In retrospect, it is pretty clear that the UN anti-racism summit was an accident waiting to happen. And so it has proved. About an hour ago, there was a walk-out by European delegates – after President Ahmadinejad of Iran unleashed his usual anti-Israel rant. The Americans and Canadians would doubtless have walked out as well – but they were already boycotting the conference.
The UN Human Rights Council, which is running the conference in Geneva, was meant to be a marked improvement on its predecessor, the UN Commission on Human Rights. That had been widely condemned in the west for focussing obsessively on Israel – while studiously avoiding the discussion of human-rights violations in places like Burma and Sudan. But the new council has fallen into the old trap. It was brought into being in 2006. By spring 2007 it had passed eight resolutions condemning Israel – but none that specifically targeted other countries.
The prestige of the economics profession is meant to be at a low ebb at the moment. But prominent academic economists are still regularly recruited for the very top positions in the American government – Ben Bernanke is at the Federal Reserve, Larry Summers is co-ordinating economic policy from the White House.
By contrast, it is no longer fashionable to pick political scientists for the top positions making US foreign policy. The days when Henry Kissinger could go directly from Harvard to a job as the director of the National Security Council seem long gone. Some blame this on anti-intellectualism in American life. But there are also eminent professors who see the fault as lying within the groves of academe themselves. Joe Nye, former head of the Kennedy school at Harvard, has just published a piece bemoaning the irrelevance of much political science to practical policymaking. Steve Walt, another Harvard professor, backs him up – arguing that academics who pursue real-world issues are even penalised and looked down upon.
To a certain extent, Walt and Nye are living refutations of their own thesis. Nye served in a high position in the Pentagon during the Clinton administration and is tipped for an ambassadorship under Obama. Walt has influenced the policy debate with his co-authored book on the “Israel Lobby”.
Still, I know what they mean. I can still remember my shock and confusion when I first sampled a political science course at Princeton. I was used to the empirical, rather literary style of political analysis that is taught if you take a history degree in Britain. But I now found myself confronted with a world, dominated by abstract models and obsessed with number-crunching. I looked at something called the “Journal of Conflict Resolution” and found articles about real-world political problems which seemed just to be a mass of quadratic equations. It is hard to believe that anybody actually trying to resolve a conflict would find this kind of stuff useful, or relevant.