In his memorable 1983 book Adventures in the Screen Trade, novelist and screenwriter William Goldman repeatedly cites a line, Nobody Knows Anything, meaning that, despite vast hours and sums spent by Hollywood on testing films with audiences, nobody in Tinsel Town really has a clue how a movie will do at the box office until it’s actually released. It’s all guesswork, and always has been.
Unfortunately, the recent Ukraine crisis has revealed that American foreign policy similarly has little idea what outcomes will be – here the recent and utterly unprecedented intelligence debacle engendered by Edward Snowden & Friends is surely a factor – and generally appears clueless when confronted by Putin and his merry band of Chekists in the Kremlin. That the stakes are higher here than in the entertainment world should be obvious to all. I have repeatedly explained just how weak I think the Obama foreign policy team is, filled with impressive-sounding people who clearly cannot handle a real struggle with Moscow, so there’s no need to belabor that point again. Recent weeks have made abundantly clear that the White House simply does not know what to do when confronted with hard problems being pushed by hard men who are more than willing to use cunning violence and naked intimidation as a matter of routine.
However, the rot goes far deeper than this White House, and is not confined to any party; indeed, the remarkable decline in American foreign policy over the last generation is one of our few truly bi-partisan national efforts, so there’s no point in fantasizing that an election or two will change this. This sad truth I explained in a recent post which got quite a bit of attention, particularly this part:
A related factor here surely is that the United States has groomed a whole generation of foreign policy wonks-in-training who lack any real understanding of how the world actually works. These impressive-on-paper people – let it be noted they are legion in both parties – the under-45′s who are always graduates of the right schools and first-rate players of The Game in Washington, DC (which really comes down to cultivating the right mentors who will guide you to the proper think-tank until your party returns to power), are no match for the stone-cold killers of the Kremlin, led by the Chekist-in-Chief Putin. They have grown up in a world where unipolar American power has never been challenged, and while they can utter pleasant, Davos-ready platitudes about the whole range of bien pensant issues – global warming, emerging trends in micro-finance, gender matters on the Subcontinent, et al – they have quite literally nothing to say when old-school conventional threats emerge and enemies – yes, enemies: not rivals or merely misunderstood would-be partners – emerge from the darkness with conquest and killing on their minds.
I stick by all that and I’ll add that the defect in this younger generation of wannabe foreign policy mavens – which, full disclosure, I’m part of, barely – is two-fold. The first part is a lack of courage that’s enabled by a culture of conformism in the corridors of DC power, where one false move with the wrong staffer or donor can derail a whole career before it really begins. “Speaking truth to power” features frequently in novels and films about the nation’s capital, but is seldom encountered in reality for this reason. Savvy young people on the make quickly learn to mouth platitudes and make connections with equally bland and conformist mentors: if any of these people have genuinely novel, much less daring, foreign policy ideas, they learn to suppress them awfully fast.
Second, most of these smart young people really don’t know anything. Oh, don’t get me wrong, they had great SATs and went to top schools and have mastered the art of sounding smart, attaining admirable fluency in that unnatural dialect known as Beltway-speak, but as for any deep knowledge about any particular subject relating to how the world really works, that’s about as rare in this crowd as unicorns and Bigfoot. There should be no surprise that Chekists are winning handily these days.
That said, it’s important to note that the ignorance of reality found among our Bright Young Things in DC is hardly their own fault. It can be attributed to their deformed education, especially among those who have studied International Relations, memorizing Game Theory and related unreality when what they needed to be doing was studying languages and history and getting out of the Beltway more. I won’t beat up on IR more than this, since everybody who has encountered IR lately, between zombies and related silliness, already knows how ridiculous it is.
There is no substitute for actually knowing something about a country and a region and how its people think and what they say; this cannot be learned entirely in books – though you will have to read a lot of books to build a foundation of understanding – and it cannot be done entirely in English. If you want to understand Putin’s Russia, you will need to seriously look at the history and culture of that place, and Ukraine too, and learn their languages to boot. If this is too hard for you, then don’t try. If you want to predict what Russians and Ukrainians will likely do next with any degree of accuracy, learn about Russians and Ukrainians. For Putin and his system, you will need to learn about Chekists too, since their worldview is unique and powerful to the initiated.
This diatribe against IR, and more broadly against Political Science, ought not to be taken as a defense of History, my own discipline, since it, too, has become mired in post-modern silliness. Just when its services are needed to help explain the world to decision-makers, History has self-marginalized to an alarming degree. While I would trust the guesses of random people off the street – cabbies, waitresses, bookies – over your average tenured IR guru, I’m under no illusion that your run-of-the-mill History professor is much better.
So turning to the Academy to help explain what we ought to do next is sadly a non-starter. Capturing the wisdom of the professoriate, which was more helpful than not during the Cold War, is not much of a plan these days, I’m sad to report. Everybody wants George Kennan to magically reappear, but the reality is that poor, brilliant George, were he to magically reappear among us, would immediately be run out of the room on grounds of racism, sexism, xenophobia, generic crankiness, and all-around obsolescence. He would still be brilliant, mind you, we just have lost the ability to listen to OldThink. Until we get over our own biases, hardened practitioners of OldThink, who are far more atavistic and unpleasant than anything Kennan ever pondered at Princeton, will keep winning.
[The opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and in no way reflective of the views of any of his employers, past or present.]