Dogmatic Dangers: When Policymaking Rigidifies Ideas

By Brzezinski, Zbigniew | Harvard International Review, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Dogmatic Dangers: When Policymaking Rigidifies Ideas


Brzezinski, Zbigniew, Harvard International Review


In the 1950s, working with Carl Friedrich, you developed a theory of totalitarianism that specified the characteristics of a new kind of dictatorship, using state terror to create a social order holistically organized in support of an overarching ideology. In particular, you argued in 1961 that the USSR had an "organizational compulsion" to "ideology-action." How did that theory inform the actions of US policymakers during the early stages of the Cold War? Did that idea affect the way policymakers in the United States viewed the Cold War competition?

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Up to a point it did, but I certainly would not exaggerate. Obviously, policymakers tend to assess events or challenges very much in light of recent experience. The policymakers who were dealing with the Soviet Union were very much influenced by the conflict with Nazi Germany. To the extent that Friedrich and I were arguing that the Soviet Union, like Nazi Germany, was a new type of dictatorship, our views hit upon fertile soil, so to speak. It helped policymakers understand that the Soviet Union was not a traditional challenge, but something new, and something that required a much more comprehensive response.

Do you think policymakers effectively implemented that knowledge? Was there a lag; did it take them time to discern the need for a new kind of response? Did the idea translate well into policy?

It translated into policy, but every translation of an idea into policy becomes dogmatic after a while. That was the case with the Soviet Union. For example, people like US Secretary of State Dean Acheson came to understand after some initial hesitation, and even some confusion, the distinctive nature of the Soviet challenge. But then subsequently, policymakers became so committed to the new insight that they failed to understand that the Soviet Union itself was changing.

I encountered that resistance in the 1960s. By then, in addition to the work that I had done with Friedrich, I had begun to conclude on my own--and if I may say so, somewhat ahead of others--that the Soviet system was increasingly rigid and uncreative and was beginning to degenerate. That, in turn, would create options for a more flexible Western policy designed to exploit the inner weaknesses and contradictions of not only the Soviet Union, but also the entire Soviet bloc. These kinds of insights, paradoxically, were then resisted by people like Dean Atchison and Secretary of State Dean Rusk after him.

Why does the policymaking process tend toward a dogmatic approach? Why do policymakers resist new knowledge that may contradict the dogmas that have hardened over time?

That is, in part, the result of the difference between a person directly involved in policymaking and a policy-oriented thinker somewhat on the side. The former is subjected to all the pressures of time that the policymaking process engenders, while the latter has time to reflect and to notice changes over time that require some adjustment in the response. The former situation does not allow much time for reflection or revision; the latter creates that opportunity.

Is this a problem of applying international relations theory to policy in general? I'm hoping to assess the relationship between international relations theory and foreign policy doctrine. Does a coherent foreign policy doctrine have an underlying basis in international relations theory?

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There is a certain relationship, but there is also a risk that a so-called international relations theory, when applied by practitioners who subscribe to that theory--even if they are not initially its framers--tends to become rigid and dogmatic. Right now, for example, the transformation of the policy of human rights propounded quite successfully by US President Jimmy Carter and, in a different way, by Pope John Paul II, has now become dogmatized to a degree that almost turns the theory into a parody of itself. …

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