How to Get a Breakthrough in Ukraine
The Case Against Incrementalism
THE STORAGE AND RETRIEVAL OF CONVICTION
THE orchestration of foreign policy is a vexatious art form. It exacts its toll from observers and participants alike. After some performances, all involved must yearn to consign the concept to oblivion as simply unworkable. At minimum it is fortunate for the orchestra's reputation that this is a time when dissonance is musically avant garde.
For the frustrations of the foreign policy orchestra are, beyond doubt, unique. Whether in composition or execution, making contemporary foreign policy music is a hazardous undertaking. Phrasing is often rudimentary. Clear melodic lines are seldom validly asserted. Contrapuntal themes are often overdone. Crescendos and diminuendos interrupt one another unpredictably, and the variations in tempo upset continuity of mood. Rhythms are highly irregular. Adagio is no match for prestissimo, and moderato tends to escalate into vivace brillante.
But there are environmental woes as well. The acoustics are notorious for reverberations, and the sound effects reëcho over time. Professionally offended at the orchestra's repeat performances, the critics persist in rerunning their own reviews. They take endless satisfaction in calling the encores as they see them. Yet the programs themselves are seldom prearranged. Rehearsals are rare. Some players habitually avert their eyes from the podium, others habitually from the score. Moreover, one has to consider the overcrowding of the stage and the outsized nature of certain sections, as well as the potentials for explosions among the brasses, tediousness among the woodwinds, tuning troubles among the strings, miscalculations in the tympani, uncertainties among the trumpets, excesses among the prima donnas, and, occasionally, the unexpected guest conductor.
Hence it is no wonder that self-esteem requires a refuge in relativity, the orchestra telling itself that, after all, it is a relatively splendid orchestra, turning in a relatively admirable performance, under relatively insurmountable handicaps, in a relatively cataclysmic world. Such reflections on relativity, however, happen to come naturally to the foreign policy participant, because relativity for him has become the leitmotiv of foreign policy living if not, indeed, the elixir of foreign policy life.
I. THE SPECTRUM OF RELATIVITY
In broaching some theories of relativity in foreign policy, let me offer some precatory words of general disclaimer and specific disavowal. I am about to engage in an impressionistic description of an important disability which has been infiltrating the American foreign policy-making process, as an apparently inseparable concomitant of progress. This disability by no means pervades the entire orchestra. Nor by any means would its amelioration be a panacea for all the orchestra's ills. I shall attempt to describe the built-in relativism of our total decision-making process and, within it, the growing psychological predicament of the researcher-clarifier-analyst-assistant as he considers the horizons of his role and mission. I do not want to be misunderstood, nor do I want my comments to be taken ad hominem. I have no flesh-and-blood targets. I am concerned about a phenomenon which would persist even if all the significant current participants in the foreign policy-national security network were replaced-from the President on down through his appointees in cabinet and sub-cabinet ranks to the careerists and non-careerists alike at what is invidiously called the "working level." Let us therefore consider the problem abstractly in the sense that we subtract current personalities from it.
The extent of relativity in any given case will be a function of several variables. Among them are certain to be the sheer size of the foreign policy-national security network dealing with the issue at hand; the many centers of partial power which can claim to be considered; the independent voices which will purport to speak in the name of policy; the need for coördination; the toleration for its Siamese twin, delay; and the pockets of irrepressible dissent, perhaps based on permanent institutional biases and fortified by old bureaucratic precedents or a strong parochial Congressional attachment.
Big government alone, of course, carries with it important negative implications for foreign policy. Bigness begets a proliferation of potential vetoes. The larger the number of claimants institutionally and individually, the more likely it is that the mix of ingredients will become indigestible for the body politic. The more different elements of the government play the elaborate game of preëmpting one another's time-the more the doctrine of checks and balances invades the Executive Branch itself-the greater the possible inhibitions on forward movement of any kind. The possibilities for broadly based and persistent policy are almost directly disproportionate to the size, complexity, interruptibility and intertwining bureaucratic underbrush of a government's foreign policy apparatus. When it comes to refighting battles that therefore are never won, and guaranteeing that decisions are not implemented and therefore not decided, big government can bootjack itself into immobilism.
But there is a critical personal dimension to be added. If the institutions of big government are filled with merely medium-competent people, punching time cards 40 hours a week, infused with modest or routine motivation, the immobilism may be there all right. But it will be passive by contrast with the highly articulate immobilism generated by activist relativists placing bets and throwing dice at the elaborate inter-agency gaming table.
When you shuffle into big government's institutional deck of cards an admixture of the wild cards of personality-especially of personalities high in intellectual, political, managerial and emotional candlepower-you add to the unpredictability of the hands held and the stakes involved. Bureaucratic congestion may become tightened, not relieved. In Washington in recent years this has frequently happened with the transfusion of new high-pressured competence into the bureaucratic bloodstream.
Time and again this process has turned out to be a temporary marriage of convenience between ambitious activists and the cumbersome machinery of government. The result can be the creation of new vested interests with personal stakes in the relativism and even immobilism of the foreign-policy process. The question becomes an insistent and lively one: how to assure creative impulses the chance to move forward without being mired in the quicksand of bureaucratic complexity, coördination and competition-some of which is excessively, even expertly, contrived.
II. THE OPEN-OPTIONS DOCTRINE
Relativity in foreign policy is not only a projection of bigness, complexity and the marriage of bureaucratic rigidities with personal placement. In addition it is bolstered by the doctrine of keeping all options open. This doctrine has increasingly expanded from the tactical to the strategic, and from a personal political device to a fundamental and deliberate instrument of Realpolitik. Taken seriously, the doctrine proclaims the virtues of policy unpredictability to be a national asset.
When Rexford Tugwell said that Franklin D. Roosevelt "allowed no one to discover the governing principle" of his decisions, he did not necessarily mean that there was no governing principle at all, or that the President was indifferent to principles, or that Roosevelt didn't know what the principle was, or that everything was tentative, or that this was a model for emulation at levels below the White House. He had in mind the practical necessity of keeping options open, or the appearance of doing so, so as not to foreclose the possibility of changing course, so as not to create disappointments prematurely, and so as to maintain ambiguities on minor matters as a means of holding or creating a consensus on major ones. Both at home and abroad it is often politically necessary to sustain the faith of certain audiences in the possibility, however remote, of an issue being decided in their favor. In theory it does not necessarily make any difference to the effectiveness of the policy whether the options held open are unreal or real, false or true.
These notions have proliferated until the now conventional and prevailing wisdom considers a politician to be off balance politically if he allows himself to be pinned to any particular pattern of value consistency. Some politicians push the open-options doctrine past the point of perpetual avoidance and on into the simultaneous selection of competing values. Even the projection of a mosaic of inconsistent values has, by some, been considered a political good in itself.
Here the politician and the diplomat may succumb to parallel temptations. Both can conceive of situations where separate domestic or foreign audiences are kept content, even enthusiastic, by the pursuit of separate values in such a way that the adherents of each will be satisfied and preoccupied with the apparent choice of their own preferred values. Thus the politician and the diplomat may react to similar impulses, not only when it comes to keeping options open, but also when, in choosing them, they choose in such a manner as to preserve separately favorable impressions among differentiated audiences. Hopefully the simultaneous choices of inconsistent values can then be acceptably explained as insignificant tactical departures from principle.
Abroad, in the more cynical or sophisticated circles, the desired effects are not always obtained. There the consequent impression of discontinuity may be disconcerting. Yet, by its very characterlessness, it may also prolong hope. It can reassure aspiring viewpoints and governments that, whatever the odds against them, there is still a chance for a favorable American response. Through an extra winter or two of discontent, the home fires will be kept burning for all those who hope that their preferences, their policy, their aid program, will win in Washington after all. Viewpoints and governments all over the world have horses and jockeys in the Washington foreign-policy handicap, and wagers are placed on which competing tendencies will be ascendant this season and which will be lying in wait (or in State). Naturally, for all these interested foreign bookmakers, collective streaks of indecisiveness are preferable in the end to the outright closing down of a preferred option. If worst comes to worst, one can wait for a time when wave lengths with Washington will be more in phase.
Meanwhile in Washington the effort to preserve options can easily promote value disorientation in government. Oriented personalities, by the mere fact of being positioned, are likely to be controversial. They are likely to favor choosing certain options and rejecting others. Unoriented personalities, whatever else may be thought of them, are likely to be noncontroversial and open-minded about options. Hence in the personnel and appointment processes, the implicit desire to preserve options often leads deliberately to the appointment of the noncontroversial and unoriented. They develop a stake in the open-options doctrine.
Ironically, the doctrine may again be buttressed even when there is a conscious desire to implant diversity or a political instinct to placate assorted elements in the appointments process. Hence a cross section of oriented appointees-particularly in a government of all the talents-may be oriented in several directions at once, deliberately so selected under the rather circular rationale that choices will be mathematically facilitated by multiple and independent sources of advice rather than hindered by them. The optimum arrangement may be overrun in the process.
These growing political-diplomatic, domestic-foreign impulses to broaden or maintain options increasingly take the form of a conscious doctrine embraced across the government. It is imbibed by old careerists and new appointees alike. It is infused within, as well as superimposed upon the life of the bureaucracy itself. This is true even in the program-oriented foreign affairs agencies which are more or less organized around a given institutional value, like the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, the Peace Corps, NASA, A.I.D. and U.S.I.A. These organizations at least have the advantage of a built-in big- value orientation, which most of the individuals working for them presumably share, and their internal disagreements tend to be fought around lesser, more instrumental options.
But the State Department, with its far more open-ended job description, is in that sense by definition the most value disoriented of all. It expects to spend much of its time avoiding or umpiring disputes between and among other agencies and governments. Its mediational, middleman role combines with the personal attributes of the diplomats attracted to it to nurture value disorientation. The traditional diplomatic virtues are tact, compromise, nuance and shading. Diplomats are infatuated with language. They meet, or bypass, the confrontations of the real world through various forms of semantic compromise. The international fellowship of diplomats has a common stake in these professional techniques so that psychologically and culturally it often happens that diplomats worldwide have more in common with one another than they do with their own domestic counterparts. Like the historic Episcopalian vexation over what to do with Methodist enthusiasm, professional diplomacy frets over what to do with zeal.
Diplomatically speaking, the proposition is nearly unassailable that ambiguity and blandness are lubricants of communication, not impediments to it. Writ large in the living system of the bureaucracy, the preservation of options becomes both a purpose of policy and a way of life. Career aspirations are affected by that apocryphal Foreign Service assumption-for- planning: that those who are old are not bold, and those who are bold are not old. Ends and means become mutually sustaining. The objective realities are fortified by the subjective realities, and the self-fulfilling prophecies take over.
So much for the case for keeping options open. What can be said for closing some down?
III. THE CASE FOR CURTAILING OPTIONS
Objectively we might begin by distinguishing those matters which deserve decision from those which deserve decisions not to decide. There are important variables of time, place and context. There will always be some sets of issues where we shall want to keep our options open. There will be other sets of issues where we should want to close them down. I am, in part, urging a more conscious recognition of these two categories. The problem has much to do with the priorities of public policy. Then, too, there are times when we need fewer convictions and more options, just as there are times when we need fewer options and more convictions. Sometimes the problems which press upon us argue persuasively for delay. Other times they argue strongly for decision.
But I am even more concerned about the subjective pull of the fashionable open-options doctrine as a Ding an sich. Conceivably this doctrine has proved its validity at the pinnacle of government as an essential attribute of Presidential power. But it is a far more arguable proposition at the executive levels below the White House. Participants in government during the last decade will know what I mean when I refer to the permeating effect of this phenomenon. Lower orders of options are held open in the name of, and out of deference to, keeping higher options open. Low-level bureaucrats hold open options not only to humor higher level bureaucrats, but because they too are playing President. To remove an option is to reduce a minor statesman's scope, to make him less than whole, to leave him with one lung or one kidney, to render him unfit to compete in the war game of bureaucratic life. No volunteer anyway for exercises in self-abnegation, he fails to see how he can broaden his reputation while reducing his options. He has an urge not to be identifiable, an impulse to escape labeling. The trouble is that he thereby undermines the system itself.
Over time the result will be that our foreign-policy institutions and instrumentalities will appear less and less coherent, purposeful or unified. More and more they will appear as a congeries of groups, subgroups, personalities, task forces, all engaged in more or less elaborate frolics on their own.
If prolonged, the attempt to keep all options open prevents the persistent pursuit of any one of them. At some point the doctrine of preserving all options becomes a policy of perpetually reserving judgment. Ultimately the effort to do so erodes all feeling for commitment and consistency, for priorities and perseverance. A foreign policy whose chief characteristic is a plethora of unclosed options is not much of a foreign policy at all. Essential consistency is a virtue necessary to any policy worthy of the name; it goes to the heart of what policy is all about. A government whose behavior represents all policies at once in actuality has not resolved on a policy. Never really in search of a policy, it is doomed never to find one. Policies in perpetual motion become policies in suspense. Dozens of daily decisions contradicting themselves mean, before the week is over, that no decision has been made. Partial policies competing with one another mean that policy itself is undone, no matter what the folklore says or how the newspapers read.
Where there are no dependable elements of reliability, there is no policy. Hence, if fundamental policies are kept in a state of suspended animation in order to create uncertainty and therefore leverage abroad, we jeopardize our long-term credibility. A reputation for unpredictability has occasional tactical advantages, but if pursued, it will be difficult to overcome or outlive. In any given policy it may be hard to say precisely where the breaking point of interruptions, dismantlings and reëxaminations is reached, but there is such a point nevertheless. The balance between possible short-term advantages and certain long-term stakes has to be struck. Policies, like trees, never grow if they are ritualistically pulled up each season for another look at the roots.
When relativists live with relativists, they become specialists in the techniques of accommodation. This kind of agility is a valuable asset. Its possessors are widely sought after, and when found are especially prized. But the effects are subtle. They can negatively condition the atmosphere by institutionalizing indecisiveness. Presidential leadership, no matter how strong or consistent, cannot compensate for foot-dragging among the implementers or for passive resistance campaigns in the bureaucracy.
And for the individual involved, the consequences can become insidious indeed. He can become addicted to the art of not making up his mind. "While it is always a bit awkward to sit on a barbed-wire fence," Julian Amery once said in the House of Commons, "it is difficult to come down from it with dignity, and without damage." But at an historic moment Parliament also heard, "The Right Honorable gentleman has sat so long on the fence that the iron has entered his soul."
IV. THE RETRIEVAL OF CONVICTION
The ideal at which the analytical processes of foreign policy should aim may be simply stated: assuring maximum clarity about the values at stake in order to render as rational as possible the foreign-affairs choices we make. In recent years the pursuit of that ideal has led to the recruitment and appointment of a new kind of intellectual-man-of-all-trades at the analytical-assistant level of government. He may be an "outsider," drawn from the universities or the foundations, from journalism, politics or the law. He may be an "insider," drawn from the Foreign, Civil or Armed Services. In either case he is preëminently the potential "inner-outer," the classic non-prisoner of the system, appreciated in all the environments, mobile in many markets, the one who can most easily leave, whose personal options are always open. He has been chosen because he is exceptional-chosen precisely because of the felt deficiencies of the system itself, if left to its normal devices. He is likely to take his place in special, ad hoc, functional positions close to the policy-maker himself. In some incarnations he will become a research-analyst with easy access for his oral or written product. In other incarnations he will live in the policy-maker's outer office, to become an extension of the personality of his "principal," to perform variously, as his eyes and ears, arms and legs, heart and brains, conscience and ghost.
Of all the active personalities in the foreign-policy process, he is the one who would seem to be most insured against conformity and least propelled toward adoration and adjustment. He is too junior to be out in the front-line policy trenches, to be let loose on weekdays on Capitol Hill, or to be sent out on Sundays to Meet the Press. Still falling short of a public reputation, he lacks the compensatory latter-day drives toward relativism found among some of his seniors who have identifiable pasts to live down, reconstruct, counterbalance or otherwise broaden. Yet, ironically, this new man of prominence in foreign affairs is showing a tendency to fall prey to, indeed to promote, a kindred immobilism of the kind he was recruited to prevent. How shall we explain this contemporary translation of the trahison des clercs? Perhaps because the greatest fear of this new man of affairs is to seem gullible, unsophisticated or sincere.
Whatever the explanation, we are beginning to notice the effects of his underlying value disorientation. Often the result of the very brilliance of his service in clarifying issues for his employers is to reëducate the environment in relativism. The objective relativism produced elsewhere in the system by the institutional or personal clash of strongly expressed convictions now becomes subjectively confirmed by the habits of thought of convictionless analysts.
This explicit consciousness of relativity, stimulated by steady injections from the analytical substratum of government, can in an initial sense be highly constructive. It is an historic and commendable improvement over whatever may have existed earlier of conceptual innocence, intuitive hunches, haphazard gullibility, obvious axe-grinding or unrestrained biases. The institutionalization of skepticism, of the permanent grain of doubt, of independent precautionary purveyors of information, has now occurred in all agencies of the United States Government whose activities have a bearing on foreign policy. The issue is now becoming a new one- whether the opportunities and pressures for thoroughness of exploration-all the built-in negative safeguards against unwitting bankruptcy of policy- have not gone about as far as the system can stand if it is still expected to produce policy.
In the process the new research-analyst-assistant is the one who falls farthest short of fulfilling his potentially affirmative role. He is the one-at his vital, supportive, connective, junior level of government-who most needs to activate his convictions. He is increasingly found at the heart of the process, with unrestricted access, and an eager audience for what he has to say. But too often he performs as an analytical balance wheel, brokering other people's points of view, clarifying what others must really mean actually, raising problems no one else has thought of, ventilating more than all the options, and either husbanding his counsel or laying out equally plausible alternatives for action. Conscious that there is no convenient halfway house on the road to total analysis, he drives on and on.
Long ago he learned that the same set of facts, looked at from different perspectives, are quite different facts. Aware as he is of the chicken-and- egg dilemma of judgment before facts, or facts before judgment, he tries to be self-conscious about his own criteria for fact selection and presentation. He has no trouble objectively in recognizing the value of viewpoints and the benefits of belief, but he knows better than most how to watch the oscillation of experts. He detects the policies that precede policy.
The chances are he wants to take his place as a pre-policy participant, not a post-policy provider of gloss. He knows, of course, that policy is at best a continuum of overlapping elements, that the roles are not sharply sequential, and that his own abundant talents will assure him a variety of assignments. Yet he dearly wants as much as possible to be an accessory before the fact, a creator of policy, not an ex post facto explainer, articulator, justifier, cosmetician, speechwriter, public relations adviser or the classic legal "gun for hire."
But the rich texture of complexity inhibits him from moving beyond analysis to advice. He tends to be captivated by complexity. His consequent relativism may again lead straight to immobilism. Or he may simply be introducing more relativism than relevancy to the process of final choice. For sometimes, indeed, by laying out so large a spectrum of variables and choices, he enables the policy-maker to give free rein to what came naturally before-following the lines of least resistance along well-worn paths of institutional preference and private intuition. Some of his customers conclude that given such a range of rationales any choice can be respectably defended. He finds himself arming bias rather than informing judgment.
At least as ambitious as the next man, our prototype works hard at remaining appreciated in all the environments. He has doubts about the propriety of making his superiors and colleagues uneasy. His sense of "loyalty" and "responsibility" may have a stultifying effect, conditioning him to acquiesce in other people's more aggressive assertions. Situated in the center, he may finish on the periphery. He may simply be making the most out of things that don't matter much. Psychologically inhibited by a combination of his hard-won professionalism, his educated manners, his stake in the amenities, his pride of craftsmanship, his talent, tact and relativism, he stops short of bringing his full weight to bear on the goals themselves.
At worst, of all the participants, he can become the most enamored of the fringe benefits, the most deferential to the ward politicians, the most admiring of the ceremonials, the most conscious of the protocol, the most preoccupied with the externals, the most enmeshed in the trappings of power and the most willing to sacrifice substance for rhetoric. He may end up denying his own specialty: the importance of discriminating among essentials, less essentials and nonessentials.
In the end he is caught in a classic dilemma. He has demonstrated that the mental journeys of others have different starting places, and he has exposed the frightful logical lapses along their way. He has provided the unassailable public service of elucidating the manifold variables available and forcing the policy-makers to be conscious of them. He has excelled at explanation. But he is faced with the eternal problem that once the necessary but negative work has been done in exploding the myths and clarifying the choices, there follows the insistent question: What next? Where do the values come from?
Far be it from me to say that foreign-affairs analysis has had it, but it is having it. The problem is an elusive one, with quicksilver elements involved in all possible answers to it. But given the psychological problem at the analytical level of government, adjustments away from relativism and toward conviction are indicated. I am not presuming to advocate that superior people, subordinately placed, set out to trespass upon the policy- making roles of their principals, although many of their less talented colleagues do not hesitate to do so. The sanctity and privileges of the policy preserve can remain inviolate at the same time as we dismantle some of the artificial barricades which have subjectively arisen between analysis and advice.
Psychologically speaking, the latter process comes close to what I mean by the retrieval of conviction. For want of a better word, I use conviction to convey the process of pushing beyond analysis into focus, perspective, coherence, resolution and conclusion-pressing through analysis to reach evaluation and advice. For it is a paradox that excessive self-restraint in the field of foreign policy counsel should be the hallmark of many of those in the government who are most immersed in the big pictures and least preoccupied with the little ones. In a special sense it should be incumbent upon them to be the enlightened delineators and the imaginative proposers- not the last to lay the old aside.
As President Johnson said in his remarks at the Brookings Institution's Fiftieth Anniversary celebration last September: There is an aspect of intellectual power that our country urgently needs, and in my judgment it is being supplied sparingly . . . This is the power to evaluate ... It is the power to say about public policies . . . 'This works. But this does not . . . This will probably give us an acceptable result. But this will complicate the problem and make it impossible for us to solve.'... The critical faculty, in short, ought to be critical-to be precise, to be sharp, and to be piercing.
Now it is true, of course, that even the abnormally high-minded, after protracted prayer, often fail to achieve an agreed view as to what ought to be done about anything which is of first-rate importance. The mere unleashing of convictions will not assure consistency, although the extent of consistency in some cases might be surprising. We may, if we wish, stop on dead center with Madame de Staël, saying: "I do not know exactly what we must believe, but I believe that we must believe."
Yet if we are to avoid an increasingly pervasive relativism which can do great damage not only to the internal processes of foreign policy-making, but to the credibility and reputation of policy itself, the elements of direction and consistency must be made more reliable. At this point the quality of our convictions becomes critically important, both in degree and depth. In it lies all the difference between purposeless surface manipulation and purposeful underlying direction.
This is a message intended for those to whom it applies. I am troubled by the risk of over-generalizing, and even as I write I am aware of conspicuous exceptions to my theme. But I know enough about myself and many of my colleagues to be sure that this range of questions properly torments us: Can we be informed with self-doubt and still be faithful to certain angles of vision? Can we live with the accusation that this is a violation of antiseptic notions of "objectivity"? Can we add enough advocacy to analysis to start nudging the policy process deliberately back from disintegration toward consistency, and up from relativism to commitment? Can we constructively close down a few options?
The answers are blowing in the wind. But if in the years ahead we manage to do all together-avoid the residual myths, affirm the rigorous analysis and retrieve our essential convictions from storage and put them to work-then we can truly say with Lincoln, "Thanks to all-for the Great Republic, for the principles it lives by and keeps alive, for Man's vast future-thanks to all."