My Conversation with the excellent Walter Russell Mead

Here is the audio and transcript, here is the summary:

He joined Tyler to discuss how the decline of American religiosity has influenced US foreign policy, which American presidents best and least understood the Middle East, the shrewd reasons Stalin supported Israel, the Saudi secret to political stability, the fate of Pakistan, the most likely scenario for China moving on Taiwan, the gun pointed at the head of German business, the US’s “murderous fetishization of ideology over reality” in Sub-Saharan Africa, the inherent weakness in having a foreign policy establishment dominated by academics, what he learned from attending the Groton School, and much more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: How would you change or improve the training that goes into America’s foreign policy elite?

MEAD: Well, I would start by trying to draw people’s attention to that, over the last 40 years, there’s been an enormous increase in the number of PhD grads engaged in the formation of American foreign policy. There’s also been an extraordinary decline in the effectiveness of American foreign policy. We really ought to take that to heart.

COWEN: Do you think of it as an advantage that you don’t have a PhD?

MEAD: Huge advantage.

COWEN: How would you describe that advantage?

MEAD: I don’t really believe in disciplines. I see connections between things. I start from reality. I’m not trying to be anti-intellectual here. You need ideas to help you organize your perceptions of reality. But I think there’s a tendency in a lot of social science disciplines — you start from a bunch of really smart, engaged people who have been thinking about a set of questions and say, “We’ll do a lot better if we stop randomly thinking about everything that pops up and try, in some systematic way, to organize our thinking of this.”

I think you do get some gains from that, but you see, over time, the focus of the discipline has this tendency to shift. The discipline tends to become more inward navel-gazing. “What’s the history of our efforts to systematize our thinking about this?” The discipline becomes more and more, in a sense, ideological and internally focused and less pragmatic.

I think that some of the problem, though, is not so much in the intellectual weaknesses of a lot of conventional postgrad education, but simply almost the crime against humanity of having whole generations of smart people spend the first 30, 35 years of their lives in a total bubble, where they’re in this academic setting, and the rule . . . They become socialized into the academy, just as much as prisoners get socialized into the routines of a prison.

The American academy is actually a terrible place for coming to understand how world politics works. Recently, I had a conversation with an American official who was very proud of the way that the US had broken the mold by revealing intelligence about Russia’s plans to invade Ukraine, and pointed out how that had really helped build the NATO coalition against Russian aggression, and so on.

So far as he goes, it’s true. But I said, however, if you really look at the total message the US was projecting to Russia in those critical months, there were two messages. One is, “We’ve got great intelligence on you. We actually understand you much better than you think.” It was shocking. I think it shocked the Russians. But on the other hand, we’re saying, “We think you’re going to win quickly in Ukraine. We’re offering Zelenskyy a plane ride out of Kyiv. We’re pulling out all our diplomats and urging other countries to pull out their diplomats.”

The message, actually the totality of the message that we sent to Putin is, “You are going to win if you do this.”

And this, on what makes for talent in the foreign policy arena:

…you can’t know too much history. A hunger for travel. I think too many foreign policy types don’t actually get out into the field nearly as much as they should. Curiosity about other cultures. A strong grounding in a faith of your own, which can be a secular ideology, perhaps, in some cases, but more often is likely to be a great religious tradition of some kind.

A very good conversation.  And I am happy to recommend Walter’s new book The Arc of a Covenant: The United States, Israel, and the Fate of the Jewish People.


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