Foreign Policy and the Mystique of American Management
Why do U.S. policymakers think they can apply corporate management techniques to international relations?
- By attempting to control the inherently uncontrollable, emergency men inevitably distance themselves from the truly valuable businesslike habits to accomplish focused objectives.
- The belief that other peoples and distant places can be smoothly administered foments delusions about what is achievable, over what time horizons and with what resources.
- Americans believe that the techniques of managerial success can be applied to politico-military problems abroad.
In the decades after World War II, Americans increasingly canonized managerial science and the well-schooled professional executives who practiced it.
As a generation of aging entrepreneurial founders of corporations such as Ford, Martin Marietta and Kerr-McGee were displaced by business administrators, esteem reached the level of deference to these polished young men's "businesslike" methods of practical, unemotional accomplishment.
By the time Robert McNamara arrived in Washington to reshape the Defense Department in 1961, his belief that "every problem can be solved" did not seem preposterous. A good manager could manage anything, whether Ford or Frito-Lay or a disintegrating jungle nation like Laos. The promise of managerial omnicompetence played to the country's can-do instincts.
Against the continuous backdrop of industrial achievement, Americans unsurprisingly believe that the attitudes and techniques of managerial success can be applied to politico-military problems abroad. Numbers may be used to make the case for action. There are always some lying around, such as the happy reckoning that earnings from Iraqi oil revenues would underwrite the American invasion and occupation.
Believing that any problem can be methodically broken down to be triumphantly reassembled convinces emergency men that they have an empirical grasp of its details. Concerns about sects or demographics or visualizing an opponent's motivations come second — or third — to emphasizing the procedures.
Today lots of Americans do mean "manage" or "run" when they discuss getting various millions of people in Europe, Asia and the Middle East to share the wisdom of our ways. All great powers wield hefty influence.
It is another story — and a very American one — to leap from that often exaggerated degree of influence to the conviction that Washington can usefully assert open, direct control over what others might or might not do. In no other country do politicians, diplomats and intellectuals use management as a commonplace term to denote international aspirations.
No one in Brazil speaks of "managing" Argentina. No one at the Quai d'Orsay sends memoranda or inspires articles in Le Monde about "managing" the European Union. Japan doesn't speak of "managing China." Nor did the Soviet Union talk of "running" Eastern Europe, even when those captive nations were dominated by the Red Army.
Yet notions of managerial effectiveness are a daily part of intelligent American conversation. Consider The Atlantic, a monthly magazine of informed opinion. Several years ago, the cover featured an article titled "Ten Rules for Managing the World," by Robert D. Kaplan, a gifted writer fascinated by military culture and technologies. This thinker has since been appointed to the Obama Administration's Defense Policy Board.
Foreign Policy magazine, for its part, offers the views of a former Clinton undersecretary, David J. Rothkopf, about "The Committee that Runs the World." That committee is said to be the NSC staff. But to fancy that you're "running the world" along with your office colleagues, no matter how well positioned you all are in the Old Executive Office Building, means clearly that you're misconstruing the world altogether.
Such fantasy twines dangerously over the most problematic place of all: China. The Atlantic's literary editor, Benjamin Schwarz, previously a foreign policy analyst at RAND, writes specifically of "Managing China's Rise." (Douglas MacArthur sought to do just that, 60 years ago.) Norah O'Donnell, chief Washington correspondent for MSNBC, asks, "Why don't we corral China?"
And Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations (a private organization despite its official-sounding name) reflects, as if eager to wrangle the economic heft of Guangzhou into an America dude ranch, whether Asia's "dynamism can be effectively and peacefully harnessed."
At a policy conclave in Washington, Nicholas Burns, former undersecretary of state and recently the nation's highest-ranking career diplomat, also spoke about the need to "manage China's rise."
Such discourse presumes that China and its future are subject not just to appropriate pressure, but to direction from the West Wing, the seventh floor at State and at Langley, think-tank seminar rooms — or just possibly from the chairman's office at Goldman Sachs. More moderate words such as speaking judiciously of "coming to terms with China's rise" or of just "handling" it seem not to suggest themselves.
Words say a lot about deeper desires and how Americans think about international affairs. The belief that other peoples and distant places can be smoothly administered foments delusions about what is achievable, over what time horizons and with what resources.
By attempting to control the inherently uncontrollable, emergency men inevitably distance themselves from the truly valuable businesslike habits of routine, accountability, gathering feedback and charting realistic timelines over which to accomplish focused objectives.
Editor’s note: This article is adapted from “Magic and Mayhem: The Delusions of American Foreign Policy From Korea to Afghanistan” (Simon & Schuster). Copyright 2010 Derek Leebaert. Reprinted with the permission of the author.