In Foreign Affairs (April 5, 2017) Snapshot, Dr. Daniel Bessner and Dr. Stephen Wertheim published a paper, "Democratizing the U.S. Foreign Policy: Bring Experts and the Public back to Foreign Policy". The title of this paper not only caught my attention but also stroke a chord that resonated in my mind ever since I started writing the Column of Mainstream and Organic Views. Although Bessner and Wertheim are young (comparing to Kissinger and Brzezinski) in their career as emerging 'expert' in foreign policy (FP), security and international affairs, they must have felt the frustration in watching the current events and the uncertainties of the U.S foreign policies to write the above paper.
Bessner earned his PhD from Duke and completed two post-doc studies at Dartmouth (International Security and U.S. Foreign Policy, John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding) and earlier as a Foreign Policy, Security Studies, and Diplomatic History Postdoctoral Fellow at Cornell University’s Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies. He is currently an Assistant Professor at University of Washington (Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies). Wertheim earned his PhD from Columbia University and completed a post-doc study at Princeton University (University Center for Human Values and Niehaus Center of Globalization and Governance of the Wilson School). He is currently a Junior Research Fellow at King's College and the Lauterpacht Centre for International Law. Wertheim has published a book, "Tomorrow: The World", a book about the Birth of US Global Supremacy in WW II. Their credentials would suggest that they could emerge into real experts in international affairs and foreign policies should they persist in their academic pursue and/or land some foreign affairs job experiences (government or government supported think tanks).
Bessner and Wertheim's essay is well intentioned. They did offer some prudent and penetrating observations on how elite FP experts had lost the confidence of American public and suggested five points to restore public trust by democratizing US Foreign policy. Their article deserves to be analyzed for readers in the public domain beyond experts of Foreign Affairs audience and their paper also deserves to be augmented with common citizens' opinions and comments as we will do in what follows.
Bessner and Wertheim cited the 50 Republican national security officials' public letter opposing Trump to be the 2016 Presidential Candidate and how the public ignored the letter and Fox News denounced them as people of "no trust". The authors further quoted Tom Nichols' article, "How America Lost Faith in Expertise", Foreign Affairs, March/April, 2017) and then presented their own view how that happened. The first reason they gave was that the experts supported the Iraq War had caused FP expertise facing discredit. The authors claimed that Trump in his campaign further discredited the experts. This is certainly valid concerning pro-war FP experts but Trump's action was really induced by his reading the 'non-vocal' public's opinion correctly – It was the experts who initiated the long and fruitless war. The authors then suggested that the experts had isolated themselves from the public. This phenomenon is certainly true but the culprit as well as an accomplice is the American mass media which have violated the principles of journalism. Journalism supposes to offer unbiased reporting and multiple choices rather than take sides creating polarized media camps. Polarized media polarizes the public by not presenting multiple options in the same presentation.
The two authors presented a credible historical account of elitist versus democratic FP formation process back from the 1920's through the two world wars, represented by Walter Lippmann (ordinary public is too ignorant), John Dewey (public can assist the experts) and public political institutions (Foreign Policy Association, FPA, the like). Lippmann might be right in 1920’s but certainly wrong today as knowledge gap on FP has been shrunk by the availability of clicks in the Internet search engines. Dewey advocated that democracy needs demo but today physical demonstration is hardly necessary as citizens are empowered by the Internet to demo with words. It is the mainstream media, often bought or controlled by money that has denied the public the right to opine.
Bessner and Wertheim credited Cold War for making Lippmann’s view to triumph. The fight against communism and its success helped establish elitists' faith and get their view institutionalized (NSC, CIA, IDA, RAND, and etc.). Even Vietnam War was managed to be legitimized and the two authors concluded that, at the end of Cold War, the experts and the public lost a shared rationale for the U.S. FP. In reality, communism has changed significantly even has been transformed to converge with democracy supported capitalism in some countries. The elitist approach to FP inherited from legacy is definitely outdated and the public has begun to realize that.
The authors credited today's think tanks for their concerted effort to engage the public by offering online public dialogues, etc. But they pointed out that the American FP has become structurally undemocratic, by merely asking the public to receive and assent instead of empowering them to choose and direct. We agree with their assertion but we blame the media being the accomplice. The media has not been open to common citizens as half or one century ago. A 91 year-old veteran friend of mine proudly showed me his comments published in NY Times post Korean and during Vietnam War but complained that his opinions had never been accepted for media publication for the past four decades – a telling story of today’s media.
Bessner and Wertheim were concerned with the new elites that Trump had hired into his National Security and FP team thus calling for ‘democratizing FP’. They laid out five points for doing that: 1 facilitate democratic deliberation, 2. Interact with citizens, 3. Frequent the non-traditional media outside of CNN, NYTimes, WSJ, the like, 4 empower stronger role for Congress on FP, and 5. FP experts to build a culture that individual expert is accountable for contributing to any disastrous FP. These points are positive, but one missing point they missed is a trustable media!
The American public must demand the mass media to be unbiased, open and fair in soliciting public opinions not just presenting the elitists’ views and to present multiple choices of FP instead of prejudiced on a single thesis. Today, citizens live a busier and faster-paced life than half or one century ago. Today, the world has become more complicated by globalization and multinational interactions. Certainly, having expertise (and experts) in FP is still a necessity, but more importantly we must shrink the gap of FP knowledge and provide easy means of dissenting on FP to the public. The Internet offers technological tools but the experts and citizens must learn how to use them collaboratively to formulate FP. Trump's habit of twitting to communicate with citizens worried experts, but on a deeper thought, this might be just one of the effective tools to democratize FP. When the public, the experts, the think tanks, the media, the State Department, the Congress and the White House can work together to exchange opinions and to debate issues in plain language, then we will have succeeded in democratizing FP!