The candidate who wins the U.S. presidential election on Nov. 8, 2016, should be required to spend the first weekend of his or her transition reading — and seriously thinking about — “Making Foreign Policy Decisions” by Christopher J. Fettweis.
Ideally, the president-elect would have read this bracing book before entering the race for the White House because it would have prevented the candidate from making the extravagant promises, soaring proclamations and thunderous warnings that are now endemic to modern presidential campaigns. However, careful study of “Making Foreign Policy Decisions” might have also prevented the candidate from actually winning the election because Fettweis’s prescriptions for American foreign policy are unlikely to resonate on the campaign trail, where hawkish and inflammatory rhetoric seems essential.
“Making Foreign Policy Decisions” struck me powerfully. I read it just as I was also reading David Halberstam’s 1972 classic, “The Best and the Brightest,” which chronicles America’s debacle in Vietnam. As I read both books, I wondered how the world might have been different if John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson had read, and really absorbed, a book such as “Making Foreign Policy Decisions” before their key decisions on Vietnam or if President George W. Bush had studied the book prior to his fateful order to invade Iraq.
“Making Foreign Policy Decisions” is part of a “Presidential Briefings” series that provides concise introductions to topics that are important to presidents and citizens of the United States. This book is less than 100 pages and is written in clear and direct prose. You, or the next president, could read it in a few hours, but its insights will remain with you long after that.
The book is a challenging, even combative, plea for presidents to avoid self-inflicted wounds. Drawing insights from history, political science, international relations and psychology, the book shows how presidents can sidestep the kind of foreign policy mistakes that have ravaged so many administrations and damaged the nation. The author, Fettweis, is an associate professor of political science at Tulane University, where he teaches international security and American foreign policy. He has written extensively about foreign policy, including a 2013 book called “The Pathologies of Power: Fear, Honor, Glory, and Hubris in U.S. Foreign Policy.”
Fettweis’s central argument is that American presidents have made catastrophic blunders in recent decades that could have been prevented with a modicum of caution, common sense, confidence and courage. “Foreign policy blunders, both large and small, have been a constant feature of the modern presidency, from the Bay of Pigs through Vietnam to Iraq,” he writes.
He offers several explanations as to why U.S. foreign policy has faltered. He observes that Americans sometimes lament that their presidents are not more historically literate and grow excited to learn that a new president reads history and reflects on its lessons. However, Fettweis argues that a superficial understanding of history can point policymakers in the wrong direction. He believes the search for, and use of, historical analogies by presidents to tackle contemporary problems is understandable, but often harmful. “While analogies allow decision makers to frame unfamiliar situations in familiar terms, they also mask new elements and sacrifice accuracy in the name of simplification. Relying on comparisons with the past too often substitutes for sustained analysis of current concerns,” he asserts.
Analogies to World War II, Adolf Hitler and the Munich agreement that allowed Nazi Germany to annex portions of Czechoslovakia are staples of political debate, but are almost always inappropriate and misleading. “A major step forward in the quality of U.S. foreign policy could be made by the simple determination to abandon all reference to the most powerful, visceral, and ultimately misunderstood historical analogy of them all: the events that are supposed to have occurred at Munich in 1938,” he writes.
Fettweis argues that analogies to Munich usually focus on the folly of concessions and have inspired belligerence in several generations of American leaders. “Despite the fact that Munich is remembered wrongly and too often, few single events have had a more deleterious impact on international politics or have created such incorrect impressions about how states behave. Appeasement has become the enemy of compromise, the emotional ammunition that hawks trudge out every time the nation considers accommodation rather than a steadfast confrontation of various international evils. That it is incorrectly remembered matters little.”
Fettweis contends that careful and judicious study of history can provide insights into specific policy issues and general observations on human nature and how other nations might react to various American policies. “It can offer the wise observer a sense of the possible rather than specific recommendations,” he writes.
Presidents often blunder in foreign policy because of misperceptions, the most pernicious of which is “the enemy image,” Fettweis says. This refers to the tendency to view other nations as foes that can’t be trusted and must be confronted. Undergirding this misperception, he argues, are several assumptions about the “other” nation: that it is fundamentally different from us and doesn’t value life as we do; that the only language it understands is force; that its policies are all carefully considered, strategic and intentional rather than ad hoc and reactive; that it hides its malevolent intentions behind moderate rhetoric; and that it has an “agenda” while the United States has only “principles.”
Fettweis argues that for many U.S. political leaders, Iran has become the exemplar of evil in the early 21st century in roughly the same way the Soviet Union was in the second half of the 20th century. He laments that Americans often turn adversaries into far more formidable threats than they really are. “Not all enemies are existential. Many can be mollified, or even simply be monitored and resisted without ever succumbing to the kind of pathological fear that some of them probably hope to create. Few things persist as long in international politics as the enemy image. It affects the way new information is interpreted, and essentially shapes what we hear and see,” he writes.
Fettweis says that as presidents consider foreign policy options, the best ideas do not always prevail. Deeply held views, or prejudices, often steamroll careful analysis. “In reality, most societal debates are not detached intellectual evaluations of evidence where victory goes to the most logical, but passionate, emotional struggles where entrenched assumptions fight one another for control over decisions (and decision makers) and where the outcome is always uncertain. Rather than a marketplace of ideas, in other words, foreign policy debates more closely resemble a battlefield of beliefs.”
Several “pathological beliefs” are part of the American mindset and tend to support a hawkish posture. This, Fettweis contends, has propelled the United States into misguided foreign adventures. Perhaps the most pervasive pathological belief is a deep sense of fear, even in a modern world that is more safe than it has ever been in the past. While dangers always exist and absolute security is impossible, compared to any other country at virtually any other time, the United States is remarkably insulated from external threats, Fettweis declares.
“It is easy to be unaware that there has never been a more stable, less violent era in history than the one we are living in now. Ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Ukraine and elsewhere tend to obscure what is certainly the most significant trend in twenty-first century international politics: the world is experiencing a golden age of peace and security,” he writes. “The number and intensity of all kinds of conflict are at historically low levels. Major war between great powers is so rare that a growing number of scholars suspect it may be obsolete…. Today a far greater percentage of the world’s population lives in peace than at any time before in history, which is a nontrivial, curiously underreported and underappreciated fact.”
Fettweis argues that international terrorism is not on the ascendancy, despite the near hysterical fear of it gripping the United States. Writing in 2015 before the Paris attacks, he acknowledges the rise of the Islamic State but concludes it has little power to harm people outside its region. “Terrorism and the other threats of the twenty-first century are not new; the only thing that has changed is the amount of time U.S. leaders have to worry about them. Background problems have today been moved to the foreground, elevated to replace what was a major threat emanating out of Moscow. Nostalgia for the Cold War is only possible for those with highly selective memories. The world was a much more dangerous place then.”
Fettweis believes that in addition to fear, U.S. foreign policy is often driven by an excessive desire to prove its credibility, an intense longing for prestige and simple arrogance. “From the Bay of Pigs through Vietnam to Iraq, Washington has repeatedly exhibited the kind of overconfidence that the Greeks would immediately recognize as hubris, or inflated self-esteem that leads inevitably to folly.”
Fettweis offers suggestions that presidents should be mindful of as they craft their foreign policy. He warns them to be skeptical of foreign policy experts whose so-called expertise is often an illusion because the subject is too vast and complex for anyone to achieve mastery of its many nuances. He also urges presidents not to be mesmerized by aides who deliver riveting briefings. “The wisdom of arguments is unrelated to the charisma of the presenter,” he notes.
According to Fettweis, the military advice a president receives will be predictable. The military will almost always initially oppose using force. But if a decision is made to use it, military leaders will seek massive firepower and press for total victory, irrespective of costs and benefits.
All presidents, Fettweis declares, should have a grand strategy based on a coherent sense of national interests, a plan to advance those interests and clear priorities among many threats and opportunities. But presidents should not publicly elaborate on their grand strategy. “Few things are more counterproductive in foreign policy than predictability,” he says. “Presidents should realize that it can be helpful occasionally to bluff or even act a little crazy from time to time. The gods of strategy do not reward perpetually straightforward leaders.”
Foreign policies are judged by outcomes, not by the intentions of the nation’s leaders, Fettweis emphasizes, citing the 2003 invasion of Iraq as a powerful and painful example. “The decision to invade Iraq may well turn out to be the most ill-advised action this country has ever taken.”
Fettweis says policies should never be formulated in the heat of the moment and that leaders should try to defer major decisions until they have adequate information. The United States can usually afford to be patient and presidents should ignore the media’s clamor for quick decisions. “Given enough time, many problems solve themselves; those that do not can be dealt with in due time,” he writes, adding that action carries more political risk than inaction. He quotes former U.S. House Speaker Thomas Brackett Reed, who said in 1895: “When you don’t know what to do, do nothing.”
Presidents, Fettweis argues, should pay scant attention to the media. “When it comes to foreign policy, presidents should, to the extent possible, ignore the media and analysts. Except in very rare instances, no one will remember what is said by the various pundits, commentators, blowhards and political opponents.”
He also offers a seemingly small but shrewd suggestion for presidents: When thinking through decisions, they should write down their options and the explanations for their decisions. Ideas that seem wise in quick verbal exchanges often look dubious when the advocate must explain them with specific written words.
I found Fettweis to be insightful and provocative. “Making Foreign Policy Decisions” is written to seize the reader’s attention and stimulate debate. It will persuade some and make others furious. But readers will leave this book with opinions — and plenty of marginal notes. To be sure, there are some hyperbolic statements in the book, but they mostly serve to spur thought and discussion.
His overall view that presidents should be careful, cautious and skeptical of military action is persuasive, especially when considering the costly foreign policy debacles of the last half century. Vietnam and Iraq come quickly to mind. I agree with Fettweis that the U.S. foreign policy establishment has a bias toward action and even grandiosity, which in turn has led to overreaching.
There are several areas, however, where I disagree with the author. For example, Fettweis’s argument that credibility counts for little in international affairs does not ring true. No doubt, major mistakes have been made in frantic efforts to appear credible. But surely a nation that routinely backs down, obfuscates or misleads will be viewed and treated differently than more reliable countries.
While I think the world is far less dangerous than most of the American public believes, Fettweis plays down the psychological damage caused by terrorism and does not account for the serious dangers posed by weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of terrorists. His observations about the Islamic State have been overtaken by events and the Paris attacks show that he underestimated the group’s ability to strike outside of the Middle East.
The author’s basic views on grand strategy are sound, but I don’t understand his suggestion for presidential silence in this realm. I think it is wise for a president to present an overall world view without endless elaboration of its details. But for presidents to gain support for their foreign policy, the public has to know what its broad elements are. I agree that it can be helpful for a president to be seen as cagey and shrewd, but I doubt that being viewed as “crazy” or “unpredictable” is helpful over the longer term. This might work for the leader of North Korea but not for the president of United States, who has much different global responsibilities.
“Making Foreign Policy Decisions” is a book that will stir up debate. This is good. At a time when a lot of foreign policy writing is glib, platitudinous and predictable, Fettweis is daring, challenging and provocative. The next president would do well to spend a few hours after the November election reading this book — and maybe even write a review of it.
About the Author
John Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.