From Tyler Cowen's interview with foreign policy expert Walter Russel Mead:
COWEN: How would you change or improve the training that goes into America’s foreign policy elite?
MEAD: Well, I would start by trying to draw people’s attention to that, over the last 40 years, there’s been an enormous increase in the number of PhD grads engaged in the formation of American foreign policy. There’s also been an extraordinary decline in the effectiveness of American foreign policy. We really ought to take that to heart.
COWEN: Do you think of it as an advantage that you don’t have a PhD?
MEAD: Huge advantage.
COWEN: How would you describe that advantage?
MEAD: I don’t really believe in disciplines. I see connections between things. I start from reality. I’m not trying to be anti-intellectual here. You need ideas to help you organize your perceptions of reality. But I think there’s a tendency in a lot of social science disciplines — you start from a bunch of really smart, engaged people who have been thinking about a set of questions and say, “We’ll do a lot better if we stop randomly thinking about everything that pops up and try, in some systematic way, to organize our thinking of this.”
I think you do get some gains from that, but you see, over time, the focus of the discipline has this tendency to shift. The discipline tends to become more inward navel-gazing. “What’s the history of our efforts to systematize our thinking about this?” The discipline becomes more and more, in a sense, ideological and internally focused and less pragmatic.
I think that some of the problem, though, is not so much in the intellectual weaknesses of a lot of conventional postgrad education, but simply almost the crime against humanity of having whole generations of smart people spend the first 30, 35 years of their lives in a total bubble, where they’re in this academic setting, and the rule . . . They become socialized into the academy, just as much as prisoners get socialized into the routines of a prison.
The American academy is actually a terrible place for coming to understand how world politics works. Recently, I had a conversation with an American official who was very proud of the way that the US had broken the mold by revealing intelligence about Russia’s plans to invade Ukraine, and pointed out how that had really helped build the NATO coalition against Russian aggression, and so on.
So far as he goes, it’s true. But I said, however, if you really look at the total message the US was projecting to Russia in those critical months, there were two messages. One is, “We’ve got great intelligence on you. We actually understand you much better than you think.” It was shocking. I think it shocked the Russians. But on the other hand, we’re saying, “We think you’re going to win quickly in Ukraine. We’re offering Zelenskyy a plane ride out of Kyiv. We’re pulling out all our diplomats and urging other countries to pull out their diplomats.”
The message, actually the totality of the message that we sent to Putin is, “You are going to win if you do this.” It would certainly undercut — not that there may have been any — but any voices inside Russia telling Putin, “No, no, no, this thing is a lot harder than you think. It may not work.” What they’re hearing is, “The Americans, whose intelligence is really, really good, and they know us better than we think — they certainly know the Ukrainians better than we do — and they think we’re going to win fast.”
That is a miserable, miserable combination of policies. The thing is, there was no political mind in the administration that thought in terms of, what’s the overall impact of what we do? That’s, I think, what comes of people who’ve spent their lives in universities rather than spent their lives in the real world.
I agree with some of this. I feel strongly that in my own life that there was a definite trade-off between education and other sorts of experiences. During the time I spent in graduate school I was very much immersed in the academic world – and not, say, in the publishing world or the business world. The academic world is very much oriented toward producing future professors; that is the kind of connections you make and the things you are taught to emphasize and so on. So when you leave the academic bubble, as I did, you discover that much of what was pushed on you now seems worse than useless.
And in the narrower world of foreign policy, it is worth noting that the US government contains dozens of people who wrote dissertations on how to save failed states, but in practice we had no clue how to save the failing state of Afghanistan. If such wisdom exists, it obviously cannot be found in graduate school.