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The Importance of Foreign Policy Knowledge

Scott Conroy reviews the post-election internal Republican foreign policy debate (or lack thereof). He quotes Danielle Pletka:

The truth is that what matters much more in choosing a leader is that that person embraces a clear set of principles. And if they have a clear set of principles and a vision to go along with it, I’m not worried that they don’t know what the capital of Burkina Faso is. If they have no vision, no amount of knowledge is going to make up for it.

I doubt that this is true. It is better for the public if voters have a clear idea of what a candidate is proposing to do, but that is a different issue. Candidates that have “a clear set of principles and a vision to go along with it” but lack knowledge will tend to promote policies that are not tethered to reality. If a candidate has a “vision” and just a little knowledge, that can be the most dangerous of all, and the ambitions of his “vision” and his limited knowledge may be a very poor match. A more knowledgeable candidate that lacked a “vision” might not be ideal, but he’d definitely be preferable to his opposite number.

Romney explicitly stated a set of principles in foreign policy, and they read more like a caricature of a Republican foreign policy: “”confidence in our cause, clarity in our purpose and resolve in our might.” Despite his “clear set of principles,” Romney’s lack of knowledge about foreign policy issues frequently led him to make poor choices and caused him to say foolish things that wrecked whatever credibility he might have had. Romney is a prime example that a “set of principles and a vision to go along with it” aren’t nearly enough.

Republican hawks have had a bad habit over at least the last decade in dismissing the importance of expertise or even basic familiarity with the rest of the world. Perhaps the reason for this is that they often sharply disagree with regional experts that have a far better understanding of the countries and cultures that the hawks have wanted to reshape and remake. Republican hawks set an extremely low bar for what their party’s candidates are expected to know, and then they seem surprised when they end up with candidates that seem to know little or nothing. Dismissing specialized knowledge as if it were just a matter of geography bee trivia is part of the problem. If candidates aren’t even expected to have basic knowledge of world geography, for example, why would they be expected to know or understand even more complicated issues?

That doesn’t mean that we can or should expect presidential candidates to be experts. Most haven’t been and most never will be. What we should expect, and what Republican voters ought to demand from their candidates, is that the candidates take these issues seriously, take the time to learn something about them, and make sure that their foreign policy views are reasonably well-informed long before they begin contemplating a bid for the White House. As things stand now, all that would-be candidates or rising stars have to do is deliver a more or less coherent speech on the subject without completely embarrassing themselves. That hasn’t been good enough in previous cycles, and it won’t be good enough in the future.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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