Occasionally, a senior international policymaker provides a candid, on-the-record, reflection on the question of what he or she reads, and how academics might best influence policy.

Jean-Marie Guéhenno, who was head of the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations from 2000-2008, is a prime example of a self-identified intellectual who took on a very senior policymaking position, who has provided us with an insight into this. In the prologue to his book, The Fog of Peace: A memoir of international peacekeeping in the 21st century (Washington DC: Brookings, 2015).

Guéhenno reflects on this question. His passage is worth quoting at some length:

Before I became the head of peacekeeping, I had a reputation as an intellectual rather than as an operator. I never thought that being characterized as an intellectual should be taken as an insult, although I know that it usually does not help a career to be called an intellectual or a thinker. It suggests that you cannot operate but does not guarantee that you can really think. Having had to become an operator, I have not lost my respect for thinking, but I do believe that a lot of the “thinking” that goes on is useless for operators. The most useless way to pretend to help is to offer detailed, specific solutions, or recipes. There are dozens of political science books that look like “how to” books. They do not have the texture of life and therefore fall off the hand. Operators do not read much. They do not have the time. I, who was an avid reader, read much less during those eight years [at the U.N.] than I used to. And the more operational I became, the less interested I was in operational books. I would either read memoirs, history books, or real philosophy. What I needed was the fraternal companionship of other actors before me who had had to deal with confusion, grapple with the unknown, and yet had made decisions. What I also needed was the solidity of true abstraction and the harmony of good visual art (music does not do it for me; I can hardly sing the French national anthem). What I needed was, in times of difficulty, distance of the mind.

The unfortunate truth is, however, that when you are immersed in action, you live mostly on the intellectual capital you acquired beforehand; you draw on it. You may be accumulating, in some corner of your brain, new patterns, new chains of thinking that will eventually help you, but you are not really aware of it, and you certainly do not have the time to reflect on it.

When I now reflect on what helped me most, I find it is not the knowledge that the bureaucrats who determine how to conduct an interview in the UN would characterize as “directly relevant.” What I knew about specific crisis situations, or about institutional procedures, would quickly be outdated, often insufficient, while a well-drafted note could tell me all I needed to know. What helped me, what I could not find in any note, was the philosophical and ethical framework I had acquired in my classical studies.

This resonates closely with my own experience of working with senior mediators, UN officials and similar people. Insofar as they read the reports of (for example) the International Crisis Group, Human Rights Watch or others, it is not for analysis or prescriptions for policy, it is out of curiosity about the line that those groups are taking. When they read politics, it is the “real politics” of transactions and decision-making under situations of stress, urgency and uncertainty—the politics of “who, whom” (qua Lenin). With a few notable exceptions, the only quantitative or “scientific” materials they read are economics.

 

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