April 06, 2007

Foreign Policy and the Facts

Henry Nau has written a very interesting article about the runup to the Iraq war. His basic argument is that there are many legitimate narratives into which we can fit facts, and therefore that there are many legitimate policy options to take upon the basis of those narratives. His examples are very cogent and interesting- and I will leave him to make his own case on them. It is definitely an interesting argument- the problem is to what conclusions does it point us- the problem with Nau's argument is not the argument but where it stops.

His argument gives us the tools to understand each others' politics- politics is about perception. The world appears to you in a particular way and you derive your politics from it. Some people see more of the world than others- but it is the way that the totality of our experience looks to us that ultimately governs how we behave in the social world and in that bit of the social world we define as politics. Experience can obviously come in different forms- its difficult to argue that privatisation was right to a widow whose husband was sacked by a privatised company and who then committed suicide. Its hard to argue for appeasement of a dictatorship like China with a dissident. Its also hard to suggest to an American mother that her son's death in Iraq made sense because of some wider policy objective. Less emotive experiences can influence politics: the fact that I know many homosexual people in stable relationships which have lasted years makes me suspicious of the argument that gay people can't have stable relationships. The fact that in my experience I know both women and men who are exceptionally clever and interesting individuals, makes me suspicious of any argument that says that women are innately irrational or men are innately cavemen. Furthermore Nau is right to say that we also can dismiss evidence we see in front of us: Christian friends of mine have in the past said that gay people can't have long relationships despite the fact that they know of gay people who do, they are the exception to the rule. Similarly a sexist or radical feminist might say that of the intelligent women and gentle men that I know.

I suppose what emerges from this is something that I personally have come to realise especially in doing historical research. Our beliefs are involved in a kind of dialogue with the facts- the facts that you come across doing research are interpreted within the framework of the questions that you are interested in. Having said that they also influence the next question that you ask of the next set of facts that you come across. Having sat for hours in various libraries around the world, research consists to my eyes of progressively dismissing the wrong ideas I have had before because the evidence contradicts them: but I have no doubt that those early ideas influence the shape of later ideas. Part of our job as honest intellectual human beings is to sit down and look at the world and reevaluate our ideas in the context of what we see. We will never reach an objective view of the world- we cannot. But what we can do is constantly refine our thought after it collides with the world that we see in front of us- we all have had moments where our ideas (I definitely have had them) and the world have seemed so fundamentally askew that we shift our thinking from one frame to a related frame. Evolution in ideas seems to me often in my own case to proceed from that kind of reexamination in the light of new facts and new experience.

What Nau reminds us of is the fact that everyone we know is undergoing at various levels of sophistication this same kind of re-examination. He acknowledges and I think its true that there are facts out there and it is possible to be wrong- but often error is the result of well meant perception of reality through a certain lens. One of the more interesting problems of politics to my mind is understanding each others' errors- understanding each others' thoughts: because politics is social, disagreement is going to always be a constant, one of the issues with disagreement though is that in order for us to have a conversation we have to acknowledge that other people mean well and that their views are based often on justifiable if not correct views of the world.

One of the most useful ideas of Christianity (even for a non-Christian like myself) is that criticism has to be an internal function- personally this is a useful idea in terms of behaviour, trying to work out why others are angry before condemning their wrath is often a good way to proceed, but its also a useful idea intellectually. One of the most difficult but useful intellectual activities is to continually challenge one's own beliefs through immersion in difficult facts. Easy answers are seldom right because the world is too complicated to fit into such a useful framework- and that even applies to the easy answer of the difficulties of comprehending complexity. Scepticism about one's own beleifs doesn't mean ceasing to beleive them- but it does mean that one has the courage to change them as they become less in tune with the facts as one sees them.

The formation of ideas and the way that our minds relate to the world are difficult philosophical subjects. Philosophers ranging from Plato to Derrida have been fascinated by the issue of cognition. Much of this post is not meant to be a philosophical argument though, but an ethical one about the ways that one should behave in political society. Acknowledging the possibility indeed the probability of being wrong, and constantly revising one's own thoughts, whilst trying to understand why other people beleive what they do is a political ethics rather than an epistemological statement. Philosophically naive it may be, but I would reckon that it is indispensible personally- and probably the best way to respond to the kind of incisive analysis within Nau's article.