Who are the members of the US foreign policy community?

by Henry Farrell on February 14, 2008

“Spencer Ackerman”:http://www.washingtonindependent.com/view/michael-ohanlon has a nice hit-job on Michael O’Hanlon at the _Washington Independent_ (which is rapidly becoming indispensable) which makes me wonder who the foreign policy community is that should be disavowing him.

Michael O’Hanlon is a Brookings Institution defense expert who doesn’t actually know anything about defense. He does, however, know how to be a reliable barometer of what very-slightly-left-of-center establishment types believe should be said about defense. … If anyone in the foreign-policy community respects O’Hanlon, I haven’t met him or her. … Today in the Wall Street Journal, O’Hanlon’s got yet another tendentious op-ed, in which he bravely subdues yet another straw man on the left. …Harder to understand is how the foreign-policy establishment doesn’t put him out to pasture.

My experience is the same – I’ve never met anyone who is prepared to say nice things about Michael O’Hanlon in a non-public setting. Nevertheless, the consensus it that he _is_ , as Spencer says, a member of the foreign policy community (FPC), even if he doesn’t get much respect in private. The same is true of other people who I don’t have much time for, such as Max Boot and Robert Kagan, but I’ve heard different opinions about William Kristol (some claim he’s a made man in the FPC, others that he’s at best an associated hoodlum). Part of the problem with saying that the foreign-policy establishment, or the foreign policy community should exclude someone is that there isn’t any good definition of what that establishment or community is, let alone a central membership committee. There are clearly some central institutions in the FPC, such as the Council on Foreign Relations, but not everybody who is a member of the FPC is a member of the CFR by any means, nor is every member of the CFR a member of the FPC (while “Angelina Jolie”:http://www.people.com/people/article/0,,20041839,00.html gets considerably more respect from foreign policy types than you might think, and apparently deserves it, I don’t think that she qualifies as a fully fledged member of the FPC). Nor can you point to any specific set of professional qualifications or job titles – people whom I (and others I have talked to) think of as members of the FPC include diplomats, journalists, political scientists and policy wonks.

Given the vagueness of boundaries, the best definition I’ve been able to come up with is the following. Anyone who has a credible chance of being able to publish a single authored article in one of a small number of key journals qualifies as a member of the foreign policy community. The list of journals would certainly include _Foreign Affairs_ and _Foreign Policy_ ; I think that there is a strong case to be made too for _The National Interest_ and _The American Interest._ There may be one or two others, depending on how expansively you want to define it. These journals provide, in a sense, a sort of rough and ready credentialling mechanism. I’m interested in this because one day I’d like to write something longer about what went wrong with this community in the debate (or lack of same) in the run-up to the Iraq war – obviously this is something you can’t start thinking about clearly until you have some idea of what the foreign policy community actually is. Disagreements, qualifications and alternative definitions welcomed, of course.

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Dissing Michael O’Hanlon : Global Dashboard
02.15.08 at 9:11 am



Brian Schmidt 02.14.08 at 8:24 pm

Credentialing is good. Getting rid of O’Hanlon is almost better.

This seems like the perfect case for a journalist who’s trusted by the FPC to do an anonymous survey of a decent number of them about O’Hanlon, and publish the results.


otto 02.14.08 at 8:43 pm

The FPC is more or less defined by the scope of acceptable debate of the US political parties (i.e. the policies they currently hold, and the limited set of alternatives considered worthy of debate). The reason why the FPC spread of opinion seems to be truncated by O’Hanlon at one end and Kristol at the other, is that that is the range of opinions acceptable to the political parties, who in turn are much more affected by single-issue lobbies, including ethnic lobbies and arms manufacturers (or their fronts).

I certainly don’t think political scientists – even IR scholars – are part of the FPC, since their views often fall well outside the scope of acceptable debate as the political parties define it.


P O'Neill 02.14.08 at 11:51 pm

One aspect of the FPC is how right-wing on average it is. The Atrios joke about how the range of acceptable opinion runs from The New Republic to Free Republic. This can lead to a situation where someone who surely has the right credentials is not in the FPC because they are too “left”. Note for instance the apparent attempt to tag Samantha Power (advising Obama) as outside the range of acceptable opinion over one quote about that business in Jenin a few years ago.


SG 02.15.08 at 12:33 am

Funny, I thought a member of the FPC was anyone who was willing to believe everything their government told them, accept “intelligence” uncritically, demonise nations and races according to the latest interests of their government, and lead us into trumped up, patently and obviously stupid wars for nothing more than a think-tank sinecure. Aren’t those credentials enough?


otto 02.15.08 at 8:41 am

One aspect of the FPC is how right-wing on average it is

One aspect of American politics as a whole is how right wing on average it is.


GreatZamfir 02.15.08 at 9:12 am

Are the people who write in Foreign Affairs really the most important people in foreign policy? When reading some of their articles, especially more generalizing pieces, I am usually left thinking ” you know more about this than I do, but I hope there are people who know more than you”. Somehow this supports the feeling that there are other, silent people who really know their stuff and are the real power.

Bu I realize this might be like onion peeling: if you look behind th opions to find the real decision makers, there might be nothing in the core.


Dhez 02.15.08 at 10:23 am

greatzamfir, Foreign Affairs is THE foreign policy magazine. It is the trendsetter for U.S. international relations. When you say there are others behind the scenes, well look no further than who publishes Foreign Affairs – The Council on Foreign Relations. Of course, if you were to mention who publishes FA you’d be screamed down by right-wing pundits as a “conspiracy theorist” (because apparently there are no powerful people who meet in roundtables and discuss how the planet is going, because you know, nothing on planet earth is planned or thought about from a macro perspective because that is God’s job).


otto 02.15.08 at 11:21 am

Somehow this supports the feeling that there are other, silent people who really know their stuff and are the real power

There are people who really know their stuff and there are people who are the real power, but these are two entirely separate groups.

The first is probably best characterised by top scholars at leading research universities plus one or two outsiders; the latter by organised interests such as arms manufacturers, the cuban lobby etc. Foreign Affairs is the meeting point – the intersection – between the two, where people who are reasonably knowledgeable who also advocate policy views that are compatible with US political biases publish and mingle.


Mike Otsuka 02.15.08 at 11:39 am

Anyone who has a credible chance of being able to publish a single authored article in one of a small number of key journals qualifies as a member of the foreign policy community. The list of journals would certainly include Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy.

So Mike Huckabee, sole author (if the byline is to believed) of a piece in the Jan/Feb issue of Foreign Affairs, is, or at least recently was, a member of the FPC!!!


Weston 02.15.08 at 1:44 pm


Maybe you’re joking. But if not, Henry did say the journal test was a rough and ready mechanism. It should also be pointed out that Foreign Affairs probably wouldn’t have gone anywhere near Huckabee’s piece if he hadn’t been a viable candidate for the presidency; and if he were to become president (please God, no) he would thereby become a de facto member of the FPC. Maybe this even supports Henry’s case, if candidate essays in FA should be thought of as a sort of ‘application’ for membership in the community.


samm 02.16.08 at 12:00 am

My opinion about foreign policy journals: Foreign Policy is the most consistent. I subscribed to most during the last two years. I am still trying to get my refund back from The American Interest, six months now. I grown tired of Holocaust stories.

There are so many other problems around the world that they should be writing about each quarter.


e julius drivingstorm 02.17.08 at 9:12 am

Perhaps if you yourself wanted to become a card-carrying member of the FPC, you need only determine something the administration is predisposed to do and write a paper strongly supporting or ineffectually opposing its imminent action. They’ll find you on Google.

I have some ideas myself. I just don’t want to give them any.

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