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Policy Review: Why We Fight Over Foreign Policy

Author: Henry R. Nau
April/May 2007

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FEATURES:Why We Fight Over Foreign Policy

By Henry R. Nau

Different perspectives yield different conclusions.


Why do we disagree so stridently about foreign policy? An easy answer is because leaders lie about events abroad.1 Take the decision to invade Iraq. Didn’t Tony Blair say before the war that Iraq could assemble a nuclear weapon in 45 minutes? He was obviously lying, right? Or what about George W. Bush, whosecia director said at the time that it was a “slam dunk” that Iraq had nuclear weapons? He obviously knew better. Didn’t he?

Well, maybe. But what if we disagree not because leaders are wicked and lie but because they, like we, see the world differently and assemble and emphasize different facts that lead to different conclusions? Saddam Hussein evaded un inspectors. That’s a fact. But was he hiding something like weapons of mass destruction (wmd)? Or was he behaving as might any leader of a country that comes under external threat? Answers to those questions are interpretations. Some looked at Iraq’s glass and saw it was half full ofwmd; others concluded that it was half empty.

Simplify but not simple

No subject in the world is as complex as foreign affairs. You are dealing not just with natural facts, such as disasters and disease, but also with social facts such as human beings who change their minds and behave creatively. Natural facts — like a virus — don’t do that. They behave according to fixed laws. Further, social facts are embedded in different cultures. People from different cultures interpret the same facts differently. What does a devout Muslim see when he or she walks by a Christian church? In some cases, an infidel institution. Not exactly what a devout Christian sees. Individual human beings and diverse cultures create multiple meanings from the same set of facts. Given this enormous complexity, how do we make any sense at all out of international affairs?

We simplify. We approach the world with labels and models that direct us toward a particular slice of reality. We can’t see it all, so we use our learning, experience, and judgment to select a direction, to look for certain facts that are important to us in terms of how we believe the world works. Surveying the material for his biography of Abraham Lincoln, Carl Sandburg wrote that “anyone dealing with the vast actual evidence cannot use the whole of it . . . therefore . . . he . . . picks what is plain, moving, and important.”2 We have to neglect some facts not because we are ignorant or ideological but precisely because we can know something only if we exclude something else. If we knew everything, we’d know nothing until we knew what was important to us — and what’s important to us is a matter of personal perspective and judgment. Thus, we emphasize certain facts, and our opponents often emphasize other facts, perhaps the very ones we deemphasize. We reach different conclusions not because we dissemble and lie but because we see the world differently and judge different facts to be more important.

Consider four facts related to North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons — the accumulation of weapons-grade plutonium before 1994, the 1994 agreement which froze the plutonium production program, the start-up in the late 1990s of a separate uranium enrichment program, and the termination of the 1994 agreement in2002. Those who believe that direct negotiation with North Korea is the best way to handle this issue emphasize the second and fourth facts. The freeze agreement prevented further production of plutonium and thus capped the amount of weapons-grade materials available to produce nuclear weapons. The termination of the agreement allowed North Korea to resume plutonium production and test a bomb in October2005. Thus, from this point of view, the termination of the agreement was a mistake even though North Korea had begun a separate enrichment project because that program was still a long way from producing weapons-grade materials.3 Those who believe that sanctions and isolation are the best way to deal with the problem emphasize the first and third facts. North Korea already had weapons-grade material before 1994 and could have tested a bomb at any time with that material. Moreover, it broke the1994 agreement by starting up the enriched uranium program. So terminating the 1994 agreement did nothing except make explicit what was going on anyway, a stealth program to acquire nuclear weapons. Better from this point of view to rally allies and isolate North Korea until it disclosed and dismantled all nuclear weapons programs.

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