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contributor perspectives

Nov 7, 2012 | 11:47 GMT

7 mins read

The Next U.S. Foreign Policy Team

Chief Geopolitical Analyst, Stratfor
Robert D. Kaplan
Chief Geopolitical Analyst, Stratfor
Global Affairs with Robert D. Kaplan
Contributor Perspectives offer insight, analysis and commentary from Stratfor’s Board of Contributors and guest contributors who are distinguished leaders in their fields of expertise.

By Robert D. Kaplan
Chief Geopolitical Analyst

With the U.S. presidential election over, speculation now commences about the makeup of the defense and foreign policy team that will assume power following the presidential inauguration Jan. 20. It is not only a matter of who will be the next secretary of defense, secretary of state and national security adviser but also who will fill the critical deputy positions one, two and three steps below, at the level where the real day-to-day decisions are made. For what is often just one line in a newspaper — the United States and Pakistan resume cooperation on this or that, or the United States and Australia decide to upgrade their military relationship — entails many hours of negotiations with several American officials present at all times overseas.
Foreign policy is mostly hidden: 90 percent of the effort never warrants a sentence in the media, even as it is essential to American interests. There are nearly 200 countries in the world, but the media only seriously follows about one-tenth of them, even as the State Department must conduct daily bilateral relations with almost all of them. And just because a country is not in the news does not mean that America's relations with it are not complex and fractious.
Media speculation about who will get the first- and second-tier jobs in government is often inane because the media confuse who is interesting and engaging in print and in conversation with who is actually qualified. Here is a list of the real qualifications of a top-tier foreign policy professional:
  • He or she has real administrative experience. He can manage people and systems — and get decisions implemented fast. This kind of experience comes from the world of corporations, government and law firms, much less than from the world of universities and the media. Academic superstars like Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski are famous exceptions to this rule. Think tanks also produce top-tier foreign policy officials, provided such institutions are of a basically centrist inclination and are not pushing an ideological agenda.
  • Someone who can think functionally in terms of what works, at minimum risk to the public. This practical, almost mathematical bent is in line with a corporate or a hard-core, think-tank background. Ronald Reagan was a great president in part because he had such men in key positions: Caspar Weinberger as secretary of defense, Frank Carlucci as national security adviser and George Shultz as secretary of state. These were the temperamentally bipartisan realists who were able to practically implement Reagan's conservative agenda.
  • Someone who has good judgment rather than detailed knowledge of an area. You will have experts on staff who can brief you, but all the expertise in the world won't help you in government if your instincts are bad. It is all about the genius of temperament rather than the genius of intellect. Donald Rumsfeld had a first-rate intellect but a third-rate temperament, at least in his second go-around as secretary of defense under George W. Bush.
  • Someone who is able to make hard decisions daily while still being able to sleep at night. Unlike journalists and intellectuals, who constantly revise their opinions to suit evolving circumstances, a top-tier government official will be dogged for life for decisions made without the benefit of hindsight. He can never walk away from them or revise them. This is especially true in matters of war and peace, in which he will see his name taken in vain in future libraries full of histories of the period.
  • Someone who can make decisions based on very partial evidence, because as Kissinger once famously quipped, by the time all or most of the facts are in, it is too late to affect the outcome. The world of government is not the world of academia, in which you can hold off publishing a monograph for months to add a few more vital footnotes.
  • Someone who can make decisions based on the greater strategic good rather than based on how he or she will look on the newspaper opinion pages the next day. The worst sorts of officials are those who crave good publicity. Of course, an official has to know how to manage the media, but he must also avoid being captured by it.
  • It is not a requirement, but it certainly helps to be wealthy. Government jobs pay abysmally. And because of electronic communications, the 24-hour news cycle and so on, officials work longer hours and are under more stress than ever before. Wealth reduces stress, even as it grants an official a measure of independence — from which brave decisions might sometimes flow. Wealth means an official can quit his government job over principle anytime he wants. Someone without wealth, who needs to perform well in government to make wealth later on, is likely to take fewer risks and stand less often on his principles.
  • Someone who knows how to brief and be briefed. Both things require terseness. Those who feel the tendency to give speeches at small, time-constrained meetings and who always have the psychological need to get in the last word are apt to be less successful in government, which, after all, is about social skills at meetings. Successful officials get to the point quickly and efficiently extract knowledge from others by asking penetrating questions.
  • Someone who knows how to be a realist while talking like an idealist. Idealism provides a state with an identity, even as a state requires realism to survive.
  • Someone who does not need — for monetary or psychological reasons — to publish often. Great public servants like former Secretary of State James Baker and former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates were never known for brilliant pieces in the newspapers and journals of opinion. Their genius was the process of decision-making itself. And that is the essence of government.
In short, the real foreign policy professionals are people who are all about discipline: discipline in what they say, in how they think, in how they administer and in the discipline of maintaining a thick hide against public criticism. Obviously, discipline is not all that is required — just look at Rumsfeld, an intensely disciplined man — but, nevertheless, discipline is the basis for good judgment and a good management style. Remember, America is a vast country that requires a massive security and diplomatic bureaucracy. Turning that bureaucracy in the direction you want it to go, and making it all work toward repeated, successful outcomes is more an art than a science.
But that art is more likely to come from some professional fields more than others. Baker was a high-powered lawyer, Gates spent a life in the intelligence bureaucracy and Shultz ran a large engineering firm. While Kissinger and Brzezinski were academics, they also came from World War II European immigrant backgrounds, which gave them an emotional and intellectual depth relatively rare on today's university campuses.
Ideas matter: An administration without ideas will drift from one tactical fix to another with no overall direction. But ideas need not always be articulated in print. George H. W. Bush's administration, in which Baker served, was about the sensibility of managing the Cold War to a peaceful conclusion advantageous to the United States, even as none of the top-tier men had ever published much of note. Keep that in mind when judging the next administration's foreign policy officials.
Unfortunately, it is sometimes hard for the public to scrutinize appointees to top- and upper-middle level positions. The media are not always aware of their personal traits, for the traits that really matter are often known to a relative small number of people. Meanwhile, congressional hearings on appointees are often a game of gotcha, in which mistakes over a long career are exposed for the sake of mere embarrassment or to disqualify someone who runs ideologically afoul of some members of the committee.
The best advice I can offer the public in this regard is to try to find out what the colleagues of the appointees themselves have to say about them. In addition, as I said at the beginning, look for people who have a resume of actually running things.
Robert D. Kaplan was Stratfor's Chief Geopolitical Analyst from March 2012 through December 2014. He is currently a Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C., and has been a foreign correspondent and contributing editor at The Atlantic, where his work has appeared for three decades. In 2009, he was appointed to the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board, which advised former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on key issues. Mr. Kaplan served on the board through 2011. From 2006 to 2008, he was the Class of 1960 Distinguished Visiting Professor in National Security at the U.S. Naval Academy.
The Next U.S. Foreign Policy Team
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