Who or What Is a Foreign Policy Expert, and Where Can We Hunt Down This Mythical Beast?

Malcolm Gladwell claims that it takes roughly 10,000 hours to become an expert at anything.

I find that number suspect, primarily because you can spend any amount of time on a subject matter, without ever coming to thoroughly understand it. If you lack the critical thinking skills to connect and analyze the issues in any meaningful way, the time you put in is largely irrelevant.

Likewise, direct exposure to your area of “expertise” may substitute for many, many thousands of academic hours, when you are simply spending your time in pursuit of abstract theories, without ever getting to any realizable practical implication of your studies.

But what does it actually mean to be an expert?

  1. a person who has a comprehensive and authoritative knowledge of or skill in a particular area.
    “experts in child development”

synonyms: specialist, authority, pundit; 

1. having or involving authoritative knowledge.
“he had received expert academic advice”

synonyms: skillful, skilled, adept, accomplished, talented, fine

In foreign policy,  for instance, significant in-country time and experience is what leads to expertise; and people whose knowledge of, say, China’s, policies is largely theoretical, academic, or self-ascribed, may not necessarily find themselves to be a good fit in such circles

Admittedly, “expertise” in recent years has become an increasingly subjective term. It seems that spending a great deal of time in a particular time is no longer a requirement to be an expert, particularly, if one’s professional focus is geopolitics, rather than history, culture, language, or society of any particular country or region. In other words, there are bodies of individuals who write and present on particular regions without ever having spent much time in any of those places, without knowing their languages,  but are considered to be authoritative sources on these areas by virtue of… first, academic background and interest, second, managing to become analysts for a think tank or pundits for publications or on TV, or, at some point, having worked for the government in some capacity.  Congressional hearings and briefings, frequent publications, talks, and other types of appearances, and recognition by other self-proclaimed experts add to the area of the authority.

Curiously, people with no theological backgrounds whatsoever end up becoming “authorities” on, for instance, Islam by virtue of happening to either being raised Muslim (without necessarily any scholarship) or extensively commenting on the “Muslim world” or politics related to the Middle East.  Indeed, quite frequently, “pundits” are actually polemicists with strong opinions on various issues, who are articulate and witty… but professional expertise in any given field, is not necessarily a requirement.

To become recognized as an expert, one has to either demonstrate a great deal of knowledge on a particular subject matter, or to fit in with the right sorts of people. If one voices controversial opinions that are simply not a good fit with the establishment or that contradict recognized “authorities”, public intellectuals, and icons, one is unlikely to be published in any reputable or far-reaching sources, much less be invited to speak on the radio or appear on TV.  Never mind Congressional hearings, think tank publications, recruitment by the administration, and all the rest of it.

There are, of course, different camps of experts, in foreign policy, just as much as in any other subject. However, to be an authority, recognition is a key element. If no one recognizes you as an expert, who exactly will recognize your authority and care about your opinion? For that reason, consensus is as much of an import among foreign policy practitioners or scholars, who want to be established as experts, as it is among climate change advocates.  If X number of people agree that a particular issue should be analyzed in a particular way, that means that is the “right” way to analyze that particular issue, and if you are not with that group, either you belong in the opposing camp, or you don’t know what you are talking about at all.  The Iran nuclear deal is a prime example of how “established” “experts” became quite simply a united front against everyone else who disagreed, utilizing social media to propagate groupthink and shut down and mock dissent from the alleged non-experts.  Such experts, particularly when they have a political agendas, (many of whom do not have a real background in the issues involved) may become no more than an echo chamber of failed ideas.

However, questionable expertise does not stop with political hacks masquerading as specialists. Even relatively serious analysts with Ph.Ds., publications, and relevant skills, working for think tanks or other institutions may pursue agendas that override truthful and accurate analysis. They may be pursuing the agendas of their employers, who may wish to see a particular form of interpretation that will satisfy the ideological leanings of the donors; funding may depend on particular types of “consensus”. Also, occasionally, experts are paid off to offer particular interpretations or offered incentives to ignore other potential interpretations of particular events.  The lesson here, of course, is to avoid logical fallacies and not to rely on authority alone. That doesn’t mean that we should all ignore the educated and well-sourced opinions of people who truly do have a deeply ingrained knowledge of a particular area. That simply means not automatically assuming that someone is right simply because that someone managed to get recognized as an expert by a group of like-minded people.

Even “real” experts can be wrong.  But “real” experts will admit that they are wrong, and study the issue until they understand why and where they made a mistake, and correct course. People who merely want to be known as experts will use “consensus” of other experts as an argument unto itself.  For that reason, they actually end up being fairly accurate fairly frequently. Here are some questions to ask when presented with a claim of someone’s authority on a particular subject matter, especially if it’s something like foreign policy, which can be more tricky to evaluate than, for instance, inventions or scientific discoveries:

* What original thoughts or analysis have you developed with respect significant foreign policy or regional developments, events, issues, or controversies?

* How much evidence have you provided to substantiate your opinion? IF your expertise is in a different region, how frequently do you rely on a diversity of sources beyond Western-speaking analysts and reporting?

* What are your sources, including direct experience, which, of course, is anecdotal, and thus needs to be evaluated in context  – i.e. were you a high ranking government official? a diplomat? an intelligence officer? how much freedom do you realistically have to speak about your actual knowledge versus the skills y ou have earned that you can utilize to offer perspectives?

* What is your bias?

* Who benefits from

your interpretation? i.e. have you just visited a particular country on a junket as an analyst, journalist, or in other capacity as an influencer? Are you working for a think tank with particular affiliations or funders? Is your editor or boss a well known person from particular political circles with a particular agenda?

* What are your professional goals, and what are you hoping to achieve with your analysis?

* Who agrees with you? This part is important, because if the so-called expert largely cites to other similarly situated experts, it’s sort of circular reasoning. On the other hand, if people who agree with him are practitioners with a track record or essentially people beyond certain circles or who have no connection to this world, that is a different and very relevant information to know and understand.

* Are you willing to take risks and make predictions about outcomes? A real expert knows the area well enough to be able to deduct likely consequences of events even in a highly charged and unpredictable climate. That’s certainly not the only way to establish expertise, but it’s certainly part of the test.

*What have you been right on, and wrong on, in the past, and how did you deal with each? Have you utilized your professional triumphs with humility to learn more and deepen and vary your analysis? Have you admitted your shortcomings or failings and published retractions of your previously held positions? If you lack basic professional integrity and intellectual honesty, it actually does not matter how much you know. You are not an authority on anything.

* What are the fundamental principles you utilize in gathering your information and conducting your analysis?  For instance, if you ignore history of an ongoing conflict, and come in with an analysis devoid of context, color me skeptical.

* Do you occasionally go against the wider consensus, if your research of an issue leads you to different conclusions?

* How do you introduce yourself to your audience? I, am personally, significantly more inclined to take seriously people who call themselves “practitioners”, “journalists”, “analysts”,”activists”, or other types of specialized professionals rather than “experts”, “authorities”, and so forth. Also, if you only refer to your own publications or appearances as evidence, unless you literally found a new field or something along those lines, I tend to be suspicious. I get that “experts”, real and imaginary, have egos and earn money from free publicity, but really knowledgeable individuals should be able to cite to a variety of sources.

Notice the one question I have not asked, which would surprise many, because it’s the very first basic question asked of any expert witness anywhere:

What are your credentials?

The reality is, I couldn’t care less about credentials, particularly in a foreign policy field, UNLESS the person is a fraud, actively pretending to have had experiences or affiliations he simply has not had.

Other than that, the only thing that matters is whether the person has demonstrated a track record of being knowledgeable, accurate, and interesting, and whether he happens to be right on the issue at stake and that “rightness” is based in more than just guessing.

If you have 3 Ph. Ds. from Harvard but are consistently wrong,and furthermore, continue to utilize the dubious lens that has been serving you an ill term, your credentials will mean less than your obvious ideological fanaticism or lack of common sense.

Also, if you have worked for 10 well known think tanks, but lack original thinking, there is really no need for one more generic voice saying the same things as all other similarly situated people. *Yawn*. That may be explained by a lack of courage, as much as intellectual fraudulence. The result, however, is ultimately the same. People who provided insightful, interesting, original perspectives, that are backed by evidence, even if the events ultimately do not quite pan out, are far more intriguing than the Greek choir of supporters inevitably chiming in with similarly worded articles after someone writes something that “takes off”.

We need more original thinkers, not more dubious experts who thrive on the feeling of being part of a crowd, the “insiders” with “access”, the cool kids.

Foreign policy, as other fields, is best served by those who are willing to snap out of groupthink, think outside the box, and challenge the accepted and dangerous dogmas. So let’s think less about the number of hours it should take to become an “expert” and more about the different routes and new ways of looking at the world that can defy some of the self-perpetuating bubbles and break through the biases and ossified thinking that permeates much of the foreign policy community.

About the Author
Irina Tsukerman graduated with a JD from Fordham University School of Law in 2009 and received her BA in International/Intercultural Studies and Middle East Studies from Fordham University in 2006. Her legal and advocacy work focuses on human rights and security issue, mostly in Muslim countries. She is also involved in diplomatic outreach and relationship-building among different communities.
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