On, March 3, 2016, notable scholars and practitioners in the national security field (many of them republicans who had served in former administrations) released a foreign policy-based letter opposing the candidacy of Donald Trump. While it made headlines for a day or two, the move—which would have been game-changing in any previous “normal” election season—scarcely made waves in the tumultuous campaign season. Privately, many of my friends who work in the field of foreign affairs were baffled. Why aren’t people paying attention to this? This was the wonkish equivalent of an 85 yard hail mary in the last seconds of the Super Bowl.
Like many commentators, I think that we have lost the ability to have a constructive conversation about policy issues. In large part, this is due to the hyper-partisanship of our current political climate. But I’m becoming more and more convinced that there is some baseline communications failure as well. People in the policy world sometimes have a hard time unpacking all of the assumptions they are making when they lay out a fairly straightforward, and what they assume would be a non-controversial, opinion or explanation. They are then befuddled when they are countered with points that seem off topic. On the other side, members of the public—angry at those who disagree with their views and scared by the ever-escalating rhetoric of fear—dismiss their opinions as elitist and out of touch. The era of “fake news” has certainly exacerbated this already fraught moment.
Recognizing that I cannot escape the hyper-partisan atmosphere, and more importantly recognizing that even my masters degree in national security and twelve years of professional experience in that and related fields do not make me an expert in every facet of the issues facing America (and the world) today, it seemed important to me to try and be a translator between those in the field of foreign affairs and well-intentioned people on both sides of the aisle who are trying to make sense of the chaos going on right now. So, with trepidation, because I have even more years dealing with blog commenters than I have working in foreign affairs, I’m starting a series with thoughts on national security aimed at filling in the reasons behind some of the assumptions that are being made by those with education and experience in foreign policy.
The first thing to make very clear. In most cases, foreign policy is pretty non-partisan. (There are some notable exceptions, of course, but it is important to keep in mind that those few situations—such as the U.S. relationship with Israel—are only a few data points in literally an entire world of U.S. interaction.) I worked in the State Department for ten years under both the Bush and Obama administrations, and there was not a great deal of difference in what we were trying to do: promoting America’s interests, promoting peace, promoting prosperity, and promoting democracy and open government by engaging with countries around the world with a variety of diplomatic goals. From a mission statement released by the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development–USAID (an independent agency that comes under the financial auspices of the State Department) during the Bush Administration:
“Create a more secure, democratic, and prosperous world for the benefit of the American people and the international community. American diplomacy in the 21st century is based on fundamental beliefs: our freedom is best protected by ensuring that others are free; our prosperity depends on the prosperity of others; and our security relies on a global effort to secure the rights of all. The history of the American people is the chronicle of our efforts to live up to our ideals. In this moment in history, we recognize that the United States has an immense responsibility to use its power constructively to advance security, democracy, and prosperity around the globe. We will pursue these interests and remain faithful to our beliefs.”
This same fundamental approach to interaction with the world remained under the Obama administration. It was a very smooth transition inside the Department from one administration to the other. Besides preparing a number of policy and information memos for our new leadership, our work continued.
In fact, on more than one occasion, I’ve worked side by side with people for months, having no idea what their political party was until we were at an after-work dinner or other social event and just started talking about our lives and politics came up. Hyper-partisanship is fundamentally uncomfortable for most people working in foreign affairs, and when they do come out and make political declarations, it is probably after weeks or months of consideration and much trepidation (and plans for a good stiff drink, or at least a handful of pepto bismol). That March, 2016 letter was an act of classic “going against the grain” bravery.
Another important theme in foreign affairs that is just assumed by people in the field is that there are essentially three main lines of engagement with the world—the three Ds of foreign affairs: Defense, Diplomacy, and Development. While my particular field (reform of justice systems in developing or post-conflict societies) has straddled all three lines of engagement, I mainly work in development—albeit development of security sectors which meant a lot of working closely with the military and security agencies affiliated with the Department of Justice such as the FBI and DEA. But this crossing of lines is very normal. My development work in the State Department would occasionally require me to engage in traditional diplomacy activities (such as conveying official messages from the United States to host country government officials). And career diplomats would receive a rotation assignment to work with me in development for a year or two. I was at the Pentagon frequently delivering training courses or engaging in planning meetings. And folks working in policy shops at the Department of Defense would receive assignment in Embassies, or be put on task forces or working groups with civilian agencies to solve particular problems.
In every one of those cases, we all knew that we were on the same team and worked closely together—trying to minimize differences in institutional culture and personality. We knew that each agency brought particular skills and resources to the table, and we tried to work with every tool we had. The government refers to this system of cooperation as “the interagency” and it is a way of life for those engaged in foreign affairs. A good example of this is the Ebola crisis in west Africa, where the State Department, the Department of Defense, and USAID worked together to help contain and solve the problem. Everyone brings their best tools to the table. In fact, former Secretary of Defense Gates, in encouraging more funding for diplomacy frequently noted that there are more musicians in the Department of Defense than there are diplomats in the foreign service of the State Department and USAID combined.
People on the inside know that cooperation is the key to successful international engagement and are dismayed by the politicization of foreign affairs in the guise of elevating one “D” above another “D”—particularly the move to increase defense spending while decreasing funding for diplomacy and development. These are complementary systems.
Many who work in foreign policy in both academia and government have graduate degrees in related fields: history, international relations, national security, area studies, or international development, etc. These programs, and the nature of the work, require analyzing problems through several different lenses. When faced with a problem, academics, government workers, and professional policy analysts (in outside organizations such as think tanks) will often approach it from several angles: (1) historical analogy; (2) quantitative assessment; (3) qualitative assessment; and (4) personal experience.
For historical analogy, foreign policy workers will try and find similar historical scenarios and determine if there are applicable lessons. This tactic can be annoying and offensive to the audience, who rightly point out that there are obvious differences between now and the historical period of comparison. But the foreign policy analyst is looking for patterns across time and cultures to try and detect situations that would lead to current insecurity. It’s a way of organizing information and determining if there are patterns of behavior and if they are applicable. Those analysts understand that there are differences, and one of the things they are trying to do is determine whether or not those differences matter to the current question.
Quantitative and qualitative analysis are both necessary and usually are employed together. Quantitative data is basically anything that you can count. It might be the number of a particular type of attack in a particular geographic area, it might be crime statistics, it might be a public opinion poll. But quantitative data is sometimes really hard to get and also to apply. We ultimately want to measure abstract concepts like risk, safety, justice, democracy, etc. But there is no “score” for safety. You can’t have 11 safety on one day and then only have 7 safety the next. So we come up with proxy numbers—combining different available quantitative data sets to do the best we can at ascertaining something abstract. This is why qualitative data is so important and complements quantitative data. Qualitative data is usually language based and provides context to the numbers. For example, qualitative data might be information gleaned through interviews with several police and military advisors in a given country about the strengths and weaknesses of the security sector. The data is comparatively subjective to quantitative data, but together they provide a stronger picture so foreign policy experts can understand what is happening and make decisions that will make America safer. There are massive amounts of data available to people who work inside the United States government foreign policy community. Collecting all of this data and analyzing it is one of the primary responsibilities of the intelligence community. And the intelligence community passes their best analysis onto policy makers to use in decision-making.
Finally, most people who are in decision making positions in the foreign policy apparatus of America have years and years of experience. They’ve been in several different positions in government. They’ve served for years in increasingly responsible and sensitive posts. They might have experience in both the civilian government and military, and they are surrounded by advisors who have similar educations and years of experience. They develop intuition that helps them understand situations around them, and they develop better and better decision making and management skills. The senior diplomats who were dismissed from their management posts in the State Department last week had more than 150 years of foreign policy experience between them.
The final note in this introduction to the blog series is to say that these thoughts are my own. In this case, being a “translator” is to act in a highly personal context. Taking my education, experiences, and now academic research and comparing it to our chaotic and tumultuous political present is full of danger. Please take it in the spirit it was intended—a patriotic attempt to help in a small way.
 The old trope that diplomats are just wasting U.S. dollars on parties particularly amuses me as I remember a fourth of July I spent in Kabul, Afghanistan where we were required to mingle with our foreign guests but forbidden from eating or drinking anything because of budget constraints. I still chuckle when I think of a lot of hot and thirsty American diplomats in the Afghan summer sun waiting until four o’clock to see if there would be leftover ice cream.