American Policy Makers Do Not Read Books

In the December issue of International Studies Quarterly Paul Avey and Michael Desch published one of the more interesting articles to come from an academic international relations journal in a long while. For the last few years there has been a rather voracious debate within social science generally and political science specifically about whether or not the scholars who study these things have been producing scholarship that can be used by the men and women charged with crafting policy. Dr. Avery and Desch jump into his debate with a rather innovative approach: mass interviews and questionnaires asking policy makers what they actually think of social scientists and how they use the research social scientists produce. A full list of the people surveyed is included on pages 6-7 of their paper; it is focused on foreign policy makers, including everyone from the Secretary of State, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Director of the CIA down to the undersecretaries of the various State and Defense Department regional offices.

As may be expected, most of the commentary on this study has been written by political science professors and grad students about how the results of these surveys can be used to perfect their own teaching programs. More interesting to me is the picture the survey paints of America’s policy-making elite. These are the folks who decide or implement American foreign policy. Who are they and how do they learn about their world?

The study begins with a basic demographic breakdown of the group:

 These officials surveyed had all served in the Bush or Clinton administrations. Commenting on the demographic profile of the group, Avey and Desch note:

The youngest respondent was 32 while the average age was 59. The vast majority were also white (90%) and male (85%). Fully 85% had some form of post-graduate training. We weighted the survey pool toward high-level officials and those with direct policy-making responsibilities. The respondent demographics reflected this fact; 59% reported their primary job responsibility as policy -making / policy advice and a plurality (44%) described their highest rank in the U.S. government as Senate confirmable policy or department/agency leader. The average length of government service was 24years. The greatest diversity came from the respondent’s primary disciplinary background, though nearly a third of respondents (30%) received their primary training in international affairs. [1]

 A majority of these officials would have been born in the late 1950s, graduated with their undergrad diploma some time in the late ’70s and finished their post-graduate training in the ’80s. I’ll come back to this fact later in our discussion of the survey’s results. But first I’d like to discuss what I thought were the study’s two most interesting figures:

 Here is what Avey and Desch have to say about this data::

Figures 16 and 17 show that the most important sources of information for policymakers are classified information and newspapers. This makes sense in terms of the unique resources inside government and also the limited time policymakers have to read outside materials. It is striking, however, that policymakers find newspapers as useful as classified information, lending more credence to the widely recognized–if seldom acknowledged –fact that most policy is made based upon open sources. Conversely, and also not surprisingly, books (both scholarly and trade) and television and radio do not rank as highly as sources of we discuss this group’s relationship. [2]

Dr. Avey and Dr. Desch are interested in how decision makers assess different information sources because they are searching for ways that academics can get their results onto the desks of decision makers (their conclusion is academics who want the powers that be to listen to them need to be writing more op-eds for major newspapers). I am interested in the topic because understanding how American strategists know what they know about the world is critical to understanding why the American government does what it does in the world. [3]

The one thing that sticks out to me from these results is that American policy makers do not read books.

Some books are surely read, of course, but the harsh truth of the matter is that between their professional responsibilities and the reading burden posed by simply keeping up with current affairs most people charged with crafting American strategy do not have the time to read very many real books. The knowledge they gain from what they read during their policy-making years will be broad, but it is probably not deep.

For some areas this is to be expected–ISIS has hardly been around long enough for many monographs to be written about it. But books upon books about counter-insurgency and terrorism, Islamic millenarian ideology, contemporary Near Eastern society, and the region’s history have been written.  Many of these books, especially those with a historical bent, cannot be reduced to a power-point slide briefing or a New York Times op-ed. And if readers of The Stage have learned anything from reading this blog, it should be that the historical and cultural context of our adventures abroad matter. We lose wars when our strategists do not know realize this, and much more besides.

One cannot take this condemnation too far. There is a real limit to what you can expect policy-makers to master. No man can be an expert in all domains and it is too much to expect the Secretary of State to read three or four histories of a troublesome country every time a new crisis begins. Back when John Quincy Adams was America’s premiere grand strategist and it took several weeks for letters to cross the Atlantic it was feasible for statesmen to pull off a reading spree before the trouble was over. This is too much to expect of senior policy makers in this era, who are not only expected to make time in their schedules for fancy photo ops and jet trips across the world, but often must react to crises minutes and seconds after they occur. It is a wonder these men read anything at all.

If the American strategist of 2015 has a deep base of historical, cultural, and scientific knowledge to draw on to guide the decisions he makes this is because he acquired this knowledge base before he was a senior policy maker. You can actually see hints of this in the survey data–Avey and Desch asked policy makers to list the living international relations scholars they thought had the greatest influence on actual policy making. Along with scholars-turned-officials (e.g. Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Anne-Marie Slaughter) and public intellectuals (e.g. Francis Fukuyama, Fareed Zakaria) were a list of men whose scholarly apogee was twenty to thirty years ago, back when our policy makers were undergrads! (Funnily enough many of these men–Samuel Huntington, Albert Wohlstetter, Hans Morgenthau–are not only past their scholarly prime, but are no longer alive!)  Those who rose to prominence after 1995 barely register. [3]

One of the lessons we can draw from this is that the books and material we expect American students to read and master in the early stages of their life will have an outsized influence on the knowledge they will possess in their old age. Today’s strategists survive off of what they learned when they were in school forty years ago. [4] Absent dramatic changes in the life style of government officials or unforeseen technological developments, the policy-makers crafting strategy in 2040 will be working off of the knowledge base they are building from the books they are reading right now


[1] Michael Desch and Paul Avey,  “What Do Policy Makers Want From Us? Results of a Survey of Current and Former Senior National Security Decision Makers,” International Studies Quarterly, 54, no. 4 (2014), 8

[2] ibid., 27

[3] One could argue that this is because academic fashion has been moving away from theories or approaches that can be used “practically.” There is something to this, but I do not think it can explain everything here. James Fearon, for example, is the author of the most elegant and cogent formal model of political behavior I have yet encountered–long term readers know I am usually quite hostile to such models–and its relevance to contemporary discussion of war and peace is immediately apparent to all who read it.

[4] Of course, actual experience is a school of its own sort, and its lessons are perhaps more valuable than anything that might be found in a book, especially when policy makers are asked to resolve momentary crises on a dime. I expect that the type of background knowledge gained from the serious study of books would be most useful when planning for longer time lines–in essence, when decisions must be made at the strategic level. This is, perhaps unsurprisingly, where we see the greatest deficiencies today.

Edit (20 April 2015): The title of this post was changed to make it more appealing on social media. 

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One Comment

Interesting, on an admittedly quick reading (how appropriate, I s'pose, even tho I don't have the policymakers' excuse).

Hans Morgenthau died in 1980, Albert Wohlstetter in 1997. Morgenthau's scholarly apogee, in terms of his output, was obvs. earlier than 20 or 30 yrs ago. Morgenthau's key works are mostly from the 1930s, 1940s and 50s, though he did write some important (esp. topical) essays into the 60s and 70s. He did not have much influence on US foreign policy after the 50s, arguably, and arguably never had all that much influence on it period, except indirectly insofar as some people read his textbk. As someone who was an undergrad in the late 70s, however, i think the heyday of the Morgenthau textbk, Politics Among Nations, had passed by then in terms of course adoption. Admittedly just a guess on my part.

As for Wohlstetter, his most famous article, "The Delicate Balance of Terror," is from the late 1950s (1958, I think).