The Foreign Service Journal - December 2013 - page 37

But FSOs can fall prey to our own assumptions or precon-
ceived views as easily as anyone else if we are not careful. Any
doubters should read Daniel Kahneman’s
Thinking, Fast and
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), a recent classic in the
fields of psychology and behavioral economics. As I read it, I
recognized how easily I have fallen into many of the traps he
identifies: such as, assuming others think like me and being
unduly optimistic.
One example comes from my work as an economic officer
in Venezuela. Because President Hugo Chavez’s economic
policies seemed absurd, it took me longer than it should have
to understand, then frame for policymakers, why they worked
for him (at least initially). I first had to identify my underlying
assumption—there is never a good reason for sustaining eco-
nomically damaging policies—and then allow Pres. Chavez’s
political success to inform it.
I overcame my preconceived views first and foremost by
seeking the views of a range of academics and practitioners
who were struggling with the same questions. Their perspec-
tives challenged mine and, over time, helped me reframe and
refine my analysis. It wasn’t necessary to be an expert on Ven-
ezuela’s economy, politics or history. But it was necessary to
keep an open mind, developing new insights that allowed me
to weave an increasingly coherent explanation for why Chavez
pursued “21st-century socialism” despite the economic ills it
was causing.
If I teach another foreign policy course, I’ll know better
how to weave history into it, and be better prepared to advise
students on effective ways to use it in the policy process. By
all means, they should dive into history and consider how
it informs debates about current issues, but they should not
settle for easy answers.
Meanwhile, as an FSO in the field, I will be much more
conscious of ways to help policymakers avoid some of the
pitfalls I’ve highlighted here—and, I hope, of my own blind
spots. For that, I thank my students.
FSOs can fall prey to
our own assumptions or
preconceived views as
easily as anyone else if
we are not careful.
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