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Making Sense of the World
Five things you should read to understand U.S. foreign policy in the Biden era
The world can be a confusing place. Plus, America has a lot on its plate at home, so who really cares? You should.
The coronavirus pandemic this past year has showed once again how some of the biggest challenges know no national borders. As much as America and other countries might want to slink into a gated community mindset, it just won’t work in the long run. So, we have to pay some attention to the world.
Foreign policy experts sometimes don’t help by going down rabbit holes discussing arcane details of issues in terms that don’t make much sense to many ordinary Americans. So much of this foreign policy expertise flies over the heads of most people. Too often important details get lost in the advocacy campaigns with heated debates that sound more like a 1980s Miller Lite beer commercial with two sides screaming at each other.
A friend of mine recently started a new job as a senior foreign policy advisor to a leader in Washington D.C. This friend has a lot of experience working around the world but, like a lot of us, experiences information overload.
“What are the key things I should be reading?” he asked me.
I came up with five ideas on what to read in order to understand what’s going on in the world and how the Biden administration is setting itself up to address it:
Freedom House, a U.S.-based non-governmental organization that conducts research and advocacy on political rights and civil liberties worldwide, has produced an annual report for more than 40 years that ranks and analyzes the state of freedom in the world. The full report offers useful snapshots of the political situation in 195 countries and 15 territories as well as an overview analysis on the historical trends on freedom in the world. With the Biden administration signaling that “democracies versus autocracies” as a central theme to its approach to the world, this most recent assessment by Freedom House is essential reading to understand the global landscape.
Out: National security policy by presidential Tweet.
In: Interagency policy reviews, big picture speeches, and lengthy policy documents.
This document telegraphs the foreign policy aspirations of a new captain and crew setting sail again just as it is getting its sea legs in the world’s choppier waters. Ambitious yet at times vague, the document aims to set a clear marker that distinguishes Biden’s foreign policy from his predecessor’s approach. The key question not answered in this document early in the administration, one that will be resolved over time: what is the new administration’s top national security priority? At some point, a moment will come that will force a strategic judgment call, and quite often in national security the choices are between “awful” and “bad.”
“Long-term thinking is critical to framing strategy.” That’s the message of intent outlined at the start of this report examining the security, economic, technological, social, and demographic trends reshaping the world. Released in January 2017 while the world was distracted by the anxious chaos of the incoming Trump administration, this long-term analysis takes a big picture look at different future scenarios for the world. This report is typically produced every four years, which means that a new one is due out soon.
This monograph is an edited volume with succinct descriptions of existing U.S. policy, some analysis, and recommendations on more than two dozen key issues including cybersecurity, terrorism, and arms control. Written by many analysts who were often sharply critical of the Obama administration on key national security issues and may adopt a similar posture to Team Biden, this valuable document offers a useful perspective for those on the left who feel more comfortable in their own echo chambers.
This report, written by the transnational non-governmental group that focuses its in-depth analyses on preventing wars and resolving conflicts around the world, offers a useful synopsis of many of the world’s leading conflicts. The document ends up operating as an advocacy paper taking specific positions focused on diplomacy on Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea, China, Ethiopia, and beyond, and it offers a snapshot of some of the world’s leading conflicts that may continue to draw in the Biden administration’s attention. Even though this particular Crisis Group report is thinner on analysis and heavier on advocacy than its typical reports, it is a valuable resource for the chest-thumping right wingers who think its all about the military.
These five papers are just the tip of the iceberg representing a wealth of expertise available to the Biden administration and leaders in Congress focused on national security. One distinctive feature about America’s foreign policy is the diversity of views and know-how that exists outside of government circles. This knowledge capital is an asset that can be better utilized by the country to inform smart decision-making, but only if a premium is placed on putting facts and analysis ahead of policy advocacy.
Here in America, foreign policy advocacy campaigns have opened the debate open to a wider diversity of views, but it has also lowered the premium on actual foreign policy analysis. This has led to a much thinner debate dominated by more sloganeering and increasingly inflexible positioning that sometimes impedes actual progress in the world.
Case in point: aggrieved “progressives” are reportedly set to mount a new advocacy campaign next week on a range of foreign policy issues targeting the Biden administration. This is a sure sign that some of these groups finally realize they lost many debates over the past year, including losing in last year’s Democratic primary. the thing to examine closely is whether the positions staked out in these campaigns have a sound analytical foundation based on what’s actually happening in the world, or if the positions are more a reflection of sentiments in the elite bubbles of America.
In recent years, the U.S. foreign policy debate has suffered from this trend that has put policy advocacy ahead of analysis. The distinction between analysis and advocacy is an important one, one sometimes not even recognized by scholars at think-tanks and research institutions seeking to have an impact. Someone who does policy analysis can also do policy advocacy after they come to conclusions based on thorough research, but not all policy advocates conduct a thorough policy analysis. Analysis is about a thorough examination of the facts, stakes, and options; advocacy is about pushing forward with a very specific policy recommendation and seeking to debunk the other side.
Part of the challenge is that good analysis is actually hard to do. It takes time, and it doesn’t fit with the rapid response, attention deficit disorder nature of the media and political environment that shapes America’s policy discussions these days.
In addition, debates driven by advocacy at times become so heated, personal, and emotional that scholars with different views refuse to engage each other directly and sit on the same stage on a panel discussion in a civil exchange. Analysts may increasingly read the work of others that they agree with, echoing a trend in the broader society and media where people self-select into the bubbles that are comfortable. This feeds a confirmatory bias in America’s foreign policy circles. The end result? The overall production of think-tanks and advocacy organization is sometimes less than the individual sum of its parts and ends up not being as useful to policymakers as it could be.
It is understandable why this happens – in many ways it is quite natural because think-tanks operate in the broader environment in which they work, and that environment has become increasingly polarized and caustic. A few years ago, Robin Niblett, director of Chatham House, offered a smart analysis worth reading on the role of think tanks at a time of growing societal distrust of institutions and increasing disinformation.
A better alternative exists: looking for ways to produce new insights through a competition of ideas and different worldviews on U.S. foreign policy using analysis as the starting point and working with people who are willing to adapt and change their views based on new inputs and different perspectives.
This alternative requires a more flexible and open-minded approach and demeanor, the essence of liberalism in the classical sense. It also requires keeping at the forefront that at least in America, we’re all on the same team, even if we have different ideological perspectives, partisan affiliations, or positions on particular issues. The spirit of a liberal patriotism is needed in America’s foreign policy debate now more than ever, and the starting point is listening and learning from the wide range of perspectives based on analysis that tries to make sense of the world.