Stephen M. Walt

The Ten Commandments for Ambitious Policy Wonks

One of the supposed virtues of democracy is the idea that free speech fosters a “marketplace for ideas.”  In theory, free and open discussion of vital public issues is supposed to winnow out ill-conceived notions and produce more sensible policy outcomes.  This benefit will be compromised when certain topics become taboo, however, or when specific ...

One of the supposed virtues of democracy is the idea that free speech fosters a “marketplace for ideas.”  In theory, free and open discussion of vital public issues is supposed to winnow out ill-conceived notions and produce more sensible policy outcomes.  This benefit will be compromised when certain topics become taboo, however, or when specific institutions or dogmas become so well-entrenched in the political mainstream that anyone who questions them is easily marginalized.  When that happens, skeptics who would like to rise within the establishment will be deterred from raising their voices, and public debate will become truncated.  What John Kenneth Galbraith dubbed the “conventional wisdom” will tend to go unchallenged, and mistakes may get repeated instead of corrected.

What are some “taboo” subjects in contemporary foreign policy discourse?  To say that a particular topic is “taboo” doesn’t mean that nobody ever raises the issue or challenges the reigning orthodoxy; it just means that doing so is understood to be politically risky, especially for anyone who wants an influential place in the foreign affairs establishment.  So what are the topics or policy positions that a smart young foreign policy analyst should stay away from, especially if she is worried about getting elected, surviving a confirmation hearing, or landing a big job inside-the-Beltway?  

One might call them the “Ten Commandments for Ambitious Foreign Policy Wonks”

#1. Thou Shalt Not Question U.S. Membership in NATO.
  For decades now, questioning the U.S. commitment to NATO immediately made one suspect in the U.S. foreign policy establishment.  This was certainly true during the Cold War, and it remains mostly true today.  It’s ok to criticize specific NATO policies or can to chide our European allies for free-riding, and there are a handful of people who have openly questioned whether NATO could or should continue now that USSR is gone.  But it’s still a sacred cow in the foreign affairs establishment, and you aren’t likely to advance your career by being an outspoken advocate of an American withdrawal.

#2. Thou Shalt Oppose the Spread of Nuclear Weapons.
  Although a number of academics have debated whether the slow spread of nuclear weapons might have salutary effects in certain contexts, I can’t think of anyone in the policy establishment who has endorsed that view, even though the United States has turned a mostly-blind eye to nuclear acquisition on a number of occasions in the past.

#3. Thou Shalt Not Question the Need for a Nuclear Deterrent. 
This contradicts the 2nd Commandment, but what’s a little hypocrisy when you’re a great power?  Americans think other states shouldn’t get nuclear weapons, but most people in the foreign policy establishment don’t think the United States should give them up.  It is permissible to question specific aspects of U.S. nuclear weapons policy, and plenty of people openly support various forms of arms control.   But questioning whether the United States needs a sizeable nuclear arsenal or advocating total disarmament will make people wonder if you’re tough enough to be a serious foreign policy player.  

There are two exceptions to this commandment, by the way.  First, Presidents can always declare that their long-term goal is eliminating nuclear weapons (as Obama recently did), provided they don’t actually do it.  Second, former officials who no longer have major career ambitions can get religion late in life and advocate disarmament, even if this is a position they would have steadfastly opposed while in office.

#4. Thou Shalt Not Question the Desirability of American Primacy. 
For over half a century, a core principle of American grand strategy has been to retain what the Truman administration called a “preponderance of power” in America’s favor.  Scholars have sometimes debated whether “primacy matters,” but nobody ever runs for President promising to “make America Number Two,” and nobody who wants to rise in the foreign policy establishment should ever suggest that maybe the United States might be better off if it weren’t so dominant.  (I happen to like U.S. primacy myself, but I wish the topic got debated a bit more often).

#5: Thou Shalt Not Call For an Accommodation with Cuba
(or North Korea, or Iran, or….).  The long-standing embargo against Cuba has been a near-total failure, but until very recently, it’s been hard to find any prominent voices favoring a different approach.  There have been a few lonely voices calling for change in the past, but the anti-Castro status quo has been the default position for a long time.  And the same principle applies to other states that land on the U.S. blacklist, like Saddam’s Iraq, North Korea, or Gaddafi’s Libya (until recently).  Even if it might make sense to reach out to them, most people in the policy establishment will be afraid to even suggest it, for fear of being seen as “soft” or “unsound.”  That’s why it took a hardine Cold Warrior like Nixon to make the opening to China, and even he had to do it secretly at first.  And this commandment comes with an additional clause:
#5A: The Chamberlain Corollary: Under no circumstances should one
use the word “appeasement,” except as an accusation directed at ones’ political opponents.

#6: Thou Shalt Not Criticize the Council on Foreign Relations, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, IISS, Brookings, or other major foreign policy institution.  It is entirely legitimate to disagree with an article in Foreign Affairs, or to take issue with the views of a senior fellow at one of these institutions.   But if you suggest that such institutions are too dependent on soft money, too conventional in their thinking, and on balance harmful to U.S. interests, you’ll probably get labeled a Chomskyite leftist or something equally marginal, even if you were making a serious argument backed with evidence.  This taboo isn’t surprising, of course, it doesn’t make much sense to criticize key pillars of the foreign affairs establishment while trying to rise within them. And by the way: the same taboo applies to the foundations that fund research in this area: try criticizing their funding practices and see if you get that next grant.

#7:  Thou Shalt Not Take the Armed Forces’ Name in Vain. 
Since 9/11, pious declarations of support for the uniformed military have been de rigueur for policymakers and pundits alike.  One can question certain aspects of U.S. military strategy, second-guess decisions by commanders, and challenge U.S. defense priorities, but you’d better not criticize the troops themselves.  Among other things, this makes it harder to have a serious debate about veterans’ benefits, friendly-fire incidents, or troop misconduct.   Don’t get me wrong: I’m grateful for the sacrifices that many officers, enlisted men, and reservists have made in recent years, and I think they deserve our thanks.  But no institution should be immune from criticism, even when there’s a war on.

#8: Thou Shalt Acknowledge the Importance of Human Rights, Democracy, and Other American “Values.”  You don’t have to be an outspoken advocate of human rights to succeed in Washington, and you can even take the position that human rights considerations sometimes have to give way to other foreign policy goals.  But anyone who argued that human rights should be ignored would quickly find themselves outside the political mainstream.  Similarly, scholars can argue that democracies are just as ruthless when waging war as dictatorships are, but aspiring policymakers are safer taking the position that democracies are always more virtuous than their authoritarian counterparts.

#9: Thou Shalt Not Question the Right of the United States to Intervene in Other Countries.
   Foreign policy elites in the United States routinely declare that the United States is committed to international law and is a principled supporter of the UN Charter, and we are quick to condemn most other countries when they use force in violation of these principles.  But the United States has a long record of using military force against countries or regimes that it opposes, and voices challenging this basic principle tend to be few and far-between.  So when the Bush administration was mobilizing the country for war with Iraq, only a handful of people objected on the grounds that the war was simply illegal.  Instead, liberal inteventionists came up with elaborate legal and moral justifications for it.  If you do take issue with this idea, you’ll probably get labeled an idealistic leftwinger and your career prospects will correspondingly diminish.  Of course, a realist like me isn’t surprised when great powers don’t feel especially bound by the fine points of international law, but I do wish we were less hypocritical about it.

#10: Thou Shalt Not Favor Negotiating with “Terrorists.”  
U.S. leaders often say that we will not negotiate with terrorists, and we refuse to have direct dealings with groups like Hamas (among others).  Accordingly, anyone who openly calls for talking directly with these groups is taking a professional risk.  Of course, the truth is that many countries—including the United States–have negotiated with terrorist organizations in the past, and a number of former terrorists (e.g., Yasser Arafat, Gerry Adams, Yitzhak Shamir, etc.) have been welcomed to the White House.  For that matter, the United States has even supported “terrorist” organizations when it was thought to be in our interest to do so.  Yet the whole issue about whether we ought to talk to such groups remains something of a taboo, which means that potentially fruitful initiatives don’t get the consideration they deserve.  

These ten items aren’t the only topics where public debate tends to be constrained, and perhaps readers will write in with suggestions of their own.  I’d just make two final comments.   

First, my point is not that the “conventional wisdom” is necessarily wrong, or that anyone who challenges one of the taboos listed above is necessarily right.  In other words, I am not saying that the U.S. should get rid of its nuclear weapons, talk to Al Qaeda, abandon all concern for human rights, ban all think tanks with an office in DC, etc.  Rather, my point is that these are topics that where discourse is narrower than it ought to be, and where the “marketplace of ideas” may not be operating very efficiently.  The rise of the blogosphere may be bringing more voices to the broader conversation, but those contributions don’t necessarily include people who also aspire to actual policy work.

Second, although remaining within the mainstream consensus is probably the safe strategy, challenging the conventional wisdom sometimes yields big personal benefits.  Back in 2002, most people in American foreign policy establishment—and especially those working inside-the-Beltway–decided to go along with the Bush administration’s plan to invade Iraq.  Most Congressional Democrats backed the idea, and so did a lot of liberal pundits and policy wonks at places like Brookings.

But guess what?  An obscure State Senator from Illinois opposed the decision for war, and taking what was then an unconventional position is one reason that Barack Obama is President today.  The lesson?  Challenging the reigning orthodoxy—and even tilting against a taboo—is sometimes good for the country, and it can be good for your career too.   In other words, don’t treat those “commandments” as if they’re etched in stone.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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