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‘Use academic knowledge to improve foreign policy’

Professor Jochem Wiers will give his inaugural lecture as Professor by Special Appointment of Dutch Foreign Policy and Policy Development today
28 June 2016
Jochem Wiers

The deal with Turkey may be under fire, but it has helped us gain control of the flow of refugees across the Aegean Sea. That was a political necessity in the European Union, where tensions were running high. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, holder of the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU, negotiated the deal with Angela Merkel and Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davuto g lu. Although Rutte’s fellow coalition member Diederik Samsom had previously sold him the plan, the ‘Samsom Plan’ actually originated from the academic Gerald Knaus. This makes the refugee deal with Turkey a prime example of how academic knowledge can contribute to effective foreign policy.

Now more than ever, with the British having voted to leave the EU, little is certain in our foreign policy. Incidents and crises dominate, and all we can do is respond as best we can. So what can we be certain about? For centuries Dutch foreign policy has been based on the three strands of peace, profits and principles. And since the Second World War the Netherlands has relied on international alliances and collaboration to achieve these: for peace and security on NATO (with the US at the fore), for prosperity on the EU (with Germany at the fore) and for law and order, human rights and justice on the multilateral system (with the UN at the fore).

Missed opportunity

However, the world is not static, so our basic principles and alliances cannot be either. This makes it our permanent duty to verify and re-evaluate these and to analyse developments in the world. An enormous amount of information is available: data, statistics, reports from advisory boards, research institutes and thinktanks, academic studies... But politicians and policymakers often need to decide fast. They do this on the basis of the information that is available at the time, implicit assumptions and their own values and intuition. They therefore make little use of academic knowledge. This is a missed opportunity, because without knowledge and deeper analysis we soon find ourselves at sea in our foreign policy.

Behavioural sciences

Two academic fields in particular can help us strengthen our foreign policy: the behavioural sciences and complexity theory. Behavioural scientists such as Daniel Kahneman teach us about the shortcomings in our thinking. He calls intuitive decisions based on limited information ‘System 1’ thinking. This is sometimes necessary, particularly if time is pressing, but it can also lead to errors: the invasion of Iraq, for instance. We therefore must force ourselves to switch to ‘System 2’ thinking wherever possible. This means looking for reference material, checking that we are answering the right question and allowing for other perspectives.

The media tends to want commentators who make firm statements and predictions. But these commentators always couch these in vague, unverifiable terms such as ‘perhaps’ ‘possibly’ or ‘probably’. The CIA funded a study by Phil Tetlock of a forecasting contest. The participants made predictions in figures and adjusted them if new information became available. This made it possible to check afterwards whether people’s forecasts were right. The results were spectacular: ‘superforecasters, volunteers who are good at recognising and avoiding cognitive traps, proved much better at forecasting than experts who had access to confidential information.

Complexity theory

Complexity theory can also help our foreign policy. This theory stretches from the natural to the social sciences. We find complex systems in nature, but also in human creations such as cities and the energy system. To understand these, you need to understand the networks and the actors within them, the social norms, the occurrence of patterns and non-lineair dynamics. You can chart a complex system and influence it to some extent, but you cannot fully control it. A complexity approach could help improve our understanding of the Middle East or the Eurozone and help us appreciate what we can and cannot change.

Policymakers and scholars should make more effort to seek each other out, to help each other, without taking on the other’s role. They can do this exchanging information and working on joint projects. We must bridge the gap, to enable policy and academia to meet in the middle, because that gap is where the interesting ideas arise, ideas that add certainty and impetus to our foreign policy.

More information

Professor Jochem Wiers, Head of the Strategic Advice Unit of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, will give his inaugural lecture as Professor by Special Appointment of Dutch Foreign Policy and Policy Development at the University of Groningen on 28 June.

Last modified:10 September 2021 2.02 p.m.
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