“Problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.” Albert Einstein
Wisdom: The Missing Agency of Foreign Policy
by Charles Strohmer
In The Mighty and the Almighty, Madeleine Albright writes that in university she was taught that religion had no part in shaping the world of foreign policy. Hans Morgenthau, George Kennan, and Dean Acheson, she writes, theorized in almost exclusively secular terms. Religion wasn’t rational. To talk about it invited trouble and diplomats were taught not to invite trouble. “This was the understanding that guided me while I was serving as President Clinton’s ambassador to the United Nations and secretary of state.” Because of the events of September 11, 2001, however, “I have had to adjust the lens through which I view the world.”
Wisdom has suffered a fate similar to that of religion, and an adjustment is needed. The seeking of wisdom for foreign policy decision making often gets been trumped by rigid a priori reliance on forms of ideological thinking, such as American exceptionalism or political realism, idealism, or neoconservatism. Wisdom is often the first casualty when an ideological frame becomes the only grid through which leaders and their advisers analyze events and take decisions.
Part of the reason why wisdom gets such short shrift can be found in the universities. The philosophical starting point for studies in international relations and foreign policy can be traced historically to the roughly one-hundred-and-fifty-year period of classical Greek philosophy and its highly abstract thinking during the fifth and fourth centuries before the time of Christ. From this period, IR scholarship relies heavily on Thucydides, Plato, and Aristotle, especially Plato. As Alfred North Whitehead once quipped, “All Western philosophical thinking consists of footnotes to Plato.”
This starting point is understandable given the foundational indebtedness that Western intellectual life owes to Plato’s theory of Forms, or Ideas, as archetypal ideals, including the array of Western political ideologies for shaping the state, for instance, or for what justice should be. Political ideologies affect analyses and decisions in many areas, such as the way leaders make sense of international relations and forge relationships with one another; the way one nation perceives another; the way states act toward one another; the momentum, or lack of it, in negotiations; and much more besides, including decisions about peace and war.
But IR studies do not go back far enough. There is much insight to be gained by going back to the wisdom tradition of the Ancient Near East, to a time when royal court officials were educated in the wisdom tradition and the agency of wisdom played a vital diplomatic role in creating and sustaining peaceable international periods. This area of research has been sorely neglected by IR scholarship. Even impressive works such as Amarna Diplomacy and Brotherhood of Kings do not consider the vital role of wisdom in ANE diplomacy. That role, however, is seen in many of the political narratives of the Bible and in its wisdom literature, as well as in the wisdom literature of other ANE cultures.
Granted, the Bible frequently shows ancient Israel and her neighbors at war with one another, and the prophets often criticize Israel and its kings for their failures to do justice. Also, the nations of the ANE were no less religiously ideological, for instance, than those of today’s Middle East. Nevertheless, in the wisdom literature, and in some of the Psalms, and in numerous political narratives elsewhere in the Bible, there is preserved for us evidence of the peaceable counsel of wisdom that rulers, their advisers, and the peoples should heed.
This has been the focus of my research on The Wisdom Project, part of which has included trying to approximate the sages’ wisdom-based way of reasoning about life, which is not the same as ancient Israel’s priestly or prophetic actors. One of the most remarkable discoveries has been to find that wisdom is not abstract, ideological, or theoretical, nor is it sectarian. Instead, the agency of wisdom is personal (relational), peaceable, and committed to the mutual good of all humankind within its diversity.
In the second article of this 2-part series, I want to consider three norms of the wisdom tradition: personalness, peaceableness, and mutuality. These norms were vital to the diplomatic skills of royal court officials who had been educated in the wisdom tradition, and they offer insight into an historically sound, realistic, and non-ideological way of reasoning for analyzing and potentially resolving our thorny IR conflicts.
©2014 by Charles Strohmer
This article was first published in Capital Commentary, here.