Stephen Biddle and the Policy-Academic Hybrid

Stephen Biddle, Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and world-renowned expert on conventional warfare, is a perennial guest lecturer at SWAMOS–although many attendees would say that he is actually the main event here. Both the academic and defense policy worlds listen to what he has to say, and both worlds respect his ideas. This is a rare thing, and many junior academics (particularly in fields like security studies) want to find their own route to policy relevance. We want to be hybrids too.

The Original Hybrid.

I think I’m coming to understand how Biddle’s arrived at this point after listening to him lecture for three days. He’s very clearly an academic first. He has a strong command of social science methods and international relations theories, as well as the pedagogical bent of an experienced professor. And yet Biddle is also comfortable among military personnel and civilian defense policy people because he is able to, a) explain many different processes that they need to understand, b) using their own specialized language.

The military folks here throw him jargon- and acronym-laden curveballs, as they are wont to do among civvies, often without even thinking about it, and he smashes them out of the park. Seemingly obscure weapons systems and operational concepts don’t slow him down at all. Not only is he not intimidated, he doesn’t even appear to notice. You get the impression that the guy could go out to the field and plan a full scale military campaign from the ground up, and that he’d probably win it.

That’s the level of general mastery you need to be able to really engage non-academic decision makers at anything other than a narrowly specified level, and most academic types can’t do it because they’re overspecialized (the newer ones, at least). We read a lot of books about things we tend to forget, and then write a few of them about other things we come to know very well. But if you ask us about stuff that’s not in our immediate wheelhouse, and you’re likely to get a long, technically-worded equivalent of “uhhhhhh…” for an answer.

It makes sense, because our chief customers are mostly other academics who have the same issue and know not to push us too far beyond our comfort zone. Biddle’s been jumping back and forth between policy and academia from the beginning. This experience is reflected in his breadth of knowledge, which is something you simply can’t fake when you’re in front of people who need to make rather urgent decisions–such as which of several possible air defense systems to procure, or whether to hit the Taliban in the cities or let them camp out in the mountains.

Normally such vacillation is not the route to a successful academic career. Our advisors help us carve out our own niches, and from there we spend our careers furthering one or several specific research programs. Experience in the policy world can be interpreted as a signal of unwillingness to stick to our specific area and make a contribution there.

On the other hand, there are a handful of people like Biddle who go to the policy world and are essentially able to soak up data to further their academic work. Then they come back to the academy and write books that both camps can read and appreciate, albeit in very different ways.

Note that this is not a treatise against specialization, per se. Academic specialization is a wonderful thing because it allows individual scholars to devote the time and energy they need to make progress towards understanding tremendously complex phenomena. The problem, I think, is that it is all too easy for that precious information to end up in a place where it is not socially useful.