By Robert D. Kaplan
Chief Geopolitical Analyst
- 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.