How foreign-policy debate is changing in the USA

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by Hans Dembowski

When ideology trumps evidence

Interest in sober, fact-based and detailed analysis is waning in the USA, while supposed quick fixes are in growing demand. Daniel Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University in Massachusetts. His new book “The ideas industry” assesses how public discourse on foreign policy has been changing in his country. The trends are worrisome.

According to Drezner, three issues matter in particular:

  • The authority of institutions – from universities to government bodies – has been declining, and many people no longer trust in expert knowledge.
  • The polarisation of politics means that people are only interested in narratives that fit their ideology.
  • Due to the rising relevance of plutocratic donors, it makes sense for income-maximising intellectuals to address them rather than the general public.

I’ll start with the last point, the mega-donors. As Drezner argues, successful buisness leaders from the high-tech or financial sector have a particular world view. They believe in free markets, disruptive innovations and a strong, risk-taking person’s capacity to drive change. This, after all, is how they became super rich themselves. They are not interested in hearing about complex international systems, multi-levelled power structures and nuanced policymaking. They are keen on bold schemes to solve big problems fast. Indeed, the recent generation of “philanthropists” in the USA intends to spend huge fortunes in the hope of changing the world in their life time.

The problem, according to Drezner, is that foreign affairs are inherently complex and that structures cannot be changed easily. The global polity is not a market, so disruption may lead to instability and chaos rather than a new and superior equilibrium of supply and demand.

To cater to super-rich donors, a foreign-affairs expert must promote one forceful idea, preferably base it on big data and some kind of technological innovation and emphasise the role of market competition, as Drezner argues. Those who do so, can expect to rake in fees of $ 70,000 or so for a single lecture and give such lectures monthly.

Drezner’s example is Niall Fergusson, a British right-wing historian, who told him he is in the business for the money. Fergusson has shifted his focus from writing for the general public to catering to mega-donors. He gave up his professorship at Harvard University in order to have more time for non-academic work. The more scholars adopt a business model of his kind, the less they will engage in nuanced research and piecemeal debates.

The polarisation of politics compounds the trend to provide simple answers rather than nuanced analysis. Increasingly, policymakers rely on expertise from like-minded think tanks or even profit-driven consultancies. In Drezner’s view, they are ever less inclined to follow nuanced academic debate. In their eyes, ideological correctness matters more than understanding the details of crucial issues. This is especially so as the authority of universities and other sources of expertise has been withering.

Dreznes makes a useful distinction between thought leaders and public intellectuals. Public intellectuals are good at explaining in simple terms what is wrong with various policy approaches, whereas thought leaders excel at pointing out what is great about their own approach. Public intellectuals foster doubt, weigh arguments and emphasise sobriety. Thought leaders are self-confident, focus on a single message and display exuberance. In Drezner’s eyes, public intellectuals are needed today, but thought leaders are more likely to thrive in the current environment.

Drezner’s book is worth reading, but I find it a bit half-hearted. The underlying question is age-old: is it more important to understand the world or to change the world? Academic discourse is geared to understanding the world, and policy debate is designed to change the world. At the same time, policies are more likely to work out well if they are based on a solid understanding of the world, which is why it makes sense for policymakers to seek expert advice.

What Drezner describes is a polity in which grand ideas are used as weapon-like devices in politics. He should have pointed out more forcefully that factual truth matters. Thought leaders cannot reveal the truth – the visions they promote are merely hopes. To a large extent, academic work is about making detailed statements that are undeniably correct and weeding out falsehoods. It is not simply fearful “hedging” that keeps scholars from making grand statements, it is the requirement to way all possibilities.

I find it particularly irritating that Drezner indulges in false equivalence. He argues that, in the USA, left and right are basically the same in terms of increasingly relying on thought leaders and turning away from public intellectuals. The truth is that many Republicans deny science in various relevant fields (climate, evolution, macroeconomics), while Democrats do not do so. It is Republicans, moreover, who have recently been promising the impossible (“repeal and replace Obamacare with something much better”) without providing any policy details, whereas the Democrats have a track-record both of evidence-based legislation and adopting ideas from the other side of the aisle.

As intended and promised, Obamacare provided affordable health to millions of previously uninsured Americans – and it was based on schemes first proposed by a conservative think tank (the Heritage Foundation) first implemented by a Republican governor (Mitt Romney in Massachusetts). Republicans did not appreciate that.

Daniel W. Drezner, 2017: The ideas industry. Oxford: University Press


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