Ideology and decisionmaking in foreign policy

WITH the departure from the Reagan administration of some of those members classified as ``ideologues'' and the apparent lessening of the power of others, the policymaking team is taking on a more ``pragmatic'' look. Whatever may be the relative merits of those departing, experience suggests that the strong ideologue does not fit well into an orderly decisionmaking process. Such people are apt to demonstrate tendencies that, in the extreme, whether of the right or of the left, can cause serious problems in the creation of a sound foreign policy.

1. Unquestioned assumptions: The ideologically motivated are certain of their views and of their facts. Confining themselves largely to the same circles and, as fellow believers, reading the same journals, they accept their reverberating theories as undisputed truths. They accept only what supports the theory; advancing an ideology is more important than resolving problems. In a complex and changing world, however, there are few absolutes.

2. Unwelcome challenges: When the undisputed ``truths'' are challenged by contrary views or different facts, the ideologue sees a threat to the true belief, not a basis for reconsideration. The challenge becomes not just a reason for a new look, but a quasi-religious event. Getting accurate data and making sound assumptions essential to rational policies are frustrated by the felt need to defend an ideology. Unevaluated and possibly erroneous information is avidly seized upon to prove a point and support a theory.

3. Culpable conspiracies: When events do not proceed as theories would suggest, the ideologue looks for conspiracies and scapegoats. Labels are used to denounce the ``Eastern elite,'' the ``pragmatists,'' the ``appeasers,'' ``the established media,'' or ``the reactionaries,'' as the case may be. The ensuing argument over epithets can obscure critical issues and difficult choices.

4. Suspected loyalties: Labels are applied, not just to groups, but to individuals. The question becomes ``Is that person one of us?'' rather than ``Is that person competent?'' The questions apply equally to those in the political realm and to those career professionals suspect because they have served other administrations.

5. Symbolic issues: Single issues, whether it be the MX missile, support for the contras in Nicaragua, disinvestment in South Africa, or particular human rights violations, are seized upon as measures for determining ideological loyalty. The result is to skew a policy process that must put each issue in the broader context of balancing a complex variety of issues and interests.

To those of us who have seen the diplomatic and intelligence reporting of totalitarian regimes or have observed the polarized politics of another country, the dangers of an ideological emphasis are real. In the former case, the reporting tends to say only that which fits the accepted ideology of a regime; important nuances and contrary facts are lost. Serious miscalculations of policy can result.

Ideologically polarized politics can bring bitterness, violence, and the destruction of national cohesion to a degree we have seldom seen in this country. The existence of the seeds of such an approach in our own country is frightening.

There is, of course, a place for ideals in the making of policy. Our nation is built on ideology, but that ideology is one that embraces, not the narrow advocacy of a rigid theory, but the continuing search for new truths.

The ideologue tends to talk of the need for a ``revolution.'' Revolutions tear societies apart. The greater need in our society today would seem to be the search for a consensus that takes into account the variety of our interests and our origins.

Our system exists on principles that tolerate differences and accept compromises. Both are necessary if a policy is to gain wide support at home and respond to realities abroad. There is a place for ideology, but in the caldron of decisionmaking, rigid adherence to a single perspective can spell disaster.

David D. Newsom is associate dean and director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.

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