Waning interest in the art of war

Military: Political scientists debate the value of security studies as academia increasingly turns its attention to understanding global trade.

March 25, 2001|By David Abel

THE COLD WAR had just ended and 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 postdoctorals, 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.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.