Summary of remarks at AAG panel on Foreign Policy

Updated below.

I was asked to be on a panel at the Washington DC meetings of the Association of American Geographers (AAG) on foreign policy and geography. The panel was organized by members of the Department of State Office of the Geographer and Jerry Dobson (American Geographical Society). More details are here.

We were asked two questions:

1) Why are geographers not more involved in foreign policy formulation? Here the conveners were thinking of Isaiah Bowman and his work with Presidents Wilson and Roosevelt.

2) How can geographers be a resource for policymaking? Here the stated  concern was that the USA went into the Iraq war (among others) without sufficient knowledge of that country and that this led to mistaken policy and undesirable outcomes.

I found the agenda of the panel and the other speakers to be heavily tilted toward an unproblematic acceptance of the assumptions behind these questions. For example, it was assumed that we should be more involved with government policymaking, and that it was a lack of sufficient and specific knowledge of foreign territories that led to undesirable outcomes.

I began therefore by asking if these are the right questions. Rather than a lack of specific knowledges, I suggested, 1) there is rather a lack of engagement with the political formation of those knowledges, and how knowledges are deployed politically, and 2) that a viable role of the geographer as scholar or academic is to provide oversight or critique of governmental actions.

1) Political formation of knowledges.  These two terms, power (politics) and knowledges are best understood together. As Clausewitz famously remarked “war is an extension of politics by other means.” War is not a separate activity that takes place after the politics has finished or the negotiations have failed. It is part of politics.

Therefore, it is not just a question of academics such as geographers giving knowledge or advice (as the other panelists insisted) but of the politics of foreign policy knowledges. Academics need to play politics if they’re going to play knowledge.

Here one could digress on Foucault’s power/knowledge and the historical conditions of knowledge but I’ll gloss over this familiar material.

My examples on the panel were the Inquiry and the OSS. the Inquiry was like today’s think tanks, they didn’t just “advise” but characterized foreign policy of the post-war USA in certain ways (racialized territories, livability of African colonies) in tune with context of the time (eugenics and immigration policy).

When the politics are ignored then this allows for the Human Terrain System (HTS) and Mexico Indigena.

2) Oversight or critique. Traditionally government oversight has occurred in two arenas; Congress, and Investigative Journalism. Both of these are in retreat or worse, explicitly complicit in rejecting those roles. Perhaps the most significant news oversight on the war was performed by the New York Times story on warrantless wiretaps. Although the NYT did publish the story, they agreed to sit on the story for a year at the request of the Bush administration until after the presidential election.

So here the alternative question is what or how academics can best form alliances with groups to pursue oversight. For example, Wikileaks, which has the support of an cross-party agreement in Iceland (IMMI) on the protection of journalism. Iceland passed this initiative having learned from the financial crisis that secret back-room deals done by bankers are harmful, and that government should be open.

As became a lot clearer this summer after the panel, Wikileaks is in a position to release very important material. Its “collateral murder” video has been seen 7.4 million times on YouTube. Reuters had actually filed a FOIA request in this case for the video but had had no response, and it only came to light by being leaked through Wikileaks.

That is the gist of my remarks–nothing too remarkable one might think, but completely at odds with the other panelists and the impulse behind the panel. I think subsequent events with Wikileaks releasing 92,000 documents and the continued decline of open government under President Obama (see today’s ruling highlighted in the previous entry) have however only proved me right.

Perhaps if Congress and traditional journalism continue to abandon their oversight responsibilities  the gap can be filled by activist bloggers like Marcy Wheeler, Glenn Greenwald etc (name your favorites).

Update (Sept. 13, 2010). Confirming my interpretation made in my remarks above from last spring is news out of Iceland over this past weekend:

An Icelandic parliamentary commission on Saturday recommended that the country’s former prime minister and three other former governmental ministers be tried for negligence for their roles in the country’s 2008 financial crisis. The nine-member Special Investigation Committee (SIC) published a 274-page report [text, in Icelandic; press release, in Icelandic] confirming a preliminary report [materials, in Icelandic; JURISTreport] published in April that found the extremely negligent actions of Iceland’s former prime minister Geir Haarde, former foreign minister Solrun Gisladottir [official profiles, in Icelandic], former commerce minister Bjoergvin Sigurdsson, and former finance minister Arni Mathiesen[official profiles] were to blame for the country’s financial crisis and the collapse of three Icelandic banks.

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