Faculty Focus

Michael W. Doyle

International Policy

A world-renowned expert on democracy and a former assistant secretary-general at the United Nations, Michael W. Doyle has seen firsthand how sound scholarship can impact public policy

By Joy Y. Wang

Winter 2010

At a 2003 dinner celebrating the end of Professor Michael W. Doyle’s tenure as assistant secretary-general at the United Nations, then Secretary-General Kofi Annan noticed a pattern with respect to the names on the guest list. Scattered among United Nations colleagues and friends were the presidents of Columbia, Yale, the University of Pennsylvania, and Princeton, among other preeminent institutions of higher learning. Turning to Doyle, Annan suggested harnessing the expertise found around the dinner table that night to help resolve problems in international public policy.

“Kofi had the idea, and like with many things, he turned to me and said, ‘Why don’t you try to figure out how to make it happen,’” recalls Doyle, who is a noted scholar of political philosophy and served as special adviser to the U.N. secretary-general in 2001.

Annan’s suggestion led Doyle to organize the Global Colloquium of University Presidents, which began meeting annually in 2005. The summit seeks to bring together university presidents and top researchers from around the world to discuss how academic research can be applied to resolving international challenges. Columbia University hosted the inaugural meeting, which focused on two themes: academic freedom and immigration issues. This year’s colloquium, held at Yale University, brought together university presidents and vice-chancellors from China, Singapore, India, South Africa, Ghana, Uganda, Turkey, Mexico, and England. The experts gathered to discuss the how science and technology can be used to address global challenges.

The colloquium is an example of how scholarship can be used to drive public policy and is emblematic of how Doyle’s work skillfully covers the intersection of both fields. His most recent book, Striking First: Preemption and Prevention in International Conflict, seeks to find standards for when, and how, preemptive and preventative force should be used in order to maintain international order. In Striking First, Doyle also explains that existing international rules governing the use of force are inadequate and criticizes the Bush administration’s unilateral decision-making process.

As the Harold Brown Professor of U.S. Foreign and Security Policy, Doyle holds a threefold joint appointment in Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, the Department of Political Science, and the Law School. In addition to his work as an academic, the time he spent at the United Nations offered the noted political scientist a clear-eyed view of the difficulties in creating change on a global level.

“We don’t have a philosopher king setting good policy for the world,” he explains. “There are 193-plus states, and they all have to be persuaded. Government is about persuasion, and it’s persuasion in spades [with respect to] the international arena.”

While on leave during the spring semester, Doyle is writing a book that starts with John S. Mill’s famous argument for nonintervention and the seven situations when governing bodies are justified to override or disregard the principle of nonintervention. The professor offers a reinterpretation of Mill’s work and then revises Mill’s principles in light of historical examples illustrating the various principles in practice.

As a scholar of philosophers like Mill, and a participant in global decision-making processes, Doyle points to a distinct contrast between his role in analyzing political theory and practical efforts to shape public policy. “Compromise is the essence of policy and the bane of theory,” he says. “Theory abhors things that are indistinct and controversial, whereas policy is by nature indistinct and controversial.” Despite this reality, Doyle recognizes that there is a definite connection the two fields. “Good research can contribute to good policy,” he says with a degree of optimism.

After returning to New York in late January from the Global Colloquium of University Presidents in New Haven, Doyle had only a few days of respite and reflection before boarding a plane for Davos, Switzerland. There, at the World Economic Forum, he moderated a panel on foreign aid, proposed suggestions on economic growth strategies, and, to paraphrase Annan’s words, began the process of figuring out how to make the recommendations happen.