Leon Fuerth Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Thinking about the Future: Conversation with Leon Fuerth,
Research Professor of International Affairs, Elliott School, George Washington University; February 7, 2005 by Harry Kreisler

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What advice would you give students if they want to prepare for the kind of policy work that you are describing here, and that you're suggesting has to be the way we address the future?

I don't think there's any one particular path to this. It's a really good question. It brings me almost to a full stop.

Students are always having to acquire credentials. That's what going to a university is generally about, right? You have to pick a major. You have to pick a department. You have to pick a program. You have to pick a dissertation topic. You have to progressively define yourself, and in the process, narrow the range of things that you consider yourself to be expert in. In fact, you positively desire that you shall be recognized as an expert in something which is more and more tightly defined.

A discipline.

Yes. I can't advise students to go off and become generalists, because generalists may find that they are underemployed and underpaid. But it is the generalist frame of mind that allows you to start looking over the tops of all these fences, and look for and find the way in which they interact. So I would say to those students who feel that their curiosity about more things than just one discipline is a deficiency, it's not. It's probably a strength. Trust yourself. And to other students who are fascinated by detail, my advice would be at some point keep your mind open to the complexity of things and to their interrelationships.

You have been on this trajectory, from what I heard, all the way from your eighth grade class where you listened to the scientist argue with the rabbinical types. There is a theme of principle, but also applying rationality to think about the future.

But you've also been embedded in these institutions -- the Presidency, the Congress -- where the theory of democracy plays itself out. How do you see these trajectories coming together? Is planning and thinking in the future, in the long-run, good for the working through of democracy and democratic theory? Are there obstacles in the road in combining these two?

I had a guest who came to join me in a lecture, who said a very savvy thing from his experience in the Navy. He quoted an aphorism that, "The plan is nothing. Planning is everything." In terms of how I view policy, it is necessary to make decisions about what our policy is going to be, and it's necessary to execute those decisions, but it is folly to then forget about them and wait until they malfunction in a very serious fashion, because you can be sure that sooner or later, they inevitably will. No policy can resist the changes that occur in time. All policies change the world in any event, so that they have the seeds of their own obsolescence.

One of the things we do need is a deliberate pattern of returning to issues to see how they are doing at fairly frequent intervals. One of the things my students have been looking at is the general concept of feedback loops as applied to decision-making, in an effort to make sure that information that would lead you to detect malfunctioning policy is on hand and the opportunity to change is available. Now, how you get a political leader to accept the costs of change is a whole other interesting question, because any political leader who ever admits that an adjustment is needed in policy is immediately accused of zigzagging.

What do you think will be the push that leads us down the right path? Will it be the success of endeavors like the ones you're describing as we learn how to do it, and the notion that it will be a self-regulating system?

I think there is a need to do this. I don't know whether there is a strong enough push to get it done. I had plans, had Al Gore won the White House, to start an experimental system to try all this out. I'm happy that since the year 2000, I've had the opportunity to do it as a teacher, but it's very retail -- one student at a time. So maybe one day one of them will figure out how to apply the push.

Well, with that hope for the future, Leon, I want to thank you very much for joining us today and taking us down this road of your career, but also the ideas that matter to you. Thank you.

You're welcome.

Thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

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