Explaining Signers of Statements and Letters

Here is a follow up on the recent post that contrasted those scholars who signed the letter about racism and Confederate Monuments and others who signed the Nashville Statement. The question is whether these evangelicals inhabit different worlds that are akin to the intellectual ties that divide policy makers and academics who study foreign policy. Hal Brands recently wrote a piece about the different loyalties and tasks that shape scholars and policy makers. It might also apply to the different postures of evangelicals who feel responsibility for shaping public opinion.

On the one hand, policy makers and scholars view nuclear weapons differently:

For decades, there has been a bipartisan policy consensus that the spread of nuclear weapons represents a grave threat to American security, and that strong—even drastic—measures to impede proliferation are warranted. U.S. officials have long worried that aggressive rogue states would use nuclear weapons to blackmail America and its allies, and that the spread of the bomb would heighten the chances of nuclear terrorism, nuclear war, or other calamities. Accordingly, both Democratic and Republican administrations have used economic sanctions and coercive diplomacy to restrain potential proliferators. They have also seriously considered taking preventive military action against enemies pursuing nuclear weapons, from the Soviet Union and China during the Cold War to North Korea and Iran thereafter. In 2003, the United States even fought a counter-proliferation war to preventively disarm Saddam Hussein. For U.S. policymakers, it often seems, there is nothing more dangerous than a hostile state obtaining the bomb.

Scholars, however, are generally more sanguine. There are, certainly, diverse views within the academy on this matter. Yet most academics hold that the dangers of proliferation are overstated, the likelihood of nuclear terrorism or nuclear war is infinitesimal, and the costs of aggressive counter-proliferation policies dramatically outweigh the benefits. Dangerous adversaries such as the Soviet Union, Maoist China, and North Korea have gotten the bomb, after all, and we have lived to tell the tale. Leading academics even contend that nuclear proliferation can be stabilizing, because the iron logic of nuclear deterrence will foster peace between rivals. John Mearsheimer famously argued for a Ukrainian nuclear deterrent in the early 1990s, as U.S. officials were working feverishly to foreclose that very prospect.8 Kenneth Waltz, the dean of modern international relations theory, controversially argued that “more may be better,” and in 2012 he predicted—altogether contrary to established U.S. policy—that a nuclear Iran would exert a benign, stabilizing influence on the Middle East.9 When it comes to nuclear proliferation, the gap can be sizable indeed.

If an analogy is appropriate, substitute nuclear proliferation for gay marriage. The Nashville Statement folks regard it as a serious threat while others believe the danger is overstated and look to empathize with marginalized groups.

Brands tries to explain the difference between policy makers and scholars this way:

The gap, then, is not a product of policymakers’ ignorance or biases, welcome as that idea might be to academics. It results, rather, from the fact that academics and policymakers operate according to very different intellectual paradigms that lead to very different ways of viewing the world.

These paradigms reflect the divergent imperatives and intellectual perspectives that shape the two communities’ work, and they can best be understood by considering several key dynamics that frequently set scholars and policymakers at odds.

At an academic conference on nuclear statecraft I attended some years ago, one discussion regarding the effects of nuclear proliferation turned on whether one assessed the issue as a citizen of the United States or as an analyst of the “international system.” The consensus answer was that scholars are first and foremost citizens of the world; they should be less concerned with the parochial American perspective.

That makes sense for individuals whose professional remit is not to advance U.S. interests, but to study—as disinterestedly as possible—big, conceptual questions about how the world works. It makes particular sense for structural realists, who locate answers to these questions not in the policies of individual states but in power imbalances and other structural characteristics of the international system. Yet for policymakers, this approach makes no sense at all. Policymakers are not citizens of the world; they are advocates for the United States. The intellectually curious ones may be interested in the workings of the international system, but they are primarily and properly concerned with advancing U.S. interests, and tend to value abstract concepts like stability and peace only insofar as they advance those interests.

Is it the case that the critics of the Nashville Statement see themselves less as members of the evangelical group and more part of a wider community of Americans (sort of on the left)? While the signers the Nashville Statement are scholars and pastors whose primarily allegiance is to the religious community?

That may not be satisfactory. Both sides will likely say that the truth — different elements of Christianity — are at stake. But social psychology and sociology are not chopped liver. The links and ties and habitats in which people live and work wind up shaping their perceptions.

Or not.

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