Tuesday, 10 March 2009

“The Silence of the Rational Center”, by Stefan Halper & Jonathan Clarke (Basic Books)

HalperClarke-SilenceOfRationalCentre “Why American Foreign Policy is Failing”

This book is already a couple of years old, I know, but I’ve just finished it and, like Stephen Ambrose’s The Rise to Globalism, I believe it is a book that belongs on the shelves of all US foreign policy scholars and enthusiasts. The Silence of the Rational Centre is an accessible book about perceived failings of America’s foreign policy establishment and culture. The authors discuss a number of factors currently holding the US back from producing proper policies: for example, the tradition of focusing on “Big Ideas” to formulate foreign policy (the authors briefly outline how this has developed through American history), and how this detracts from actually creating a proper, timely approach to current international issues and crises.

Each issue is dealt with individually, in its own chapter. The authors look at the importance of political elites (government officials, elected representatives, and former officials), the media, think tanks, and academic elites and how they all affect foreign policy formulation. Halper and Clarke are particularly hard on academics who succumb to the lure of television, altering their approach and so forth to match the “infotainment” nature of today’s news broadcasting, as well as those they put in the “Anti-American” camp; this includes Noam Chomsky and Chalmers Johnson, who appear to subscribe to the notion that no bad thing can happen in the world that isn’t caused by America. (The authors are particularly disappointed with Johnson, as his expertise in East Asia is considerable, if his approach is ill-advised and unproductive). Everything is tied together in the “Acid Test” chapter, in which China is used as a case study for further evidence of policy inadequacy (this was certainly the best chapter of the book).

Written in a highly accessible way, with the occasional, light touch of perplexed humour, The Silence of the Rational Center is a brilliant critique of the foreign policy establishment and how they each affect the other to create a dumbed-down and ultimately counterproductive range of policies. The authors are particularly critical of those who should know better (the media, and especially academics like Samuel Huntington and Graham Allison, for example), but they explain why these elites are failing the nation as a whole, rather than just taking issue because they happen to be a Democrat or Republican. Their arguments are sensible, and the authors always recognise if their own proposals are not perfect; their main argument is that the culture of foreign policy in the states needs to change, in order to meet the challenges of the future. This can sometimes take the form of looking back, as in the case of intelligence: “The lessons of the past have value, if we are to get the intelligence service we need.”

Devoid of polemic or ideological bias, well argued and clearly written, this book is essential.

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