The problem with foreign policy

George Washington University’s Henry Nau has an essay in Policy Review in which he discusses the challenges posed by debating foreign policy (via RealClearPolitics).

I am posting largely without comment, but I want to note that Nau’s question is something I’ve thought about for a while. Ideas about foreign policy depend much more on abstraction and making broad generalizations based on whatever facts are at hand. As the world has gotten “bigger” — what Raymond Aron called the “dawn of universal history” — the number of facts needed required to have a coherent picture of the world increased simultaneously, meaning both more abstraction and more reliance on media to provide the basic facts necessary to piece together an understanding of international affairs. Both of these trends are problematic.

I’ve always liked a passage from an essay by Nathan Glazer on this problem from the May 1971 issue of Commentary entitled “Vietnam: The Case for Immediate Withdrawal”:

When an administration does anything in domestic affairs, it affects its own people directly. Someone is helped, someone is hurt, and in a democratic polity, those who are helped and those who are hurt have ways of letting the government know quickly and clearly…Domestic policies get responses, and governments and legislators are sensitive to them. Ideology and elaborate reasoning play a relatively minor role in domestic affairs…None of this happens when a big country fights what for it is a small-scale war. There the destruction and killing are concentrated in a distant country.

What lessons can we conclude from this? For starters, I think it would behoove all actors in US foreign policy debates to speak with greater humility about foreign policy issues, to realize the limits of their (and our) knowledge about the world, and to recognize that while ideological simplifications provide a foundation for thinking about the world, tactical flexibility is imperative. And, of course, they must never forget that all actions have unintended consequences.

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