In Defense of Foreign Policy Ignorance

By John Allen Gay

A recent survey found that the worse people are at spotting Ukraine on a map, the more likely they are to support an American intervention there. That touched off a debate on the role of expertise in decision-making. Writing in the Washington Post, Charles Lane questioned the notion that expertise trumps all: "Since when is precise, granulated geographical knowledge some sort of prerequisite for deciding what's right in foreign policy generally or for Ukraine specifically? [...] Foreign policy is not only about knowledge but also judgment; not only smarts but also wisdom." Greg Scoblete of RealClearWorld shot back: "Understanding a subject deeply is certainly no guarantee that you'll make the correct decisions. [...] But over the long term, it strikes me as far better to empower decision-makers that actually know what they're talking about rather than those who pantomime right-sounding principles as a substitute for genuine understanding." And this isn't a new debate -- it cropped up as Republicans weighed their options after Mitt Romney's defeat in 2012, and when Sarah Palin was on the ticket in 2008, just to name a couple of recent examples.

How much should our foreign policy leaders know about the countries with which they interact? Some ignorance is inevitable. There's essentially no limit to how much you can learn about a particular foreign country -- nobody will know everything. Worse, there are many countries, and a major international power like the United States must interact with almost all of them. Nobody can know enough about each one. Worse still, the foreign policy buck stops at the desk of someone responsible for a lot more than just foreign policy: the president. There can be no Expert in Chief; there are state dinners to attend, judges to appoint, websites to launch and ninety-minute phone calls with Putin to be made. And many of the president's immediate subordinates have broad portfolios of their own. John Kerry and Ben Rhodes don't have time to read the Kyiv Post, People's Daily and the Tehran Times every morning, or to dig deeply into the history and culture of every country that they deal with. If expertise must play a central role in policy-making, the wise move would be to delegate as many decisions as possible pertaining to U.S. policy toward particular countries to the best experts on those countries. Yet that's not what we do -- thank goodness.

For one thing, a global player with complicated, interlocking interests around the world can't make policy toward specific countries in isolation, even if experts on those countries unanimously agree that their preferred policy is the best. The negotiations with Iran, for example, have had a major effect on America's relations with Israel and the Gulf states. Success at the negotiating table will require the careful management of those relationships, and that management might require adjustments in the negotiations with Iran -- adjustments that the Iran experts might not support. The complexity is even greater when dealing with other global powers, since they can respond in many areas. Russia is a party to the Iran negotiations, an Iranian trading partner and a potential Iranian arms supplier. Moscow could easily choose to answer U.S. policies in Ukraine with policies of its own toward Iran. And so the Iran talks might impact -- and be impacted by -- decisions about a country more than one thousand miles from Tehran.

The complexity increases when we remember that foreign policy can have domestic elements. Any final Iran deal, for example, will require Congress to make adjustments to current sanctions law -- and it'll have to refrain from passing new laws that interfere with the deal. Further, the administration will weaken itself politically if it takes steps in the talks that make it look soft. Its initiatives in other areas might suffer. Political considerations like these can't be paramount, yet failing to take them into account can interfere with making a successful policy. Congress didn't feel it was adequately consulted prior to the announcement of last November's initial nuclear deal, and it responded by pushing a new sanctions law that, had it passed, would have moved the goalposts on the Iranians. It even had provisions that might have been impossible to fulfill. All this means that an Iran policy driven purely by Iran experts can easily fail for a host of reasons unrelated to expertise on Iranian history and behavior. The experts aren't enough.

Moreover, experts don't always agree. Communities of experts on any given country tend to be just as politicized as the political leaders they advise. There will be experts who are generally sympathetic to their country, and experts who are generally unsympathetic. If it's a country ruled by a nasty regime, there will be an expert who almost always wants to overthrow it or take some other aggressive policy. There will be an expert who says that the regime is not so nasty, or even that we should be friendly with said regime. The British science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke famously summed this up, writing that "for every expert, there is an equal and opposite expert."

Policy-makers thus have to resist the technocratic temptation to give experts an overbearing role. The real expertise they need is twofold.

First, they need to know how these expert communities work, and adjust their perceptions of what the experts say accordingly. They need, in other words, to be experts on experts. Second, they need to balance the competing interests their various expert advisers represent. In our Iran talks example, that means listening to the Iran experts, but also to experts on the regional, global and domestic implications of Iran policy. The policy-maker alone sits at the nexus of all these experts, and is alone in crafting a policy that balances them all. So Lane is right; knowledge is necessary for wisdom -- but it isn't sufficient.

John Allen Gay is an assistant managing editor at The National Interest and the coauthor of War with Iran: Political, Military, and Economic Consequences (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013). He tweets at @JohnAllenGay.

(AP Photo)

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