Freud, where are you when we need you? Think tanks in Washington, DC and across the land are furiously issuing position papers in preparation for the new administration. They are full of “we need” statements. They declare: “We need to fix the climate,” “we need to stop Iran from making nuclear bombs,” “we need to restructure the UN Security Council,” and on and on. The sentiments behind these statements are often noble, and they may well find their way into high flying speeches. But they, unfortunately, ignore the main point Freud taught us.
I do not mean to look for sexual interpretations of international relations, but that its study ought to benefit from the grand insight that there are no accidents. If we have a need and it is not responded to, it is usually not because nobody has ever noted it, but because there are powerful causes that block treatment. Thus, it is hardly news that the climate is deteriorating, Iran is nuclearizing, the UN Security Council reflects the power structure of 1945, and so on. A serious analysis needs to lay bare the obstacles faced by those seeking to deal with these problems—and point out the way these may be overcome.
Take the relatively simple matter of changing the composition of the Security Council. Surely Britain and France, two has-been powers, are not entitled to the same status and veto power as the big powers—US, China, and arguably Russia. Rationally, they should be replaced by, say, one vote each for the EU, India, Japan, Brazil, and the African Union, or some other such list, all too easy to draw up. However, it does not take a PhD in international relations — or anything else — to realize that Britain and France are not about to rush to pack up and leave, or that the big powers are not ready to dilute their clout by granting other nations the same privileges. And given that it is hard enough to gain consensus among the five veto powered members, are we really served by increasing the number?
I am not arguing that one cannot deal with such entrenched problems, but we can do so only if we look below the surface and understand why these problems are entrenched and figure out ways to dig them up. Declaring that “we need to reform the UN” is an opening sentence of a policy analysis, not a substitute for it.
Or, look at one other case in point: stopping the genocide in Sudan. Part of the problem is that China, which has a special relationship with Sudan based on economic interests, especially concerning China’s quest for energy, is not supporting serious action via the UN. The US is ambivalent because the Sudanese government is helping the West with intelligence about Al Qaeda. Also, the US military is overstretched, depleted, and exhausted; it cannot take on another major mission. The African Union forces are not large enough, not properly equipped, and not properly trained. If more troops are somehow found and sent to Sudan, they may protect the refugees in their camps, but—given that Sudan is a large country—they are very unlikely to suffice to enable the displaced people to return to their villages.
I can practically hear the “we need” people exclaiming “we need a diplomatic solution.” It is a mantra worth repeating, but it does not get you very far beyond showing that your heart may be in the right place.
I do not wish to fall prey to the same serious mistake by arguing that “we need” ‘Freudian’ policy analysis without suggesting why we rarely get it, and how we might. A good place to start is by changing the training provided to future policy analysts, which is given by about twenty major universities that have public policy schools and by a few think tanks that specialize in preparing students for this vocation. This training is best provided by seasoned researchers, not has-been politicians or those waiting for the next administration.
In the process, future policy analysts will discover that there are many more needs than can be served, and learn that we better scale back our expectations and promises and focus our resources and resolve on our highest priorities—rather than spin endless lists of desiderata which are well beyond our reach.
Next, the position papers by think tanks and individual policy analysts that are long on declarations of needs should be sent to the speech writers of various elected officials, but otherwise ignored. If there will be no market for such papers, the good people who composed them may well start looking for ways to improve what they are producing, leading them to look below the surface, to conduct a sort of Freudian analysis of international relations (and domestic politics), not a moment too soon.
Amitai Etzioni is Professor of International Relations at The George Washington University. For more discussion, see his book: Security First (Yale, 2007) or www.securityfirstbook.com email: email@example.com
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