When the Big Idea dominates, nuance and discussion go out the door. So write former State Department official Halper and British diplomat Clarke in this study of recent international affairs.
The “rational center,” that populous body of experts on everything under the sun, has given way to a coterie of people who, in politics and the media, serve as talking heads on any point. Thus, argue Halper and Clarke, Paul Krugman as economist is one thing; Paul Krugman as columnist opining on all manner of subjects “is striking a dangerous bargain that jeopardizes his standing as an expert.” Ditto Noam Chomsky; ditto Samuel Huntington (whose “clash of civilizations” began life as a question mark and became a lucrative slogan); ditto an army of pundits on left and right. In the place of rational discussion by the rational center—essential in matters of foreign policy—has come the dominance of the Big Idea, the soundbite-friendly notion that, say, Vietnam is a domino that, once fallen, will take other dominoes down with it. “Islamofascism,” for instance, was coined in 1990 to describe certain authoritarian governments in the Middle East, with a very specific meaning, rather than the Bush administration’s all-purpose “derogatory term for fundamentalist terrorism.” One Big Idea the Bushies are pushing, the authors note, is that America is a “nation at war,” which relieves them of legal niceties such as habeas corpus. “Foreign affairs really do require expert knowledge and first-hand experience,” they write, “without it one is often left to fill in the blanks with total conjecture”—as, dangerously, the administration is now doing with China, since there are few China hands left and sloganeering about either a competitive hegemony in Asia or the world’s biggest market is all that is left.
Useful, though the notion of the rational center itself makes a rather Big Idea. Policy wonks, have at it.