In an exit interview with the Wall Street Journal, outgoing U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said some provocative things about the state of America's political system and how that affects our standing in the world. In particular:
If you look past the political dysfunction, the economy looks encouragingly resilient. We’ve got much more diversity of strengths, from energy to high tech to manufacturing than is true for any major economy, and people should find comfort and some optimism in that.
But the failures of the American political system are going to be very damaging over time unless they’re addressed. Although the world will give us some time to find a consensus around long-term fiscal reforms, they’re not going to give us forever. And you can’t count indefinitely on the worlds having more confidence in our political system than is justified. We have to earn that confidence. It’s going to have to produce better results from the legislative process.
So is he right?
My natural instinct is to be skeptical about claims like these. After all, the U.S. Constitution and America's great power status have co-existed pretty peacefully for the last 70 years. One could go further and argue that America's economic might has co-existed happily with the Constitution for the past century. Is it really the system that's at fault?
Perhaps a better way to frame Geithner's claim is to distinguish formal rules from informal norms. For example, the Senate filibuster has existed in its current form for quite some time, but there was a norm about not abusing this option that allowed necessary government operations to continue without significant impediments. Given rising levels of polarization, however, maybe these norms are breaking down?
I'm not sure that's it either, however. Even polarized party elites do share some common incentives not to completely destroy their reputations. If one looks at Barack Obama and John Boehner, for example, one finds two politicians with pretty different ideological starting points that are nevetheless willing to do some compromising.
No, based on what I've read over the past 24 hours, I'd wager that something else is happening. For lack of a better way of putting it, I think large swathes of the GOP elite simply lack instrumental rationality.
Let me explain what I mean here. I'm not saying that the GOP is insane in its policy preferences. One can debate whether it's wise policy to oppose any form of gun regulation, seek massive reductions in government spending or pursue a single-minded, bellicose foreign policy. Whatever one thinks about the wisdom of those policies, the GOP has beeen pretty clear in expressing them. Message received.
Instrumental rationality is whether an actor pursues the optimal course of action to maximizse those preferences given structural constraints and the preferences of other key actors. And it's here where the GOP's behavior puzzles me a wee bit. Consider two examples from yesterday's news cycle.
First, Maggie Haberman reports that a new right-wing group has sprung up to oppose Chuck Hagel's nomination to be Secretary of Defense:
A group of Republican strategists is forming a new outside group aimed at thwarting Sen. Chuck Hagel’s nomination as defense secretary, with a plan to air TV ads and to have people on the ground in the states of key senators to apply pressure in advance of his confirmation hearing.
Americans for a Strong Defense will be the latest group to hit Hagel from the right. As POLITICO reported yesterday, the well-funded American Future Fund is launching a multistate ad campaign against Hagel, and the William Kristol-founded Emergency Committee for Israel has already aired cable ads in Washington arguing the former Nebraska senator is weak on Iran and in his support for Israel...
The group’s officials acknowledged that Hagel is a Vietnam veteran and war hero, but made clear they will paint him as “outside the mainstream” on key defense issues.
Among the senators the group will pressure to oppose Hagel are Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Kay Hagan of North Carolina. All of those Democrats are up for reelection in 2014.
Again, I get the opposition to Hagel from some in the GOP. What I don't get is what anyone donating to these groups thinks they're going to accomplish. The moment Chuck Schumer endorsed Hagel's selection, this ballgame was over. No Senate election two years from now will hinge on this confirmation vote because -- just to remind everyone for the nth time -- voters don't care about international relations. The most plausible story one could gin up is that by fighting the good fight now, a marker has been laid down for future nominations. Except that since the reputation for power is a form of power itself, the groups that fight this and lose won't seem terribly imposing for the next critical vote. If I was a wealthy GOP donor who cared a lot about foreign policy and national security issues, there are at least ten other ways to spend this money that would be more efficient than trying to oppose Hagel right now.
The second data point comes from rumblings within the House GOP caucus that maybe they shouldn't risk hitting the debt ceiling. Hey, this sounds rational!! As more GOP elites and public opinion polls tell the Republicans that this is a dead-bang loser of an issue for them, it would make sense for Republicans to give Obama what he wants on the debt ceiling but fight him tooth and nail on the budget.
Republicans are mulling the “possible virtue” of a short-term extension of the debt limit, according to Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. Ryan and other House leaders see such a move as the best way to engage President Barack Obama on spending cuts in the coming months. They believe that once the immediate threat of default is off the table, Republicans will be in a better bargaining position; the less drama, the better. "The last thing we should be debating is whether we’re going to put the nation’s full faith and credit at risk," Representative Greg Walden of Oregon said at a press conference.
This doesn't make any sense. If the full faith and credit of the nation shouldn't be a subject for debate, and if the GOP now realizes this is not a good arena for political combat, why kick this can down the road for less than three months? All this does is set up House GOP members to have to vote multiple times to raise the debt ceiling. Why force numerous no-win votes if you can economize on the pain, have one vote early in everyone's term, and then engage in actual budgetary politics?
I'm not a Washington insider, but I've observed politics for a couple of decades now. Most of the time, even if I disagreed with the preferences of a politician, I understood what they were doing to try to attain those preferences. I honestly don't understand how many in the GOP are thinking about how they're gonna achieve their ends. It's like they've all flunked Backward Induction 101. Or watched this scene from Blazing Saddles once too often.
So I disagree wth Geithner. Sure, the American political system can be sclerotic. But what we're witnessing right now is something different. Like the revolutionaries in Stephen Walt's Revolution and War, the current crop of GOP elites seem to believe that loud, repeated affirmations of their preferences will simply and eventually steamroll Barack Obama, the Democratic Party and the American people into acceptance of their policy platform. One would have thought that the aftermath of the 2011 debt ceiling fight, the 2012 election, the fiscal cliff negotiations, and the superstorm Sandy relief bill would have led to some learning. But it hasn't. And that's the scariest fact of all.
Developing.... in an utterly irrational way.
As President Obama moves towards nominating former GOP senator Chuck Hagel to be Secretary of Defense, and as Republicans gear up to try and
totally unhinge themselves defeat him, it seems like a good time to follow up on my Foreign Affairs essay on how badly the GOP has screwed the pooch on foreign policy. Let's start by addressing some critical feedback.
Ben Domenech wasn't all that impressed with my essay, as he explained in his newsletter:
Drezner’s problem is that Republican foreign policy has largely become bipartisan, so the critique is one that is more of tone than policy details: the grandstanding of the Romney campaign, its single-minded endorsement of unrestricted Pentagon spending, and the simplicity of its bullet point approach to issues. But these are critiques of a campaign and a candidate who wished to contrast without offending in every policy arena, not simply the foreign policy space – it’s unfair to assign this as due to an entire party’s approach to foreign policy.
A few thoughts here:
1) I'm not sure Domenech read the whole essay, because while I certainly talked about the 2012 campaign, I talked a fair amount about the previous decade of GOP foreign policy, and it's not pretty.
2) What Domenech doesn't seem to get is that the "single-minded endorsement of unrestricted Pentagon spending, and the... bullet point approach to issues" don't just apply to the Romney campaign -- it applies to the overwhelming bulk of GOP elites that weigh in on foreign policy. That sentiment perfectly captures the essence of the 112th Congress, not to mention the "Defending Defense" initiative put together by conservative think tanks. Actually, in some ways the congressional wing was worse because of the anti-Muslim hysteria, though to its credit that is an area where the GOP really does seem to be making some strides.
3) Saying that my critique is "one that is more of tone than policy details" shouldn't make the GOP feel any better. Because the GOP didn't win either the presidency or the Senate, tone and rhetoric are pretty much all Republicans can control on foreign policy. Oh, sure, Congress has some power, but it's largely a negative one -- they can say "no" to the president from time to time. The problem is that when they do this they either look like know-nothings or paranoids.
So the rhetoric actually matters for the GOP, because that's all anyone -- voters and wonks alike -- are gonna imbibe from Republicans for the next four years. Now this sets up an genuinely unfair challenge to the GOP: they'll be tarred with extremist statements made by the fringiest of the fringe. That said, the party leadership can improve its brand by taking the occasional stand if some back-bencher strays too far off the reservation (as occurred when a few idiots questioned Huma Abedin's loyalty).
4) Both Domenech (and Seth Mandel in Commentary) argue that because Obama has suceeded by co-opted the successful aspects of the GOP's foreign policy, Republicans can't be in that much trouble. The trouble here is which parts Obama co-opted, and how the GOP has reacted to that. Republicans used to have a pretty big tent on foreign policy -- realists, internationalists, and neocons galore. Bush 43's second term was pretty pragmatic and neocon-free, and that was what the Obama team co-opted. I'm honestly not sure that today's GOP is as keen on these kibds of foreign policy worldviews. The reaction to Chuck Hagel's possible nomination, for example, or the tenor of Danielle Pletka's Foreign Policy musings on the GOP, suggest that despite a decade of monumental f**k-ups, neocons still rule the GOP roost. Which means that leading GOP spokespeople on foreign policy no longer embrace the aspects of GOP foreign policy traditions co-opted by Obama. Or to put this another way: ask yourself if any of the viable 2016 GOP candidates for president would appoint someone like Bob Gates to be Secretary of Defense.
Now, it's possible that the next GOP president will campaign as a neocon and govern as something else. But doing that means that Republicans are sticking with a brand that, as I pointed out here and in Foreign Affairs, will cost them votes.
For the past few decades, the GOP triad to victory was low taxes, wedge social issues, and advocating for a robust foreign policy. Each of those three legs is now in jeopardy. Public opinion favors higher taxes, the right has lost the culture wars, and the public now trusts Democrats more than Republicans on foreign policy. Unless and until the GOP faces these realities, and figures out some new path forward beyond "REAGAN!", it's dooming itself to be the doppelgänger of eighties Democrats.
Domenech accuses me of lacking a clear way forward. I don't think that's true, but I will acknowledge that the primary point of my essay was to get the GOP to admit that it has a problem. If Mitt Romney's campaign proved anything, it's that creedal passion isn't enough to win on foreign policy -- there actually has to be some policy content. As to the way forward, I like James Poulos' suggestions in this post.
Look, I get that this seems like a thankless exercise. Talking about foreign affairs when you're out of power is a frustrating and abstract task. On the other hand, one reason the GOP is out of power is that its loudest voices don't sound terribly reasonable when it comes to world politics. This is the challenge it has to face for the next four years.
Apologies for the radio silence: your humble blogger has been silent as of late because of a nasty little cold that has taken far too long to run its course.
I should be back in fighting blog condition by Monday. In the meanwhle, as I prepare my Albies, I should note that I have an essay in the January/February 2013 issue of Foreign Affairs. It's entitled "Rebooting Republican Foreign Policy." A small taste:
So how did the party of Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan get itself into this mess? Simply put, GOP leaders stopped being smart foxes and devolved into stupid hedgehogs. During the Cold War, the party of Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and Reagan was strongly anticommunist, but these presidents took foreign policy seriously and executed their grand strategies with a healthy degree of tactical flexibility. Since 9/11, however, Republicans have known only one big thing -- the "global war on terror" -- and have remained stubbornly committed to a narrow militarized approach. Since the fall of Baghdad, moreover, this approach has produced at least as much failure as success, leading the American public to be increasingly skeptical of the bellicosity that now defines the party's foreign policy.
Since 9/11, Republicans have known only one big thing -- the "global war on terror" -- and have remained stubbornly committed to a narrow militarized approach. Republicans need to start taking international relations more seriously, addressing the true complexities and requirements of the issues rather than allowing the subject to be a plaything for right-wing interest groups. And if they don't act quickly, they might cede this ground to the Democrats for the next generation.
Read the whole thing. A few additional notes:
1) I wrote this more than close to two months ago, and it was put to bed six weeks ago. That's an eternity in policymaker time, and I was worried that my primary thesis -- that the GOP's foreign policy thinking has devolved -- would be proven wrong as party elders recognized that the November election required a rethink. Thankfully for my essay -- and unfortunately for the country -- the GOP has continued to act in a blinkered manner when it comes to cabinet appointees and treaty ratifications. There's little you can count on in Washington anymore -- except the ideological rigidity of the GOP.
2) My preferred title would have been "How the GOP has Screwed Itself on Foreign Policy," but that was a nonstarter. I think my title is more accurate, however.
3) Lest one conclude from this snark -- not to mention my 2012 election snark -- that I'm happy about this state of affairs, I find the whole situation remarkably depressing. Democracies do not function terribly well when one of the two major parties either doesn't know or doesn't care what it says on matters of foreign policy. It basically gives a pass to the other guys because they sound... well.... less crazy. I've been thoroughly underwhelmed by the Obama administration's foreign policy machinations as of late -- but because I don't see a viable alternative being put forward by the GOP, it's tough to be too critical.
4) Will this essay make a difference? I have my doubts, but we'll see. Foreign affairs remains one of the few policy arenas where there is some degree of cross-party consensus. It was this consensus that killed Mitt Romney when he stumbled on foreign policy matters during the 2012 campaign. That hopeful note aside, I fear that this consensus is breaking down. I understand that Foreign Affairs is planning a response essay by someone more firmly ensconced within mainstream GOP foreign policy thinking. I look forward to starting a dialogue. Mostly I hope that the GOP's foreign policy wonks appreciate the hole that's been dug. As I note later in the essay:
Every additional year the party is locked out of the executive branch the experience and skills of GOP foreign policymakers will atrophy while those of their Democratic counterparts will grow. It took the Democratic Party a generation to heal politically from the foreign policy scars of Vietnam, and several years in office during the Clinton administration to develop new cadres of competent mid-career professionals. And public inattention to the subject doesn't help, offering few major opportunities for rebranding. So the GOP has its work cut out for it.
5) Footnoting is impossible in a Foreign Affairs essay. Still, I wanted to acknowledge Colin Dueck's Hard Line: The Republican Party and U.S. Foreign Policy Since World War II as a very useful resource as I was drafting this article.
Conor Friedersdorf has an provocative essay over at The Atlantic in which he states a few hard truths about the state of the GOP on foreign policy... and then goes to a very strange place. The hard truths first:
President Obama's foreign policy is vulnerable to all sorts of accurate attacks. But Mitt Romney, the Republican Party, and the conservative movement are totally unable to exploit them. This is partly because the last four years have been spent advancing critiques so self-evidently implausible to anyone outside the movement that calling attention to them seems impolite. There is no factual basis for the assertion that Obama rejects American exceptionalism or that he embarked on an apology tour or that he is allied with our Islamist enemy in a "grand jihad" against America; or that his every action is motivated by Kenyan anti-colonialism. And while those critiques are especially inane, they aren't cherry-picked to discredit conservatives; they're actually all critiques advanced by prominent people, publications, and/or Republican politicians.
The fact that the vast majority of conservatives give no indication of having learned anything from the Iraq War is an even more significant reason that the GOP has lost its traditional edge on national security issues, with a majority of Americans telling pollsters they trust Democrats more.
OK, I'm with him so far. But then we get to how Friedersdorf thinks the GOP should ground its criticism:
So what could an opposition party less dysfunctional than Republicans say about Obama's foreign policy?
1) The Afghan surge turned out to be a failure that cost a lot of American lives and money with little if any lasting benefit.
2) In the course of the successful Bin Laden raid, the Obama Administration ran a fake vaccination campaign that failed in its mission to get the fugitive's DNA, failed to stay secret, and undermined public health efforts in Pakistan and elsewhere for a generation -- a catastrophic bungle that could conceivably make the world more vulnerable to a pandemic in the future.
3) Obama's main counterterrorism strategy, secretive CIA drone strikes in multiple Muslim countries, scatters terrorists to more countries than they'd otherwise be in, arguably creates more terrorists than it kills over time, and has definitely killed hundreds of innocent people at minimum.
4) Agree or disagree with the idea of intervening in Libya, the way President Obama went about it violated the U.S. Constitution, the War Powers Resolution, and an Obama campaign promise.
There are a lot more critiques of Obama's foreign policy. It's instructive to focus on these because they're just the sorts of things you can't attack if your party defines itself as most hawkish; totally discounts the importance of things like public health compared to military operations; doesn't pay any attention at all to dead innocents killed by America; and has totally abandoned Madisonian notions of checks and balances when it comes to national security policy (emphasis added).
I don't necessarily disagree that these lines of attacks exist -- but I also don't think that Friedersdorf comprehends the history of the GOP on foreign policy -- and I'm not just talking about the post-Cold War era. As Colin Dueck noted in his book Hard Right, the Republicans have been branding themselves as the more hawkish party since Thomas Dewey faded from the scene. Sure, the Ron Paul wing would love these lines of attack -- but I don't think either the rest of the GOP or the rest of the country for that matter is gonna dislike the drone strategy.
I agree that the GOP has made its mistakes in its foreign policy critiques, but the kind of conceptual pivot that Friedersdorf expects Republicans to make strikes me as pretty absurd.
So what should the GOP do? I'm not entirely sure, but I do know two things:
1) The Republican Party can't summarily reject the hawk brand it's built for more than a half-century;
2) Unless and until the GOP acknowledges that Iraq was a tragedy and a mistake, it will be as enfeebled on foreign policy as the Democratic Party was on this issue for a generation after the Vietnam War went south.
Andrew Sullivan has a Newsweek cover story designed to
best allocate Tina Brown's resources or to wave a big red flag at conservatives make the case that Obama's tortoise-like strategy of slow but steady, focusing on the long haul, has left his excitable hare-like critics on the left and the right launching fantasy-based and not reality-based critiques of his administration. Or, as he puts it: "The attacks from both the right and the left on the man and his policies aren’t out of bounds. They’re simply—empirically—wrong."
This has triggered the predictable reactions around the blogosphere, as well as Sullivan's responses. One of the biggest perks of blogging at FP is that I rarely wade into those shark-infested waters anymore. I have more than a passing interest in Obama's foreign policy, however, so I'm going to focus only on the foreign policy portions of Sullivan's take and see if they hold up to empirical scrutiny. Here are the key excerpts on his pushback against the right:
On foreign policy, the right-wing critiques have been the most unhinged. Romney accuses the president of apologizing for America, and others all but accuse him of treason and appeasement. Instead, Obama reversed Bush’s policy of ignoring Osama bin Laden, immediately setting a course that eventually led to his capture and death. And when the moment for decision came, the president overruled both his secretary of state and vice president in ordering the riskiest—but most ambitious—plan on the table. He even personally ordered the extra helicopters that saved the mission. It was a triumph, not only in killing America’s primary global enemy, but in getting a massive trove of intelligence to undermine al Qaeda even further. If George Bush had taken out bin Laden, wiped out al Qaeda’s leadership, and gathered a treasure trove of real intelligence by a daring raid, he’d be on Mount Rushmore by now. But where Bush talked tough and acted counterproductively, Obama has simply, quietly, relentlessly decimated our real enemies, while winning the broader propaganda war. Since he took office, al Qaeda’s popularity in the Muslim world has plummeted.
Obama’s foreign policy, like Dwight Eisenhower’s or George H.W. Bush’s, eschews short-term political hits for long-term strategic advantage. It is forged by someone interested in advancing American interests—not asserting an ideology and enforcing it regardless of the consequences by force of arms. By hanging back a little, by “leading from behind” in Libya and elsewhere, Obama has made other countries actively seek America’s help and reappreciate our role. As an antidote to the bad feelings of the Iraq War, it has worked close to perfectly.
OK, so how did Sullivan do?
He has the facts on his side with respect to the BS about Obama apologizing for America. This has been a standard line when the GOP candidates talk foreign policy and it's total horses**t. Sullivan's comparison of Obama to George H.W. Bush and Dwight Eisenhower on foreign policy also makes sense. The emerging strategic narrative of this administration is a shift in foreign policy resources from the Middle East to the Pacific Rim, and realist-friendly presidents like Bush 41 and Eisenhower would approve.
That said... arguing that George W. Bush "ignored" bin Laden seems like a gross exaggeration -- even if many of Bush's anti-terrorism policies were counterproductive. More importantly, the notion that Libya somehow "counteracted" Iraq is a problematic formulation. It's far from clear whether Obama has been "winning the broader propaganda war" in the Middle East. Don't take my word for it, however -- here's PIPA's Steven Kull:
The picture is mixed. With the death of Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda is weaker. With revolutions in several Arab countries, frustrations with unpopular autocratic governments - a recruiting theme for terrorist groups - have been mitigated. But one important contributing factor has not improved - widespread anger at America in the Muslim world. While views have improved in Indonesia, throughout the Middle East and South Asia, hostility toward the United States persists unabated.
This does not read like a victory in the propaganda war.
OK, what about Sullivan's foreign policy rebuttal to the left? Here's the key excerpt
This is where the left is truly deluded. By misunderstanding Obama’s strategy and temperament and persistence, by grandstanding on one issue after another, by projecting unrealistic fantasies onto a candidate who never pledged a liberal revolution, they have failed to notice that from the very beginning, Obama was playing a long game.... He has done it with the Israeli government over stopping the settlements on the West Bank—and with the Iranian regime, by not playing into their hands during the Green Revolution, even as they gunned innocents down in the streets.
Hmmm.... I'll be honest, I have no idea what Sullivan is talking about with respect to Israel. Ironically, Israel is one of the areas where the left and right agree that Obama has made a hash of things (albeit for different reasons). First, it's not clear to me at all how Obama's policies have made it more likely that settlement construction will be halted on the West Bank. Second, stepping back further, one could argue that Obama's greatest strategic miscalculation was his belief that the Israel/Palestinian issue was the fulcrum through which one can understand the problems of the region. Third, Israel/Palestine is precisely the area where a long-term, slow-game approach carries the biggest risks. Long-term demographic and political pressures make a two-state deal less likely over time.
Iran is a counterfactual question. Indeed, it's the favorite counterfactual question of the GOP 2012 presidential candidates. It allows the candidates to portray Obama as weak, claim he botched things without any proof that the United States could have influenced the outcome, and promise that they would have handled it differently, which we'll never know in a non-multiverse world. Still, while Obama has succeeded in applying more economic pressure on Iran than is commonly appreciated, I don't see this regime going anywhere.
So, how does Sullivan do? He makes some valid points, but he proffers some serious whoppers as well. This is far from a slam-dunk empirical refutation of Obama's critics. As a George H.W. Bush kind of foreign policy guy, I wanted Sullivan to empirically and logically eviscerate the more hysterical foreign policy critics out there. He didn't.
In the wake of the GOP debate earlier this week, there's been a lot of to-ing and fro-ing and to-ing and fro-ing as to whether Republicans have shifted away from the neoconservatism of George W. Bush and towards offshore balancing or isolationism. I don't think it's a settled question -- I'd conclude that it's partly a genuine realpolitik backlash to the massive costs of Iraq, partly a reflection of public sentiment, and partly a partisan reaction to the fact that it's a Democratic president who's launching
wars kinetic military actions nowadays.
What's more disturbing, however, and uncommented until now, was the total lack of support for freer trade among the GOP field.
This came through loud and clear through what was said and what was not said in New Hampshire. Trade didn't come up all that much during the debate. Tim Pawlenty provided the only comment of substance, and it wasn't a productive one:
[N]umber one, we've got to have fair trade, and what's going on right now is not fair.
I'm for a fair and open trade but I'm not for being stupid and I'm not for being a chump. And we have individuals and organizations and countries around this world who are not following the rules when it comes to fair trade. We need a stronger president and somebody who's going to take on those issues.
In presidential campaigns, this amounts to "don't expect to see any new trade deals anytime soon." As for the other dimensions of globalization, well, peruse the section on immigration
provided you have a green card if you dare. No one said anything about the positive economic and demographic benefits America receives from immigration.
The other thing that was striking was what wasn't said during the debate. All of the candidates focused like sharks with frikkin' laser beams attached to them on the economy. The standard GOP litany of solutions for jump-starting the economy were offered: tax cuts, cutting regulation, tax cuts, cutting government spending, tax cuts, reigning in the Fed, tax cuts, ending Obamacare, tax cuts. Not one of the candidates, however, mentioned trade liberalization as part of their fornmula for getting America moving again.
To be fair, this isn't as bad as when Obama and Clinton were debating over who would eviscerate NAFTA faster in 2008 (and funny, isn't it, how that never happened). And it's not like I was a huge fan of Obama's trade policy. To be just as fair, howeever, at least the current president completed KORUS negotiations and signaled strong interest in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. I get the sense that no one in the GOP field is going to stick their neck out on international trade or investment. For the party that claims to be in favor of lower taxes and regulation, this is a travesty.
There's been a raging debate the past few weeks over whether conservatives suffer from what Julian Sanchez labeled "epistemic closure." If conservatives get their information and opinion only by listening to other conservatives, the argument runs, they will be unprepared and unconcerned about criticisms from outside their intellectual cocoon.
The blogosphere has been having a grand old time with this debate, and whether the problem afflicts conservatives more than liberals (click here for Patricia Cohen's roundup in today's New York Times). Paul Krugman goes so far as to argue that this problem has clearly affected macroeconomics in freshwater schools.
This leads me to wonder if the problem affects the GOP wing of the foreign policy community. And as much as David Frum might argue for greater internal debate within the GOP on the political facts of life, for example, he was never shy in attacking the realpolitik wing of the Republican foreign policy establishment (more here).
A few years ago I implicitly made this kind of critique when it came to neoconservatives. That saids, my gut instinct on this is that the epistemic closure problem is not nearly as big a deal in foreign policy circles as it is in domestic policy circles. That is to say, conservative foreign policy wonks do collect their information from a diverse array of sources. They might not agree with every scrap of information about a particular issue, but they usually acknowledge its existence. A quick glance at FP's own Shadow Government tells me that even if I disagree with these bloggers on policy recommendations, I still think we're operating in the same epistemic universe.
I'll get to why I think this is true later, but for now, I'm curious if my experience corresponds to my readers. So, a genuinely open question -- is there an epistemic closure problem among the conservative foreign policy community?
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
My latest column at The National Interest online looks at the state of the Republican Party with regard to foreign policy. I'm not optimistic:
What would a Republican approach to foreign policy look like? Here’s another problem. The GOP was traditionally the party of realpolitik, but that has changed as of late. Realism and neoconservatism lead to divergent policy preferences on issues like Iraq, Afghanistan, Putin’s Russia and democracy promotion. It is difficult to mount a unified and loyal opposition when there is an absence of consensus about first principles. Politically, it will be difficult to for the GOP to pirouette from the Bush administration’s neoconservatism to a more modest foreign-policy strategy.
The concept of a “loyal opposition” is a difficult one to straddle. On the one hand, it is vital for Americans to be exposed to contrasting takes on the best way to advance American interests. Opposition forces the current leadership to defend and articulate their preferred course of action. On the other hand, opposition based on the principles of Joe the Plumber is simply not an opposition that can be taken seriously. Let’s hope the GOP can form a viable counterweight so that more foreign-policy opinions and valuable debates become a reality. Peanut-gallery snarkery will serve no one.
Let me add here that FP's own Shadow Government represents a welcome exception to the general lament that infuses my essay. As such, I dare their contributors to disabuse me of my pessimism.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.