Strategic players in tactical retreats

November 23, 2001

Scholars usually play an expert if discreet role in Britain's councils of war. But, argues Brendan Simms, while their advice can be valuable, their reluctance to contradict the official line can be disastrous.

British academics are wont to complain of their irrelevance and lack of governmental esteem. They may be looking wistfully at the United States, where academics such as national security adviser Condoleeza Rice and deputy secretary of defence Paul Wolfowitz are at the heart of the war effort against the Taliban. Indeed, the US State Department and White House staff, from Kennedy's Camelot through to the younger Bush, have been dominated by historians, political scientists and lawyers of the calibre of Walt Rostow, Henry Kissinger and George Shultz. Kissinger, in particular, is not just a famous memoirist, but a renowned scholar with a string of publications on the Metternichian state system, the theory of nuclear weapons and diplomacy in general.

Conversely, the departments of government at most major US universities are peopled with seasonal migrants waiting for their return to power, including such luminaries as Anthony Lake - first national security adviser to President Clinton - at Georgetown.

In the United Kingdom, the fraught and complicated interface between academe, the services and government is much less evident, but it exists. One locus is the various free-standing para-academic institutes in London: the Royal Institute of International Affairs; the International Institute for Strategic Studies; and the Royal United Services Institute. And there are the major schools of international relations and war studies at Oxford, Aberystwyth and the London School of Economics; the department of war studies at King's College London and the MPhil programme of my own Centre for International Studies at Cambridge.

Some of these institutions are purely research-oriented; others, such as those in the universities, are also devoted to teaching, particularly one and two-year graduate courses. But the crossover and interpenetration is extensive. Some lecturers started out as servicemen or diplomats; some combine their academic positions with the direction of RIIA programmes, and some return in due course to the more policy-oriented world of the London institutes as directors or deputy directors.

Similarly, the student body on the various international relations MPhils includes those on sabbatical from the world of finance, government, diplomacy and the services.

The usefulness of such institutions and courses is undoubted; they provide an environment in which informed debate and the education of elites can take place. The presence of retired military and diplomats on the advisory boards of various academic institutions and journals is intended to provide the academic staff with insights into the practical world of government and war. There is no doubt, for example, that the council of the publication Survival , published by the IISS, is informed by Dame Pauline Neville-Jones, former political director of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Likewise, the Centre for International Studies at Cambridge has Air Marshal (retired) Sir Timothy Garden - also a visiting professor at the Centre for Defence Studies at King's - on its advisory board. Sir Tim, who served in a very senior capacity in the Ministry of Defence between 1991 and 1994 at the time of the Gulf and Bosnian crises, is a regular reviewer for The THES ; he also served as director of the RIIA from 1997-98. His expertise and professional experience informs public discussions on international crises.

It is to these institutions and authorities that the media and ministries often turn in times of international crisis. The government would therefore do well to heed the recent call from Fred Halliday, professor of international relations at the LSE, to fund more relevant expertise and regional specialists. The vogue for postmodernist pyrotechnics is not much help when you really need air-power experts, Persianists and Pashtou speakers.

On the negative side is the resulting "blowback" into academe. At its worst, these links facilitate a golden circle of mutual reviewing, self-congratulation and conference junkets. They also expose the unwary editor and credulous readers to establishment cover-ups in the guise of academic impartiality. This tyranny of the semi-official discourse, of the "safe pair of hands", was most disastrously demonstrated during the Bosnian war - a colossal failure of the defence and foreign policy establishment - the dimensions of which it still refuses to accept today.

Moreover, the worlds and temperaments of academe and public policy are not always easily reconciled. Scholars find that the demands of conciseness and presentation that govern the policy world often reduce their material - not always happily - to a series of bullet points and soundbites. Conversely, some non-academics, particularly military men, are defeated by the length and complexity of anything approaching the dimensions of a monograph.

But the "two-way" relationship can also affect independent tenured academics in ways that I explore in my book Unfinest Hour : Britain and the Destruction of Bosnia . As one MoD source told me, Whitehall has contractual relationships with certain university departments, such as war studies at King's and the University of Southampton. The government, as one defender of the system recently claimed, fondly believes that it is "paying for objectivity". But academics at these institutions inevitably become part of the formal process of deliberation. "They know what we want," I was told, "and they give it to us."

This can be a good thing if it enables efficient communications. But there are situations - and Bosnia was one of them - where advisers become too caught up in official "group-think" to break ranks, or fear giving offence, and thus lose influence without having advanced their argument. As Quintin Hoare, director of the Bosnian Institute, remarks, experts are often so eager to please that they become officiously emollient.

The result can be a certain deformation professionelle , which inevitably results from an official advisory capacity. To maintain his or her credibility, even the most scrupulous of experts is compelled to calibrate his advice according to the circumstances and the prevailing orthodoxy. One recent and intelligent historian of British policy in the Yugoslav crisis speaks, almost sotto voce , of his aspiration to "provide an account that, among other things, reveals an understanding of the problems that would not offend foreign ministers and officials but might still suggest those aspects of failure for which they could be expected to acknowledge responsibility". No doubt, the laudable intention here was to avoid shrillness, but academics and writers do not carry big sticks and have no bureaucratic logs to roll. If we do not speak loudly, we will not be heard at all.

Self-evidently, this atmosphere is not conducive to prescient and well-informed policy skunks - such as Noel Malcolm, Mark Almond and Branka Magas over Bosnia - and their unpalatable messages. Even more problematically, it discourages thinking "outside the box". The advisory, governmental and review processes become a closed system, in which the real questions cannot be asked and the desire to avoid awkward questions of personal responsibility results in "lessons" that are so anodyne and nonspecific as to be useless.

Probably the best way to bring academics and practitioners together is still the informal ad hoc seminar group. A successful recent example was the morning session of the workshop on "Three worlds: academia, policy and the media after Bosnia", organised by Mark Mazower under the auspices of the school of history, classics and archaeology at Birkbeck College, London. This event brought together Balkan historians, such as Richard Crampton of Oxford, journalists, such as the Evening Standard 's Robert Fox, FCO officials and many others to hear a presentation by the former commander of the United Nations Protection Force in Bosnia, Sir Rupert Smith. The subsequent discussion gave ample scope for an informed debate of the Bosnian crisis and its lessons. One can only hope that the FCO was listening.

Brendan Simms is a fellow of and admissions tutor at Peterhouse, Cambridge, and a trustee of the Bosnian Institute. His lectureship at the Centre for International Studies at Cambridge is funded by BAT; his seminar series on European Security, co-chaired by Paul Cornish, was funded by Lockheed Martin Corporation.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.