Some things to remember about foreign policy professionals

I recently read a chapter of a book written in 2003 that aimed to predict future security challenges in the decades to come. Its overall conclusion was that “the prospects for national and international security over the next decade or two are grim. In issue area after issue area, one finds only a few glimmers of optimism.” Whether you believe this prediction was right or not, reading it reminded me of a few things worth considering when engaging foreign policy analyses. They are, in no specific order:

  • The incentives for foreign policy experts are poorly aligned. Our jobs depend on there being problems to solve; if there were world peace, there’d be little need for foreign policy professionals and their advice. This is not to say that the experts deliberately conjure up problems where none exist, but I believe it produces a more pessimistic mindset than actual facts on the ground merit. It’s important to remember that mankind has made astonishing progress on a whole range of metrics over the past several thousand years, such as the incidence of violence. On a day-to-day basis there may be crises to manage, but take a step back and you’ll see the world isn’t as doomed to catastrophe as many pundits would have you believe.
  • There’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy with foreign policy analysis. Similar to the tenets of the observer effect in science, the mere act of opining on an issue changes that issue. The chorus of pessimistic reports on ISIS, for example, undoubtedly affected global opinion of the issue and what should be done. Whether or not the analyses in the reports were accurate is unimportant. The simple act of speaking about the issue creates a narrative, image, or whatever you want to call it that affects the way the issue is engaged. It helps shape what we consider “reality.” As such, foreign policy experts can inadvertently create the very issues they worry about simply by reporting on them. Again, I’m not suggesting that the experts are fabricating foreign “monsters to destroy,” but I do believe there can be an element of self-fulfilling prophecies to their work.
  • Finally, I always try to remind myself that even the most informed opinion is little better than an educated guess. History is littered with failed predictions and missed events, which should caution us from being certain about most things. A healthy dose of skepticism is necessary to engaging the complex world in which we live. Take for example the realm of international relations theory. The sheer number of competing theories almost encourages one to simply give up and declare the whole endeavor pointless. Of course, such an action misses the utility of IR theory and would be a mistake, but the volume of theories should constantly remind us that there’s more than one way to see an issue.

Taken together, I believe these three considerations help place foreign policy analysis within a more useful and realistic context. On that note, it’s back to the academic grind as the spring semester has just started. As such, my posting frequency will decline again but I hope to find a few quiet moments in the coming months to share my thoughts with you all. It probably comes as no surprise, but I’ve got quite a lot to say!

See you soon,

Stephen

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