Is it a fantasy to think that social scientists can influence foreign policy? Many researchers discover insights about how the real world works that are highly relevant for policymakers. For example, Cara Jones recently summarized how research pointed to big trouble for Burundi, which could help spark attention to head off potential atrocities. Jay Ulfelder has created a statistical model to measure the risk of a country suffering a coup d’état which can feed into watch lists, while John Sides explains how other research on coups can tell us about what happened in Egypt in 2013.
Social science occasionally trickles through foreign policy and intelligence agencies and has an effect on government action. The State Department has a highly regarded Policy Planning Office that often brings insights from the best research into the policy process. A single economics paper by Craig Burnside and David Dollar, which found that foreign aid has a positive effect on economic growth only in well-governed countries, inspired the launch of a whole new government agency, the Millennium Challenge Corporation.
While many university departments (and especially the tenure clock) implicitly penalize professors for working on policy issues, I know many academics secretly yearn to have their work affect government behavior. If you had spent years collecting data and your research had relevancy for real events, wouldn’t you want decision makers to notice?
The regular churn of political appointees occasionally even results in serious scholars taking important positions inside government. Harvard’s Joseph Nye, one of the great international relations theorists, held senior positions in the Pentagon. Condoleezza Rice was a leading scholar on the Soviet Union at Stanford before she became national security adviser and then secretary of state. The current deputy U.S. ambassador to the United Nations is also a Stanford professor, Jeremy Weinstein, who is most well known for his fieldwork on the motivations of guerrillas in Africa. While not at the same level, I had the opportunity to serve at the State Department largely because government officials noticed my work on Nigerian debt. So it’s unusual for researchers to find themselves in senior government positions, but not unheard of.
Now imagine for a moment a dream scenario for (at least some) social scientists: Your research so impresses the government that they create an office based on your ideas. Even better, imagine they invite you to run it.
If that sounds like utter fiction, it is. That’s the premise of The Golden Hour, my thriller about Amherst College professor Judd Ryker, who is thrust into the whirlwind of international diplomacy and Washington infighting. Ryker crunches numbers on coups and discovers that once an elected leader had been overthrown by his own military, the chances of returning to office effectively disappear after 100 hours. He concludes therefore that the “golden hour” for reversing a coup is just four days.
Ryker’s invited to present his findings at the State Department, which immediately hires him as director of a new special Crisis Reaction Unit to accelerate America’s reaction time to international events. It’s his big chance to turn theory in practice.
After I left government, I wanted to write about my own experiences from the foreign policy trenches and especially to share war stories about the infighting and dysfunction. It seemed more fun, for author and readers, as fiction.
One thing I quickly learned in government is that social science can be useful, even if it’s not entirely true. It turned out that the Dollar-Burnside result that gave birth to the MCC was so fragile that it disappeared when Jordan was removed from the sample. Yet such statistical concerns had little effect on the MCC because the initial findings matched powerful prior beliefs that aid works best in good policy environments. The research mattered, but not that much.
Data too looks different from the inside. The social sciences may be increasingly dominated by quantitative analysis, yet I didn’t see a single regression table while working at State. In the novel, Ryker is a numbers nerd, but he quickly realizes that Washington works on personal relationships.
The book’s fictional hero also learns the hard way about how bureaucracies sometimes react to outsiders like an organ transplant rejected by the host. Despite Judd Ryker’s lofty new title and office, he’s ignored, dismissed, and out-flanked by others who don’t want his ivory tower ideas anywhere near their turf. In the story, Ryker finally gets his chance to prove the golden hour after a coup in Mali only because his main rival happens to be out of the country.
In reality, I’m unaware of any published research that shows time is a determinant in a coup’s success or failure. But it seems plausible. My experience suggests that the U.S. government takes too long to make decisions and far too long to act. Even if I don’t have data to prove it, I believe the golden hour exists. If true, then America’s lack of timeliness likely undermines its ability to influence events.
That’s a theme I also explore in Minute Zero, the second in my diplo-thriller series. “Minute zero” is another of Judd Ryker’s fictional-but-not-wholly-unbelievable theories that a brief window of extreme uncertainty — after a natural disaster, the death of a leader, or, perhaps, in the hours when a murky election is still up for grabs — is exactly when outside leverage is most effective. When minute zero arrives, that’s precisely the moment for the United States to act.
Again, I haven’t seen any quantitative studies validating this concept, but I believe in minute zero because I watched it happen with my own eyes.
In March 2008, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe lost the first round of a presidential election. Rather than admit defeat, he simply didn’t allow official results to be announced. The world waited more than a month before Mugabe decided he would contest a second round, but only after he unleashed his military in a brutal campaign to ensure that he won.
In those days of great uncertainty, however, no one knew what would happen next. I was at State at the time and watched in horror as the possibility of an historic democratic transition for Zimbabwe turned into a bloody nightmare. In hindsight, I believe that the United States. could have done more to change history in those crucial days.
These events are the inspiration for Minute Zero. Ryker arrives in Zimbabwe during an election that’s being stolen by an aging dictator. He has to overcome plotters in Harare and indifference in Washington, D.C., in order to support a human rights lawyer who is challenging the president. It’s a fictional account of what could have been—and what could still happen.
Sometimes fiction does become reality. A few weeks after I completed the manuscript for The Golden Hour, Mali experienced a real coup. I’m hoping that Minute Zero will be an omen for a better future for Zimbabwe too. If academics can become policymakers and social scientists can be action heroes, then perhaps anything is possible.