Author: Steve Saideman (page 1 of 15)

Why Have Mainstream IR Journals Largely Ignored Pandemics*

* I have changed the title as I got plenty of pushback on twitter–that there is plenty of IR on Pandemics, not just in the major journals. And I will add an update at the bottom later to address the criticisms later.

People are wondering why there has not been much scholarship on the international relations of pandemics in the mainstream journals.


Not a scientific survey of the literature, but it gives you the basic idea.  I can’t really name any scholars that come to mind that are the pandemic experts, except strangely enough Dan Drezner thanks to his book Theory of International Politics and Zombies (the origin of that book was the blogging community reacting to a study by public health types who were wondering if countries would cooperate in the face of a pandemic and they used zombies as a placeholder for … something like this)  Which really is about IR theory and cooperation and not really about pandemics.  It is just the closest we got.  Which ain’t much. Why?

I am just, well, semi-spewing here, having no evidence of causal mechanisms, but projecting from both my experience and what I have seen over the years, I would say IR scholars have largely ignored pandemics because:

  • Anytime we talk about a specific policy area, there is a hurdle–can you get a minimal level of expertise to understand the stuff there?  To study the international relations of pandemics, one should get some basic understanding of epidemiology.  Well, many of us (ok, me) started at as pre-med in college, but we have no background there. We do have backgrounds in econ and history and sociology because as social studies majors, we studied other social sciencess.  I think that is why it is so normal to see folks steal from psychology (Robert Jervis being the patron saint of IR’s use of psychology).  Our inclinations and expertise tend to focus on the social sciences.  It is not impossible to get smart enough on epidemiology to write IR about it, but it is a barrier to entry.  
  • The conventional always gets more attention.  We have far more models and mentors and advisers if one is doing war, trade, foreign policy, etc.  If a student wants to do a dissertation on the IR of pandemics, where should they go to grad school?  Who should be their adviser?  The system does build in incentives to stick to the well-worth path.  Of course, one of the positive consequences of the explosion of scholars doing work in IR and of journals is that there is a greater tendency to move outside the comfort zones, such as focusing on climate change.   
  • Low frequency events get less attention.  The example we keep going back to is the 1918 influenza.  Sure, folks could have studied how countries and international organizations reacted to HIV/AIDS (there is some work), Ebola, SARS, H1N1 and the like, but these are, thankfully, rare (albeit costly, enduring) events.  So, we study stuff that happens a bit more often.  
  • There might be a tendency not to study “third world” problems.  Disease is far more destructive to less developed countries, but most of the major journals are dominated by folks in North America and Europe.  I am not saying this is right, but I am thinking this might be a tendency.
  • Our discipline does not play well with scientists.  My friends who do genuinely inter-disciplinary work with hard scientists have found a number of obstacles.  It is not just that the styles of writing and co-authoring are very different, but it is also the case that reviewers don’t read the scientific journals and don’t know how to treat them as they consider the tenure file.  Being in the top science journal may not count for much compared to being in a top three Poli Sci journal (APSR, AJPS, JOP) or top IR journal.  Poli sci article reviewers have a hard time reading the stuff and evaluating whether the science in it is good.

What have I missed?

Of course, our field is faddish so we will certainly see a lot more scholarship after this crisis, just as we saw much more work on cartels after OPEC, much more work on terrorism after 9/11, much more work on ethnic conflict after Rwanda/Bosnia (I was ahead of the wave, if just briefly on that stuff), much more work on counter-insurgency after 2006, etc.  There are so many questions to ask–not just about the failure of American leadership and what it says about hegemonic stability theory, but also the politics of WHO (there is stuff out there but there needs to be more study, perhaps applying the lessons of Barnett and Finnemore), understanding the variation among and within countries to their responses to the disease and their responses to the economic shock, the interaction of this crisis with on-going stuff like the conflicts in the Mideast, the cyberwars that been going on, etc.

We IR scholars are late to this because, well, everyone is.  The epidemiologists were on it, the public health folks were on it, the Obama administration was on it along with governments elsewhere.  But the rest of us looked at past feared outbreaks and scoffed–because we suck at thinking about prevention.  I am reminded of the Carnegie Corporation spending the entire 1990s with a most impressive effort to study how to prevent deadly conflict, and I am not sure they made much of a dent in the behavior of governments or of scholars.

Update: This post received much feedback via twitter, arguing mostly that I missed existing work. My response that is: guilty. I didn’t do an exhaustive search of the literature, with scholar google searches producing a lot of noise–medical stuff burying the work done by IR scholars.
My original title was too broad as there are IR scholars working in this area, but the point still remains that the mainstream journals do not publish much of this stuff. Still, much of this omission on my part is that I was focused on major North American IR journals. The European Journal of IR has published much on this as has Security Dialogue. This raises a few issues:

  1. Why haven’t the folks who publish in these other journals submit to IO and the like? Eric Voeten provided stats to suggest that a key problem here is a lack of submissions. It may be that critical security scholars don’t think they will get published by IO and other mainstream pubs. That the problem is not about the topic but the theoretical approach.
  2. Why is it that it is mostly critical security scholars who study pandemics? Much of what I said above may still apply but apply most strongly to US scholarship and less so to Canadian and European scholarship where there is more work on this stuff: that inter-disciplinarity is hard and rarely incentivized, that there are few big names doing this kind of stuff so there is a lack of role models and mentors, and so on.
  3. There is an entire section of the ISA that focuses on Global Health. So, obviously, there are many folks doing that. But the problem of having so many sections is that we get sectioned. I don’t know what the folks over there do. One way to fix that would be to ensure that there are more panels that cross-over: having the International Cooperation or IO section co-sponsor GH panels and GH co-sponsor with International Security and with Foreign Policy. I am sure some of this has happened, but perhaps not as much as it should.
  4. I probably should do more of a lit review when posting here. I call my own blog the Semi-Spew because it is a place where I post stuff that is half-baked. There is a bigger audience here, so I probably should think and read more before hitting the publish button. I am sorry that I omitted the work of many scholars. For a good start to this literature, see this thread by Clare Wenham. On the bright side, I learned a lot along the way, and that really is one of the reasons I blog–to figure stuff out and to find out where my preconceptions are wrong. Thanks for pointing out what I missed and also pointing out some of the divides in the discipline.

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Trump’s Coronavirus Response Shows How Much Leaders Matter

This is a guest post by Richard W. Maass, an Associate Professor at the University of Evansville. His research focuses on international security, US foreign policy, terrorism, and diplomatic history. He has a forthcoming book on how democracy and xenophobia limited US territorial expansion (Cornell UP, May 2020).

The international experience of COVID-19 will have many implications for international relations. Scholars have already begun discussing its implications for IR theories, hegemonic stability theory, and measures of state capacity. When all is said and done, I think the central lesson will be how much individual leaders matter.

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COVID-19 Breathes Life into Hegemonic Stability Theory

This crisis has us all having a lot of feelings.  I am feeling a bit nostalgic for Hegemonic Stability Theory. While Comparative Politics will have much to say about why countries varied in their responses (also see Max Brooks’s World War Z [the book, NOT the movie] to get a taste of the comparative politics of pandemics), it is the job of IR (and epidemiologists) to discuss why the disease spread as it did and why the international community largely failed. While there are many theories that may apply, I think that HST applies quite well.

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Thinking about Corona and Academia

The Duck has been covering Corona in a variety of ways over the past several weeks with posts including Josh’s coverage of the early outbreak, the early international dynamics, past and present epidemics, the role of money and of international cooperation, how different types of political systems are handling the crisis, and so on. But thus far, we Ducksters haven’t considered here what it means for us. As the resident narcissist, my time has come.

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Ranking Tenure Candidates? No Thanks

Sunday mornings are for tenure reviews.  Huh?  I am reading stuff to evaluate a scholar for whether he/she is worthy of tenure.  This is a standard part of the tenure process–to have outside scholars read a bunch of a candidate’s work and then indicate whether they have made a significant contribution and whether they are likely to continue to do so.  As I have written elsewhere, this is a fair amount of work, almost always unpaid.  So, I have gotten a bit cranky when I do it these days.

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Using Pop Culture in the Classroom: Footloose FTW!

I love this tweet as it puts the usual dynamics on their head:

Tip for students going off to college: study 80s/90s pop culture. Particularly Ferris Beuller, Princess Bride, Simpsons seasons 2-5. Your gen x/early millennial profs will try to connect with you through these, and will be confused/sad when you stare blankly at them. Not joking.

— David Mimno (@dmimno) August 2, 2019

Each summer, profs are reminded how much younger the students are and then the onus is on them to update their references.  This tweet nicely makes fun of profs by suggesting the reverse.

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We Are a Bad Guild: Tenure Letter Writing Edition

A key part of the tenure process is for outside experts to evaluate the candidate’s research (hard to evaluate their teaching and service from outside).  These letters can be quite handy for getting a less biased perspective that a department might have (in either direction).  It is especially useful for providing insights in cases where the candidate’s subfield is under or unrepresented among the senior faculty evaluating tenure (a real life example:  no tenured political theorists and the candidate is a theorist). 

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Embargo My Eggo!

Today, I learned that I am out of touch. Ok, that is old news. I got into a twitter conversation about embargoed dissertations. A friend was trying to access and then cite a dissertation that has been out for a few years, and she could not because the dissertation was embargoed. I then raised this on twitter, and got a whole lot of push back. So, let’s take a look at this.

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Seeing Israel and Palestine Up Close


I just came back from eight days in Israel and Palestine, as I participated in a program, Academic Exchange, that has already taken something like 600 scholars (mostly IR but also other political scientists, lawyers [including my brother-in-law], and some economists) to learn more about the place, the conflict and the politics. The experience was pretty intense, so I blogged my daily experiences at saideman.blogspot.com starting with this one (go to my blog for pics since blogspot is cludgy for pics but wordpress–the system here–is far worse). I am blogging here to write about the larger issues–what was the purpose of this trip, what are the take home lessons, and what can we make of this very problematic place.

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Will the Dominos Fall in Westeros: When Secession Spreads (or Not)

Folks have been picking on the last Game of Thrones episode for a variety of unrealistic or unearned developments. Here’s my take on the secessionist element. Folks have been picking on the last Game of Thrones episode for a variety of unrealistic or unearned developments.  Here’s my take on the secessionist element.

From https://www.quora.com/Why-is-it-called-the-7-kingdoms-when-there-are-9-of-them
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Game of Thrones and Alliance Politics

I saw this tweet and could not help but respond:

Given that I have written about both Game of Thrones and alliance politics, I have to enter this discussion.  Spoilers dwell below as we get into this:

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Clarifying Classic Confusions for IR students

An amazing series of tweets must be re-posted here so that IR profs everywhere can use them for syllabi and for the first day of class.  A grateful nation owes Herb Carmen, former naval aviator, a tremendous debt.
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Failed National Military Strategy Analogies

by Anonymous US National Security expert, as part of a new series of posts providing insights into the policy-making process

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Citation Conversation Continued

My post on citation got far more engagement than nearly all of the things I have posted over the years, so I thought I would return to the scene of the crime/post.  While many academics agreed whole heartily with my take, more than a few did not including folks I respect a great deal.  What were their perspectives?

  1. Citations are a lousy measure, one with much bias, of academic relevance/achievement, etc.
  2. People would rather be contacted so that they can provide the latest version of the paper, rather than something that might be half-baked, wrong, or incomplete.
  3. People worry about being scooped or plagiarized.
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How Not to Get Cited

by Steve Saideman

Put “do not cite, do not circulate” on your paper.  I received a paper for the upcoming ISA which had that instruction on it.  I yelled at (ok, I mocked) my students last week for doing the same thing.  In the olden days, folks would put “do not cite” on their papers because they wanted to polish them before submitting, that they didn’t want to have errant results widely circulated.  Perhaps there is a fear that if a paper is circulated, it might get scooped.

But  NO!!!!

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Social Media/Engagement: Why Do It?

by Stephen M. Saideman

I teach a 3rd year PhD workshop that is mostly focused on getting students through their dissertation proposals (a roadmap for their dissertation research).  Along the way, we cover other topics, like how to get on conference programs, what kind of non-academic employment there is, and, yes, social media.  Last night, we covered the latter category, and I was surprised at the response: why don’t I make money off of it?

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Where Is Intro to IR When You Need It?

One of the basic claims I make as a poli sci professor is that my goal is to help the next generation become more informed citizens, so that they understand their interests, and can vote accordingly.  So, when I see a a guy getting upset that his business is hurt by tariffs, I want to scream.

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Killings in Kandahar: Implications

The news out of Kandahar is pretty awful: the top leadership of the province was killed in an apparent attempt to kill General Austin Miller, the commander of US and NATO forces in the country.  There is not many details, but the WashPost account is suggestive of some key dynamics and challenges.

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Ignorance of the Ivory Tower: What Do the Profs Know About the Military

I woke up to find a piece that castigates the academic world for being ignorant about the armed forces.  My reaction was:

Tom Ricks, who posted this questionable piece, pushed back:

I will try to be concise, but it will be hard.  I will first address Professor Adrian Lewis’s claims about the state of the military these days.  I will then address the larger problem–that this generalization about academics and their expertise about the military is so very flawed.

  1. Sure, the US armed forces are smaller than during the Cold War. I can’t insta-survey professors who study International Relations, but my guess is that most would already know that.  The real question is: do we have the right force at this moment?  Do we need to be spending ever so much more money on the US military?  There are good and reasonable arguments to be had on both sides of this question.
  2. War is awful, sure. Deterrence is far better than war.  But what does it take to deter American adversaries?  It could cost less than we spend given how much money is wasted in defense procurement, that the money spent on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have not produced lasting outcomes, etc.  So, saying that our current force is cheaper than war says nothing about whether we are spending the right amount now.
  3. Ah, the spinoff argument. An oldie but a goodie. The question is not whether there are great spinoffs from military research, but whether money invested elsewhere might be as or more productive.  I have no idea since I am not a technology prof, but, again, I am sure we can find studies on either side.
  4. Who is arguing that military stuff doesn’t wear out and/or become obsolete?
  5. Defense industries employ lots of Americans and? I would like to think that the US spends money on defense to defend the US and its allies and not as a jobs program.  I have expressed elsewhere my annoyance about justifying Canadian defence spending via jobs.  Lots of ways for governments to create jobs–military spending just sells better politically.  It is not necessarily better.
  6. Sea lanes.  Sure, who is arguing that the US do away with a blue navy?
  7. Lewis mentions that the allies have “outsourced their security to the US”, which I think is a particularly biased and relatively ignorant way to put it.  Do most spend less than the US?  Sure. Is it in American interests to foster stability in Europe and East Asia? Yeah.  Have the NATO allies bled and died for American causes? Hell yeah.

Lewis concludes by saying that the his school and some of its faculty greatly support the armed forces, so #notallacademics.  So, let’s start there: is it the job of academics to support the armed forces?  I don’t think so.  Indeed, one of the big challenges of the past 20 years or so is that the mantra of “support our troops” has perhaps prevented us from asking critical questions about the performance of the US military (and the same applies to the Canadian armed forces and those of many democracies).  Only very recently have people started raising questions about the annual declaration made by the general exiting Afghanistan about how well that war is going.

Are academics ignorant of the US armed forces?  Well, which academics?  I would not expect chemistry professors and creative writing professors to know much.  But how about those who study International Relations?  How about those who study Civil-Military Relations? One of the things to note is that Lewis is a Professor of History, which is significant as military and diplomatic history has been on retreat for quite sometime in the History discipline, so that might be a source of his frustration.  In Political Science and International Relations, however, civil-military relations and the study of security is on the rise. The last few conferences have seen more and more panels on civ-mil, and the last two decades have seen a big growth in the number of journals focusing on security issues, which means more people studying military stuff.

Almost two years ago, I was pushed by Tom Ricks to list good, relevant work that should be of interest to those who read military history, and I came up with a short list easily.  There is plenty of expertise on the US armed forces and those of other countries.  To give a related example, I am currently working on a major grant application that would fund a network that would bring together Canadian scholars who study defence (c for Canada) and security issues with the Canadian Armed Forces, the Department of National Defence, research centres across Canada, think tanks, and other actors.  It involves over 100 professors, and, yes, Canada is 1/10th the size of the US.  Can we extrapolate to suggest that a similar network in the US might have 1000?  Is there more interest in the US military in the US than the Canadian military in Canada?  Probably since, as Professor Lewis argued, there is a hell of lot of money and activity involving the US military.

My twitter feed has already gotten the usual pushback that privilege veterans as having exclusive or superior expertise to academics who have never served in the armed forces.  Now that is an ignorant argument, as it denies the expertise that can be generated through extensive study and analysis. A tree might have a really great understanding of itself and its immediate neighbors, but it will not have a great understanding of the forest or of other forests.

While veterans on twitter complain about academics not having military experience, I have met (anecdotal data!) many senior officers who search out for academic expertise because they know that knowing more is better than knowing less.  When Admiral (ret.) Stavridis was SACEUR, he passed around the PDF of the Dave and Steve NATO book because it shed light on what his officers were experiencing in Afghanistan.  Officers have this obsession with reading lists, including the retired general who was known as the Warrior Monk, because they understand that repeating old mistakes is a bad idea.

Which leads to the big question: who has the time and the incentive to systematically study the armed forces?  Not military folks who have day jobs.  Retired veterans may have the time, but do they have sufficient experience beyond their MOS and sufficient training to think and research rigorously?  Academics have the time, the training, and the curiosity to study the US (and other) armed forces. But not all academics, just those who are focused on this stuff.  It is a great tragedy that military history may be devalued these days, but, after meeting so many young civ-mil scholars over the past couple of years (check out the Naval War College for a secret stash), I can say that the present and future of the political science of the armed forces is in great shape.

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