VIEWPOINT: Valuing Philosophy in Foreign Policy

After just over 100 days, the White House faces clear foreign policy challenges. Real estate mogul-turned-President Donald Trump has tried his hand at addressing various international crises, authorizing a retaliatory strike on the Syrian government, ramping up airstrikes against the Islamic State group and dropping the “Mother of All Bombs” on IS targets in Afghanistan, to name a few endeavors. Despite these efforts, the administration has thus far failed to alter the course of the Syrian civil war and has increased the number of civilian casualties in Iraq, with nearly 500 civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria in March 2017 alone. Moreover, the administration has inched toward a potential nuclear confrontation in East Asia.

What could the White House be getting wrong? With his all-star team of generals, such as Defense Secretary James Mattis and national security adviser H.R. McMaster, and allegedly adept problem-solvers, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and son-in-law Jared Kushner, Trump should have no trouble achieving key foreign policy goals. While one could argue that the general lack of expertise in the White House and failure to staff crucial posts in Foggy Bottom have limited the State Department’s ability to achieve its goals, I believe that what these decision-makers lack is the right frame of mind.

Trump has appointed business leaders and soldiers to address the world’s challenges. What the State Department needs are philosophers.

This is not a call for the State Department to replace its highest-ranking officials with the top scholars of philosophy from America’s top universities. But imagine if it did. Ethicists studying the great debates of the 20th century could help determine America’s priorities and assess the costs of its actions abroad. Those who provide solutions to the world’s most challenging thought experiments may be able to tackle the dilemmas we face in regions such as the Middle East.

In a geopolitical landscape where disinformation threatens states almost as much as military power, epistemologists would play a unique role. Who can better dismantle the modern weapon of “fake news” than those well-versed in knowledge, and how it is consumed and transmitted by people? Perhaps clearer definitions of information and how it is understood could function as tools of information warfare. Moreover, the demand for these minds is pressing given recent cries of America’s decline as a moral superpower.

America faces uncertainty due to issues such as global climate change and security challenges brought about by emerging technologies and cyberspace. Today’s questions are often less concerned with scientific data and more so with answers to how humans ought to grapple with scientific realities. Philosophers of science and technology can provide valuable insight into how to cope with scientific revolutions and paradigm shifts.

For example, increasing incidences of computer and internet fraud present security threats for American citizens and companies both at home and abroad. The deployment of drones, also known as “killer robots,” and the prevalence of small arms in civil wars raise questions about human interaction with technology and its effect on conflict. Policymakers and scientists must be involved in such conversations, but so must the thinkers engaged in understanding long-term consequences of these foreign policy issues.

Destroying terrorists is another Trumpian promise yet to fully materialize in the first few months of the presidency. Targeting terror cells and lone wolves, however, involves much more than bombing campaigns and immigration restrictions. In fact, understanding political psychology may be an effective complement in countering radicalization. Addressing the deeper questions, such as the nature of human agency or the effect of religious beliefs on human behavior, will contribute to these broad counterterrorism efforts.

Trump’s approach to foreign policy has been simple. It requires few words to be understood: America will be rich. America will be strong. America will win. Our president’s favorite taglines contradict the reality and complexity of deep questions with long-term consequences.

Perhaps it is too much to ask for to have Socrates’ philosopher-king in the White House or the State Department. But the United States will never be able to maintain its position as an active global power in the 21st century without professionals focused on deep philosophical questions. If the Trump administration wishes to truly be great in this regard, it ought to begin asking the big questions or welcome those who do.

Matt Hinson is a senior in the School of Foreign Service.

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