One of the defining traits of U.S. foreign policy is that our policymakers know shockingly little about the world that they presume to dominate and “lead.” I was reminded of this by this comment:
Perhaps it is because that American policymakers understand other countries so superficially that they have the audacity to think that they know how they should be governed and how their governments should behave. If they understood any of these countries half as well as serious experts do, they might think twice before pressing ahead with their usual reckless folly.
This gets to the heart of what is wrong with what we call the “Blob”: they pretend to be a repository of expertise, but they usually have nothing but disdain for expertise when the experts don’t toe the approved policy line. They hide behind experts when it suits them, but mock and deride them when they are no longer of use. This was most obvious during the debate before the Iraq war, but it happens all the time.
If scholars know a country or region particularly well, ideologues in Washington insist that they are too biased. If they argue against the prevailing conventional wisdom, the scholars are accused of being apologists for whichever regime happens to be in the crosshairs at the time. Meanwhile half-wits and pundits with absolutely no background in the history and culture of the country in question are treated as if they were handing down revealed truths. This is a world in which Marco Rubio and Tom Cotton are deemed to be experts because they recite the usual hard-line talking points with enthusiasm.
That in turn reminded me of something from Vincent Bevins’ The Jakarta Method, in which he described oblivious U.S. officials in the 1960s with respect to the affairs of Asian nations. U.S. politicians and policymakers were absolutely certain that Asia should be a major focus of our government’s efforts, but they made very little effort to understand the countries that whose political fortunes they wanted to shape. Bevins writes about Howard Palfrey “Smiling” Jones, the U.S. ambassador to Indonesia in the early 1960s:
Jones himself, like everyone else in the U.S. government, was an anticommunist, and thought it was his job to fight that system. But he thought the major failure of U.S. diplomacy at the time was a persistent inability to understand the differences between Third World Nations, and the nature of Asian nationalism…He wrote, “We didn’t understand and made little attempt to comprehend the political, economic, and social revolution that was sweeping Asia.” (p.48)
The U.S. made little attempt to understand what was happening in Asia in the 1950s and 1960s, so it should not come as much of a surprise that our government misunderstood these developments about as badly as they could have. That laid the groundwork for the disastrous war in Vietnam, of course, but it also paved the way for interference in Indonesia in the late 1950s and then the horrific support for the mass murder that took place there in 1965-66. Rather than understand the aspirations and interests of these nations, we sought to crush them. For anyone that has closely watched U.S. foreign policy for the last thirty years, it is a familiar story.
The failings of our foreign policy establishment are nothing new, and they have been with us for as long as we have presumed to try to interfere in the affairs of other nations. Those failings are bound to happen because our policymakers cannot be bothered to learn seriously about the places they want to “shape,” and real expertise is discarded because it is not useful to the agenda of the day. Our foreign policy would be wiser if we sought to understand other nations more and tried dictating to them less.