Earlier this year, rapper-cum-rocker-cum-former tabloid fixture Kid Rock revealed that then-President Donald Trump had sought his advice on weighty matters of U.S. foreign policy: “‘What do you think we should do about North Korea?’ I’m like, ‘What? I don’t think I’m qualified to answer this.’”
I occasionally think of Mr. Rock’s admirably Socratic response whenever I see the latest public debate over important geopolitical questions, during which the opinions of “subject matter experts” are sought out and given pride of place. What is it, after all, that confers expertise? Since ancient Athens, this question has been a tricky one for democracies, which prioritise equality over superiority. Historically, geopolitics has always proven one of the most aristocratic of human pursuits — the provenance of Cardinal Richelieu and Prince Metternich and Otto von Bismarck, none of whom had to appeal to a popular audience.
In his essay on (of all things) English-language dictionaries, David Foster Wallace argues that experts in a democracy have a particular hurdle to surmount: they have to persuade listeners of their authority without alienating them through elitism. We have dealt with this problem by assigning authority to a largely technocratic class, whose rhetorical claims rest upon specialised expertise — think doctors or accountants — rather than some political right to rule.
This has given rise to what I have come to think of as the “Krugman phenomenon”. Paul Krugman, you may recall, is a trained economist who has used his sinecure at the opinion page of the New York Times to discourse on geopolitics, democratic theory, race relations, constitutional law, congressional races, et very much cetera.
Of course, Krugman has no greater standing to declaim on these topics than most other people. Yet this is the process by which nominal expertise in one area is laundered into political authority. It’s a neat trick and a sneaky form of rhetorical arbitrage, and he is hardly alone. What gives living malaprop factory Thomas Friedman the authority to speak on international affairs? Or David Brooks on virtue ethics?
If the NYT masthead represents the modern apotheosis of our obsession with expertise, the Vox “explainer” is its postmodern apotheosis, wherein the very idea of technocratic expertise stands for itself in the absence of actual, well, experts. In practice this mostly cashes out as having a readership that learns of a given subject from a writer who has just Googled it fifteen minutes prior.
Public health experts reliably tacked with the political winds
Nor is this sort of expertise-for-its-own-sake limited to the genre of “explainer journalism”. Keen observers of official COVID-messaging couldn’t fail to note how many of the same public health experts reliably tacked with the political winds: from informing us that worry over COVID-19 was just barely-disguised anti-Chinese bigotry, to insisting that we cut off all human contact indefinitely, to explaining that the cause of anti-racism in fact justified taking to the streets en masse during the pandemic, and so on and so forth. Expertise in this case increasingly came down not to a proven track record of accurate predictions or wise proposals, but to the unchanging status wielded by the members of a technocratic class itself.
The same goes for our contemporary experts on geopolitics. It is this model that has given us Thomas Friedman, Fareed Zakaria, Parag Khanna and Ian Bremmer, among others: self-styled public intellectuals with flashy resumes who provide the appearance of knowledge about the most consequential global developments for an audience that knows enough to be interested in such things but not enough to separate the ephemeral from the enduring.
The latest scion in this not-terribly-august lineage appears to be one Bruno Maçães. Interestingly, he possesses some practical experience as a former Portuguese Secretary of State for European Affairs. In his role of roving geopolitical public intellectual, he rarely draws on such quotidian matters, however, tending instead toward grandiose and unfalsifiable claims about the future of world politics. For some years now, he has published a book approximately every year, each with portentous titles like “Dawn of Eurasia” and “History Has Begun”.
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he has vastly increased his social media presence as well, padding his literary output with instantly-refutable tweets, such as claiming that Russia has never been part of Europe or that Germany’s decision to rely on Russian natural gas is the greatest foreign policy blunder in a century. The point of this commentary is neither to demonstrate facility with the history of world politics nor to educate readers, but to maintain the writer’s place in “the conversation”.
Eventually he too will be replaced by another, but the song will remain the same: ambitious yet strangely hollow pronouncements that give the appearance of challenging establishment bromides even as they affirm them all the while. Such is the bread and butter of an expert class that is at once industrious and lazy.
Largely academic credentials must stand in for accomplishments
When it comes to geopolitical acumen there is little substitute for both wide and deep knowledge of the history of diplomacy and war, combined with that certain ineffable quality of judgement that Thucydides called the greatest sign of genius. As for the latter, almost daily it seems prominent figures log onto the internet with the sole intention of proving their lack of it. In lieu of the kind of education that might provide such things, we are left with a class of experts whose largely academic credentials must stand in for their accomplishments. None of them can be bothered to ask themselves Raymond Aron’s famous question: “What would you do if you were the minister?”
Of course, the reader might be wondering at this point: by what authority do you pass such judgments? Here I must confess what I should have disclosed at the outset: I myself possess a master’s degree in international relations and a doctorate in political science.
Does this mean then that I am no better than those whom I criticise? My claim is at least to some expertise in the matter of knowing those who claim it for themselves. When confronted with their resume-polishing and credential-mongering, I can only think of the exchange from The Princess Bride in which Inigo Montoya seeks to gain the trust of the Man in Black:
“Would it help if I gave you my word as a Spaniard?”
“No good — I’ve known too many Spaniards!”
So, too, with me and the great menagerie of geopolitical experts.
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