US Foreign Policy Hurt By Skills Shortage

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sat Jan 13 14:22:41 UTC 2007

Foreign Policy Hurt By Skills Shortage

Oxford Analytica 01.12.07, 6:00 AM ET

During the Cold War, government departments in Western states routinely
funded extensive language training and area studies programs in major
research universities. However, since the 1980s this has declined,
reducing U.S. preparedness to face major foreign policy challenges.
Intellectually, the content and definition of social science and
humanities subjects researched at major Western universities has changed
fundamentally since the 1980s. Broadly, this has eroded expert
understandings of language and detailed country analysis in favor of
theoretical knowledge and comparative generalizations.

Several key intellectual trends underlie this transformation:

1. Statistical emphasis. Social science has become an increasingly
statistical subject in which large empirical datasets are analyzed in
search of theoretical generalizations and arguments.

2. "Rational choice" theory. Among social scientists, the dominant
intellectual development has been a form of "rational choice" analysis of
human affairs. The prestige and funding success of economics makes this
discipline's approach the benchmark for other social scientists.

3. Comparative studies. Among students of comparative social and political
analysis, funding bodies and intellectual trends favor formulating
generalizations applicable across different societies.

4. Language programs decline. The specialist language training programs of
the Cold War years were quickly vulnerable to changing budgetary
priorities in the 1990s.

5. Changing anthropological studies. Separately, the content of
anthropological research changed: Anthropologists placed greater
intellectual emphasis on understanding a society's culture as a
self-contained and not easily knowable social system.

These intellectual and funding trends have had major consequences:

--Intellectual "blind spots." Emphasizing general and theoretical analysis
inhibits understanding some phenomena that are inherently difficult to

--Inadequate language resources. When funding for learning Russian and
other languages declined, the surplus did not go to other languages such
as Arabic or Chinese.

--Area studies declines. Traditional area studies specialists are far
fewer in number than was the case during the Second World War and Cold

--Anthropologists' analytical reticence. Anthropologists are reluctant to
come forward as unequivocal experts and commentators on other countries.

Academic research in and knowledge about other societies and foreign
languages has not evaporated:

--Chinese studies have prospered since the end of the Cold War.

--The federal government makes significant contributions to university
specialization in area studies.

--States other than the U.S. and U.K. have strong intellectual traditions
in linguistic training and area study knowledge of Arab and Muslim
countries. However, these resources have been relatively untapped by U.S.
government analysts.

The administration's "war on terror" again made language and area
specialties acute priorities for Western states. The demand for such
knowledge is likely to generate three main policy responses:

1. Systematic language instruction. The government may eventually sponsor
systematic training in foreign languages:

--At present, the trend is to close or reduce language instruction
departments, because they are relatively costly.

--However, appropriate government incentives to universities and to
students can halt and reverse this trend.

2. "In-house" training. During the Cold War years, when conscription
endured in the U.K., recruiters selected academically gifted recruits for
intensive, military-provided language training. The U.S. has already begun
to renew its focus on this intensive "in-house" training, to compensate
for the current lack of skilled linguists.

3. Banishing the theorists. Government funding agencies and major
philanthropic organizations may begin to reverse the financial privilege
afforded general theoretical social science and rebuild area studies.
Again, financial incentives can help reverse existing trends:

--There is already some movement in this direction in the U.K.

--However, in the U.S., the National Science Foundation's (NSF's) support
of social science remains wedded to professional values that emphasize the
theoretical and general. Ultimately, increased congressional oversight it
likely to effect change.  The current lack of appropriate linguistic and
area study skills to address international security challenges arises from
nongovernment trends in the production and content of intellectual
knowledge. However, since much of such knowledge production is publicly
funded, resources can be redirected toward more policy relevant and skill
rich content.

To read an extended version of this article, log on to Oxford Analytica's
Web site.

Oxford Analytica is an independent strategic-consulting firm drawing on a
network of more than 1,000 scholar experts at Oxford and other leading
universities and research institutions around the world.


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