Saturday, February 16, 2008

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Drezner's assignment: define the foreign policy community

Spencer Ackerman and Henry Farrell are having some fun at Michael O'Hanlon's expense, in response to the latter's Wall Street Journal op-ed this past week.

The O'Hanlon jihad in and of itself I find uninteresting -- O'Hanlon distorted his "hook," but, frankly, I've read a lot worse on major op-ed pages. To go meta, however, I do find two things interesting about the flare-up.

First, as Moira Whelan reports in Democracy Arsenal, "OíHanlon has by now gotten the message that heís burned his bridges with his Democratic friends. Those that like him personally even agree that heís radioactive right now thanks to his avid support of Bushís war strategy."

Going back to a debate I had with Glenn Greenwald six months ago, O'Hanlon's op-ed and Whelan's observation means that we were both right. Greenwald was correct to say that, "[O'Hanlon] can still walk onto the Op-Ed pages of the NYT, WP and cable news shows at will, will still be treated as 'serious experts.'" On the other hand, I was right to propose the following wager: "I'll bet Greenwald that neither Pollack nor O'Hanlon will be given a Senate-confirmable position in any Democratic administration."

Second, Farrell asks and answers an interesting question:

Part of the problem with saying that the foreign-policy establishment, or the foreign policy community should exclude someone is that there isnít any good definition of what that establishment or community is, let alone a central membership committee....

Given the vagueness of boundaries, the best definition Iíve been able to come up with is the following. Anyone who has a credible chance of being able to publish a single authored article in one of a small number of key journals qualifies as a member of the foreign policy community. The list of journals would certainly include Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy; I think that there is a strong case to be made too for The National Interest and The American Interest. There may be one or two others, depending on how expansively you want to define it. These journals provide, in a sense, a sort of rough and ready credentialling mechanism.... Disagreements, qualifications and alternative definitions welcomed, of course.

Hmmmm.... much as I would love for this to be the proper definition, it doesn't work for a variety of reasons.

First, operationalizing "a credible chance of being able to publish" is next to impossible -- I suppose one could survey the editors at these publications, but even that's a bit suspect. The odds of publication depend on the person making the argument, but they also depend crucially on the argument being made. I guarantee that the head of AIPAC would get published in Foreign Affairs if s/he argued in favor of installing U.N. peacekeepers in the occupied territories; similarly, the head of the ACLU would get published if s/he argued in favor of re-upping the USA Patriot Act in perpetuity.

Second, cracking these publications is only one dimension of influence. Whelan got at this in her post on think tanks when she wrote: "there are three forms of currency in the think tank world that make you a valuable player: bringing in money, getting press, and getting called to testify." One could make a similar argument for the foreign policy community. I'd posit that there are three sources of influence:

a) The ability to independently mobilize significant resources (either money or activists);

b) The ability to publish in key venues (and I'd expand Farrell's list to include the op-ed pages of the Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Financial Times);

c) The ability to persuade others that you possess a sufficient amount of expertise on an issue (this is -- obviously -- strongly correlated with possessing actual expertise, but the correlation is not perfect).

It is possible for individuals to possess all three attributes -- Fred Bergsten comes to mind -- but it is more likely that individals possess varying amounts (thinking about myself as an example, I'm strongest on (b), decent on (c), and have close to zero levels of (a)).

Here's the thing, though -- Farrell is right to ask the question, and this is a golden opportunity for a foreign affairs magazine to attempt to answer the question. Forbes has their 400, Time has their Top 100 list, Entertainment Weekly has their Power List, Parade has their Top 10 worst dictators (really, I'm not kidding) -- why not generate a similar exercise for the foreign policy community?

This is a splashy cover story just waiting for the editors at Foreign Policy, The National Interest, or The American Interest to exploit to the hilt. [Why not Foreign Affairs?--ed. Not a chance in hell.] Just think of the effort that various insecure egomaniacs foreign policy experts would exert to ensure that their name was included.

Readers are encouraged to proffer their metrics for determining who should belong on such a list and who should not.

posted by Dan on 02.16.08 at 07:35 PM


Hey Dr. Drezner,

OK, first off, I have to note that foreign policy is waaaay out of my neck of the woods. Having said that, why not operationalize this by admitting, as experts:

1.) Those who publish peer-reviewed research more often than anything else (not counting publications that are outside of the FP domain).

2.) Practitioners that have been a part of demonstrable successes (ie policies or actions that are widely considered to have been successful).

3.) Commentators who can properly use research in the support of their non-research document (this would involve the author being aware of and avoiding methodologically flawed research in existing works).

Is this reasonable or me just being naive?


ps - I look forward to seeing the "2008 Drezner Duece-and-a-Half" list.

posted by: Gus on 02.16.08 at 07:35 PM [permalink]

What is actually being discussed here? Are we talking about people who might be candidates for responsible public office in either a Republican or a Democratic administration, people who are capable of getting a lot of press attention and/or igniting flaming controversies in the blogosphere or the foreign policy print magazines (or both), or people who write things about foreign policy with which we agree?

I honestly don't know the answer to this question. I do think the importance of the question can be greater or less, depending on what the answer is. To mention only the most obvious consideration, officials in the executive branch of the American government have for the last fifteen years reported to a President whose background in foreign policy and national security affairs was minimal when he took office; it is likely that the next President will be such a person as well. I don't think electing Presidents like that is such a hot idea at this time, but for purposes of this discussion the question of who might be capable of filling policymaking positions is plainly of great importance when the incoming President has few resources of his or her own to fall back on.

On the other hand, being able to get published or even to ignite controversies in print is a pretty low bar to clear. Just say for instance that someone like Michael O'Hanlon (and I'm just using him as an example here) clears it, and is therefore a member of the foreign policy community. So what? Are there any consequences flowing from this to people outside the foreign policy club?

Sorry, community. You know what I mean.

posted by: Zathras on 02.16.08 at 07:35 PM [permalink]

Readers are encouraged to proffer their metrics for determining who should belong on such a list and who should not.

I like the fact that the word 'credible' in relation to the word 'expertise' does not merit a single line in the entire post.

That sums up the problem with the mandarins that populate the entire foreign policy establishment.

posted by: lone wolf on 02.16.08 at 07:35 PM [permalink]

I think there is a distinction between the Establishment and the Community. The community is broad, but the Establishment is an exclusive group. I would add a twist to what you and the others have been saying and make the threshold for Establishment certification the ability to get a boring article published in an elite publication. If you write a book, Foreign Affairs will publish your excerpt, if you want to pontificate for 1000 words, then Mr. Kissinger, the Washington Post op-ed pages await.

But you are right that this is a hard thing to nail down. I found it somewhat strange a couple years ago when Biden and Gelb wrote their piece about dividing Iraq into three parts (Hail Caesar!). Though Biden's rank and position should have granted him prestige to make this proposal and be taken seriously, it seemed to me that it was Gelb's name that created the buzz in the community that the idea might have legs. I always felt that Biden never made the leap into the Establishment category. Especially strange because he oversees their confirmations. If you can find a metric to explain that, it would be insightful.

posted by: RT on 02.16.08 at 07:35 PM [permalink]

Foreign policy like economics is highly ideological. It's not scientific and the preferred outcomes highly filter the advice, analysis, or conclusions provided by the 'annointed.' That's too bad. Proximity to power is the only attribute that matters. how else can Condi Rice be explained?

These are my requirements;

1. Versatile in approach, 2. credibile in recommendations/conclusions, 3. cognizant of American interests, values and law, 4. cautiously, warily objectively optimistic, 5. ruthlessly confrontational with the established facts for adaptation to new realities, and lastly, 6. A spine.

Cheerleading, uni-dimensional advice (pacifistic or militaristic), blaming others (individuals, institutions, countries) for poor execution, and the continuous disregard/simplification of the seminal self-interests of other countries and peoples (whether they coincide or conflict with ours) are automatic disqualifiers for consideration.

Anyone who has ever used the term 'domino' to refer to anything other than their personal gaming experiences in their family room is disqualified.

Anyone who refers to the voting percentage in an occupied country as a barometer of democratic health is disqualified.

Anyone who combines the terminology of 'escalation' and 'democracy' in the same sentence is disqualified.

Anyone who does not know that threats not acted upon are simply bluffs waiting to be called is disqualified.

Lastly, anyone who thinks that the short or intermediate term application of military force will be 'transformative' in any other way than destructive (which can be desirable in some circumstances, like Hiroshima) needs to be permanently barred from any serious foreign policy discussion.

My list would be well shy of a dozen, never mind 100.

posted by: lone wolf on 02.16.08 at 07:35 PM [permalink]

O'Hanlon should be excommunicated from the establishment for supporting and backing a policy that appears - appears - to be succeeding?

How about those in the Establishment who completely dismissed the chances of the surge et al. succeeding? Off to North Dakota State University School of International Relations for them?

I'll await Greenwald's ex cathedra criticisms of them.

Long wait, to be sure.

posted by: SteveMG on 02.16.08 at 07:35 PM [permalink]

O'Hanlon should be excommunicated from the establishment for supporting and backing a policy that appears - appears - to be succeeding?

Succeeding? Life should be that simple. Then 4000 soldiers, sailors, and Marines would still be alive, and the national debt would be roughly $1TRILLION less. And Osama would have been captured.

Alas, most people weren't voting for Pyrrhus of Epirus in 2000 or 2004.

posted by: lone wolf on 02.16.08 at 07:35 PM [permalink]

On the other hand, I was right to propose the following wager: "I'll bet Greenwald that neither Pollack nor O'Hanlon will be given a Senate-confirmable position in any Democratic administration."

Dan, I'd wait for the next Democratic administration and what happens with Pollack before doing any crowing.

But that's just me. Erring on getting the whole picture in focus before stating what the end result is.

posted by: lone wolf on 02.16.08 at 07:35 PM [permalink]

Dan, a great idea in theory. I think it would be difficult for the editors of any of the publications (speaking as one myself) to develop or generate the list but that shouldn't stop anyone else from writing such a piece (hint hint) or perhaps bringing all of the people hyperlinked into this post into the discussion.

Let me just say also that one of the things most frustrating in my career as an editor is dealing with authors who want to be "safely controversial"--and this usually consists of taking a profound statement about foreign policy that conflicts with the conventional wisdom and burying it with all sorts of conditional statements and qualifiers so as to lose its impact. This late of an evening I can't give this topic justice--but Anatol Lieven did a good job a few years back when he did a review of Fukuyama's latest book in TNI.

posted by: Nikolas Gvosdev on 02.16.08 at 07:35 PM [permalink]

Here's the question to my mind: can you be a player in the foreign policy based solely on the quality of your writing/thinking? Could you lock yourself in a room, write awesome stuff, and get taken seriously?

There are a few fiction authors who are famously private and have done this successfully. But I think the foreign policy community requires schmoozing (and worse).

In that environment, does quality rise to the top?

posted by: arthur on 02.16.08 at 07:35 PM [permalink]

What's quality, arthur?

posted by: Doug on 02.16.08 at 07:35 PM [permalink]

Don't conflate how one defines who IS a member of the foreign policy community with how one determines who SHOULD be a member of the foreign policy community.

posted by: Dan Drezner on 02.16.08 at 07:35 PM [permalink]

I agree on the distinction between "establishment" and "community." There is also a geographic issue -- for example, is African policy part of foreign policy, and if it is, why is the cast of characters so different?

This doesn't need a list, but rather the kind of chart that Esquire used to do, showing links -- or today a cloud.

posted by: Mr Punch on 02.16.08 at 07:35 PM [permalink]

"Just think of the effort that various foreign policy experts would exert to ensure that their name was included."

That is a good reason to not make a list. People who dream up ideas for others to implement, at no personal risk, should not be put on too high of a pedestal.

That aside, how about affiliation with CFR? That seems to be a fairly inclusive, yet credible, group of thinkers.

posted by: Joseph Sixpack on 02.16.08 at 07:35 PM [permalink]

The previous two commentators raise interesting points. "Mr. Punch" raises the geographic factor, but let me re-define that point. A friend of mine talks about the 10-mile-from-the-center-of-DC rule; within that zone, you are considered easily accessible by the media, Hill staff, and so on-- and therefore part of the community; beyond that zone, it becomes much harder to maintain your visibility. Take one example--how many guests on C-SPAN's Washington Journal AREN'T DC based; and how many non-DC foreign policy events does C-SPAN cover? Yet these are nationally-broadcast programs. Print media and the journals can help to compensate for this, of course, and blogs have also helped to substitute for geographic proximity.

The growing tendency of presidential campaigns to have their operations run out of DC--a tendency reinforced by the predominance this year of Senatorial candidates--also contributes to this centralizing process.

And CFR--to take "Joseph Sixpack's" point--is trying to develop its notion of a "national" membership but the group is still largely centered around its DC and New York bases. [On a side and unrelated note, given the growing importance of Asia to the United States, one might expect the case to be made for a second CFR office, say in Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Seattle.] So a CFR designation might be useful--but CFR is also an organization where new members must be sponsored by existing ones--so there is a built-in tendency to go to people you already know and see.

posted by: Nikolas Gvosdev on 02.16.08 at 07:35 PM [permalink]

"how many guests on C-SPAN's Washington Journal AREN'T DC based"

Actually, as a viewer, I would expect and prefer guests on a show titled "Washington Journal" to be DC-based. Just as I would expect guests on a show about Wall Street to be largely NY-based.

posted by: Doug on 02.16.08 at 07:35 PM [permalink]

Good point, Doug. Perhaps it would have been better to phrase it as C-SPAN programming in general.

What I was trying to get at is the automatic assumption that the dateline "Washington" is necessary to be a member of the FPC--but this also works in a different and sometimes less than positive direction--where someone who is based in DC is preferred as an expert over someone with real knowledge and expertise who doesn't happen to be based here.

And you see this trend toward DC-centralization increasing. CFR is moving more of its operations here; CNN is downgrading Atlanta in favor of DC for its programming; a magazine like the Atlantic abandons Boston for DC.

posted by: Nikolas Gvosdev on 02.16.08 at 07:35 PM [permalink]

We should use an error ratio to determine the quality of a foreign policy expert. Gather all of the written and public orations over a period of at least 10 years (longer is better) and identify the glaring howlers and stupidities (think M. Albright) in their positions with the proper hindsight. Compare that to all of the correct analysis. No one would be unscathed but you would have to score in the top 50% to be considered.

The first 10 years you would be considered an apprentice, then based on performance you could advance to Journeyman (journeyperson) then expert.

posted by: Tim H on 02.16.08 at 07:35 PM [permalink]

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