Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs
International Affairs and the Public Sphere
Walt, Stephen. "International Affairs and the Public Sphere." HKS Faculty Research Working Paper Series RWP11-030, August 2011.
Most social scientists would like to believe that their profession contributes to solving pressing global problems. There is today no shortage of global problems that social scientists should study in depth: ethnic and religious conflict within and between states, the challenge of economic development, terrorism, the management of a fragile world economy, climate change and other forms of environmental degradation, the origins and impact of great power rivalries, the spread of weapons of mass destruction, just to mention a few. In this complex and contentious world, one might think that academic expertise about global affairs would be a highly valued commodity. One might also expect scholars of international relations to play a prominent role in public debates about foreign policy, along with government officials, business interests, representatives of special interest groups, and other concerned citizens. Yet the precise role that academic scholars of international affairs should play is not easy to specify. Indeed, there appear to be two conflicting ways of thinking about this matter. On the one hand, there is a widespread sense that academic research on global affairs is of declining practical value, either as a guide to policymakers or as part of broader public discourse about world affairs. On the other hand, closer engagement with the policy world and more explicit efforts at public outreach are not without their own pitfalls. Scholars who enter government service or participate in policy debates may believe that they are "speaking truth to power," but they run the risk of being corrupted or co-opted in subtle and not-so-subtle ways by the same individuals and institutions that they initially hoped to sway. The remainder of this essay explores these themes in greater detail.