by Michelangelo Freyrie
Foreign policy isn´t a topic which goes along well with the simplifications of electoral campaigns. Despite being of prime importance, especially now that it is being closely associated with topics of internal security such as terrorism, it is often felt to be alarmingly detached from sphere of influence of the voters. The nitty gritty of international affairs is considered something purely technical that has little to do with the expression of the popular will: political theorists like Jon Elster even go as far as considering the political act of removing the day-to-day administration of foreign affairs a fundamental step in the development of a modern democracy, as it can be considered a safeguard from majoritarian abuse. International relations, impenetrable to most and rooted in multilateral agreements between states, are counterbalances that keep elected power in check.
This interpretation, of foreign policy as an instrument to limit majoritarian crazes, may rely on an orthodox idea of relations between countries: a mere affair between State institutions, driven by an understanding of their role in the pursuit of national interests; role that goes far beyond the internal political struggle of parties. It is surely imprinted by a conception of international order that has lost some ground since the end of the Cold War: the absence of an immediate ideological threat has shifted the debate from a doctrinal field (“How do we reach our goal of opposing the Soviet Union?”) to the political arena (“But wait, what´s that we´re defending again?”). The departure of the foreign policy élite from its purely administrative role means it can´t possibly uphold a function as a container of majoritarian impulses anymore: a body supposed to guarantee continuity between administrations loses its reason to exist if that same continuity is shattered.
Despite all this, or maybe exactly for this reason, international relations are more than ever murky waters in which actors without the proper expertise are condemned to irrelevance.
“‘Inside the Beltway’ is an American idiom used to characterize matters that are, or seem to be, important primarily to officials of the U.S. federal government, to its contractors and lobbyists, and to the corporate media who cover them—as opposed to the interests and priorities of the general U.S. population.”
This is the great dilemma of democracy: how is it possible to reconcile the political will of the electorate, the only source of political legitimacy in a republican setting, when considering matters that are best to be dealt by the acquainted with the technical, undemocratic knowledge of “what´s best”? The American case is exemplary: if the recent strike in Syria proofs anything, pundits say, then that even an enthusiastically isolationist president such as Trump can´t withstand the pressure by “the Washington consensus” or “Blob” when it comes to international relations. Ignoring the political reasons that could have led the president to take such a glaring exception to his “America First Doctrine” – if such a policy even existed outside the campaign rhetoric – one should first try to understand what “the Blob” even is, and to consider its role in the foreign relations of the American republic.
First defined as such by Ben Rhodes, Barack Obama´s Deputy Security Adviser and speechwriter, “the Blob” broadly defines the American national security establishment, often characterized by hawkish tendencies but essentially inclined to follow a rigid “playbook” in matters of international politics. An example of how it could come into conflict with the mandate of elected representatives has been provided by the former president himself when describing in a now famous Atlantic article the pressures coming from the backbone of DC´s foreign policy apparatus to intervene in the Syrian quagmire. Crucially, it can be differentiated from the far more malign “deep state” characterized by the Sean Spicer, because it mainly addresses the intellectual shortcomings of a circle of experts (not necessarily in power) when it comes to the line of action the US should adopt globally with little regard to the popular mandate given to a certain policy outlined in the campaign. The only Western country with the resources and the need for a system of higher education dedicated exclusively to defense and international relations, the institutionalization of foreign policy expertize has brought many advantages to the American arsenal, but it has also attracted all the accusations to a fenced-off circle of elitist professionals with no political accountability. Many of the grudges hold against hit surely hold some ground when it comes to the myopia and “group-think” behavior the professionals living inside the Washington Beltway has suffered when dealing with many Middle Eastern crises.
Despite this, it would be hard to overstate the importance that the embedding of foreign policy experts in regular partisan politics has had in American politics. The inherent conflict between the essentially undemocratic role of State department officials concentrated on broader geopolitical trends and the elected representatives needs a solution conflating the two professional profiles, and despite the current populist backlash to expertise and establishment as such, it´s a phenomenon especially of US democracy to have knowledgeable party officials with a deep understanding of the situations and measures they´re called to administer. Their role is fundamental in forming a bridge “between the backrooms of the Department of State and the townhall meetings”. Rhetoric aside, Obama himself has much to thank to Democrats-aligned foreign policy experts who have served him during the last 8 years, such as Jake Sullivan and Tony Blinken, to implement his agenda in defense and foreign relations. Crucially, the need for expert party officials could be considered an important bastion against the increasing politicization of academia and think tanks: where leaders are exclusively driven by ideology, it´s natural that neutral analysts may feel the urge to step into the realm of “educated opinions” to provide politicians with the array of decisions they expect to be accepted. The dangerous consequences of this phenomenon are obvious: an analysis forged to serve a certain ideological position instead of one from which the position can´t be the basis of evidenced-based decisions.
“Tony Blinken. In 2008, Blinken worked for the presidential campaign of Senator Joseph Biden, and was a member of the Obama-Biden Presidential Transition team. From 2009 to 2013 he served as Deputy Assistant to the President and National Security Advisor to the Vice President. In this position he also helped craft U.S. policy on Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Iranian nuclear program.”
In Europe, the will to separate the representatives of the nation´s political will from the mistrusted state bureaucracy, has led to a more clear-cut distinction between the administrators and political leadership, partially because of the highly political nature of the relationship between the countries living under the EU roof. The weakness of the “foreign affairs consensus” may well seem like a solution to the lack of accountability it is often accused of in the US, but it paradoxically gifts more power to the state bureaucracy entrusted with providing neutral sets of actions to the policy makers – developing doctrines that should inherently be the result of political reflection and are instead designed by appointed, often biased officials who need to fill the gap and are loyal to no constituency. It doesn´t surprise that in questions requiring political decisions based on a practical assessment of reality Europe has come short of any kind of viable grand strategy proposal, be it the Syrian crisis or the union-wide military integration, currently resembling more of a one-size-fits-all dream that should magically solve all the shortcomings of the European Armed Forces. One should however give credit where credit is due. If the European project has done anything for political theorists of the continent, it is to give the possibility to think about grand strategy on a scale far more ambitious than the national resources would have allowed. If we can even criticize the split between politics and technical capabilities, that´s because for the first time in decades the mentioned student of international politics is given the tools to seek decision-making power at the highest levels. To make comparisons between the decades-old American foreign policy “Blob” and its European counterpart is like subscribing an elementary student in high school and demand results. But extraordinary times require extraordinary results. Especially in these times of rebirth for European international relations, we will need leaders capable to grasp foreign policy and to move towards a more political understanding of the issues. Issues which, by no means, have uniquely technical answers and that act towards the creation of a Grand Strategy looking beyond the mere struggle for relevance in an increasingly multipolar world.