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Anton Tsvetov

Expert in the Foreign Policy and Security division at the Center for Strategic Research

A review of The Ideas Industry: How Pessimists, Partisans, and Plutocrats are Transforming the Marketplace of Ideas, by Dan Drezner.

If you are an international relations professional reading this review after following a link on Facebook or Twitter, there is a pretty good chance Dan Drezner does not require an introduction. Though an accomplished academic and think-tanker, Drezner is no less famous as a Washington Post columnist and author of the mashup-wave-inspired Theories of International Politics and Zombies. This makes him uniquely positioned to dissect the very market where he thrives — that of foreign policy ideas. He does so in a captivating manner in his latest book, The Ideas Industry: How Pessimists, Partisans, and Plutocrats are Transforming the Marketplace of Ideas.

When making all the necessary hedging moves at the start of the book, Drezner concedes that while the trends and changes described apply to the ideas market in general, the subject of his study is foreign policy thinking in the United States. This is what makes it particularly interesting to see which of the described market forces are at work here in Russia and what all of this means for Russian IR scholars.


A review of The Ideas Industry: How Pessimists, Partisans, and Plutocrats are Transforming the Marketplace of Ideas, by Dan Drezner

If you are an international relations professional reading this review after following a link on Facebook or Twitter, there is a pretty good chance Dan Drezner does not require an introduction. Though an accomplished academic and think-tanker, Drezner is no less famous as a Washington Post columnist and author of the mashup-wave-inspired Theories of International Politics and Zombies. This makes him uniquely positioned to dissect the very market where he thrives — that of foreign policy ideas. He does so in a captivating manner in his latest book, The Ideas Industry: How Pessimists, Partisans, and Plutocrats are Transforming the Marketplace of Ideas.

When making all the necessary hedging moves at the start of the book, Drezner concedes that while the trends and changes described apply to the ideas market in general, the subject of his study is foreign policy thinking in the United States. This is what makes it particularly interesting to see which of the described market forces are at work here in Russia and what all of this means for Russian IR scholars.

The new kids on the block

Drezner’s book is essentially two things — first, a narrative on how things have changed in and around the marketplace of foreign policy ideas and, second, an account of what this means for the existing and new players on its supply side. The author calls to discern between two categories of thinkers, who are different not only in thinking style, but also in the way the ideas market Wheel of Fortune treats them.

The winners are the thought leaders — evangelists and preachers who focus on a single big idea (much like Isiah Berlin’s hedgehogs) that gets them book deals, TED talks and Twitter followers. One can’t help but notice the slight irritation that Drezner feels for the rise of these traveling salesmen at the expense of the old guard — the public intellectuals. Now these are the thinkers we are more used to — experts with deep knowledge of factuality and context, charged with open and responsible criticism, mindful of the shades and caveats of high-quality thinking and comfortable with its inner contradictions, much like Berlin’s foxes.

Now, the line between the two has never been clear anywhere, much less in Russia. The salaries in Russian research institutions are rarely high enough for a scholar to afford working just one job. IR people often teach at a university and part-time in one of the institutes within the Russian Academy of Sciences (which are essentially state-funded ‘universities without students’). The more enthusiastic also attend public speaking events and pen articles and op-eds for media outlets or reports and articles for think tanks (the ones in the Western meaning of the term — like RIAC or the Valdai Club).

Another peculiar issue blurring the line in Russia is that there is just one word in the language used for both ‘political scientist’ and ‘political commentator’ — politolog. As a result, the media is full of commentary by politologs without any formal training, but with very sharp pens often serving a specific political cause. This severely devalues the weight of political science education and scholarship to the point where many experts specifically ask journalists not to refer to them as political scientists.

Drezner sets out three underlying trends that are creating this new environment favorable to thought leaders and hostile to public intellectuals.

First, declining trust in authority and traditional institutions of influence, above all, governments. Drezner connects these trends to the anti-intellectual populist wave so widely discussed in scholarship and commentary (Trump, Brexit et. al., 2016) and goes into detail over the evident distrust of American citizens towards their own government and consistently low support for state policy. This is all too familiar to Russia-watchers. The latest Edelman Trust Barometer, as pointed out on the RIAC website by Andrey Kortunov, shows Russia well in the bottom in terms of institutional trust ratings. Except for the President, the Armed Forces, and the Defense and Foreign Affairs Ministries, most state institutions, including the judiciary, the Government, and the Parliament, all suffer from public distrust. Reform-minded intellectuals in Russia see it as one of the key obstacles to sustainable long-term economic growth and often speak of the Distrust Tax, an imagined embedded tariff on all social transactions that increases costs throughout the system.

This decline of authority together with proliferation of all kinds of media and lowered entry barriers has produced what has been called ‘the death of expertise’ — something very much lamented by those in Russia who consider themselves real experts, as opposed to what they call ‘couch experts’ (also known as the Couch Corps when they engage in full-scale online warfare).

One can assume Russia is among those suffering the worst from this plague. The country’s mass media, along the lines of official state messaging, has attracted great attention to foreign policy — interestingly, the only source of good news for everyday Russians against the backdrop of structural economic issues. The abundance of global affairs news pieces in the media is generously spiced up by simplistic spin, often in the form of familiar Hollywood narratives: good guys always beat the bad guys, the moralists always have an ulterior motive, the victim is always innocent and so on. In connection with the separation between the online and offline selves provided by social and internet media, this sort of cognitive ease breeds an army of commentators seriously skewing the signal-to-noise ratio in the wrong direction.

The second big trend highlighted in Drezner’s book is growing partisanship. Audiences get entrenched in their views and with the help of Facebook-induced filter bubbles are becoming less and less receptive to alternative viewpoints, making it really tough for any kind of intellectual to actually change someone’s mind regardless of the evidence. The author understandingly focuses on the Democratic/Republican divide, but the Russian ideological landscape is no less polarized. The result is similar for both countries. Ideas and opinions are judged less by the merit of argumentation, consistency or even power of conviction, and more by the labels attached to the affiliated institution. ‘Pro-Kremlin’ or ‘liberal’ or ‘eurasianist’ are just some of the stigmas attached in Russia to research facilities and individuals alike. Foreign policy thinkers are rapidly developing a tendency to cluster and create filter bubbles of their own, shutting out competition and enjoying each other’s company.

This may well have a lot to do with how the third major trend described in the book — rising economic inequality — manifests itself in Russia. Drezner makes a case that the much-discussed concentration of net worth at the very top of income percentiles has a profound effect on the thinking business. There is a relatively small group of people and organizations who can actually pay well for foreign policy ideas, but it has become rare that such funding goes with no strings attached. This age-old debate has reemerged once again recently after the extensive investigation done by The New York Times on US think tanks and their intimate workings with private corporations.

In Russia’s case, times are just as tough. The old adage goes that academic squabbles are so bitter precisely because the stakes are so low. There is not much funding to tap into, so it makes sense to do your best and secure as much of it as possible for great minds thinking alike. The safest way to go would be to get single-source funding, like from the government or a government-sponsored foundation. A lot of the research done via short-term contracts does not reach the public and the bidding process is rarely transparent. It would be safe to say that it is unlikely that there is a solid research institution in Russia that gets less than 70 per cent of its funding from a single source.

The Jokers and the Thieves

Drezner dedicates several chapters of his book to all the various players on the ideas playground. The winners-and-losers paradigm that is set in the book right from the start works through these chapters as well. Economists definitely win over political scientists, media-savvy academics are more likely to thrive than those cozying up in the ivory tower, and private consultancy firms tend to reap many of the benefits of the ideas market, not least because they approach their research almost as a sales pitch. And the best-selling things are, or course, visions of an apocalyptic future and philosopher’s stones — hidden trends that would explain everything and promise the greatest return on investment.

What the book does for the Russian reader is give a sense of belonging to an industry disrupted. Much like American scholars, those in Russia struggle to balance between research and outreach. In the Venn diagram of the best IR scholars and the best known ones the overlap is pretty small. In extreme cases, we get a handful of thinkers loved by Western media, and non-fiction writers portrayed as the most influential IR thinkers, ‘Putin’s advisors’ even, when they are considered marginal evangelists of obscure non-scientific ideas by the professional community. Articles are written, books are published, conclusions are made. As any good Russia-watcher knows, if someone is on TV, it doesn’t mean the President is watching. This is not Fox & Friends, you know.

Another issue that Drezner brings up in his book, and which takes a peculiar turn in Russia, is the notion that politicians may not be interested in a political scientist’s work because they think about IR differently. Drezner’s case is that most contemporary IR theories focus on structure and don’t really hold agency in high regard. That in itself is a turnoff for any decision maker, since it means there’s not much sense in making decisions — the system essentially deprives them of any ability to influence outcomes, devaluing them to a pebble tossed around by the roaring sea.

One could argue that this is less the case in Russia, where strict theoretical frameworks have never been a thing with IR scholars well-aware of the dangers of orthodoxy, since most of them had their share of dialectical materialism, scientific atheism, and Marxist theory in their university years. However, another issue stands tall. There has never been much of a revolving door system — academia and policy practice are mostly stovepiped, except for retired diplomats who often migrate to teaching positions in the MFA’s universities. Because of this — and exacerbated by a closed bureaucratic culture — foreign policy experts have scarce access to field data and weak knowledge of actual operations, while policy makers assume that, precisely because of this, experts rarely have much to say on policy. As a result, scholarly analysis is often disregarded as non-actionable, while diplomats themselves are often seen as borderline ignorant and tunnel-visioned by those they disregard.

The Ideas Industry takes a birds-eye view of the key factors influencing the American foreign policy ideas industry, but as the US and Russia have more in common than both like to admit, Russian readers will definitely be sympathetic to many of the author’s attitudes. Drezner shows a market confused by rapid and profound change, as many other markets are. The turf wars are just beginning as new players appear and carve out large swathes for themselves, sometimes creating niches where there were none before and leaving the old guard struggling to retain a share.

This Darwinian battle has concerning implications for the actual goods and services offered on the market. Because if public intellectuals can’t beat thought leaders, they have to either join them or lose relevance. And that is the fear Drezner shares on the last pages of the book: very personal, but just as relatable. Researchers in Russia and the US alike find themselves between the ethics of creating knowledge and the economics of the modern ideas industry. This is not to say that the tenets of the former are always at odds with the market forces of the latter. But there is certainly tension, sometimes a thesis-antithesis relationship of sorts. One could hope that in a country where dialectics used to be taught in most university programs, intellectuals will find a way to synthesize an approach that could help them navigate the dire straits of the ideas industry.

P.S. This review was NOT written as a contribution to the ‘mention economy’ — what Drezner calls the exchange of online citations and social media references. But if Dan choses to tweet this, please don’t forget to tag the author with his Twitter handle, @antsvetov.

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