Intellectuals and Foreign Policy: From John King Fairbanks to Paul Wolfowitz

By Kaplan, Morton A. | The World and I, February 2004 | Go to article overview

Intellectuals and Foreign Policy: From John King Fairbanks to Paul Wolfowitz


Kaplan, Morton A., The World and I


Editor and Publisher

The controversy over the influence of Paul Wolfowitz on Iraq policy raises anew the issue of the influence of intellectuals on policy. In the cases of John King Fairbanks and Marshall Shulman, they thought that their detailed knowledge of institutions and the holders of positions within them provided deep insights into how the holders of office would manage policy. In the case of the intellectuals who testified before Senator Fulbright, they thought they could apply generalizations without an inquiry into whether such generalizations were appropriate to particular cases. Intellectuals generally suffer from arrogance, a belief that they are wiser than others, or that they possess a core of knowledge not available to outsiders.

Practitioners, on the other hand, have a tendency to generalize from particular cases. Practitioners tend to believe they possess inside information that others lack, as they often do, but they are rarely good at integrating this knowledge into policy. They also tend to believe that they can correct policy by reversing courses that had failed previously, thus inducing new mistakes.

Although this inquiry will not start with Wolfowitz, he is of great interest because Iraq policy is a dominant current issue. My interest in him is even greater because he is a brilliant protege of two intellectual giants who are of great interest in their own rights. One was the famous defense analyst, Albert Wohlstetter. However, his earlier and chief intellectual mentor was Leo Strauss. Their likely influences on Wolfowitz's prescriptions for Iraq policy are of importance because of the power of their intellects and because an examination will permit an inquiry into a framework for policy analysis.

INTELLECTUALS AND CHINA

During the Vietnam War, the liberal John King Fairbanks of Harvard, who was widely, and probably accurately, regarded as the preeminent American scholar on China, was quoted in a long front-page story in the New York Times as saying that the trouble with Vietnam policy was that we had no academic experts on Vietnam. If our expertise had been as great as it was on China, he said, we would not have made the mistakes that we did.

However, I remember as a freshman in 1939 reading a series of interviews of Mao Tse-tung [Mao Zedong] that Edgar Snow published. Mao, who was well aware that remote and often illiterate Chinese peasants would not read these interviews, carefully explained the purpose of his "New Democracy" campaign, which promised land to farmers. The purpose, he said, was to win them for the communist movement. Once in power, however, land would be collectivized and farmers would become serfs.

Yet Fairbanks, with liberal prejudices, took the New Democracy program seriously and presented Mao, who eventually was responsible for perhaps more than approximately 100 million Chinese deaths, as more of an agrarian democrat than a rigid communist. Fairbanks was so sure of the ability of experts to make political judgments that he had managed to forget how his own technical expertise had failed him when he had made a political misjudgment of the most crucial kind because of his political orientation.

With respect to whether China would intervene in Vietnam with organized divisions if American divisional forces attacked North Vietnam, both conservative and liberal intellectuals, as well as virtually all practitioners, went astray. Yet in an interview published by Snow in October 1965, Mao stated that China would defend even its own territory against American invasion only with guerrilla warfare.

It was not necessary to read Snow's interview to know that Mao would not send organized divisions into Vietnam. The situation bore no resemblance to Korea in 1950. When President Truman made his courageous decision to intervene in Korea, the American forces had been denuded by small arms budgets and demobilization. …

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