Obama’s foreign policy picks

Presidential campaigns are generally discouraging for foreign policy intellectuals. Not only do the candidates pander in folksy vernacular to hockey moms and Joe Six Packs, but the clever ones favored by university professors often fare badly on election day.

The cerebral Adlai Stevenson, for instance, was trounced by former Gen. Dwight Eisenhower -- twice. When an avid Stevenson supporter gushed that the Illinois governor was certain to “get the vote of every thinking man in the U.S.,” Stevenson replied, “Thank you, but I need a majority to win.”

The anti-intellectual strain among American voters has not gone away in the years since then. Consider how Al Gore’s professorial debating style turned off voters in 2000 and John Kerry’s fluency in French aided George Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign.

But when the race is over, the populism of the campaign gives way to something quite different. As soon as the transition begins, presidents-elect invariably turn to academics for foreign policy inspiration. John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson turned to McGeorge Bundy of Harvard and Walt Rostow of MIT for their insights on international relations. Richard Nixon landed arch-realist Henry Kissinger from Harvard and accorded him unprecedented responsibilities as national security advisor. Jimmy Carter brought in Zbigniew Brzezinski from Columbia to serve as his national security advisor. George W. Bush hired Condoleezza Rice from Stanford and Paul Wolfowitz from Johns Hopkins, and both have made their marks on world affairs.

Hiring hotshot academics from the nation’s top universities is a peculiarly American practice. In no other nation on Earth do elected leaders take political scientists so seriously. For better or worse, British prime ministers are unlikely to look to Oxford or Cambridge for diplomatic inspiration. The French talk an intellectual game, but the Grandes Ecoles produce bureaucrats, not grand strategists.

So which academics are likely to be hovering close to their cellphones during the next few weeks? Although she resigned from the Obama campaign in March 2008 for describing Hillary Rodham Clinton as “a monster,” Harvard’s Samantha Power looks a good bet for a high-level position. Power made her name with the Pulitzer Prize-winning “A Problem from Hell,” a powerful indictment of the West’s inability to prevent genocide through the 20th century. A self-described “humanitarian hawk,” Power believes that U.S. foreign policy must be driven by a moral impulse, beginning with a strong response to ongoing ethnic cleansing in Darfur.

Princeton professor G. John Ikenberry is another potential appointee. Ikenberry describes his big idea as “liberal order building.” He believes that America must retain its position of “liberal hegemony” through adherence to a “loose rule-based international order.” In a nutshell, Ikenberry’s message is that Washington must revert to the farsighted diplomacy of alliance- and institution-building practiced by Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman.

There are many other academics who have advised the Obama campaign and might also figure in his administration. These include Sarah Sewell, a human rights specialist from Harvard who collaborated with Gen. David H. Petraeus in rewriting the Army and Marine counterinsurgency field guide; Susan E. Rice, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who served as President Clinton’s assistant secretary of State for African affairs; and Anthony Lake, a Georgetown professor who served as Clinton’s national security advisor. All three have sound academic credentials and substantial experience.

The good news is that Barack Obama’s intellectuals are fine scholars who have produced some thought-provoking books and articles on the best way to deploy American power. The bad news is that Walt Rostow and Paul Wolfowitz were also fine scholars who had produced interesting books and articles on the best way to deploy American power.

So how might this new generation of foreign policy thinkers avoid the mistakes made by their predecessors?

Well, one problem has arisen in cases in which the academic in question has a cherished “theory” to test, and therefore misreads evidence to suit intellectual preconceptions. Through the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, for instance, Rostow believed that the thesis presented in his 1960 book, “The Stages of Economic Growth” -- that all nations are driven by economic self-interest in peace and war -- rendered North Vietnam’s infrastructure critically vulnerable to American bombing. “Ho Chi Minh has an industrial complex to protect,” he explained. “He is no longer a guerrilla fighter with nothing to lose.”

But Rostow was wrong. North Vietnam’s leadership was willing to absorb serious damage to further the overarching goal of reunification. Rostow failed to appreciate the power of nationalist ideology.

Similarly, Wolfowitz theorized throughout the 1990s that liberating Iraq from Saddam Hussein would lead to the eventual democratization of the Middle East, a region better known for its authoritarian regimes than for participatory politics. It is perhaps too early to declare that the thesis was entirely wrong. But the last five years have not been encouraging.

Power’s and Ikenberry’s ideas are thankfully less ambitious in scope than those of Rostow and Wolfowitz. Both believe in multilateral diplomacy and in the efficacy of speaking with one’s enemies, and both favor nuance over black-white solutions. So is there anything to worry about?

Well, maybe. Power’s call to arms in Darfur is laudable, but only as long as the overstretched U.S. military does not assume the preponderant burden in confronting the Sudanese Arab militias. The Clinton administration burst with moral purpose when it arrived in the White House. It took a well-intentioned but disastrous intervention in Somalia to denude Clinton’s foreign policy of its altruistic core, leading to indecision and drift further down the line.

Ikenberry’s belief in strengthening “liberal” institutions has led him to endorse the proposal that the U.N. Security Council should add six new members to make it more representative of world opinion. To streamline decision-making, Ikenberry further supports the abolition of veto rights in favor of a simple three-quarter “supermajority” rule.

Making the United Nations more democratic and effective is desirable. But as Harvard’s Niall Ferguson has pointed out, giving up American power at that much-maligned institution has its own perils. Truman built institutions multilaterally, but he was careful to ensure that NATO and the Marshall Plan served America’s national interest first and foremost. It is doubtful that Ikenberry’s proposal passes that test.

One historical parallel may be instructive. Few presidents have mined the elite academy more than Kennedy. But Kennedy’s foreign policy instincts often were superior to those of his ivory tower hires. His caution on Vietnam, for example, made him far more prescient than either Bundy or Rostow. Pragmatic, well-schooled politicians often have a feel for what will fly that surpasses the most brilliant theorists.

Obama’s principled opposition to the 2003 Iraq war suggests that he too may possess diplomatic instincts superior to those around him. So, although there are clear benefits to be gained from consulting with social scientists, Obama will do well to follow his own counsel. The making of foreign policy requires a cognitive flexibility that too often eludes academics with theories to prove.

David Milne, a lecturer in American politics at the University of East Anglia, is the author of “America’s Rasputin: Walt Rostow and the Vietnam War.”