David Ignatius, the assistant managing editor of the Washington Post, recently tried to answer a question about the Clinton administration that has been on many minds over the past year: “Why are these smart people having so much trouble, especially in foreign affairs?” Ignatius’s suggestion was that there were, in fact, two problems: the kind of “meritocratic education” that had produced this administration’s 1990s reprise of the Best and the Brightest; and the fact that history had thrown the Clinton people a curve ball, such that the new elite “had been trained to fight the last war, not the next.”
There is something to be said for both of these points. The deficiencies of “meritocratic education”— its unexamined confidence in the universal power of reason, its discomfort with radical ideas (from any ideological quarter), its emphasis on cleverness over substance, its suspicion of strongly held beliefs (especially if they have moral overtones)—are becoming ever more obvious. Rationality works in the seminar room; but it doesn’t get you very far in dealing with people (Kim Il-sung, Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein) who, as Ignatius gently puts it, “are less susceptible to reason.” Cleverness makes for a bracing weekend at a foundation’s country house; but it is less useful in thinking through grand strategy in unprecedented circumstances. The instinct for “the center” can be intellectually crippling in a situation in which the old boundaries don’t apply, and in which off-brand ideas may be more “realistic” than the conventional verities. And strongly held beliefs—especially beliefs about religious and ethnic identity and community—are one of the driving forces of world politics today; an inability to grasp this dimension of international conflict is a serious gap in anyone’s strategic armamentarium.
The problem is not that these smart people in the Clinton administration are really dumb. (Although a little less about their preparation in elite prep schools and universities would be in order; these were, after all, the years in which many of those schools were in an advanced state of intellectual decadence.) The real problem is that between the Vietnam War and the Revolution of 1989, the American foreign-policy meritocracy enforced a rather narrow ideological orthodoxy even as it was shedding its WASPishness and diversifying itself ethnically. And, like Chinese foot-binding, the enforcement of that orthodoxy produced disabilities down the road; it has, in fact, left many of these meritocrats ill equipped for the burdens of public office today, precisely because it tended to stunt their intellectual creativity.
To take but one (large) example: During the last decade of the Cold War, many of the people who are running U.S. foreign policy today were getting “credentialed” in any number of conferences and study groups, primarily by pondering the arcana of nuclear-arms control. Here was a world of abstraction and technical jargon not inaptly compared, on occasion, to the world of medieval theology (the chief difference being the comparative openness of discourse among the Augustinians, Bonaventurians, Scotists, and Thomists). The arms-control fraternity was an elite brotherhood, admission to whose inner chambers required unswerving acquiescence to certain dogmatic axioms: that the Soviet Union was a permanent presence in world affairs, had ceased to be an ideologically driven force, and was best dealt with as simply another great power; that disarmament was an impossible dream; and that the “arms race” could be rationally managed by rational leaders on both sides of the Cold War as they pursued the Holy Grail of the fraternity—strategic stability.1
To suggest, in the rarefied environs of the nuclear discussion club, that the answer to the “threat of nuclear war” was the democratization of the Soviet Union and its satellites was to invite ridicule and contempt. For in these worlds of discourse, the Helsinki Final Act and the human-rights activism it unleashed in central and eastern Europe were regarded as modest bargaining chips at best, and a distracting threat to East/West stability at worst. Change in the Communist world, if and when it came, would happen from the top down, rather than from the bottom up.
Yet the threat of nuclear war has now dramatically declined; and the decline has nothing to do with the arms-control studies produced by the Best and the Brightest, studies on which American foundations wasted tens of millions of dollars throughout the 1980s. Rather, the greatly reduced threat of nuclear war has to do with The Analysis That Dared Not Speak Its Name in establishment foreign-policy circles during that period: namely, that peace and stability required the collapse of European Communism and the emergence of democratic governments in central and eastern Europe.
So it’s not just the sociology of “meritocratic education” that is to blame for the deficiencies of the Clinton policy-wonks. The content of that education also left much to be desired.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.