Intergenerational Forgetfulness: Winning the Cold War and preventing WWIII are not necessarily the same goal

As the political nominating season in the U.S. wears on, presidential candidates have been making statements about foreign policy that would signal a significant change in direction. What has been striking about these comments is a seeming ignorance about why current policies are in place and what could occur if these policies are radically changed.

We believe these calls for change are the result of “intergenerational forgetfulness.” When policymakers implement an initial policy regime, they tell their successors why such policies were deployed and guide their “children” to stay on course. The next generation becomes less aware of the benefits of that policy but is acutely cognizant of the costs. Eventually, younger policymakers reverse the policy, only to discover later why the original policy was made in the first place.

A complementary concept that goes along with intergenerational forgetfulness is policy dilemma. Virtually all policies are dilemmas. In logic, a dilemma contains two choices, neither of which is ideal. In other words, both policy choices carry significant costs and whichever one is chosen will create costs for some part of the electorate.

Unfortunately, all policies are “sold” to the public on the positive merits alone. As the costs of the policy become increasingly obvious, the political support for such policies erodes over time. At some point, the costs of the current policy will lead to a significant sacrifices that were contrary to American ideals. However, the other three imperatives have steadily been forgotten. Democratizing the Middle East is a noble goal. However, unless the U.S. is willing to undertake a long occupation similar to what it did in Japan and Europe, undermining the autocracies of the region are bound to devolve into the creation of more “natural” nation-states based on common ethnic, racial and sectarian affiliations. That almost certainly means the straight lines drawn by Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot during WWI would be changed.

The process of changing them, as displayed by the conflict over IS, would not be smooth. Thus, the plans to oust Saddam Hussein and instill democracy in the region were fraught with risk. The refugee crisis in Europe is also a result of this change in policy. Recent comments from some of the presidential candidates about ending our involvement in NATO or allowing Japan to have its own nuclear deterrent open up the possibility that these frozen conflicts in Europe and the Far East will “thaw” and create the potential for major wars Winning the Cold War and preventing WWIII are not necessarily the same goal.

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