Before his confirmation as the sixty-ninth U.S. Secretary of State, former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson was questioned by Senators from both parties about his qualifications for the nation’s highest diplomatic post. Like Trump, Tillerson has no experience in public service, unusual for both a President and a Secretary of State in modern times. Such reservations raise the issue of what types of experience and knowledge are necessary for conducting foreign policy.
In the modern technocratic state, many believe that creating policy is a professional activity requiring skills and knowledge developed in institutions of higher learning and think tanks. Both Tillerson’s critics and defenders held that assumption during his confirmation hearings. His critics claimed he lacked those requisite skills, while his defenders argued that he acquired them as CEO of Exxon doing international business with numerous countries and government officials. The reason those skills are necessary, both sides believe, is because they’ll help the Secretary of State anticipate developments abroad and respond appropriately.
But the history of U.S. foreign policy since World War II is replete with failures to correctly understand the international landscape, suggesting that technical skills and knowledge may not be enough for managing foreign affairs. In 1956 Dwight Eisenhower and his advisors misinterpreted Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal as an act of anticolonial nationalist self-assertion rather than a bid for regional primacy. Nor did they foresee its malign consequences, such as greater Soviet influence in the region at the expense of the United States and Israel. Even more telling, a whole academic discipline, Sovietology, along with the State Department failed to anticipate the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, or to imagine that a foreign policy “amateur” like Ronald Reagan could craft a policy––“we win, they lose” –– that hastened its destruction.
Just as consequential for today is the misunderstanding of the Iranian Revolution of 1979, which emboldened a new aggressive phase of Islamic terrorism still roiling the world nearly forty years later. Likewise, the Arab-Israel conflict has been misinterpreted by scholars of international relations, many of whom, despite all evidence to the contrary, continue to believe that Palestinian “national aspirations” and Israeli “settlements,” rather than Islamist doctrines, are the prime driver of not just that conflict, but the rise of jihadist violence elsewhere. Finally, in the last eight years, we have witnessed foreign policy decisions based on faulty or politicized analyses and unexamined assumptions, resulting in the eclipse of our prestige and effectiveness by rivals like Russia and Iran.
These failures reflect the problem of large institutions like government agencies and university disciplines––what the French social critic Alexis Carrel called “professional deformation.” Assured of steady funding and hence unaccountable to the market and, apart from political appointees, to the voters when they fail, such institutions can repeat received wisdom year after year while ignoring contrary evidence or alternative arguments that challenge the institutional paradigm.
The Iranian Revolution is a case in point. The agitation against the Shah was interpreted through the postwar narrative of anticolonial resistance to a corrupt tyrant in the name of national self-determination and independence. In fact, it was a long-brewing religious revolution against a secularizing and modernizing regime that the Ayatollah Khomeini, leader of the revolution, said was “fundamentally opposed to Islam itself and the existence of a religious class.” Forty years later, under administrations from both parties, this misunderstanding has continued to shape America’s Middle East foreign policy.
This doctrinal inertia and rigidity foster the biggest mistake in foreign policy and diplomacy––the failure of imagination, the inability to recognize when an opponent’s interests, beliefs, or ends are alien to our own. For example, our own beliefs about the sanctity of treaties, the aversion to indiscriminate violence, the respect for territorial integrity, and the universal desire for political freedom and human rights are not necessarily shared by other cultures and peoples. A foreign policy based on that assumption will cause us to miss or rationalize objectives and motives repugnant to our liberal democratic beliefs. Such myopia also can leave us vulnerable to the duplicity of our rivals and enemies, who pay tactical lip-service to those beliefs while pursuing policies contrary to them. Just consider the history of arms-control agreements with the Soviet Union, Russia, North Korea, and now Iran, all of which have broken the terms of the agreements.
All policy, however, is based on particular ideas about human nature and behavior. For going on two centuries, the West has endorsed an Enlightenment belief that humans are destructive and evil because of ignorance or environmental factors like poverty or unjust rulers. Educate people and improve their lives, provide them with political freedom and prosperity, and they will know their true interests are better served by peace and cooperation with other peoples.
But if history teaches us anything, it is that human nature does not necessarily progress morally or rationally, but is permanently flawed by destructive passions and irrational beliefs, which are at times irreconcilable with the ideals that define the modern West. To many of our technocratic elites, for example, religion is an outdated superstition, a lifestyle choice offering solace and comforting rituals, but it is not as important as economic or political conditions for explaining global disorder. But to many people in the world today—including Westerners drawn to the ranks of ISIS—Islam is a living reality powerful enough to drive some Muslims to die and murder in the name of Allah. No earthly good like prosperity, peace, or freedom is worth ignoring his commands and imperiling one’s immortal soul.
This collision of diverse goods and aims, then, reflects nonnegotiable ideas about human life, identity, justice, and action that historically have been decided not by “soft power” like diplomacy, but by lethal force, with all the significant risk and unavoidable suffering that attend it. We know this truth from our own Civil War, when bitterly contested beliefs about the legitimacy of human bondage could not be settled by compromise or negotiation, but in the end were adjudicated by a destructive war that cost 750,000 lives. This is the tragic constant of history, one the technocratic vision often ignores, believing as it does that ideological disputes or social and political problems have technical solutions created by those with technical knowledge.
On the contrary, uncertainty, unforeseen consequences, and unknown risks will always characterize foreign relations and actions abroad so long as people remain complex, flawed, and tethered to their particular cultures. Pursuing our national interests and security will always be unpredictable and fraught with contingencies and consequences no technique can anticipate. As one of our greatest Secretaries of State, Henry Kissinger, wrote in his memoirs, “A nation and its leaders must choose between moral certainty coupled with exorbitant risk, and the willingness to act on unprovable assumptions to deal with challenges when they are manageable”—action that “carries with it the burden that it can never be proven whether the sacrifices it demands are in fact necessary.” There are no formulae or logarithms for running foreign policy, only tragic choices between the bad and the worse.
So what, then, should a Secretary of State know? Technical knowledge is not as important as wisdom, common sense, and experience acquired beyond the institutions of government or the university. History, the record of human nature’s consistent behavior in similar circumstances, is more useful than the mastery of abstract theories. Human motives and actions cannot be predicted or managed with the same assurance of success as engineering or science. Mastery of data and facts is not as important as an empathetic understanding of people’s motives and goals, however alien or repugnant they may be to our own. Our goods, like human rights and peace, are not as important to those who believe that faith in a god, national honor, or domination of their neighbors is a greater good. Perceptions of weakness invite aggression by damaging the deterrent value of national prestige founded on our proven willingness to stand by our friends and punish aggressors. The capacity and willingness to wield lethal force is indispensable for protecting our security and interests. And most important, humans are by nature tragically flawed. As Immanuel Kant wrote, “from the crooked timber of humanity nothing straight can be made”—including foreign policy.
Being an “outsider,” then, like Donald Trump or Rex Tillerson, does not condemn a leader to failure. Tillerson’s practical experience with the global economy may in fact be an asset. Unfortunately, the Senate confirmation hearings for the most part focused on what Tillerson might do rather than on why he would do it. Whether the new Secretary of State is successful at helping to restore America’s global prestige and influence, or whether he fails will depend on his wisdom and philosophy of interstate relations, not his lack of technical know-how or a record of service in government institutions.