Nobody Has Foreign-Policy Experience

That both Palin and Obama supposedly lack foreign policy experience doesn’t bother me, because saying someone has foreign policy experience is pretty much equivalent to saying someone has a lot of experience casting horoscopes.

Horoscopes have no predictive value. A horoscope cast by a novice is as good as a horoscope cast by someone with years of experience. Likewise, historically, an individual’s level of experience in foreign affairs in no way predicted by whether they picked the correct choice at any given juncture as judged by subsequent history. You can look at historical events large and small and find a wide range of contemporary opinion among individuals with foreign-policy experience. Worse, no one gets it right all the time. Individuals who judged correctly in one instance were incorrect in others. 

So, why do we think experience matters? Firstly, people who do have a lot of time invested in conducting and studying foreign affairs have a vested interest in other people’s viewing of that time as well spent and valuable. Secondly, we tend to use post hoc explanations. If someone without experience mismanages events we blame that mismanagement on a lack of experience. If the same person succeeds, we say they brought a fresh perspective to the problem. We forget that we could not predict beforehand whether a person would make the correct choice or even what the correct choice would be. 

More important than any “experience” is the model of human behavior that the candidate possess. If the candidate possess a realistic model, they can better manage events than can those who who possess a more fantasy based model. 

Obama and Palin have very different models. Obama believes strongly in his ability to persuade anyone to alter their behavior by the sheer force of his words. His response to a provocation from someone such as Putin will be to grovel and beg for a conference, whereat Obama will hold forth at length while Putin ignores him and picks at his nails. He’s a cooler, hipper, Carter. Palin by contrast has a much more grounded and simple model. Any conversations she has with Putin will be brief but she will conduct them while she casually cleans her deer rifle. She’s a female Reagan. Putin will view Obama as someone to be manipulated. He will be wary of Palin. 

Every other actor on the world stage views the two candidates (and the ideologies they represent) in the same way. They see Obama (and leftists) as the babbling fool who will give away the store just so everyone will like him. They see Palin (and rightists) as the stern adult who talks little but acts decisively. 

We need to vote based on an individual’s general model of human behavior and ignore the astrologers. 


2 thoughts on “Nobody Has Foreign-Policy Experience”

  1. In a general sense this post touches on one of my pet peeves about this campaign, the meme (repeated by Rudy Giuliani tonight in St. Paul in an otherwise great speech) that the presidency is not a position that allows for on-the-job training.

    That’s a big crock of bull. First, even in the best of times the presidency is unlike any other job in the world for a multitude of reasons. Second, every presidency is unique, with its own set of issues and challenges to face, many of which aren’t even on the radar yet during the election campaigns. No matter who wins in November, his experience won’t be any different in that regard. Far from not allowing on-the-job training, the presidency of the United States is a veritable case study in it. Foreign policy is just the tip of that particular iceberg.

  2. Joshua,

    I agree, I think the only “experience” that a person brings to the Whitehouse is raw political horsetrading skill. They prove that by getting elected.

    Pretending that anyone person has the intellectual power and scope necessary to understand everyone of the tens of thousands of issues a President might face is just silly.

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