Tuesday, December 10, 2002

previous entry | main | next entry | TrackBack (0)


THE SECRETS OF CONDI'S SUCCESS: In last week's post comparing the fortunes of Condi Rice and John DiIulio in Washington, I said that academics who succeed in government "recognize that other sets of skills matter, skills that go way beyond social science. What those skills are, I'll get into in the next couple of weeks." The Newsweek cover story on Condoleezza Rice does a nice job of highlighting a lot of those skills.

The article states, “Rice’s aides call her the ‘anti-Kissinger,’ meaning that she does not need to show off her influence or present herself as a master global strategist like Henry Kissinger. That may be in part because Rice is not a strategic genius, but no one doubts her power.”

Here’s the thing – putting “strategic geniuses” into policymaking positions is a combustible idea at best and a cataclysmic idea at worst. The only successful one I can think of is John Maynard Keynes. I put quotes around the term "strategic Genius" -- SG for short -- because of problem #1: a lot of so-called SGs are nothing of the sort – they’re merely second-order intellectuals (popularizers of pre-existing ideas) who believe they are first-order intellectuals (creators of new ideas). Kissinger, for example, is an ardent advocate of the realist theory of international relations. However, it would be hard to point to any innovation in Kissinger’s own work that advanced realism’s explanatory power. [OK, in the past week you’ve dissed Paul Krugman, Trent Lott, and now Kissinger – you plan on assailing the Dalai Lama anytime soon?—ed. I'm pacing myself.] A good policymaker should be an ardent consumer of ideas, and have the ability to integrate those ideas into a coherent framework. That’s a different job description than “strategic genius.”

Problem #2 is that SGs, real or imagined, are often so wedded to their own world view that they can’t admit when they’re wrong. For example, Kissinger’s vision of realpolitik ignored the relevance of advancing democracy and human rights to U.S. foreign policy, which led to a backlash in the Carter/Reagan years. Rice, in contrast, was smart enough to adapt her pre-existing worldview to a post-9/11 world.

Problem #3 is that SGs are usually lousy bureaucrats. Such people believe that the rightness of their ideas is so obvious that they will win policy debates by the power of their arguments alone. SG’s usually can’t be bothered with the mundane tasks of management. George Kennan, one of the best strategic thinkers of the last century, was a persistent failure as a bureaucrat, and as a result his stays in the higher echelons of government were always brief. Kissinger is an admitted exception to this rule, but most policymakers today don’t have the luxury of wiretaps.

Most academics enter government with the expectation of putting their ideas and only their ideas into practice. They inevitably become disillusioned when they discover that 90% of what policymakers do is manage the process rather than engaging in substance. As the Newsweek story makes clear, Condi Rice is good at her job because she knows what her job entails and what it doesn’t.

[Full disclosure -- I described my prior professional relationship with Dr. Rice in this post.]

posted by Dan on 12.10.02 at 11:01 AM