Monday, December 5, 2011

Three ways political scientists shape the real world

As a political scientist, I am always asked by students, “How can political science contribute to real world politics”?  It is not only an academic question but also a practical question. It is understandable that students are eager to know how to transform their knowledge from the university to the real world. Although some political scientists like to live in the ivory tower of academia, political science as a discipline has a natural connection with “real” politics.

There are three ways that political science can have an impact on real politics. First, knowledge and theory derived from political science research can guide real policies. For example, President Thomas Woodrow Wilson was a political scientist before running for president. His idea of internationalism, or the so called “Wilsonian” ideology, not only led the United States to fight for democracy in the twentieth century, but also guided U.S. foreign policy until today. Political scientists’ findings regarding “democratic peace theory”, i.e., democracies are less likely to wage war with one another,” is reported as a major guideline for America’s “promoting democracy” after the Cold War.

Second, political science scholars can actively engage public debates and contribute to public discourse. Many political scientists publish op-ed articles in leading newspapers and participate in TV shows to help improve the public’s awareness on different political issues. For example, Stephen Walt, a leading International Relations scholar at Harvard University, hosts an influential blog at the Foreign Policy website. At USU, political science professors are often interviewed by the local media about various political issues, such as the North Korean crisis in 2010, the current economic crisis, and the coming general elections in the United States.

The third channel for political science professors to have an impact on politics is the most important one—through the classroom. The major educational goal of political science is to equip and educate the next generation of leaders with knowledge, inspiration, and their responsibilities. In the Department of Political Science, we are proud of many alumni who are working for the government and serving the country and the larger community.  

My research interest within the field of political science is foreign policy analysis. I came to academia after working in governmental and non-governmental organizations as a researcher and negotiator. From participation and observation of bilateral and multilateral negotiations, I was exposed to the rich differences in negotiation and mediation styles of diplomats from different countries. My interests grew with these working experiences: Why do diplomats from different countries display such different cultural styles? Why is it so difficult to reach any agreement if we are all calculating like human beings? How do diplomats (decision-makers) make decisions? What is in their mind?

My interests in the cultural impact on behavior and beliefs on foreign policy decisions led me to my major research area of foreign policy analysis with a focus on leadership studies using political psychological analysis. However, even when I turned to be more academically focused on theory and analysis, I was very much aware of the importance of making my research relevant by asking policy relevant research questions about topics such as China’s leadership transition and its foreign policy changes and the future of U.S.-China relations.

Many people believe that future conflict between the U.S. and China seems inevitable because of the strategic competition between the two nations in world politics.

From my research, I suggest that any linear predictions about either China’s continuous economic rise or America’s seeming decline are all academically flawed and analytically biased. Strategic competitions among states are normal in international politics, but competition does not equal conflict. It is political leaders who make decisions for both countries. How to make both Chinese and American leaders fully informed and how to reduce misunderstandings between the two nations are the keys to maintain a good, healthy, and peaceful relationship between the United States and China. 

- Huiyun Feng, assistant professor of political science

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