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Foreign Policy for Pragmatists

7 12 35
05.03.2021

Bismarck once said that the statesman’s task was to hear God’s footsteps marching through history and try to catch his coattails as he went past. U.S. President George W. Bush agreed. In his second inaugural address, Bush argued that “history has an ebb and flow of justice, but history also has a visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of Liberty.” President Donald Trump had a different take. His National Security Strategy claimed: “A central continuity in history is the contest for power. The present time period is no different.” The Bush team saw history moving forward along a sunlit path; the Trump team saw it as a gloomy eternal return. Those beliefs led them to care about different issues, expect different things of the world, and pursue different foreign policies.

Theories of history, fundamental beliefs about how the world works, are usually assumed rather than argued and rarely get subjected to serious scrutiny. Yet these general ideas set the parameters for all the specific policy choices an administration makes. Know an administration’s theory of history, and much of the rest is easy to fill in.

There are a lot of possible theories of history, but they tend to fall, like Bush’s and Trump’s, into two main camps: optimistic and pessimistic. Thus, the Clinton administration followed its own version of happy directionality—think of it as Bush with less muscular Christianity. And there have been earlier believers in Trump’s dark and stormy night, as well.

Unfortunately, given the stakes of the question, no one really knows whether the optimists or the pessimists have the better case. Political theorists have fought about that for centuries, with neither side winning. A few generations ago, modern social scientists joined in, generating and testing lots of theories in lots of ways, but still, neither camp bested the other. And then, in the last few years, history got interesting again and erased some of the few things the scholars thought they had learned.

As individuals, presidents have had strong views on these matters. As a group, they have not. American foreign policy is notorious for its internal tensions. Its fits and starts and reversals do not fit easily into any single theoretical framework. Yet this pluralism has proved to be a feature, not a bug. Precisely because it has not embraced any one approach to foreign policy consistently, Washington has managed to avoid the worst aspects of all. Blessed with geopolitical privilege, it has slowly stumbled forward, moving over the centuries from peripheral obscurity to global hegemony. Its genius has been less strategic insight than an ability to cut losses.

By now, it seems fair to say that the debate between the optimists and the pessimists will never be settled conclusively, since each perspective knows something big about international politics. Instead of choosing between them, the new administration should keep both truths in its pocket, taking each out as appropriate.

Learning in U.S. foreign policy has come largely across administrations. President Joe Biden’s goal should be to speed up the process, allowing it to happen within an administration. Call it the Bayesian Doctrine: rather than being wedded to its priors, the administration should constantly update them.

The way to do so is to make theorists, not principals, the administration’s true team of rivals, forcing them to make real-world predictions, and to offer testable practical advice, and then seeing whose turn out to be better in real time. In this approach, searching intellectual honesty is more important than ideology; what people think matters less than whether they can change their minds. Constantly calculating implied odds won’t always win pots. But it will help the administration fold bad hands early, increasing its winnings over time.

The canonical modern statements of the pessimistic and optimistic visions were set out by the English philosophers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke in the seventeenth century. Hobbes argued that states in the international system were like individuals in a hypothetical state of nature, before the invention of government. Living under anarchy, with no sovereign above them to provide order and security, they were at perpetual risk, trapped in a permanent war of all against all, doomed to spend eternity jockeying for power. Locke’s view was less bleak, and his version of the state of nature was more permissive. He didn’t think anarchy necessarily forced states into inevitable conflict. If they wanted, they could avoid war through cooperation, gaining security and protection by association.

Hobbes’s world and Locke’s world looked quite different, so it was clearly important for policymakers to determine which one corresponded better to reality. If war was inevitable and any stretch of international quiet was just the calm before another storm, states would be suckers for ever letting their guard down. But if sustained peaceful cooperation was possible, they would be fools for not trying to achieve it. For 300 years, the argument raged without end. Pessimists tended to follow Hobbes, and became known as “realists.” Optimists were drawn to Locke, and became known as “liberals.” And history piled up data higher and higher.

After World War II, scholars of international relations tackled the problem. They imposed order on the discussion and refined its concepts. They showed how one could operationalize realist and liberal theories in many ways, using different........

© Foreign Affairs


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