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How America's Foreign Policy Affects Its Political Science
By IDO OREN
American political scientists seldom reflect upon the identity of their
discipline. They instinctively associate political science with freedom and
democracy even as their texts represent the discipline as an objective
science. Thus, the self-image of American political science is
paradoxically that of detached scholarship attached to particular ideals.
The linkage between political science and democracy is so taken for granted
in the profession that it requires little explicit affirmation except, from
time to time, in rituals such as the annual address of the president of the
American Political Science Association. So it was that, in his 1987 APSA
presidential address, Samuel P. Huntington of Harvard stressed that "the
connection between democracy and political science has been a close and
continuing one. ... Where democracy is strong, political science is strong."
But a careful reading of the same text raises some doubt about the firmness
of that alleged bond. The main theme of Huntington's talk was that
democratic reforms must be carried out very cautiously. Dictatorships must
not be pushed too hard because "however bad a given evil may be, a worse
one is always possible and often likely: Witness the unhappy recent
experiences of Cuba, Vietnam, Cambodia. ... The political scientist,
consequently, can only be skeptical of a claim that, as one Chilean
dissident [Ariel Dorfman] put it, 'there is no way in which we are going to
see anything worse than General Pinochet' or the argument of an opponent of
apartheid that 'the first African government of South Africa ... could
scarcely be any worse' than the current regime."
Huntington's mention of South Africa was not accidental; several years
earlier, he had traveled to Johannesburg to meet with South African
officials and deliver a scholarly paper on political reform. The context of
his trip was the apartheid regime's attempt to engineer limited
constitutional change that would extend some political rights to the
country's mixed-race and Asian population, but none to the black majority.
In the paper Huntington delivered in South Africa he questioned "the
relevance to South African needs" of the "liberal belief that each person
deserves equal political and civic rights." He argued that "the
centralization of power may also be necessary for the government to
maintain the control over violence that is essential to carry through major
reforms." Joseph Lelyveld, then the South Africa correspondent for The New
York Times, observed that regardless of what Huntington actually meant by
such abstractions, South African officials used the "Huntington thesis," as
Johan Coetzee, the national police chief, called it, to legitimate their
Lelyveld's commentary suggests that, although political scientists as
private persons may be committed to democracy, political-scientific
concepts and political science as a profession are not inherently
incompatible with nondemocratic regimes.
Huntington's own biography also raises doubts about the other element of
the discipline's paradoxical self-image: its presumption of objectivity.
Throughout his career, Huntington wrote some of the most influential books
of 20th-century political science. He was a consultant to numerous
government agencies, including the State Department, the Defense
Department, and the Central Intelligence Agency. He served on several
government commissions and was coordinator of security planning at the
National Security Council in 1977-78. Some of Huntington's published
research was financed by the CIA.
My concern is not with the ethical propriety of scholars' working for the
government, but rather with the connection between the politics of U.S.
foreign policy and the substance of political-science scholarship.
Huntington's career provokes important questions: What are the
ramifications of political scientists' involvement in the politics they
study for the claim of their profession to be a detached science? Is
American political science in fact more attached to its homeland than to
Max Weber, in his essay on objectivity in social science, stressed that
"all knowledge of cultural reality ... is always from particular points of
view." But although Weber has become a canonical figure in contemporary
political science, his insistence on the perspective-bound nature of social
science has had little resonance in the discipline. The postmodernist view
that politics and scholarship constitute a single "nexus" has generated
even less interest. Indeed, from books on the scope and method of political
research, one would hardly guess that point of view is an important issue
in social-science epistemology. By default, the image of political science
that emerges from its discourse is one of an objective science that
investigates yet remains outside politics, and whose constructs are not
imbedded in any historical or national context. The notion that political
science in the United States might reflect a distinctly American point of
view receives almost no consideration.
That's a serious lapse, because America's foreign relations have been
mirrored in its political science. The discipline has been transmuted again
and again, depending on which of America's chief enemies it was
confronting. Imperial Germany, Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany and Stalin's
Soviet Union maintained decent, sometimes even cordial, relations with the
United States before they became its bitter rivals. And exploring the
discipline's portrayals of those regimes before and after their conflicts
with America affords a critical examination not only of the presumed
objectivity of political science but also of its purported attachment to
In all cases, the images of America's enemies presented by American
political scientists became considerably darker after the conflict's onset.
The current image of imperial Germany as an "autocratic" antithesis of
American "democracy" was not shared by two of the most important political
scientists of the late 19th century, John Burgess and Woodrow Wilson.
Burgess, founder of the first graduate school of political science in
America (at Columbia), regarded Germany's political system as second only
to America's. Whereas political scientists today regard the kaiser's lack
of parliamentary accountability as a serious flaw, Burgess saw that
conservative feature of the Wilhelmine system as its virtue. Similarly, in
the 1890s Wilson regarded imperial Germany as an advanced constitutional
state whose efficient administration was a model for American
administrative reform. Whereas present-day political scientists condemn the
three-class electoral system of Prussia for its violation of equal
suffrage, Wilson recommended that American cities adopt that very system
because it rewarded the "better" elements in society.
Since World War II, political scientists have had nothing good to say about
Fascist Italy, but in the 1920s and 1930s prominent scholars expressed
rather uncritical views of Mussolini's regime. Some portrayed Mussolini's
dictatorship as a vigorous modernizing force appropriate for a backward
nation such as Italy. Henry Spencer of Ohio State University, the
profession's leading authority on Italian politics, portrayed the Italians
as "passive subjects" by nature and praised Mussolini for energizing
Italian public life. Other scholars believed that certain aspects of
fascism might be appropriate for modern America. Charles Merriam of the
University of Chicago, for example, the most important political scientist
of the interwar era, was intrigued by Mussolini's "striking experiment" in
civic education. Merriam sponsored a study of the methods by which the
Fascist regime fostered civic loyalty, characterized those methods as "full
of meaning for the student of civic training," and was open to the
possibility of adapting them to American conditions.
Hitler's Germany is now our paradigm of extraordinary evil. The attitude
that Nazi Germany had its "good points" is taboo in current political
science, but before World War II it was well within the bounds of
legitimate discourse. A review of an abridged English edition of Mein Kampf
in The American Political Science Review in February 1934 praised the
translation's editor for selecting passages that present a "very fair
picture of Hitler," including Hitler's "most enlightened comments on the
theory of the state and the nature of government." This review was not an
aberration. During the 1930s, some prominent political scientists
maintained that the Nazi regime was not without positive achievements,
especially in the area of public administration, and that Americans could
learn from those achievements. James K. Pollock, for example, translated
into English the Nazi Civil Service Act of 1937, describing it as "the most
complete and thorough code of personnel matters to be found anywhere in the
world." "Its value to students of personnel problems," he assured, "will be
apparent even after a very cursory study." It was true, Pollock conceded,
that Nazi enforcement of "political reliability" had created "some
demoralization" among German civil servants, but, thankfully, "nothing
approaching the American spoils system has been developed." Pollock chaired
the University of Michigan's political-science department from 1947 to 1961
and served as president of the APSA in 1950.
In the 1950s, political scientists, most notably Merle Fainsod and Carl
Friedrich of Harvard, played a key role in elaborating the concept of
totalitarianism and applying it to the Soviet Union. The concept entailed
an analogy between the regimes of Stalin and Hitler, and connoted a form of
tyranny far more "ghastly" than that of conventional autocracies. But
during the 1930s it was not uncommon for American political scientists to
portray Stalin's Soviet Union in far more positive terms. Merle Fainsod was
intrigued in 1934 by the Soviet experiment in central planning and
conspicuously refrained from identifying Stalin's regime as a dictatorship.
The Harvard Sovietologist Bruce Hopper contended in 1937 that "the Soviet
solution of Capitalist evils offers eventually greater freedom to the
individual than any other successor to democracy." And the University of
Chicago's leading Sovietologist, Samuel Harper, threatened to sue his
publisher in November 1938 to prevent inclusion of Harper's book in a
series entitled "European Dictatorships."
The image of Japan underwent the same process. That case has already been
ably examined by Richard J. Samuels of MIT. "The intellectual history of
Japanese studies in this country," he concluded, "reflects closely the
changes in the foreign relations of the United States and Japan. The
predominant images of Japan in U.S. scholarship have been positive when
U.S.-Japanese relations have been friendly and have turned critical when
the relationship has been more adversarial."
The history of America's international rivalries has impinged on the
history of American political science in still more ways, occasioning broad
theoretical changes that amounted to changes in the image of America
itself. Such theoretical reimaginings were partly inspired by the active
involvement of political scientists in America's war efforts.
Political science as an academic profession was born in the aftermath of
the Civil War. The trauma of national rupture issued the compelling task of
laying intellectual foundations for national cohesion. The pioneers of the
profession located such foundations primarily in theories of America's
Teutonic heritage and in the doctrine of the supreme sovereignty of "the
state" to which their German mentors introduced them.
World War I shaped the discipline's theoretical trajectory in several ways.
First, conflict with Germany shattered the image of America as an
Aryan-Teutonic nation. Second, the war occasioned the precipitous decline
of the doctrine of the state, a decline that had as much to do with its
German accent as with its analytical shortcomings. Third, in 1917-18,
political scientists participated in the massive campaign to propagate
America's war aims throughout the nation and the world. The remarkable
success of this campaign alerted political scientists to the significance
of nonrational forces in human affairs, and suggested to them that mass
opinion was fickle. This "lesson" contributed to the emergence of a "social
control" vision of American democracy in influential circles within the
profession. Charles Merriam, who served as chief U.S. propagandist in
wartime Italy, came to believe that progressive reform could best be
achieved by expert technocrats who would harness psychological, social, and
eugenic science to the causes of national economic planning and the
fostering of civic cohesion.
The second war against Germany wrecked another theoretical field with a
marked German connection: public administration. From the late 1880s
through World War II, public administration had been a central subfield of
political science. It was unified by the conception of administration as a
technical endeavor and celebrated bureaucracy's rationality and efficiency.
The founders of the field sought to rescue wide areas of policy making from
the corruption of partisan politics by entrusting them to the hands of a
meritocratic civil service. Dismayed by the backwardness of American public
administration, these scholars turned to foreign models for inspiration,
and they especially admired the German bureaucracy for its efficiency.
After World War I, public administration's distrust of mass politics and
its focus on technique fitted neatly within the emergent vision of
technocratic social control. Merriam facilitated the continued health of
the field by establishing the Public Administration Clearing House -- a
resource-rich adjunct to Chicago's political-science department whose
function was to foster national and international networks of
The luster of German administrative efficiency survived the Great War, and
even the Nazi takeover did not put an end to pilgrimages to Germany by
American scholars of administration. These pilgrims did not endorse the
aims of Nazism, but their tradition of conceptualizing administration as
apolitical permitted them to study Nazi administrative reforms
dispassionately. World War II and the Holocaust -- by illustrating how a
long-admired bureaucracy could so rationally execute a horrible political
program -- finally discredited the notion that administration was
apolitical. The Nazi "lesson" helps explain why public administration fell
into a prolonged identity crisis soon after the war and why it lost the
status it had previously enjoyed in American political science.
The cold war distanced political science from ideals and concepts that were
associated with socialism. Merriam's vision of "social control" was among
the conflict's chief casualties. Notwithstanding the aging Merriam's
sincere insistence that his cherished notion of a planned society was
strictly democratic, in the charged anticommunist atmosphere of the early
1950s anything that smacked of "planning" was deemed too Soviet to remain
part of the conceptual vocabulary of political science.
Progressive definitions of "democracy" that had been common in the 1930s
met a similar fate. During the Great Depression political scientists often
defined democracy as much in economic as in political terms and as much in
terms of substantive ideals as in terms of electoral process. Merle
Fainsod, for example, believed in 1934 that "democracy is as much concerned
with the eradication of poverty ... as it is with universal suffrage."
Robert A. Dahl of Yale mounted a lucid defense of democratic socialism in
his doctoral dissertation in 1940. Merriam defined democracy partly in
terms of ideals such as "the perfectibility of mankind" and fair
distribution of economic gains throughout society. But, in the 1950s,
political scientists concluded that faith in human "perfectibility" was a
pathology associated with "totalitarian" regimes, and they abandoned
substantive visions of democracy in favor of procedural definitions
inspired by the work of Joseph A. Schumpeter. Against the backdrop of the
cold war, the vision of America as a state in which technocratic elites
scientifically guided society toward progressive ends gave way to a vision
of America as a strong pluralistic society whose politics no longer needed
to be rescued by apolitical, public-minded administrators.
Paradoxically, at the very time that the apparatus of the state was being
elided from political-science discourse, the profession was becoming
increasingly enmeshed in the national-security state. The full story of
this enmeshment remains to be written. A partial account of the ways in
which political power and political science commingled during the Cold War
includes, for one, the active participation of public-administration
scholars in U.S. foreign-aid programs in Southeast Asia and Latin America,
which led to a surge of scholarly interest in "comparative administration."
Other instances of enmeshment involved the cold-war career of the Center
for International Studies at MIT -- a CIA-supported think tank that evolved
into MIT's department of political science -- and the story of Evron
Kirkpatrick, who left the intelligence unit of the State Department in 1954
to become the executive director of the APSA. Kirkpatrick assiduously
promoted the discipline's identity as an objective science while engaging
in the politics of the liberal anticommunist wing of the Democratic party
and covertly maintaining ties with the government's intelligence agencies.
The Vietnam experience created on American campuses a climate in which
cloak-gown collaboration was regarded as unethical, but this norm appears
to have evaporated since the end of the cold war. As a Yale University
political scientist with ties to the CIA put it recently, cooperation
between professors and U.S. intelligence agencies "is now very much to the
fore." The question persists whether political science can be an objective,
disinterested science while it serves the interests of the American state.
Ido Oren is an assistant professor of political science at the University
of Florida. This essay is adapted from his book, Our Enemies and US:
America's Rivalries and the Making of Political Science, to be published in
December by Cornell University Press. Copyright © by Cornell University Press.
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