What do we know?

Do you not know, my son, with how little wisdom the world is governed?

That’s Axel Oxenstierna, in a letter to his son Johan, circa 1648. Or Richelieu, to whom the quote has also been attributed, and who probably knew as well as Oxenstierna how fickle decision-making can be. Momentous single decisions can be taken in stride, based on little information, by politicians with little time and limited knowledge of technical matters, technicians, diplomats, soldiers, lobbies, interest groups, all with their own incentives and visions.

Single decisions in foreign policy is one of the many levels at which International History can be studied – not always the most interesting, but often the most dramatic. The Historian’s focus tightens to a few days or hours, a small number of actors, a few deeds. One has to circulate from the context to the characters, recompose the sources and content of information, factor psychology, cultural paradigms, randomness, contingencies and a million other things. Theories can point to certain useful directions, provide shortcuts, highlight patterns (the role of lobbies, etc), but the Historian often gains from a theoretically omnivore, “problem-based” approach.

So, if you had to decide, as a French Prime Minister, whether or not to recognize the independence of Finland in January 1918, while the Germans were readying for a Spring offensive and the Bolsheviks were destroying the Eastern front, what would you rely on? Your memories of the 1899-1905 press debates about the “Finnish cause”, and the generally positive image this little nation got back then? Reports about Germany’s influence in the North? Lobbying by the Finnish networks in Paris? Information by your consul in Helsinki? The advice of generals, ambassadors, politicians? Your hairdresser? Most probably, you would listen to a bit of everything, then decide on a hunch. If the matter was of little importance, like Finland seen from Paris, you would probably take even less time to consider it, and be even more sensible to possible lobbyists and their ready-made decisions and analyses. And if you were Clemenceau in January 1918, with a situation difficult to read because you didn’t really know what was going on, then you might instinctively go for whatever feels right (“Germany pulls the strings”, “The Finns are a fine people, culturally and nationally ready for independence”, “Let’s give it a try; anyway they won’t last long”, etc). When information is not clear, or it just does not feel right, preconceptions (the Duroselle/Renouvin school’s “représentations“) tend to fill in the gaps – or you just try, and decide on a hunch.

ps. Questions of information and paradigms come to the surface for example while looking at these reports released to the National Security Archives, containing the transcripts of Q&A sessions conducted in 2004 between American agents and Saddam Hussein. Hussein was interrogated by one of the few FBI agents who actually spoke arabic, George L. Piro, and the questions are about as interesting as the answers. Piro appears quite confident in the information the US used to explain their decision to go to war. To him, in 2004, Iraq’s WMD capability and contacts with international terrorism still look like a given – there is a feel throughout the interviews that Piro does not actually believe Hussein’s denegations. If you must consider whether Iraq had WMD, who are you going to believe? An old dictator or your country’s secretary of state? That’s the old joke about the guy coming early from work to find his wife in bed with his best friend. Before he can open his mouth, his friend tells him: “Now, old boy, think carefully. Who are you going to believe? Me, an old friend, or your eyes?” More often than you would think, foreign policy decision-makers decide to believe their old friend.

Check the National Security Archive’s blog, Unredacted.

pps. The question of information is not only important when you study diplomatic decisions. As citizens, while reacting to events in the world, maybe we should consider what we actually know about the situations we so liberally comment on. This is nowhere more obvious than in anything related to the Middle East these days (an illustration of that here). Maybe we should read more Olivier Roy, Hussein Ibish, French or even Australian papers before forging an opinion [thanks Arun for the two first articles].

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