Thursday, March 26, 2015

Sharp policy lessons for presidents and their handlers ...

You can't get more establishment than the two academic giants who wrote Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers. Richard E. Neustadt was a political scientist known for writing the essential book on the limitations of the power of US presidents; he founded the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. Earnest R. May was a Harvard international relations scholar whose lifelong focus on intelligence failures equipped him to be a senior advisor to the 9/11 Commission.

I've been dipping into this 1986 book which aims to outline for policy makers a series of steps that, if they'd only use them, would help them make better informed and more feasible decisions. The authors' examples jump about through presidencies from FDR through Ronald Reagan and through policy conundrums from the initiation of Social Security to arms control efforts with the Soviet Union. Some of these events, like the swine flu that wasn't under Gerald Ford, look minuscule in retrospect; others, like the Cuban missile crisis still yield lessons.

There's a lot in this little book. I'm only going to discuss a small sample that I enjoyed and which gives the flavor of these authors. One of Neustadt and May's concepts is what they call "placement." By this they mean that you are likely to have a better understanding of the people you are working with (and sometimes against) if you know something of the personal histories that may have shaped their policy instincts. They talk about assigning interns to chase down biographies via such sources as Who's Who. In the age the NSA dragnet and Google, this seems quaint.

But of course the concept holds, perhaps especially in international relations. Their description of Jimmy Carter's inept approach to German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt -- and Schmidt's corresponding incomprehension of Carter -- still probably catches too much of what passes for U.S. international interactions.

From government to government, one is usually dealing with career officials or experienced politicians. Class differences recede. Still, someone from another country ordinarily has little American history in his head, and even that is possibly peculiar to his vantage point. ...

That Americans who deal with foreigners should "place" them in their histories ought to be obvious; one might think therefore the practice was common. As far as we can tell, it is not. ...[E]ven -- or especially -- in dealings with our close allies that sort of empathetic effort seems remote from usual practice.

... Schmidt was only a half a dozen years older than Carter (and looked younger) but his political experience was incomparably wider. [As the leader of a weak parliamentary government, the German politician needed and expected to be listened to in Washington.] ... If Carter felt that he might someday want Schmidt to do something for him -- or not do something to him -- [proper "placement"] would have suggested the President acknowledge the Chancellor's superior experience, listen to him with an air of respect, and, before doing something that might cause Schmidt grief, give him reasons, with a tone of equal speaking to equal, allowing him time to make preparations in Bonn. ...

... The actual tactics of Carter ... were exactly the opposite. ... When Schmidt started to offer advice, Carter cut him off. ... the President said afterward that he found Schmidt "obnoxious."

... But the failure in placement was mutual. ... Just a little reflection might have opened Schmidt's mind to the unpleasing truth that the new President probably knew little more about hm than that he was a Socialist head of government with a frail majority, and possibly nothing about his country except that it used to be Nazi, now wasn't, but sold Americans too many cars.

... One veteran of the Carter Administration, also long acquainted with Schmidt, feels sure in retrospect that, with only a little imaginative effort, Schmidt could have made Carter a dogged friend and ally. We are inclined to agree. With a good deal less brainpower than Schmidt but, partly for that reason, more experience in personal charm, British Prime Minister James Callaghan managed to use Carter occasionally as the equivalent of an extra Labour Party whip.

I suspect that most U.S. policy makers still tromp about the world this oblivious to others. On the other hand, I suspect that improved international communications may well inform foreign leaders who have to deal with us rather better than in Neustadt and May's time. That's what happens when you are an empire that doesn't always know its own strengths and limitations. Others have to suss you out for self-preservation and are likely to become good at it.

The recent antics of the Israeli Prime Minister bringing his election campaign to the Republican Congress would have been fit subject matter for these authors, if they had dared. They seem daring -- though it is noticeable that this Reagan era book does not much delve into that administration's foolishness. We could still use Neustadt and May's candid and acerbic commentary on U.S. policy failures.

1 comment:

Hattie said...

That's fascinating. We underplay the importance of the "human factor" in thinking about diplomacy.
I always admired Schmidt but undervalued Carter, who seemed like such a hayseed. Carter has certainly been, as some say, the best ex-president we have ever had.
I really like this review!

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