Might I Have A Few Answers About Foreign Policy?

 

shutterstock_114359815Let’s start with one observation and one question:

The Observation: To the extent democracy works, it works best at the local level. It’s reasonable to expect that people will see, know, and care what their government does in the cities they live in. It’s reasonable to hope that people will exercise some oversight and discipline — by means of the vote — over these governments when they are manifestly failing to serve them.

But it is not reasonable to expect an average American citizen to have a specialist understanding of US foreign policy in every region of the globe; that’s utterly unreasonable and inconsistent with all common sense and experience. No normal person could really grasp whether — day-to-day — our policies toward Russia, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East make perfect sense, separately or together, particularly given the languages one would have to master to do so, and particularly given that so much of our policy is not transparent, by design.

The Question: Given this, are there any shortcuts by which an ordinary citizen might accurately judge — on the basis of the limited information available to him or her — that the policies we’re pursuing, and the institutions we’re relying upon, are obviously incompetent?

A good shortcut, in my view, would be one that allows ordinary people to put the brakes on an incompetent policy before there’s a hole in the ground where a city used to be.

I’m focusing on the word competence — rather than ethical, sane, dignified, wise, or even the phrase in good faith — for a reason. It’s a more limited category. Sometimes it’s useful to make a question smaller and more precise. I think I’ve identified a few shortcuts. They might be of use.

But first, a question for you: what definition of competence would satisfy you? And here, the answer, “governments are never that competent” isn’t good enough. When it comes to foreign policy, there’s no alternative: only governments can conduct it.

So the first thing to think about is this: what does competence look like, generally? Not just in foreign policy: in any endeavor. And let me suggest, for purposes of comparison, a field of human activity that’s marked, generally, by competence. It’s not perfect — far from it — but basically, even without a lot of specialist knowledge, most of us think it’s conducted to a very high level of competence:

Commercial air travel.

Most of us don’t enjoy air travel, but we generally think pilots and air traffic controllers know what they’re doing. Few of us could really explain how all those planes are staying in the air, but we all know that they are, and that catastrophic failures are so rare as to be almost statistically insignificant.

That’s competent. Not perfect, not a miracle, but competent.

What else in our ordinary experience is like that? Let’s make a list.

There are 44 comments.

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  1. Gödel's Ghost Inactive
    Gödel's Ghost
    @GreatGhostofGodel

    I would suggest competence presupposes:

    1. A predictable set of outcomes.
    2. A set of human-manipulable parameters.
    3. The system is not chaotic.
    4. The system’s scale is either within the grasp of a person, or decomposable among multiple people without violating any of the previous items.

    Commercial air flight is interesting precisely because, while the aggregate of flights managed by air traffic control is indeed impressive and the physics of heavier-than-air-flight are complex, the domain nevertheless satisfies all of these points.

    By contrast, consider climate, a system that satisfies zero of these constraints (outcomes are unpredictable; its parameters aren’t even known, let alone human-maniuplable; it’s the domain that gave rise to chaos theory; there are no clear boundaries among discrete subsystems that might make it manageable).

    Foreign policy, it seems to me, likely satisfies 1-2 in broad strokes: there are concrete actions participants can take that have at least broadly predictable outcomes. In particular, it’s easy to see how it can be screwed up. But actions that might have predictable positive outcomes with actor A may have unpredictable-or-negative outcomes from actors B, C, and D, which in turn can affect the outcome from actor A… as others have noted, this is why we have game theory, which of course has its own limitations. And so on.

    Maybe there’s an additional condition to reach competence in a complex, dynamical system: the ability to drive to an equilibrium state?

    • #1
  2. user_645 Editor
    user_645
    @Claire

    OK, GG, your answer was a bit of a plot spoiler, but I do have some other surprises up my sleeve.

    • #2
  3. user_4462 Member
    user_4462
    @JeffPetraska

    Thinking on your example of air travel, one thing that comes to mind is that competence is related to repeatability.  If a person has a job, and does that job repeatedly and correctly, then we judge that person as competent.  An outfielder who never drops a fly ball or misplays a one-hopper is competent, and may even be awarded a Golden Glove for his efforts.

    That same line of thinking implies that, to be judged competent, there must be a standard to which one is compared.  With transportation, such standards are on-time performance and accident rate.  This is where I think competence gets a little dicey with respect to foreign policy.  What constitutes a competent foreign policy, other than the idea that the results of such a policy makes things better for the country whose policy is being examined?  Who judges “better”?  For example, was the US involvement in World War One good foreign policy?  How did we benefit from it?  How about our involvement in Kosovo?  Our support for Iraq during the Iran/Iraq war?  Our support for the Shah of Iran prior to that?

    Mark Steyn posted a commentary on the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall yesterday, and he starts it my taking to task those Western nations who were content with living peacefully next door to a giant prison for decades, indifferent to those people suffering within its walls.  Was that good foreign policy?  Was it competent foreign policy?  It kept the peace, after all, but at a human price.  But the price was paid by people outside their borders, so should they matter in judging the foreign policy competence of the NATO countries?

    I guess where I am going is that the airlines analogy for judging foreign policy competence doesn’t quite fit the subject.  It strikes me that one has to take a view more akin to an art critic, judging competence both subjectively as well as objectively.

    • #3
  4. user_645 Editor
    user_645
    @Claire

    Jeff Petraska:Thinking on your example of air travel, one thing that comes to mind is that competence is related to repeatability. If a person has a job, and does that job repeatedly and correctly, then we judge that person as competent. An outfielder who never drops a fly ball or misplays a one-hopper is competent, and may even be awarded a Golden Glove for his efforts.

    That same line of thinking implies that, to be judged competent, there must be a standard to which one is compared. With transportation, such standards are on-time performance and accident rate. This is where I think competence gets a little dicey with respect to foreign policy. What constitutes a competent foreign policy, other than the idea that the results of such a policy makes things better for the country whose policy is being examined? Who judges “better”? For example, was the US involvement in World War One good foreign policy? How did we benefit from it? How about our involvement in Kosovo? Our support for Iraq during the Iran/Iraq war? Our support for the Shah of Iran prior to that?

    Mark Steyn posted a commentary on the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall yesterday, and he starts it my taking to task those Western nations who were content with living peacefully next door to a giant prison for decades, indifferent to those people suffering within its walls. Was that good foreign policy? Was it competent foreign policy? It kept the peace, after all, but at a human price. But the price was paid by people outside their borders, so should they matter in judging the foreign policy competence of the NATO countries?

    I guess where I am going is that the airlines analogy for judging foreign policy competence doesn’t quite fit the subject. It strikes me that one has to take a view more akin to an art critic, judging competence both subjectively as well as objectively.

    I think you’re saying that “competence” may not be the sole or the right metric, given that the considerations I ruled out of bounds–“sane,” “ethical,” “wise, ” etc.–are closer to the heart of things. But I think it might be valuable to focus on competence, because in its absence, foreign policy won’t be any of those things, either. It’s the necessary but not sufficient condition for a good foreign policy, in other words.

    But certainly you’re right, that’s not all there is to it.

    • #4
  5. Retail Lawyer Member
    Retail Lawyer
    @RetailLawyer

    The energy procurement and distribution system is also not flawless, but it is amazingly competent.  Consider very deep and expensive wells (often under water or on land controlled by hostile governments – or no government at all), getting the raw product to a refinery, refining it under the watchful eye of Sierra Club types, piping the refined products to airports, distributing it to fueling stations open 24/7.  Natural gas and electricity going to every home.

    I enjoy having a “greedy big oil hater” heft a 5 gallon jerry can of gasoline.  “See how heavy that is.  And explosive and toxic.  And available everywhere.  And you take it for granted and consider yourself superior to its providers!”

    • #5
  6. Gödel's Ghost Inactive
    Gödel's Ghost
    @GreatGhostofGodel

    Claire Berlinski:OK, GG, your answer was a bit of a plot spoiler, but I do have some other surprises up my sleeve.

    I’m in ur thread, spoiling ur plot!

    2v9ert0

    • #6
  7. AIG Inactive
    AIG
    @AIG

    1) I’m not sure why you lead in with the statement that our foreign policy is…obviously incompetent?

    If it’s so hard, or impossible, for the average observer to determine or agree on what the “appropriate” foreign policy should be regarding a particular country, then how can it be “obviously” incompetent?

    2) I’m not so sure that democracy works best at the local level. I know it’s tangential to your point, but given the voter turnout in local elections, I’d say democracy is pretty irrelevant at the local level. I think in the city I live in, Houston, only about 7% of the electorate actually bothered to vote for the mayor.

    Simply because most things at the local level, run on autopilot. Roads, garbage, water treatment etc. Politics has no, or very little, impact on these things.

    3) This brings us to the foreign policy issue. Foreign policy should be separate from politics. It should run on autopilot. US foreign policy cannot, and usually does not, change every 4 or 8 years.

    If it’s off the hands of politics, than it’s in the hands of people who specialize in it.

    This is, of course, what we do observe in foreign policy. US foreign policy simply doesn’t change all that much between presidents, because they don’t have all that much ability to change it, nor do the 2 parties actually differ all that much from each other on this issue.

    4) The casual observer confuses “foreign policy” with particular details of a circumstance. I.e., whether or not the US military could or should have responded in Benghazi isn’t a “foreign policy” question. It’s a technical question.

    5) Competence only measures whether or not a particular foreign policy is successfully carried out or not. It says nothing about… foreign policy. But the ability to…competently…carry out foreign policy depends on very many circumstances. So it’s not directly attributable only to the President, or the political party in charge at the time, or the career foreign policy people.

    But you can’t have a “competent” foreign policy. You can only have competent outcomes.

    • #7
  8. AIG Inactive
    AIG
    @AIG

    But actions that might have predictable positive outcomes with actor A may have unpredictable-or-negative outcomes from actors B, C, and D, which in turn can affect the outcome from actor A… as others have noted, this is why we havegame theory, which of course has its own limitations. And so on.

    Maybe there’s an additional condition to reach competence in a complex, dynamical system: the ability to drive to an equilibrium state?

    That’s precisely my point from above. BUT…outcomes, equilibrium, game theory etc…don’t speak on “foreign policy” 

    They speak on the ability to get an outcome that you want. But that’s not “policy”. That’s just the technical aspect of how to achieve the policy.

    If the foreign policy of the US is to promote freer trade, freer political systems, institutional convergence etc…than that tells us nothing about the necessary steps needed to achieve those things. It tells us nothing about whether action A will be better than action B.

    And that’s where the “competence” part comes in.

    Of course, even figuring out the level of “competence” in carrying out action A or B, ex-post, is very much not straight forward…since we don’t know the time period it takes for the action’s outcome to become evident.

    • #8
  9. user_645 Editor
    user_645
    @Claire

    AIG:1) I’m not sure why you lead in with the statement that our foreign policy is…obviously incompetent?

    If it’s so hard, or impossible, for the average observer to determine or agree on what the “appropriate” foreign policy should be regarding a particular country, then how can it be “obviously” incompetent?

    I’ve written it badly if that’s the way it reads. Let’s see if I can do better. I’m definitely not leading with the statement that it’s obviously incompetent.* I’m leading with the statement that it seems as if it would be very hard to know, and then saying that I may have shortcuts that would help people to judge. I haven’t said what they are, yet: I’m trying to see if we can work on a definition of “competent,” first.

    Does that make more sense?

    *By the way, without wanting to give away too much of the game, it’s also not my belief that every aspect of our foreign policy is incompetent. I’ll get into this in subsequent posts–I find some aspects astonishingly competent. But not all.

    As for your next point, that only outcomes and not policies can be competent: would you accept that the word “competent,” as it’s generally used, should probably be applied to neither, but rather to people and institutions?

    • #9
  10. user_645 Editor
    user_645
    @Claire

    AIG:

    Thanks for the point above. Wonder if others would weigh in: When I speak of “foreign policy competence,” is it clear that I mean, “competence from the people and groups who craft foreign policy?” (As opposed to a policy being, inherently, “competent,” and I would agree entirely with AIG that this makes no sense?)

    If the way I used the word confused other people, too, then I think AIG is right and I need to make that more clear.

    • #10
  11. user_1008534 Member
    user_1008534
    @Ekosj

    The commercial air travel analogy is an excellent one because it focuses on the biggest problem in US foreign policy….we don’t know where we want to go.

    The fundamental premise of air travel is the destination! We know where we are and we know where we want to go. Once we know that, everything else becomes a managable problem. But in foreign policy, we seem ubable to formulate a political geography of This-is-where-we-are and That-is-where-we-want-to-be. Since we can’t seem to agree on where we are and don’t know where we want to go, it is hardly a surprise that we never get there.

    • #11
  12. user_82762 Thatcher
    user_82762
    @JamesGawron

    Claire,

    It is extremely hard to judge particular actions as the amount of knowledge available, military, espionage, economic..etc. is microscopic to the average citizen. One must look for underlying premises and check their validity.

    Example 1

    Reagan:

    Detente with Communism: OK.

    Holding Communism as morally equivalent: not OK.

    Obama:

    Open appeasement of Jihadism: OK.

    Any statement which can be interpreted as Western Civilization being morally superior to Jihadism: not OK.

    Reagan’s premise allowed him to remain flexible while holding Communism’s feet to the fire.  Finally, the pressure became so great the Soviet Union fell apart under it.  Obama’s premise ties him in knots and destroys any coordinated effort to halt Jihad’s advance.

    Reagan’s relevant strategic premise allowed the competence that was in the system to be focused on target.  Obama’s hopelessly false premise distorts all efforts and makes the most competent of governments appear incompetent.

    Example 2

    Reagan:

    Force should be applied as a last resort. However, only by maintaining adequate force levels against likely aggressors can we have a greater chance that we will not need to use it.

    Obama:

    Diplomacy is the fundamental means of dealing with other Nation States. Force or even the suggestion of force disrupts the flow of diplomacy.  Maintaining a force adequate to thwart an aggressor may serve to provoke the aggressor. Lowering force levels will allow a reset of diplomatic relations and solutions.

    Both fundamental premises cannot be true.  Assuming that Reagan’s premise is true and Obama’s is false.  It would allow Reagan to function competently through many a challenge and pull off foreign policy successes.  It would doom Obama to a series of failures making his administration completely incompetent.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #12
  13. user_645 Editor
    user_645
    @Claire

    A quick question for you. As a historian, I’m not super-impressed by Lewis Fry Richardson; he’s mixed up too many categories for his conclusions to be meaningful. (I can’t get you the books or the data set online, but I thought this review by Anatol Rapaport was serious and thoughtful.)

    I do wonder, though, to what extent any discussion of foreign policy should begin with his thesis (which he confined to “outbreak of war,” but we can use that as a surrogate, for the purposes of this discussion): that these systems don’t satisfy 1 & 2, and may indeed be chaotic.  It seems to me I should at least address that argument–even if it’s not widely articulated or believed.

    • #13
  14. user_645 Editor
    user_645
    @Claire

    Jeff Petraska:That same line of thinking implies that, to be judged competent, there must be a standard to which one is compared.

    What if I were to say, “Yes, that strikes me as true.” And that it may be very hard indeed securely to judge something as competent. But it may be quite a bit easier to judge someone or something as incompetent. That is, it may be easier to prove the absence of quality X than the presence of it.

    Does that idea strike you as fruitful?

    I know how very many terms here are undefined, and how unsatisfactory this is as written, so far. I hope you won’t think I’m just refusing to think about the definitions or think clearly: It’s actually (I hope) a bit more of the opposite–it strikes me that to think about this clearly, one may need to do it at book length. I’m trying to squish a lot of long thoughts into short comments, and to invite discussion at the same time. (That’s good discipline for me, too.) I’m curious to see whether it works, and whether what we come up with is useful.

    • #14
  15. user_82762 Thatcher
    user_82762
    @JamesGawron

    Claire Berlinski:A quick question for you. As a historian, I’m not super-impressed by Lewis Fry Richardson; he’s mixed up too many categories for his conclusions to be meaningful. (I can’t get you the books or the data set online, but I thought this review by Anatol Rapaport was serious and thoughtful.)

    I do wonder, though, to what extent any discussion of foreign policy should begin with his thesis (which he confined to “outbreak of war,” but we can use that as a surrogate, for the purposes of this discussion): that these systems don’t satisfy 1 & 2, and may indeed be chaotic. It seems to me I should at least address that argument–even if it’s not widely articulated or believed.

    Claire,

    I must say that Mr. Lewis Fry Richardson gives new meaning to the phrase “It doesn’t take a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” Now that I have got the urge to be facetious out of my system I will try.

    First, as a confirmed Kantian the need to go all the way to chaos theory to refute determinism is quite unnecessary. I believe in a transcendental free choice that is possessed by all humans as an a priori postulate. If others do not and chaos theory and Hayek provide an adequate defense of choice then I am glad they are satisfied.

    Second, unlike Mr. Rapaport I not only don’t think the effort of Mr. Richardson produces results in and of itself.  I thing that it is quite possible that relying on the mindset at the heart of Mr. Richardson will actually produce the negative results.

    Kant’s Categorical Imperative starts with an analysis of Virtue.  The Duty it imposes is strictly personal.  It makes no sense to talk of the use of force against oneself so this is a mute issue.  However, once Virtue is placed upon a deontological footing then it can be extended to the realm of Ethics.  Here government is always involved in guaranteeing Right.  Right is that which maximizes the freedom (I prefer to use the word Liberty here and so does Hayek but Kant did not) of all.  The use of force is justified in defense of Right if and only if it is employed to coerce a coercer.  (Hayek’s Liberty is again very useful here as he defines Liberty as the absence of coercion thus dovetailing perfectly with Kant’s Right – I doubt this is an accident.)

    All of this is the a priori structure of Virtue and Ethics.  For a Kantian to doubt this would be much like a geometer doubting points, lines, and planes.  I’m sure Godel’s Ghost will have something to say about this.

    Seeing my example 1 and example 2 evaluated in this light, it is clear that the Reagan policy conforms to both the a priori requirements of Virtue (example 1) and the a priori requirements of Ethics (example 2).

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #15
  16. AIG Inactive
    AIG
    @AIG

    Claire Berlinski: What if I were to say, “Yes, that strikes me as true.” And that it may be very hard indeed securely to judge something as competent. But it may be quite a bit easier to judge someone or something as incompetent. That is, it may be easier to prove the absence of quality X than the presence of it. Does that idea strike you as fruitful?

    Well, first off if we’re applying this to foreign policy, we first have to figure out if there’s any difference in…policy…between the administrations.

    It seems to me, there isn’t much at all.

    Second, besides policy, there’s strategy and tactics. Administrations may differ in strategy and tactics, to some degree (but not all that much, in reality).

    The outcomes of strategy and tactics can be deemed as having been carried out “competently” or not.

    But third, I don’t think it’s all so easy to figure out of something is carried out incompetently, or competently. As in, I may have taken all the actions necessary to carry out the policy…competently…and still failed, due to any number of unobserved circumstances.

    How do you separate out circumstances, from the competence level of the individuals/administration involved?

    Case in point: hostage crises in Iran. Carter’s plan failed due to a sand storm. An uncontrollable circumstance. Had no sand storm caused the crash of the helicopter into the tanker aircraft, the hostage rescue operation may well have been carried out successfully, and Carter would be one of the greatest US foreign policy presidents today.

    No one was “incompetent” there.

    Fourth problem: neither you nor I are privy to secret information or intel on what led to the particular strategy or tactics used, or even to their eventual outcome. We’re not privy to the secret intel on what actions are actually taken, in secret, as opposed to what we see on the TV screen.

    Case in point: Iran. Obama may speak about negotiations with Iran etc. But how do we know the CIA isn’t the one off-ing Iranian nuclear scientists in the streets of Teheran, or infecting their computers with viruses which destroy their project? And how do we know that, if we had the same level of insight as the people in the CIA may have on Iran, that indeed we too wouldn’t also consider the current…strategy…as the best one?

    • #16
  17. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar
    Sheikh Google tells us that competence is the “ability to do something successfully or efficiently”.  To meaningfully assess Foreign Policy competence, one would need to break FP down into four parts and assess competence in each one:

    1  Objectives – Are FP objectives successfully and efficiently set and defined?

    2  Outcomes – Do FP outcomes successfully and efficiently contribute towards these objectives?

    3  Strategies –  Do FP strategies successfully and efficiently contribute towards these outcomes?

    4  Implementation – Are these strategies successfully and efficiently implemented?

    So in the Fertile Crescent, hypothetically:

    1  An objective: Adequate US dominance of the region at the lowest possible cost in blood and treasure.

    2  Outcomes: Enemies too weak to be a meaningful threat, allies too dependent to meaningfully dissent.

    3  Strategies: Support the Kurds enough to stop ISIS advancing and to keep the Govts of Iraq and Turkey on their toes, but not enough to be independent and alter borders; let Assad and ISIS slug it out, thereby weakening both; On-going low level conflict in the medium term. (all hypothetical.)

    4  Implementation: ??  Air drops but no boots? Holding back on NFZs over Syria.  ??
    • #17
  18. AIG Inactive
    AIG
    @AIG

    Zafar: 3  Strategies: Support the Kurds enough to stop ISIS advancing and to keep the Govts of Iraq and Turkey on their toes, but not enough to be independent and alter borders; let Assad and ISIS slug it out, thereby weakening both; On-going low level conflict in the medium term. (all hypothetical.) 4  Implementation: ??  Air drops but no boots? Holding back on NFZs over Syria.  ??

    Sounds like it’s working then :)

    • #18
  19. user_645 Editor
    user_645
    @Claire

    AIG:

    Claire Berlinski: What if I were to say, “Yes, that strikes me as true.” And that it may be very hard indeed securely to judge something as competent. But it may be quite a bit easier to judge someone or something as incompetent. That is, it may be easier to prove the absence of quality X than the presence of it. Does that idea strike you as fruitful?

    Well, first off if we’re applying this to foreign policy, we first have to figure out if there’s any difference in…policy…between the administrations.

    It seems to me, there isn’t much at all.

    Second, besides policy, there’s strategy and tactics. Administrations may differ in strategy and tactics, to some degree (but not all that much, in reality).

    The outcomes of strategy and tactics can be deemed as having been carried out “competently” or not.

    But third, I don’t think it’s all so easy to figure out of something is carried out incompetently, or competently. As in, I may have taken all the actions necessary to carry out the policy…competently…and still failed, due to any number of unobserved circumstances.

    How do you separate out circumstances, from the competence level of the individuals/administration involved?

    Case in point: hostage crises in Iran. Carter’s plan failed due to a sand storm. An uncontrollable circumstance. Had no sand storm caused the crash of the helicopter into the tanker aircraft, the hostage rescue operation may well have been carried out successfully, and Carter would be one of the greatest US foreign policy presidents today.

    No one was “incompetent” there.

    Fourth problem: neither you nor I are privy to secret information or intel on what led to the particular strategy or tactics used, or even to their eventual outcome. We’re not privy to the secret intel on what actions are actually taken, in secret, as opposed to what we see on the TV screen.

    Case in point: Iran. Obama may speak about negotiations with Iran etc. But how do we know the CIA isn’t the one off-ing Iranian nuclear scientists in the streets of Teheran, or infecting their computers with viruses which destroy their project? And how do we know that, if we had the same level of insight as the people in the CIA may have on Iran, that indeed we too wouldn’t also consider the current…strategy…as the best one?

    Yep, pretty much agree with you on all of that, or agree more than I disagree.* In my notes, these points, or points like them, are under the heading, “Introduction.” Those notes list some of the challenges and difficulties involved in assessing this. The challenges are real and very considerable, which is one reason why it sounds plausible to think, “It is impossible (literally) to assess this.”

    Just to recap: We’ve both said, “a) There’s too much information for any one person, reasonably, to know at the level it would have to be known to assess this; and b) much of it is not available to the public, by design. You’ve added c) failure is not necessarily a sign of incompetence. (Completely agree). And I’ve got reasons d)-t) on the list, too–further reasons to find this problem very, very hard.

    And all that said, I think I’ve got a few shortcuts. I’m not yet absolutely confident that they’d work, but I’d like to see whether they might.

    So, Claire, tell us, what are they? Don’t keep us in suspense.

    I will, I promise. But it’s very useful for me to keep having this discussion–particularly because I’m wondering whether other people come up with other shortcuts, or the same ones, as we discuss it. I’m worried that if I just say, “Well, here they are,” it will bring the conversation to a close before all the Ricocreativity here has been tapped.

    I don’t have anything magic in mind, though–it’s nothing like a simple formula. It’s just a handful of ideas that I think could help people to recognize that something’s going wrong before it’s too late for a course correction.

    *I’d argue that yes, there are differences between administrations, though perhaps not as much as some people think; I’d further argue that it’s not necessarily a sign of incompetence to change course: it depends what the reasons for it are.

    • #19
  20. user_645 Editor
    user_645
    @Claire

    James Gawron:I must say that Mr. Lewis Fry Richardson gives new meaning to the phrase “It doesn’t take a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” Now that I have got the urge to be facetious out of my system I will try.

    First, as a confirmed Kantian the need to go all the way to chaos theory to refute determinism is quite unnecessary.

    Hmmm. I don’t think that’s what he was trying to do. But let me make sure I understand you, first: Are you saying that this is what you think he was trying to do, or are you saying–as a general point–that you don’t need to use chaos theory to refute determinism?

    • #20
  21. user_645 Editor
    user_645
    @Claire

    Zafar:

    Sheikh Google tells us that competence is the “ability to do something successfully or efficiently”. To meaningfully assess Foreign Policy competence, one would need to break FP down into four parts and assess competence in each one:

    1 Objectives – Are FP objectives successfully and efficiently set and defined?

    2 Outcomes – Do FP outcomes successfully and efficiently contribute towards these objectives?

    3 Strategies – Do FP strategies successfully and efficiently contribute towards these outcomes?

    4 Implementation – Are these strategies successfully and efficiently implemented?

    So in the Fertile Crescent, hypothetically:

    1 An objective: Adequate US dominance of the region at the lowest possible cost in blood and treasure.

    2 Outcomes: Enemies too weak to be a meaningful threat, allies too dependent to meaningfully dissent.

    3 Strategies: Support the Kurds enough to stop ISIS advancing and to keep the Govts of Iraq and Turkey on their toes, but not enough to be independent and alter borders; let Assad and ISIS slug it out, thereby weakening both; On-going low level conflict in the medium term. (all hypothetical.)

    4 Implementation: ?? Air drops but no boots? Holding back on NFZs over Syria. ??

    First, good thoughts, and second–let’s hold 1-4 and 1-4 redux (if you don’t mind, and I really do mean that–I will come back to them) and reflect a bit more on “competence.” I know I sound like a grad student in an analytic philosophy seminar, but thinking through this problem one step at a time will really help me to feel more confident that I have something to add–if indeed I do.

    Let’s go to that definition: “ability to do something successfully or efficiently.”

    Would it seem to you that we have proof of incompetence, then, if I could show you that for a given task X, actor Y

    -does not have the ability to do it;

    or

    -does not have the ability to do it successfully (according to a given definition of success)

    0r

    -could not do it efficiently?

    By definition, right? And this may seem obvious, but we’re getting to what I think of as “shortcuts.”

    I know, I know: define success. And yes, we will. But let’s nail this down, first.

    And: think about this.

    We may not have to define success. 

    The conjunction there is “or,” not “and.”

    If we can establish that no matter how we define success, Actor Y could not do it, or could not do it efficiently, would that not be enough?

    Does anyone disagree with what I just wrote?

    • #21
  22. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    Claire Berlinski:

    If we can establish that no matter how we define success, Actor Y could not do it, or could not do it efficiently, would that not be enough?

    It would be enough.  How would you define and compare efficiency in FP?

    • #22
  23. user_645 Editor
    user_645
    @Claire

    Zafar:

    Claire Berlinski:

    If we can establish that no matter how we define success, Actor Y could not do it, or could not do it efficiently, would that not be enough?

    It would be enough. How would you define and compare efficiency in FP?

    I’d want a non-circular definition, for sure. But for the purposes of a book that might be useful to people, I wouldn’t want one that’s too technical. Can we come up with a definition that meets the following criteria?

    1) It has a relationship to other ordinary experiences–i.e., we don’t have to say that efficiency in foreign policy is sui generis. (Let’s leave aside for now the question of whether it is–I highly doubt it, but I realize that has to be argued, not asserted.)

    2) We haven’t just used “efficient” as a synonym for “competent.”

    I might be happy with “achieves maximum productivity with minimum wasted effort and expense,” which is what Oxford dictionary gives as the first usage. What do you think?

    • #23
  24. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    The Oxford Dictionary’s definition sounds good to me.  No point in being wasteful. But I have a feeling that if you look at the long term, you get what you pay for with FP.

    A decades long engagement and the Marshall Plan “bought” the US a Western (now also Central) Europe polity that has (I think) repaid the investment many times over in terms of contribution to US prosperity and security.  (Like the occupation of Japan has.) The lower real investment in places like Afghanistan or Iraq brings a return that is commensurately lower, and with a higher likelihood of subsequent expenditure.  It’s certainly cheaper and more efficient in the short run – and perhaps the only real option on the table, FP ability is not constant – but I think it may end up costing more.

    I guess the point is that it’s easy to think we’re being efficient when we’re actually being penny wise and pound foolish.  Always assuming it’s not a way of managing down our expectations about objectives and outcomes.

    I’m sure your book will be fascinating, but the subject has so many moving parts and variables I think it’ll be a challenge to write something that’s broadly accessible  and that addresses the issue of competence?

    • #24
  25. user_82762 Thatcher
    user_82762
    @JamesGawron

    Claire Berlinski:

    James Gawron:I must say that Mr. Lewis Fry Richardson gives new meaning to the phrase “It doesn’t take a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” Now that I have got the urge to be facetious out of my system I will try.

    First, as a confirmed Kantian the need to go all the way to chaos theory to refute determinism is quite unnecessary.

    Hmmm. I don’t think that’s what he was trying to do. But let me make sure I understand you, first: Are you saying that this is what you think he was trying to do, or are you saying–as a general point–that you don’t need to use chaos theory to refute determinism?

    Apologies, I was being a bit metaphorical here.  Rapaport’s critique is along the lines of a general critique of determinism which might find it’s greatest mathematical ally in chaos theory. Neither Richardson nor Rapaport are referring to chaos theory but I am using it as an extreme example of an argument that denies the very ability of Determinism to produce results. Of course, Hayek would add a positive argument asserting that the knowledge produced by free market action can not be reproduced by a deterministic calculation.

    I was also making it clear that an a priori belief in transcendental freedom as a postulate of meta-ethics is not dependent on any of these arguments. The comparison being that belief in a point or line is not dependent on any particular theory of physics.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #25
  26. user_645 Editor
    user_645
    @Claire

    Zafar:the subject has so many moving parts and variables I think it’ll be a challenge to write something that’s broadly accessible and that addresses the issue of competence?

    Yeah, that’s why I’m trying to think it through this way–to see if there’s perhaps one part or variable–or a limited number of them, thematically linked–that together add up to a coherent book. A book that adds something useful to a very crowded field. And if not, maybe there’s a good article to be written. And if not, no harm thinking about it: no one ever died from having a few ideas and then realising that maybe they weren’t all that great.

    • #26
  27. Gödel's Ghost Inactive
    Gödel's Ghost
    @GreatGhostofGodel

    James Gawron:Apologies, I was being a bit metaphorical here. Rapaport’s critique is along the lines of a general critique of determinism which might find it’s greatest mathematical ally in chaos theory. Neither Richardson nor Rapaport are referring to chaos theory but I am using it as an extreme example of an argument that denies the very ability of Determinism to produce results.

    Mathematical nitpick: chaos theory insists on determinism. It just observes there are phenomena in which determinism doesn’t imply predictability in any tractable sense short of doing the whole calculation with all of its steps, which is why we have clusters of hundreds of extremely high-power computers running fluid dynamics simulations with nary a “random number” in sight. Indeed, some physicists’ response to the introduction of “chaos theory” was some ill-natured eye-rolling, because they had been dealing with Fokker-Planck equations for some 50 years by the time chaos theory rolled around, and have known even longer that non-linear differential equations generally become chaotic past the third moment.

    Chaos theory, then, is not an indictment of determinism. It’s only an indictment of acting as if the nice properties of linearity, e.g. there being simple closed-form solutions of systems of equations, apply to many systems we have to contend with in life.

    • #27
  28. user_82762 Thatcher
    user_82762
    @JamesGawron

    GG,

    Your observation noted. Chaos theory as you say actually extends the grasp of determinism. However, it requires the determinists to recognize the grey area not to mention areas where they can get no results whatsoever. As you say they complain bitterly.

    It is a paradox that when we accept our limitations we extend our real abilities. Unfortunately, determinists consistently prefer their illusory abilities to real abilities that acceptance of the limits of determinism would require.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #28
  29. user_645 Editor
    user_645
    @Claire

    I can easily get distracted by the fun of thinking very theoretically about this, as apparently most of us can, but I want to strike the right balance between rigor and writing something of use to a general audience. I suspect I can’t write a widely useful book if I have to take readers on a detour through chaos theory–and I know I’m not smart enough to solve the question of determinism. (Agree?) Maybe best just to use our common-sense assumptions about free will and assume we’re only interested in the parts of foreign policy that more-or-less seem to satisfy GG’s conditions 1-2, in a common-sense way. And let’s remember the starting point here: I think ordinary Americans feel confused about foreign policy. I’d like to give them some tools for understanding what’s going on–tools that don’t require a huge amount of specialist knowledge.

    Any further thoughts about competency and efficiency as general concepts? Or is it time to move on to the next idea?

    • #29
  30. Gödel's Ghost Inactive
    Gödel's Ghost
    @GreatGhostofGodel

    Claire Berlinski: Any further thoughts about competency and efficiency as general concepts? Or is it time to move on to the next idea?

    I do think you have to say something about complex, emergent systems without necessarily trying to teach chaos theory or game theory in the process. Maybe try to tie it (informally, superficially) to Hayek’s observations about the information problem in economics. Going very general, you might even argue that the most fundamental problem with technocracy is precisely the failure to grasp its own informational limitations, as James has pointed out.

    • #30

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