Earlier this week Steve Walt wrote a jeremiad over at Foreign Policy blasting the foreign policy conference programs of multiple think tank confabs — the Council on Foreign Relations, Center for New American Security and New America Foundation:
I’ve been looking over the programs for these three gatherings, and my first impulse is to yawn. Instead of a diverse array of speakers offering fresh ideas, or a clash of divergent world-views and policy prescriptions, the programs for all these events are heavily populated by the usual suspects: prominent foreign-policy practitioners, policy wonks, and public figures whose views are already familiar to anyone who’s been paying attention to the travails of U.S. foreign policy….
It’s easy to understand why conference organizers stick with familiar faces: putting a bunch of established foreign policy VIPs on the program helps guarantee a big turn-out and highlights the organization’s “convening power.” And in our celebrity-mad world, many people would happy to catch a glimpse of somebody like McCain or Clinton, even if neither says anything new or thought-provoking. Sticking to establishment figures also avoids controversy: you don’t have to worry about donors getting upset about the program or government officials refusing to appear on the same dais with someone they regard as radioactive.
But given the widespread dissatisfaction with the state of U.S. foreign policy, is this really the best we can do? Wouldn’t it be more interesting, and more importantly, more useful for these organizations to cast the net more widely, and include people whose ideas on foreign policy were serious, well-informed, yet outside the current consensus?
At which point, Walt offers some suggestions for other speakers/participants… most of whom conveniently share ideas very close in spirit to Steve Walt’s.
Snark aside, Walt does have half a point. As an academic who’s attended more than a fair share of these conferences, I’ll grant that they often run the gamut from liberal internationalist to… conservative internationalist. It’s not unreasonable to ask whether there should be more intellectual diversity in these confabs, especially when there is such a high state of dissatisfaction with American foreign policy.
But Walt also misses half a point. One of the benefits of these kinds of think tank confabs isn’t to debate ideas, it’s to share and acquire information. As I noted a few months back, the mix of think-tankers, columnists and “formers” do have some comparative advantages in talking about foreign policy:
The Beltway tribe has local knowledge of the policymaking process in Washington, a not inconsiderable advantage. Academics and market analysts can talk about the obvious strategic benefits of, say, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It is the Beltway types, however, who know about the minutiae of the negotiations, about the struggle to get trade promotion authority through the Senate, about the implications of taking Max Baucus out of the equation. I cannot recall an instance in which I knew more about the arcana of a particular policy more than my think-tanker colleagues who focused on it.
So, in some ways, the value-added of these conferences depends on what you want out of them. If you want a deep debate about the virtues of different grand strategies, then Walt is likely correct in his critique. If you want to learn something about the eddies and currents of American foreign policy that can’t be garnered from a 10,000-foot view, then these confabs have some value.
For example, I attended much of Wedneday’s extremely well-attended CNAS conference — seriously, there was overflow from the overflow room by the time I showed up. I sat through speeches by Rep. Paul Ryan and National Security Adviser Susan Rice that were… um… okay (if you go to the 2:04:53 mark of this video, you’ll hear me question Ryan about one of his foreign policy assertions and then not get a real answer).
Still, based on the other panels. as well as the conversations on the margins, I did come away with some interesting bits of information. Perhaps the most interesting was the concern and frustration that U.S. allies across the Pacific Rim share about U.S. commitment to the region. The frustration is not surprising — but the reasons behind it are. It’s not that these countries are worried about U.S. credibility in the wake of Syria or Ukraine. Rather, it’s the sense that there is no point person in the Obama administration to deal with counterparts in South Korea or Singapore or Indonesia.
This is a big difference from Obama’s first term. Back then, there was a surfeit of Asia folk who were viewed as trusted interlocutors for the United States: Tom Donilon, James Steinberg and Kurt Campbell to name a few. Hillary Clinton was pretty interested in the Pacific Rim, as well, I hear. And now… one does not get the sense that any of the policy principals have prioritized East Asia. Nor are the deputy and undersecretary and assistant secretary positions staffed with people whom the allies — or China, for that matter — really trust. And there doesn’t seem to be any sense of urgency in the White House about finding, say, Kurt Campbell’s replacement.
I suspect that Walt and other uber-realists would dismiss this problem as a minor one compared to the weighty issues of grand strategy writ large. They might argue that picayune questions such as staffing assistant secretary positions are dwarfed by the structural problems of perceived power transitions in East Asia. In the grand arc of history, they’re right, and there are certainly virtues in those bigthink debates. In the meantime, however, the world continues to revolve, and policy must be made, and these short-term problems can metastasize into bigger problems down the road. And I wouldn’t have known about this short-term problem without attending the CNAS conferences.