War Studies' Fall From Grace

By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  1/30/2001

The Cold War had just ended and the scholars in the American academy who spent their adult lives studying the minutiae of war machines like MIGs and MIRVs were growing antsy. 

Everything on which they had built their careers was seemingly crumbling just like the Berlin Wall: The Soviet Union had collapsed. NATO, bereft of an enemy, was adrift and searching for a mission. And after so many years girding for World War III, the United States began mulling peace dividends.

That's when a leading security studies specialist cracked. University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer went into a tirade after a fellow academic suggested Mearsheimer's defense of military science was little more than "special pleading for a field in terminal decline." The barb, Mearsheimer charged, showed a growing - and unfair - bias against the study of war.

"I think this description of the security studies subfield is simply preposterous," Mearsheimer wrote to the professor at the University of California at San Diego who snubbed his life's work. "What is the evidence that the subfield is in terminal decline? . . . What is the evidence that our work is more narrowly focused than other subfields of political science?"

Nearly a decade later, Mearsheimer's 1993 letter has an air of prophecy. The study of war has declined dramatically since the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 as students of international relations have turned away from the dangers of nuclear war and toward the intricacies of global trade.

But people like Mearsheimer warn that the seeming bias against securities studies is dangerous in a society that values civilian oversight of its military. They say that colleges and universities are creating a general, tepid international relations curriculum that obscures the danger of large-scale violence by focusing too much on economics.

Today, evidence of the decline of military science on college campuses is ubiquitous:

The number of college courses offered in security studies has plummeted by about 30 percent since the end of the Cold War, according to a study of a quarter of the nation's top schools by the Smith Richardson Foundation, a leading source of money for security studies research.

"The reason for the latest drop, anecdotally, appears to be that professors are retiring without replacements," said Marin Strmecki, director of programs at Smith Richardson. "It also appears that there's an accelerating trend in political science and history that are making these courses increasingly irrelevant."

As a result, hundreds of doctoral candidates, unemployed post-doctorals, and aspiring assistant professors have been competing for only about 30 security studies jobs listed annually in the American Political Science Association's newsletter.

The flow of money to the field is also drying up. Despite the booming economy, foundation grants to college-level international peace and security studies programs has actually dropped by nearly 7 percent to little more than $11 million since 1990. In that same period, foundation grants to all other causes more than doubled.

Even ROTC programs are feeling the pinch. Since 1990, the number of Army training corps on college campuses around the country dropped from a peak of 413 to 269 programs, about the same number as before the Vietnam War.

The decline of security studies has unveiled the subterranean tensions between political scientists. Over the past decade, the hostility has moved beyond the closed doors of the faculty club and has spilled onto pages of the most prominent political science journals, as supporters and critics of security studies unleashed combative articles with apocalyptic titles such as "Rigor or Rigor Mortis" and "Should Strategic Studies Survive?"

"A specter is haunting strategic studies - the specter of peace, " writes Richard K. Betts, director of the Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University.

Ultimately, he has implored his colleagues not to let the comforts of peace blind them from the most important justification of their field - the unfortunate inevitability of war throughout history. "If war does become obsolete, the wasted intellectual effort in continuing to study it will have been a small price. If it does not . . . future generations may be glad that we kept our intellectual powder dry."

The debate over the future of security studies in academia starts with the field's definition. Whatever term is used - strategic studies, military studies, or war and peace studies - political scientists as well as national security specialists in government and think tanks have been pushing for a broader definition of the field.

Since the Cold War - and often to the chagrin of security studies veterans like Mearsheimer - critics have called for the field to be broadened beyond traditional topics such as nuclear deterrence, the balance of power in terms of troops and tanks, and sweeping military strategies. Instead of limiting the field to studying "the threat, use, and control of military force," as Harvard security studies professor Stephen M. Walt defines it, they believe the subject should include the spread of infectious diseases, drug trafficking, environmental hazards, global poverty, and international economic ties.

In late 1995, shortly after the flap over the UC San Diego position, the debate ignited again. David A. Baldwin, a Columbia University professor who specializes in international political economy, suggested in an article that security studies was quickly becoming irrelevant and that the field should be abolished for a broader "foreign policy curriculum."

"The message was that I should have never published the article," Baldwin said of all the critical letters he got in response. "I got a lot of flack and it seemed to me they wanted to suppress my views. My point, which these guys would not accept, is that if you only study one instrument of statecraft, you can't compare its utility. Before deciding whether military force is the right solution, you need to know something about economic sanctions."

The field of security studies was born out of the noted military strategy tome "On War" by Prussian General Carl Von Clausewitz, but it didn't emerge as a unique academic discipline in the United States until after World War II. Before that, scholars say, the country relied on the military to devise and justify its war plans.

After the devastation of World War II and the dawn of the nuclear age, scholars began to view security policy as "too important to be left to the generals." Soon, university programs sprang up around the country, including Princeton's Center for International Studies, Columbia's Institute for War and Peace Studies, MIT's Security Studies Program, and Harvard's Center for International Affairs.

The field rode Cold War tensions until Vietnam. The war in Southeast Asia turned the tide back on those making a living studying war. Scholars such as Harvard's Samuel Huntington began to be viewed as the enemy within by liberals, part of the military-industrial complex, and they became targets for death threats. The backlash even boomeranged on the military's ROTC program. Since 1965, the number of such officer's training programs at the nation's top universities has dropped by half.

Moreover, critics began to question some of the most prominent tenets of security studies, such as the "domino theory," which held that, if one country in a region became communist, others would follow. Such thinking, critics charged, was both simplistic and wrong.

A new group of security studies' scholars saw a resurgence in their field following the collapse of detente and the rise of the Reagan administration. But the rise of arms control and the collapse of the Soviet Union a decade later seemed to take away the soul of strategic studies.

At the same time, a movement toward "peace studies" began to displace security studies. Some schools and foundations even changed their names to account for the new era: Stanford changed the name of its Center for International Security and Arms Control to the Center for International Security and Cooperation and the Carnegie Corporation change the name of its Cooperative Security Program to the Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict.

The difference was not only semantic. While both fields focus on preventing conflict, peace studies seeks nonviolent solutions, such as deepening cross-cultural engagement or strengthening international legal institutions.

"The failure of security studies is that it doesn't make students knowledgeable about all the tools of peace," said Robert Johanson, a senior fellow at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. "They usually instill within students that war is a necessity at some points. And that the only way to prevent war is to be ready to win it."

Now, despite a thriving debate in academic journals over everything from humanitarian intervention, the prospect of cyberwarfare, and the role of US forces in peacekeeping efforts, the study of war on college campuses is a dwindling discipline.

"The anecdotal evidence is everywhere: It says people who are doing diplomatic history and security studies are having a lot of trouble getting jobs," said Michael Desch, associate director of the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky.

The scant offerings now often bar even the best graduate students and post-doctorals in the field from ivory tower positions.

Ben Valentino was graduated from Stanford, received a doctorate from MIT's Security Studies Program, has had his dissertation accepted for publication by Cornell University Press, and at age 29 is a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard's John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies. After two years hunting for a job, applying to every position possible from the University of Wyoming to the University of Florida, he has been called only once for an interview.

"I don't know how I'm going to pay my rent if I can't find a job or fellowship after this spring," he said. "If I don't find anything, who knows, I might apply for a job teaching private high school."

To one of Valentino's mentors at MIT, it's unconscionable for such a promising candidate to have so few opportunities in a field that offers the best hope of preventing the kind of horrific violence that marred the past century.

"It's a disaster if anyone is serious about not studying war," said Stephen Van Evera, an associate political science professor at MIT. "Any society that wants to forget the past of large-scale killings is headed for big problems. To not seriously study conflict is like not studying cancer: At some point someone is going to be affected by it."

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

Copyright, The Boston Globe