Think of a mistake that we made in international affairs. At the time that we were making it, a phalanx of foreign policy experts was standing behind it. It might be a lonely orphan idea today, but last year you could have thrown a rock at a roomful of PhDs without hitting a single person who disagreed with it.
When the Tahrir Square protests in Egypt were in their heyday, I had trouble finding any foreign policy people who would even entertain the idea that we should continue backing Mubarak. Back then the revolution seemed inevitable. But I correctly predicted Islamist takeovers and counterrevolutions that would topple them because I didn’t see international relations through the lens of a grand theory.
Scott Walker’s claim that foreign policy is about leadership, not expertise, is being mocked now by media types who were relentlessly regurgitating all the expert truisms about the Arab Spring. But he’s right. Foreign policy expertise does not translate into foreign affairs competence. Leadership does.
Just ask John Kerry who has been flailing away at foreign policy for decades with all the ineptness of a drunken windsurfer in a tsunami. And no matter how many times he got it wrong, he remains convinced that this time is when he’ll get it right.
Foreign policy expertise usually means someone’s secondhand pet theory and a network of contacts. The difference between war and diplomacy is that while a battle plan doesn’t survive first contact with the enemy, a theory of international relations lingers on no matter how many good people it kills.
Most of the bad ideas that were around before Chamberlain brought back “Peace in Our Time” from a bad painter named Adolf are still haunting the halls of universities and government buildings. Obama’s foreign policy renamed those same bad ideas “Smart Power” while auditioning everyone from Vladimir Putin to the Caliph of the Islamic State to fill in for Adolf.
International relations is the only theory driven policy field more overrated than economics. And it’s hard to say which bunch of bad theories has done more damage to America.
Foreign policy leadership requires being able to read people and to translate national interests into international objectives. This is a skillset that any competent manager has. The two most common mistakes made in international relations are first, a dependence on grand theory over practical goals, and second, the false assumption that the other side shares your values and priorities.
These two mistakes were at the heart of the Arab Spring error. The experts invested the events with a grander meaning by misreading them as a wave of global and regional progress, rather than dealing with the actual agendas on the street and the national historical precedents for them. If they had done that, they would have recognized that the protests had a lot more to do with the price of bread and oil money agendas than the Middle East transforming itself into another Europe.
Furthermore they assumed that democracy, in countries where majorities support a lot of the same Islamic death penalties being meted out now by ISIS, would echo our own values.
That was clearly never going to happen.
These are the sorts of stupid mistakes that only smart people make. And they typify the elitist arrogance running our foreign policy into the ground by shortchanging our national interests for their own grand global theories. They are why academics should not be allowed anywhere near foreign policy so that they don’t hurt themselves or anyone else.
Our worst foreign policy disasters have come from historical determinists who assumed that events were fulfilling their pet theories about the world. What we need are competent managers who can deal with an individual problem, set a realistic goal and carry it out. Spare us the foreign policy romantics who can’t wait to visit an “exotic” foreign country and play a liberal Lawrence of Arabic. They get other people killed. Sometimes they even get themselves killed.
What we need are hard heads who don’t get carried away and do get the job done.
Knowledge isn’t useless. Knowing the history of a foreign country and understanding the culture matters a lot. If Bush had known more about Russia, he would have known better than to look into Putin’s soul. But those kinds of amateur mistakes are easier to fix on an individual basis than the smart power errors that lead into a global chain of disasters when an administration believes it is on the right side of history.
Scott Walker’s approach to foreign policy has been pragmatic and practical. It doesn’t mean that he will be right about everything. But he’s a lot more likely to recognize his mistakes than Obama ever will because he isn’t chained to a bad theory. While Jeb Bush has gathered an army of foreign policy advisors who represent all the varying and contradictory views within the Republican mainstream, Walker is signaling that he intends to deal with issues rather than theories. And that is a good thing.
American foreign policy has become so bogged down in theories that we are no longer capable of getting anything done. The theories are interpreted by experts in ways that offer solutions to problems. Unfortunately the theories are not grounded in reality and the solutions, which are based on the theories, have even less of a meaningful relationship to the real world.
In international relations, history matters as background, not as an inevitable direction that we must follow. There is no inescapable wave of modernity. Technology has changed how people communicate, but it has not disrupted and transformed most cultures to the extent that it has our own. Most of the world does not want the same things that we do. Even if it did, it wouldn’t want them on our terms.
If we want to protect our national interests, we need to focus on them first instead of assuming that we need to fix the world to protect ourselves. The most important thing to learn from history is that people, institutions and cultures might be predictable on an individual basis, but not on a general one. Applying the faulty logic of central planning and socialized everything to the world leads to even bigger and more profound failures than Obamacare. While we should be determined in our goals, we must be humble in our assumptions because we cannot truly know what is to come.
There is no inevitable right side to history. There are only the choices that we make. History is not the product of any theory, but the sum of our worse and better choices. We change the outcome, but often only at the cost of great sacrifices that should not be entered into lightly.
Every good decision begins with weighing what we want and what we need. It measures our resources and asks what we need to accomplish and what we can accomplish. It understands that its greatest and cheapest commodity is its word and it does not give it lightly. It does not mouth empty ideals. Instead it speaks only of what it is willing to realize. It carries a great love for the nation and for the cultural heritage that gave birth to it. And it understands that without that heritage, its civilization will perish.
It is not the theorists who make good decisions. It takes leadership to make a good decision.