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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 1 March 2021

Government and academia don’t talk to each other any more

The question is whether Antony Blinken and others in US President-elect Joe Biden's foreign policy team will be willing to listen to people who don't share their worldview. Reuters
The question is whether Antony Blinken and others in US President-elect Joe Biden's foreign policy team will be willing to listen to people who don't share their worldview. Reuters

When Tony Blair became Britain’s prime minister in 1997, he famously called for “joined-up government”. If there is one thing that we will need in 2021, it is a lot more joined-up thinking – and not just in government but across sectors, societies and disciplines.

This applies most obviously to how the world deals with the Covid-19 pandemic. Sharing best practices and experiences of the vaccines currently being rolled out is going to be crucial over the next few months, although there will doubtless still be a minority of conspiracy theorists and “liberty lovers” determined not to learn any lessons from the year the globe shut down.

But joined-up thinking is needed in other areas as well, most especially in the field of international relations. Over the past 10 years or so, I have been well placed to see how often governments, academia, think tanks and the mainstream media operate in silos, and don’t talk to each other even when they are dealing with the same matters.

Great depths of expertise, won over many years, may essentially go wasted, or are appreciated only within a relatively small circle – because the minister is not interested in speaking to the professor, who in any case thinks the minister is a shifty politician and not worth talking to; the think tank fails to publicise its relevant report, while all the above look down on the journalist as a generalist who doesn’t really know the subject. In theory, all of those writing on, researching, and conducting international relations ought to be informing each other, adding to each others’ sums of knowledge from their unique vantage points.

Former UK prime minister Tony Blair, pictured here in 2003, famously called for a 'joined-up government'. Getty Images
Former UK prime minister Tony Blair, pictured here in 2003, famously called for a 'joined-up government'. Getty Images

But there is huge resistance to this. A foreign ministry will frequently insist on relying only on its internal staff. Academics are often more concerned with being published in prestigious journals with minuscule readerships than educating a wider public. The think tank regards a successful conference as an end in itself, and appears to imagine that the insights aired will be spread by some kind of osmosis. The op-ed columnist has made his mind up a long time ago; why should he or she consult further?

Even within these silos there can be further barriers to dialogue. The grand theorists of “International Relations” and the local specialists of “Area Studies” have often operated as though they had little to say to each other. In all of these instances, opportunities for greater understanding are missed because many are overly convinced that their own particular lens is the best through which to see the world.

In Asia this mentality is a cause for concern about President-elect Joe Biden’s foreign policy team. Mr Biden’s picks for secretary of state and national security adviser, Antony Blinken and Jake Sullivan, are experienced, intelligent and well-regarded. But they – along with Mr Biden’s plan for a “Summit For Democracy” and all the talk of human rights – arouse suspicion that the administration will be characterised by an idealistic liberal internationalism that could shade into interventionism.

Will the Biden White House listen enough to hard-headed foreign policy realists, to historians such as Hugh Peyman, who locate the China of today within the context of its thousands of years of culture and Confucianism, to outstanding regional analysts such as Amitav Acharya, Kishore Mahbubani and Bilahari Kausikan, and to smaller nations that want to see give and take rather than confront based on ideological conviction?

This is not to suggest that anyone in Mr Biden’s team discard their perspectives (that might be welcome, but would be too much to ask). But it is to hope that they are truly well-informed, which means being prepared to listen to experts with whom they may be predisposed to disagree.

Joined-up thinking – acknowledging that Muammar Qaddafi had been key to Libya's stability – might have avoided the situation the country is in today. EPA
Joined-up thinking – acknowledging that Muammar Qaddafi had been key to Libya's stability – might have avoided the situation the country is in today. EPA

Mr Biden has first-hand knowledge of the dangers of unjoined-up thinking. When he was Barack Obama’s vice president in 2011, he and then secretary of defence Robert Gates both opposed military intervention in Libya. Mr Obama overrode them, and declared that “the dark shadow of tyranny has been lifted” after Muammar Qaddafi’s death. But far from becoming a flourishing democracy, the stability that the late “brotherly guide” had imposed with such brutality has so dissipated that the slave trade has now been re-established in the country.

I see how often governments, academia, think tanks and the mainstream media operate in silos

A little joined-up thinking – acknowledging that Qaddafi had kept fractious tribes from warring and cracked down hard on homegrown Islamist extremists – might have stayed Mr Obama’s hand and avoided the disastrous abyss into which Libya has since fallen. Similar concern about the longer-term ramifications led many of us to oppose the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq and caution against excessive western optimism in the early days of the Arab uprisings a decade ago.

The approach I am proposing will be hard for some. Those who believe, for instance, that the western model of liberal democracy is the only legitimate form of government, will find it difficult not to see China solely as a country that needs “fixing”. Too many already take that line. An Asian analyst working in Washington recently told me that anyone who tries to understand Beijing’s point of view there risks being labelled a “panda lover”.

Such arrogance needs to be tempered, and can be by consulting widely – not just with ideological opponents, but with the vast array of people who have spent careers writing about different regions, theories, histories, and cultures, from highbrow academics to hard-scrabble reporters, and more: to novelists, artists and all those who endeavour to understand the human condition in its numerous nuances.

You may not change your mind. But you may have it opened, if only just a crack. That, to me, is the value of “joined-up thinking” in an age of unquestioning partisanship.

Sholto Byrnes is an East Asian affairs columnist for The National

Updated: January 6, 2021 09:17 AM

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