[T]o the governor I said, in a world in which foreign affairs continue to be more important than ever, in a dangerous world with which we have ever more dealings, shouldn’t we be thinking about senators for the presidency, and not governors?He listened closely, nodded, then shook his head. No, he said, governors still have the advantage. Why? Because foreign policy still comes down, always, to your gut, your instincts. And your instincts are sharpened by the kind of experience you get as a chief executive in a statehouse, which is constant negotiation with antagonists who have built-in power bases. You learn what works from success and failure with entrenched powers that can undo you, from unions to local pressure groups to unreliable allies. Being a governor is about handling real and discernible power. A governor can learn what a senator knows more easily than a senator can learn what a governor knows.This will be one of the subtexts of the 2016 GOP presidential race (emphasis added).
Now before I do to the above assertion what Tom Brady and Bill Belichick did to the Indianapolis Colts yesterday, let’s acknowledge a small grain of truth in that bolded statement. Foreign affairs is a heady mix of art, science, and fortuna. One could certainly argue that gut instincts fall into the “art” category. A politician who has well-honed instincts about politics will likely have a natural advantage in international as well as domestic affairs.
But really, let’s be honest, the argument this governor made to Noonan is a crock. Actually, it’s worse than that, it’s a legitimately dangerous belief system in world politics.
First of all, there’s the obvious point, made by Steve Benen: “Funny, I seem to recall another recent presidential candidate saying his intuition had far more value than awareness of world events. His name was George W. Bush.” See the photo above for the obvious data point.
Second of all, if recent history is any guide, there’s a really big difference between dealing with the politics of state legislatures and the politics of the United States Congress. Of the last four governors to become presidents — Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush — only Reagan seemed to make the transition to the national stage without much in the way of first-term stumbles. And part of that was due to the bump Reagan received from the assassination attempt on him. So I’m dubious about the assertion that experience with a state legislature translates well into national politics, much less international politics.
Third, there are actually quite a few important concepts in world politics that are not, at first glance, terribly intuitive. Indeed, the whole reason that principles like the law of comparative advantage or the security dilemma are taught is that these concepts are counterintuitive. The idea that anti-ballistic missiles — a defensive weapons system — would have destabilized the Cold War is also not an intuitive idea. After one studies these principles, they can become intuitive — but that is not how most people feel when first confronted with them.
Fourth, there are a lot of intuitive concepts in foreign affairs that turn out to be of dubious value in conducting statecraft. For example, one of the debates that has roiled the American foreign policy community for the last few years is the importance of reputation. Intuitively, it would seem that leaders who back down in the face of crisis invite further bellicose behavior. In actuality, however, the evidence to support this is murky at best. There’s no settled answer — which means that one’s intuition is not really a good guide in this matter.
Foreign affairs is lousy with situations in which the counterintuitive idea is superior to the intuitive idea — a fact that the governor chatting with Noonan clearly does not know. And the hubris on display in the governor’s answer makes me very frightened about what would happen should this person become president in January 2017.
A final thought: What really scares me is that this belief about gut instincts and foreign policy is not unique to this governor. Even members of the foreign policy community are prejudiced against the idea that theory and data might be useful in crafting good grand strategies and foreign policies.
I’m not asking for a world where scholars are in charge of international relations — that would be a dark timeline of disproved hypotheses and ill-fitting clothes. I just want a world more like, say, baseball. This is an arena where the value of sabermetrics is appreciated and incorporated into ball-club operations, and one in which officials who dismiss these ideas are the objects of calumny.
It’s early in the campaign season, and presumably this potential candidate is getting tutored on the finer points of foreign affairs. Hopefully, the governor — and I’ve got a pretty good idea who it is — will learn that what one doesn’t know in world politics is massive. Maybe this governor’s implicit theory of how to conduct foreign affairs will evolve over time.
If it doesn’t, however, then keep this person as far away from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as possible.
Am I missing anything?