Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in Foreign Policy.
Wrongness is an honorable intellectual tradition that we have long embraced—indeed, we’ve excelled at it. To take risks, stimulate debate, and increase knowledge, one sometimes has to accept that one will be wrong. But some ideas, in the words of physicist Wolfgang Pauli, are “not even wrong.” They are too vacuous, obvious, or clichéd to appreciably contribute to human understanding. They are simply meaningless.
Of course, no foreign-policy analyst could survive without frequent recourse to at least a few meaningless recommendations. They fill awkward minutes on a panel discussion, satisfy harried editors, and are generally accepted with a tired, knowing shrug by one’s complicit colleagues. And they have certainly crept into our work (although we will deny this if confronted).
But don’t let our hypocrisy, dear reader, distract you. What follows are 11 of our favorite meaningless foreign-policy recommendations. We present this list in the modest hope that you will recognize them and demand more from us.
“The United States needs to grow its economy.”
Economic strength is one of the foundations of military power and is necessary for the United States to maintain its preeminent military while maintaining its leadership position vis-à-vis rivals like China. Yet telling a president to concentrate on “growing the economy” is roughly equivalent to telling him to breathe: sound advice, but not, strictly speaking, necessary. Promoting economic growth has been the top priority of every White House since the invention of macroeconomic statistics. The president has hundreds of economic policy experts working on that effort at any given moment.
“The United States needs a strategy for…”
Roughly 4 million people work for the U.S. government. They have devised strategies—usually more than one—for tackling countless problems, ranging from energy security to the frozen conflict in Georgia. These strategies may lack consistency, coherence, or political support—or might just plain suck—but they always exist. By claiming the United States lacks a strategy for some important issue, whether it’s fighting the Islamic State or promoting democracy in Myanmar, a pundit is usually just expressing dissatisfaction with the current strategy. But by asserting that said strategy doesn’t exist at all, she avoids the hard work of defining what the strategy actually is, critiquing it, and offering an alternative.
“The United States should pay greater attention to…”
Whether it is climate change, nuclear proliferation, or unrest in Burundi, virtually every problem deserves more attention. The call for more attention to a problem is a particularly favored trope of various commissions tasked with focusing on one issue area and concluding, by studying that issue, that it needs more attention. Yet the president only has 24 hours in his day (and he spends most of that growing the economy), a time limit that also restricts his most senior advisors, despite the rather superhuman pace at which most administrations work. The real question is how to allocate limited time and resources among a staggering set of challenges. Sure, Burundi deserves attention. But more than Iran? What about Ebola? A truly valuable recommendation would be to say the United States should pay less attention to an issue. That would be far easier to accomplish.
“The president should show leadership.”
Many pundits seem to think that if the president would only show some gumption, the awesome power of American military might or the universal attractiveness of American ideals would sweep away all opposition. These same pundits forget that presidents may lead, but not in the way they want (ask Democrats about the 2003 Iraq war or Republicans about today’s Iran nuclear deal, both stellar examples of presidential nerve).
Moreover, there are real limits to presidential leadership. Our divided political system, which, by design, greatly constrains the power of the president, is one such limit. When the president goes against the people and their elected representatives, even if triumphant, he’ll have a hard time ensuring that his policies take root. The hard part of any U.S. foreign-policy analysis is assessing what the United States, with of all of its inherent domestic divisions and other power limitations, is actually capable of and where the president has wiggle room. Calling for greater leadership simply wishes away the most important part of that analysis.
“We should build a bipartisan consensus on…”
While we are on the subject of domestic politics—something many foreign-policy analysts conveniently ignore—we should mention the dream of forging a bipartisan consensus for any important foreign-policy strategy, a favorite demand of many a CNN talking head or Washington Post op-ed page writer. This consensus has always been more present in theory than in practice: The supposed Cold War consensus on containment often broke down over core issues like military spending, arms control, covert action in places like Nicaragua, and the Vietnam War. Even more importantly, a consensus on a complex issue is often elusive because different people—and thus their elected officials — have different values. Dissensus, in fact, is necessary for a healthy democracy. Debate and criticism are more likely to identify flaws in the first place, divert us from the wrong path, and make trade-offs clearer. Dissensus, in fact, is necessary for a healthy democracy. Debate and criticism are more likely to identify flaws in the first place, divert us from the wrong path, and make trade-offs clearer.
“We need a Marshall Plan for…”
As one seasoned wag put it in the early days of the Arab Spring: “I don’t know what’s happening. But I do know someone will soon call for a Marshall Plan.” Events quickly proved him right. Calling for a “plan” in the model of the Truman administration’s post-war rebuilding effort is meant to signal that an issue deserves top priority and massive resources. But recommending that level of investment is not very helpful, absent a demonstration that the given issue is not just important but massively more important than the array of other policy emergencies the United States faces on a daily basis. This is rarely done, largely because it is almost never the case. Moreover, the Marshall Plan’s success depended heavily on a set of structural conditions that are often lacking: Throwing money at problems doesn’t necessarily solve them and can even make them worse by increasing corruption and destroying local industries, if the economy cannot properly absorb the influx of funds.
“The United States needs to get its message out more effectively.”
By asserting that all we need to do is explain ourselves better, this recommendation offers the possibility of achieving greater success by simply changing how we describe a policy. Forget devoting more resources, confronting inconsistencies in the policy, accepting greater risk, or facing up to failure. It is always easier to slap some public diplomacy lipstick on the policy pig.
Of course, Washington is terrible at public diplomacy, so there is always a degree of truth to such critiques. But for reasons deeply rooted in history and government structure, the U.S. government is inherently bad at communicating with foreign audiences, and is unlikely to improve at this late stage in its institutional development. U.S. messages usually reflect an American consensus that is often lacking or is unpalatable overseas, and tailoring a message for foreign audiences is often jarring at home. Messaging can perhaps help around the margins, but U.S. policies—often for better, though sometimes for worse—usually speak louder than words.
“Increase high-level engagement.”
For diplomacy junkies and those still traumatized by a career at the State Department, there is no more effective palliative for a troubled diplomatic relationship than official meetings between presidents or prime minister. In this view, the meeting is the message: Every problem can be solved just by getting a senior-level official to pay attention and devote tender loving care to an aggravated ally or aggrieved enemy. But we all know that’s not how it always works: President Obama just met with Gulf state leaders. Secretary Kerry met with Putin. Problems solved?
These meetings and their attendants draw considerable attention, but often little analysis is devoted to what might they might achieve. Unfortunately, most of our diplomatic disputes are about more than just neediness, status anxiety, or a desire for attention. The important part is not having the meeting or who attends it. It is the hard-nosed negotiating and artful compromise that takes place when diplomats and leaders sit down at the table together.
“We need more and better intelligence on…”
“Intelligence,” an Israeli general once told us, “is like money. You can never have enough.” Calls for better intelligence on hard targets, however, imply that bad intelligence generates bad policy. Intelligence scholars like Richard Betts have found, however, that so-called intelligence failures usually stem more from policymakers’ refusal to believe the intelligence than from failures of collection or analysis. Intelligence agencies, unfortunately for them, make for easier political targets than their political masters. Moreover, calls for more intelligence imply that the problem is one of effort: If only intelligence agencies really tried, they could slot a spy into Kim Jong Un’s inner circle or around Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s campfire. In the end, decision-makers often have to make the hardest decisions with incomplete information. We don’t really know if Tehran will cheat on its nuclear promises (Iranian leaders themselves may not know), if Moscow plans to meddle with other neighbors, and so on. Policies must be robust or flexible enough in the face of poor information. Governments need plenty of help with that, but it is easier just to say we need better intelligence.
“We need a more comprehensive approach that integrates military and non-military tools.”
Effective foreign policy requires “smart power” approaches that integrate all aspects of national power. It’s hard to argue with that—no one argues for “dumb power,” after all. The idea that integrating all elements of national power is key to achieving national aims goes back at least to Carl von Clausewitz in the 1830s and has been conventional wisdom since World War I. The hard part, as usual, is implementing such a vision across bureaucratic boundaries and in the face of competing bureaucratic agendas.
Different parts of the U.S. government have different cultures, different missions, and incentive structures that do not reward cooperation across institutional boundaries. Many have some degree of statutory independence or some form of technical monopoly that make it impossible for the even the president to compel complete cooperation. Most leaders of such bureaucracies have long recognized that integration with other agencies is important to their mission, but they often fail to achieve it or simply refuse to sacrifice other priorities for that goal. When an analyst tells them more cooperation is important to our national goals, they simply blame some other agency for the problem and move on.
“We should work with our allies to…”
It’s a truism that policies are stronger when all allies are on the same page. Yet we’ve noticed something inconvenient about our allies: Just like us, they have interests, politics, and peculiarities. Generally, disunity arises not from a failure to consider the advantages of sharing the burden, but rather because the United States and its allies simply disagree. This may be a big disagreement, such as the U.S.-Israel split over Iranian nuclear negotiations. More often, however, it is a disagreement over priorities or policy specifics, and we are often asking an ally to take risks, political or otherwise, when it does not share our immediate interests or when we are not willing to take the risk ourselves. Turkey, like the United States, opposes the Islamic State and doesn’t like the Assad regime, but it also shares a border with Syria, has a restive Kurdish minority, and has other interests in the region not shared by the United States—its threat perception and interests thus differ from those of the United States. Those who advocate going it alone on a given issue usually aren’t anti-ally, but they recognize allies won’t simply do our bidding. They would rather go it alone than make significant compromises or water down America’s own goals just to get allies on board.
Look, we get why everyone, including us, resorts to these vacuous recommendations. Making U.S. foreign policy is hard. Most of the easy and obvious choices have already been made, particularly for the most contentious issues. Almost by definition, what is left is a series of options that are all varying degrees of bad. Yet the editors and audiences of august publications like Foreign Policy demand recommendations — they insisted on this paragraph, for example. And then critics mercilessly point out the inevitable flaws in any serious proposal. They often fail to acknowledge that all of the alternatives have similar flaws. It is both less intellectually taxing and less professionally risky for pundits to resort to the meaningless. Unfortunately, this conspiracy between writers and readers often results in a failure to examine the inevitable trade-offs and to realistically assess what is the best among an array of bad choices. It is also incredibly boring. We beg you to help us make it stop.
Brookings Senior Fellow and former U.S. State Department Special Envoy on Climate Todd Stern spoke at the US Climate Action Center, at the COP 24 UN climate negotiations, on the future of the Paris Agreement in Katowice, Poland on December 10, 2018.
[On the U.S. negotiating team at the COP 24 climate negotiations in Katowice, Poland] They work seriously, effectively and knowledgeably. There is only this technical negotiating team, not a political one.