Daniel W. Drezner

Why the Asymmetry in Foreign Policy Punditry is Worse Than Munich

Why the Asymmetry in Foreign Policy Punditry is Worse Than Munich

After a few days of digesting the details the interim Iran deal, the uber-hawks in the American foreign policy community have cogitated and… completely ignored my advice to "chill" and are going all "worse than Munich" on the deal.  I must concede that both Kevin Drum and Daniel Larison called this one correctly.

I was planning on vivisecting this kind of hyperbolic argument, but I see that Reason‘s Matt Welch beat me to the punch and thrashed this Munich analogy to within an inch of its life (and — deservedly — placing some of the blame on John Kerry).  He concludes:

Bad historical analogies do not convert the targets of their criticism to good international decisions. But they do suggest an intellectual rot among those who are once again banging the drums for preventative Middle Eastern war. All recent history points to treating their most recent claims with a prophylactic skepticism, and recognizing their go-to analogy as a crude, ahistorical gimmick to escalate military confrontation.

I agree with Welch that the Munich analogy has been degraded to the point where #worsethanMunich deserves it’s own Alanis Morisette song that permanently devalues the term.  That said, I do wonder whether this sort of hyperbole really will devalue the reputation of foreign policy pundits who trot it out. 

See, there’s a curious but understandable asymmetry in foreign affairs punditry.  Warning about an apocalypse that does not happen doesn’t exact that much of a toll on a pundit’s reputation.  After all, it’s the job of the pundit to warn about the dangers of world politics, to pore over the downside risks of every region, to spin tales of looming disaster in the air.  That’s perceived as prudence by readers.  And if the predicted end of the world doesn’t happen?  Well, that’s likely because the pundit’s loud warnings prompted preventive action (or so they will tell themselves as they drift off to sleep). 

On the other hand, predicting that a foreign policy negotiation will turn out well when it doesn’t is tantamount to turning in your Very Serious Person card in the foreign policy community.  It demonstrates naïveté and optimism, which are bad nouns when associated with foreign affairs commentary.  Inevitably, Optimists Who Turned Out to be Wrong get matched up with Norman Angell or Francis Fukuyama in the "foolish Panglossians" category. 

As someone who’s putting the finishing touches on a like-minded argument, I’ve become keenly aware of this asymmetry.  Indeed, I even understand it.  Foreign policy pundits probably should be risk-averse, focusing on minimizing losses more than maximizing gains, because the losses can be irrevocable.  That said, a price should be paid for debasing historical analogies worse than the interwar Deutschemark.  It would be nice if, a few years from now, the people who claimed that an interim nuclear deal was worse than Munich earned a similarly ignominious label. 

What do you think?