Why I believe academics have failed the general public

by Mark Curtis

Times Higher Education Supplement, 1 October 2004

My view is that the reality of Britain’s foreign policy is very different than usually presented by academics. Indeed, I think British academics are generally responsible for keeping students and the public in ignorance about this country’s real role in the world.

Explicit or implicit in much academic analysis is that Britain aims to promote the grand principles of democracy, peace, human rights and overseas development, the goals espoused by policy-makers. Criticism of policy is normal, but is usually within very narrow parameters, focuses on marginal issues and ignores whole policies. There has been a categoric failure to document rigorously the formerly secret planning records in the National Archives.

My own research shows that Britain is a systematic violator of international law and the UN, a key ally of many repressive regimes and a consistent condoner of human rights abuses. The key goals are to maintain British elites’ political standing in the world – “great power” status – and to ensure that the global economy benefits Western business, both in alliance with the US. From these goals flow many policies consigning much of the world’s population to the status of “unpeople” – victims of policies.  

Many key British policies are unknown to the public since academics have failed to reveal them. The 1953 overthrow of the democratically elected government in British Guiana has barely been touched by academics. Britain’s covert role in the Indonesian Generals bloody seizure of power in 1965 – a story I broke in 1996 – has rarely been subject to academic analysis. Almost nothing has been written on Britain’s role in the Vietnam war, in the rise of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin and in its support for brutal Nigerian policies in the civil war over Biafra.

Britain’s invasion of Egypt in 1956 is the only military intervention over the past fifty years that has been severely criticised in mainstream analysis. The reason is obvious – Britain lost. A year after Suez, Britain intervened to defend a regime in Oman as repressive as any that has existed in the Middle East. The Sultan kept several thousand slaves and presided over a barbaric justice system with torture endemic, while British advisers stood by. This intervention has been removed from history.

What about more recent events? Britain’s complicity in the Rwanda genocide of 1994 has been exposed by journalist Linda Melvern in her book, A People Betrayed. Yet this role has been analysed in only one academic article that I am aware of. The depopulation of the Chagos islands and Diego Garcia in the 1960s is the subject of no British academic analysis; neither is the Blair government’s continuing abuse of the Chagossians.

Sanctions against Iraq contributed to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, but have barely been touched by British academics. The same goes for the Blair government’s current support for repressive regimes in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Nigeria, Israel and Russia.

As someone who currently works outside British academia, I find it hard to explain this failure. Clearly, there is some independent analysis taking place, but not much. Perhaps closeness to policy-makers, seeking career advancement by not rocking the boat, funding pressures that skew the direction of research and administrative overload that restricts research time, may all be reasons. As is the fact that British foreign policy is often regarded as a subject unworthy of separate study.

Yet my experience is also that many academics do not see themselves as needing to take moral choices or even as actors in progressive social change. They do not sufficiently use a moral prism to decide which issues to focus on, and how; the same often goes for PhD students, whose subject choices in international relations often amaze me.

Staff in the politics department at the University of Bristol have recently established the network of scholars of politics and international relations, or NASPIR. It seeks to share critical research on foreign policy to promote positive social change. This is badly needed; so too is more academics making the choice to challenge power rather than serve it.


  1. R Eventon says:


    This is a startling trueism of the discipline of International Politics. International Relations in particular is in desperate need of an overhaul; the goal is seemingly to create diplomats well versed in ‘realist’ theory. That this paradigm has reached predominance is evidence that the liberal ideals espoused at the discipline’s inception have been abandoned. For those who study and work in international politics departments, whose job it is to study world issues, they owe the public a duty to analyse foreign policy and report and speak out against their government.

    The less said about phd topics the better.

  2. E Stewart says:

    There is certainly a lack of radicalism across academia as a whole. However, there are many constraints to independent research: a lack of funding (particularly for research that is considered controversial) and publication bias, as well as time constraints in academic departments focused largely on teaching. For those of us that would go against the grain, we are up against it in a age of slick careerism where free-thinking academics are increasingly a thing of the past.

    1. A. Hatuxka says:

      Sounds as if to you “radicalism” means a spirit of academic inquiry with initiative and rigor. The rest of how you word your comment shows you are part of the problem.

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