been proven to work in past circumstances (much like Lindblom’s incrementalism).


Bennett, Andrew and G. John Ikenberry. (2006). “The Review’s Evolving Relevance for U.S. Foreign Policy 1906-2006.” The American Political Science Review 100(4):  651-658.

Farr, James , Jacob S. Hacker, and Nicole Kazee. (2006). “The Policy Scientist of Democracy: The Discipline of Harold D. Lasswell.” The American Political Science Review 100(4): 579-587.

Powell, Robert. 1999. In the Shadow of Power: States and Strategies
in International Politics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University

Reed, William. (2003). “Information, Power, and War.” The American Political Science Review 97(4): 663-641.

Reed, William, David H. Clark, Timothy Nordstrom, and Wonjae Hwang. (2008). “War, Power, and Bargaining.” Journal of Politics (4): 1203-1216.

Rosato, Sebastian, and John Schuessler. (2011). “A Realist Foreign Policy for the United States.” Perspectives of Politics 9(4): 803-817.