Will the CATO Institute lose its soul?

In one of my earliest posts on this blog, I argued that America's penchant for counterproductive global interventionism was driven by not one but two imbalances of power. The first was the imbalance of power between the United States and the rest of the world, which made it possible for Washington to throw its weight around without worrying very much about the short-term consequences. If you're a lot stronger than anyone else, it's hard to imagine you could lose to anyone and you're more likely to do something stupid like invading Iraq.

The second imbalance was the disproportionate influence of pro-intervention forces within the U.S. foreign policy establishment. As I put it back in 2009:

"America's rise to global primacy was accompanied by the creation of a well-developed set of institutions whose stated purpose was to overcome isolationist sentiments and to promote greater international activism on the part of the United States. American liberal internationalism didn't just arise spontaneously as America's relative power grew, it was actively encouraged by groups like the Council on Foreign Relations (founded in 1921), and a whole array of other groups and organizations. These institutions don't always agree on what specific actions the United States ought to take, and they aren't the sort of clandestine capitalist conspiracy depicted by Lyndon Larouche and other fringe groups. But together they stack the deck in favor doing more rather than less."

I went on to describe the DC think tank world (i.e., groups like AEI, Heritage, Brookings, Carnegie, etc.) and the numerous special interest groups that lobby for their own particular causes. And then I noted that:

"By contrast, there are at most a handful of institutions whose core mission is to get the United States to take a slightly smaller role on the world stage. There is the CATO Institute. . . and maybe a few people at the Center for American Progress and the New America Foundation. And there are plenty of peace groups out there with an anti-interventionist agenda. But these groups are hardly a match for the array of forces on the other side."

I mention all this because there seems to be a concerted effort underway to turn one of those organizations -- the CATO Institute -- into another member of the pro-intervention choir. In particular, right-wing industrialists Charles and David Koch (who are long-time CATO supporters) have recently sought to place several new members on CATO's board of directors, and have filed a lawsuit challenging its current governance structure. You can read about this power struggle here and here.

Why does this matter for foreign policy? Because, as CATO Vice-President for Foreign Policy Studies Christopher Preble lays out in this blog post, the individuals the Kochs are seeking to appoint hold views that are decidedly antithetical to the libertarian, mostly realist, and generally peace-oriented foreign policy perspective that has been CATO's trademark, and which is an increasingly rare perspective in post-Cold War, post 9/11 Washington. Preble also notes that the Koch Foundation helped sponsor an invitation-only seminar series at the American Enterprise Institute last year, whose lineup consisted of a "who's who" of hawkish neo-conservatives (Eliot Cohen, Walter Russell Mead, Eric Edelman, Niall Ferguson, etc.). Each of the speakers was a strong supporter of the Iraq War, which tells you something about where the Kochs are coming from.

It's a free country where just about everything is potentially up for sale, and the Kochs are free to use their money to try to shape public discourse as they see fit. Needless to say, they haven't been exactly shy about doing that, though a commitment to truth doesn't seem to be a high priority of theirs. But if their efforts to transform CATO succeed, we will lose one of the few influential institutions in Washington that consistently calls for a more sensible and restrained foreign and defense policy. I'm not a libertarian and I don't agree with all of CATO's positions on these matters, but a further narrowing of public discourse on foreign policy is not what the country needs right now. So I hope CATO's current management wins this fight, and that the institution remains true to its original vision. We'll be better off as a country if it does.


Stephen M. Walt

What Henry told Harvard

The big event at Harvard yesterday was "A Conversation with Henry Kissinger" at Sanders Theater. The event featured the 89-year old statesman reflecting on his time at Harvard, his career in government, and the future relationship between the United States and China, along with several other topics. He was joined in the discussion by my colleagues Graham Allison (who moderated) and Joseph Nye, and by Jessica Blankshain, a graduate student from the Department of Government.

I won't try to summarize the whole conversation, but instead merely highlight a couple of moments that I found especially interesting. First, at one point Kissinger said he thought the best academic preparation for government service was training in philosophy, political theory, and history. In particular, he argued that training in political theory taught you how to think in a disciplined and rigorous manner, and knowledge of history was essential for grasping the broader political context in which decisions must be made. It was clear that he also sees a grounding in history as essential for understanding how different people see the world, and also for knowing something about the limits of the possible.

I found this observation intriguing because these subjects are not what schools of public policy typically emphasize, even though they are supposedly in the business of preparing students for careers in public service. The canonical curriculum in public policy emphasizes economics and statistics (i.e., regression analysis), sometimes combined with generic training in "public policy analysis" and political institutions. The Kennedy School (where I teach) does require MPP students to take one core course in ethics (which is grounded in political philosophy), but there's no required course in history and each year I feel my students know less and less about that important subject. Instead, they flock to courses on "leadership," as if this quality was something you can learn in a classroom in a semester or two. I would love to have asked Kissinger to elaborate on how aspiring public servants are being trained these days.

After Joe Nye asked him if there were any decisions he made that he wished he could do over (a question that Kissinger mostly evaded), he went on to reflect on how his thinking has changed over time. He noted that he has had lots of time to read and reflect since leaving government service, and he said there were many things about the world that he understood better now than when he was serving in government. He also said he was not as "self-confident" in some of his judgments as he had been when he was younger. But then he said he wasn't sure this greater wisdom would make him a better policymaker. The reason, he said, is that being a policymaker requires a powerful sense of self-confidence, precisely because so many decisions are not clear-cut -- they are 51/49 judgment calls. As he put it, "You don't get rewarded for your doubts." And in those circumstances, a little bit of bravado goes a long way; it might even be a job requirement.

It was entirely predictable, of course, that the event was briefly disrupted by a vocal protester who was quickly escorted from the room. One of the questions asked during the Q and A took a similar approach, reciting a list of Kissinger's alleged crimes and ending with the question "How do you sleep at night?" I understand where such questions come from, but I've also thought this tactic is a remarkably ineffective way to try to make a political point. Disrupting public gatherings is a form of free speech and I wouldn't try to ban it, but my experience is that it is almost always counterproductive. The reason is simple: When someone gets up and starts shouting accusations, it violates our innate sense of courtesy and almost always turns the crowd against the protester and toward the person they are attacking. I like spirited discourse as much as the next person, but I've found that a respectful, well-aimed, and devastating question usually opens more minds and does more damage than passionate denunciations do.