Tag: political science

Where Have All the Foreign Policy Experts Gone?

Why is it that so many people with so little foreign policy experience wind up as top foreign policy advisers to campaigns and presidents?

I touched on this question in a 2011 Politico piece looking at President Obama’s advisers:

Before Obama named [Leon] Panetta as CIA director, the former congressman from California had little experience on national security issues. This was part of a larger trend: many of the president’s important foreign policy aides have scant training in foreign policy.

For example, the president’s national security adviser, Tom Donilon, had been a Beltway lawyer, lobbyist and executive at Fannie Mae. The lead author of the president’s National Security Strategy, Ben Rhodes, has a background in fiction and poetry, putting aside work on his first novel (“The Oasis of Love”) to join the administration’s speech-writing team, from which he moved over to the National Security Council.

It’s come up again with the Romney campaign. Josh Rogin points to a memo taking aim at “The Foreign Policy & National Security Failures Of President Obama” that was authored by Romney’s main policy adviser, Lanhee Chen. By all accounts Chen is a brilliant guy, but there’s no evidence that he has any experience in foreign policy. His dissertation at Harvard discussed how judicial elections affect the law, and he did extensive work on domestic policy—health care, in particular—at the Heritage Foundation.

So why does he get tasked with writing the memos on foreign policy? Why, for that matter, did Rhodes get knighted a foreign-policy majordomo in the Obama campaign, and then later in the administration itself? Does this sort of thing happen in other policy areas? Do speechwriters parachute into important legal-related professions when their candidate wins? Do political scientists take major roles at Treasury? If not, why are those social-scientific professions treated differently than political science?

I understand the response that foreign policy is not construction and that security studies is not engineering. I also understand the argument that it’s more important to have someone who gets along with the president than it is to have an actual expert. But does everyone really believe that having actual foreign-policy experts taking foreign policy–related positions in politics would do nothing to improve our foreign policy?

This isn’t an ideological, much less partisan, lament. There’s no shortage of candidates on either side of the aisle. Peter Feaver is a hawkish Romney backer with tenure at Duke, and there are more than a few Dems with foreign policy expertise who could have taken the spots at the NSC. And the Lord knows you could find a wide range of views in the academy, if you wanted them.

So I can’t really figure it out: Why don’t presidents look for foreign policy experts in the academy?

How Much Homeland Security Is Enough? Monday Book Forum

At noon Monday, Professors John Mueller and Mark Stewart will be here to discuss their new book: Terror Security and Money: Balancing the Risks, Benefits and Costs of Homeland Security. Register here.

The question in this post’s title is the book’s. It quantifies Mueller’s skepticism about the utility of homeland security spending with cost-benefit analysis, which is Stewart’s specialty. They use this analysis, which is employed by various federal agencies as part of the regulatory review process, to show that little of what the Department of Homeland Security does is a good investment. That is, the bulk of its activities cost more—measured in lives or dollars— than they save. In the conclusion, where you find most of the book’s political science, Mueller and Stewart discuss why DHS avoids this sort of analysis—neither it nor its political advocates have much reason to advertise its wastefulness—and why that should change.

Alan Cohn, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy at DHS, has boldly agreed to join the proceeding. DHS rules prohibit him from commenting directly on the book, but he will presumably defend his department and discuss how it considers policies’ cost and benefits, or what it calls risk management.

That all sounds very wonky, I know. Here is why the book and forum should interest those not particularly concerned with homeland security or risk analysis: the book calls a bluff. One of the great myths about U.S. national security is that it aims to maximize safety. Almost everyone speaks about security as if this were so.

The truth is instead that every security policy, indeed every government policy, is a choice among risks. Most policies aim to mitigate risk in some way and by expending resources expose us to other risks. Our policy preferences and ideologies are largely beliefs about which risks to combat socially and which to leave to individuals, or least how much attention we should pay to competing risks. Our society, it turns out, is willing to pay far more to save lives from terrorism than most other dangers. That is, we value lives lost from it far more highly than those lost in other ways. We trade small gains in protection from terrorists for substantial losses in our ability to combat other troubles.

By asking what U.S. homeland security would look like it if truly aimed to maximize safety against all dangers, Mueller and Stewart’s book makes plain that we have chosen to do otherwise. People that disagree about the merit of that choice should agree at least that it is one we should make openly. Democracies make better choices when they perceive them.

More Hayek Sightings

The long Hayek Week continues, a full two weeks after Cato’s all-star panel on The Constitution of Liberty. The Washington Post today features George Mason University professor Russell Roberts and his Hayek-Keynes rap videos.

And by reading the actual print edition of the New York Times Book Review, I discovered that the same issue that included Francis Fukuyama’s review of the The Constitution of Liberty last Sunday also included a letter from one David Beffert of Washington, D.C., coincidentally responding to a review of Fukuyama’s own new book. Beffert wrote:

I enjoyed Michael Lind’s April 17 review of Francis Fukuyama’s important new book, “The Origins of Political Order.” But even as someone who prefers John Maynard Keynes and Karl Polanyi to F. A. Hayek, I still feel compelled to defend Hayek from Lind’s mischaracterization. While I agree with Fukuyama’s argument that, as Lind puts it, “a strong and capable state has always been a precondition for a flourishing capitalist economy,” Hayek can hardly be accused of trying “to explain society in terms of Homo economicus.” A doctor of law and political science, Hayek afforded the state a central role in his philosophy — specifically, he saw the Rechtsstaat, constitutional government enforcing the rule of law, as a guarantor of liberty and a functioning capitalist order. In that sense he, like Fukuyama, is closer to the 19th-century sociological tradition than to neoclassical economists, who would appear to be Lind’s real target.

Speaking of misconceptions about Hayek, if you Google “soros hayek,” the first item that comes up is a page of letters in the Atlantic Monthly taking Soros to task for misunderstanding Hayek – in 1997. Tadd Wilson argues:

Soros cites Hayek as an advocate of laissez-faire and then goes on to reject laissez-faire economics on the grounds that it is a dogmatic system at once claiming and demanding perfect knowledge and equilibrium. Of course, Hayek’s major contribution to economics was his critique of scientific assumptions in equilibrium-based economics. In a nutshell, Hayek argues that the market process relies on contextual, personal knowledge to coordinate the activities of millions of individual participants – a vaguely Popperian notion. Soros misses Hayek’s crucial point.

This is much the same criticism that Bruce Caldwell made of Soros’s understanding of Hayek two weeks ago. Considering the many complaints that were raised about Fukuyama’s understanding of Hayek, we can only ask: Why can’t the Times get someone like, say, David Beffert or Tadd Wilson to review Hayek?

By the way, if you Google Hayek, you’ll discover that it’s a big week for Salma Hayek, too. They’re not related, but you can find a slightly dated comparison here.

Political Science and Washington D.C.

The Columbia Journalism Review has an article on political science and journalism.  It cites the Monkey Cage blog as an example and explains:

[P]erhaps The Monkey Cage’s greatest influence has been in fostering a nascent poli-sci blogosphere, and in making the field’s insights accessible to a small but influential set of journalists and other commentators who have the inclination—and the opportunity—to approach politics from a different perspective.

That perspective differs from the standard journalistic point of view in emphasizing structural, rather than personality-based, explanations for political outcomes… [C]onsider the president. In press accounts, he comes across as alternately a tragic or a heroic figure, his stock fluctuating almost daily depending on his ability to “connect” with voters. But political-science research, while not questioning that a president’s effectiveness matters, suggests that the occupant of the Oval Office is, in many ways, a prisoner of circumstance. His approval ratings—and re-election prospects—rise and fall with the economy. His agenda lives or dies on Capitol Hill. And his ability to move Congress, or the public, with a good speech or a savvy messaging strategy is, while not nonexistent, sharply constrained.

These powerful, simple explanations are often married to an almost monastic skepticism of narratives that can’t be substantiated, or that are based in data—like voter’s accounts of their own thinking about politics—that are unreliable. Think about that for a moment, and the challenge to journalists becomes obvious: If much of what’s important about politics is either stable and predictable or unknowable, what’s the value of the sort of news—a hyperactive chronicle of the day’s events, coupled with instant speculation about their meaning—that has become a staple of modern political reporting? (emphasis mine)

Political science can, at its worst, be hopelessly abstruse, cliquish, and regressive.  But at its best it can illuminate our thinking about issues, up to and including raising the possibility that certain things may be unknowable (at least by a journalist’s or policymaker’s deadline), or that things may be structurally determined.  As the snip above suggests, journalists, for understandable reasons, tend to privilege what you could call “agent-based” explanations for phenomena.  They tell Americans that the president’s poll numbers are rising or falling on the basis of some speech he gave (or didn’t give), or that some particular point of a political campaign determined the outcome.  Turn on a cable news program and you see this sort of uninformed and unfalsifiable popping off all the time.  In most cases, those claims, and even those sorts of claims, are completely wrong, as political scientists know.  On the other hand, journalists’ incentives do not lead them to highlight the latest political science research or write articles that could be headlined “Economic Conditions Set to Determine Another Election.”  People like stories, so that’s what journalists give them.

Question: What political science articles should journalists and policymakers be forced to read–and comprehend–before writing about/making policy on their particular issue area?

For foreign policy types, two articles come immediately to mind (although one was published in an econ journal):

Mancur Olson and Richard Zeckhauser, “An Economic Theory of Alliances,” Review of Economics and Statistics 48, no. 3 (August 1966): 266-279.

Some suppose that the apparent disproportion in the support for international undertakings is due largely to an alleged American moral superiority, and that the poverty of international organizations is due to a want of responsibility on the part of some other nations. But before resorting to any such explanations, it would seem necessary to ask whether the different sized contributions of different countries could be explained in terms of their national interests. Why would it be in the interest of some countries to contribute a larger proportion of their total resources to group undertakings than other countries? The European members of NATO are much nearer the front line than the United States, and they are less able to defend themselves alone.  Thus, it might be supposed that they would have an interest in devoting larger proportions of their resources to NATO than does the United States, rather than the smaller proportions that they actually contribute. And why do the NATO nations fail to provide the level of forces that they have themselves described as appropriate, i.e., in their common interest? These questions cannot be answered without developing a logical explanation of how much a nation acting in its national interest will contribute to an international organization….

Since the benefits of any action an individual takes to provide a public or organizational good also go to others, individuals acting independently do not have an incentive to provide optimal amounts of such goods. Indeed, when the group interested in a public good is very large, and the share of the total benefit that goes to any single individual is very small, usually no individual has an incentive voluntarily to purchase any of the good, which is why states exact taxes and labor unions demand compulsory membership. When - as in any organization representing a limited number of nation-states - the membership of an organization is relatively small, the individual members may have an incentive to make significant sacrifices to obtain the collective good, but they will tend to provide only suboptimal amounts of this good. There will also be a tendency for the “larger” members - those that place a higher absolute value on the public good - to bear a disproportionate share of the burden, as the model of alliances developed below will show.

And, to mount up on another of my hobbyhorses (although I partly disagree with the explanation in the article),

Stephen M. Walt, “The Relationship between Theory and Practice in International Relations,” Annual Review of Political Science Vol. 8 (June 2005): 23-48.

Abstract: Policy makers pay relatively little attention to the vast theoretical literature in IR, and many scholars seem uninterested in doing policy-relevant work. These tendencies are unfortunate because theory is an essential tool of statecraft. Many policy debates ultimately rest on competing theoretical visions, and relying on a false or flawed theory can lead to major foreign policy disasters. Theory remains essential for diagnosing events, explaining their causes, prescribing responses, and evaluating the impact of different policies. Unfortunately, the norms and incentives that currently dominate academia discourage many scholars from doing useful theoretical work in IR. The gap between theory and policy can be narrowed only if the academic community begins to place greater value on policy-relevant theoretical work.

What articles would you nominate in your field of interest?