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Predictability, ideology, diplomacy

A note by Blake Hounshell over at the Foreign Policy blog Passport praises Biden’s refreshing lack of ideology. Mr. Hounshell reflects the scare-quotes “realism” that seems to have become dominant again in sane foreign policy discussions, presumably as a result of two terms of an administration (largely backed by the Legislature) which pushed an insane, unreal foreign policy.

It does seem a bit odd to me to have that (again, scare-quoted) “realism” adopted so enthusiastically by FP, a journal that has in the past prided itself on being the place where foreign policy ideology gets argued out. Well, no, that’s Foreign Affairs, but I get the two confused, sometimes.

But what I started wondering was whether, really, you want a person in the executive who impresses analysts with his ability to surprise them by coming to different conclusions than they expect. I understand that cases are different, one to another, and someone setting or even influencing policy should be looking at actual facts, rather than at preconceived narratives. I get that when you do that, you are not always going to come to the conclusion you expect to reach, much less the one other people expect you to reach. And I understand, as well, that when we are talking about policy, it’s often better to support a policy that has some chance of working (or for that matter, of being executed) than to support a policy that meshes with your big picture of American interests and global whatnot.

On the other hand, there’s some benefit to having a well-thought-out ideology that includes a set of aims (and the priorities thereof) and a set of preferred methods (and the priorities thereof); when the actual cases arrive, you have some way to process the aforementioned facts. And if you have thought out those aims and those methods, then there’s a good chance other people will be able to predict what conclusions you will reach.

And that’s a good thing. For our own people, for the leaders of other nations, for everybody. Except foreign policy analysts.

Well, and I mean, if the policy is good. I’d rather have somebody with good judgment and little ideology than somebody with bad ideology and worse judgment. And I think Sen. Biden, taken one thing and another, has the makings of an excellent Vice-President, and (the Divine forbid) a reasonably good President. But not, perhaps, predictable enough for my tastes.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Well, predictable US responses allowed the invasion of Kuwait, and the initial development of the Cuban missile crisis, and nuclear testing by Pakistan and India. When other countries are deciding what the US will essentially ignore, predictability is not always good. Sure, two of those predictions were wrong, since we did push Iraq out of Kuwait and we did push back on the Cuban missile crisis, but both of those developed because the perception was that the US was predictable.

I'm not sure I agree on the Cuban Missile crisis, but sure, there are downsides. The plus sides are things that don't happen, for the most part, so it's hard to line them up one against the other. As a f'r'ex that we know about, Saddam Hussein did not reconstitute his nuclear weapons program and did not stockpile chemical weapons in the 90s, largely because of the US predictable response.

Given that the essential nature of US politics requires at least one major foreign policy shift a decade, perhaps predictability is simply not in the cards. But the delight in discovering that Joe Biden (or Chuck Hagel or anyone) does not have a consistent foreign policy, and that the lack of a consistent foreign policy shows their independence of mind, well, that gets up YHB's nose a bit.

I should probably mention that Sen. McCain, for all his mavericky ways, really does have a consistent foreign policy, where it is pretty easy to guess his position on almost any situation. It's a stopped-clock kinda thing: when the right answer is to send some more US troops, then he's right!


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