The first step, of course, is to understand the possibility: what it says and what it doesn’t. This almost inevitably means reading the description of the possibility, and the reasoning behind it, and paying attention to the words that describe it. We did this the other night in an IF public discussion of one of the possibilities in my Democratic Nation Building report. The possibility is called ‘Forget About Building Democratic Nations Abroad’. Some people might think that this should be all that is necessary to understand it. And its description⎯‘This possibility would have us forgo all active efforts to build democratic nations abroad’⎯seems straightforward and simple and clear. But it still took an hour of discussion or so before the seven people sitting around the table were all on the same page about what it actually means.
I have sometimes heard people say that the language in our reports is too sophisticated and that it may sometimes even prevent people from understanding what a possibility means. But I, like Pogo, think that we have met the enemy and he is us. For my own sense is that it is more often the conceptual and political baggage that we carry into a discussion⎯our personal expectations and our philosophical presuppositions and our political prejudices and what we have heard on TV and our reluctance to take the time to read something, let alone carefully⎯that prevents us from understanding what is clearly described on a page in front of us.
Why do I think this? Because I usually find that the people who misinterpreted a possibility will quickly agree that they have done so after someone points it out to them.
In this particular case, there were two pieces of baggage that stood in the way⎯a suitcase and a carry-on. The suitcase was the fact that there are currently a lot of isolationist policy possibilities in the air⎯and the presupposition that this possibility must, of course, be one of them. The carry-on was the presupposition that every nation-building project must be a democratic nation-building project.
The suitcase led some participants to think that ‘Forget About Building Democratic Nations Abroad’ would forbid us from pursuing relationships with foreign countries at all⎯which might be a reason for some people to support it and for others to oppose it. The carry-on led some participants to think that the possibility would forbid us from engaging in nation building projects that do not aim at spreading democracy abroad, such as offering foreign aid to underdeveloped countries with no political strings involved (as China currently does)⎯which might be another good reason for some people to support it and for others to oppose it.
But is this what the possibility actually says?
⎯⎯‘Look at the first paragraph in the second column where it says ‘Far from being an isolationist policy, this possibility would encourage us to pursue our economic, military, and geo-political interests openly instead of linking them to spreading democracy abroad’.
⎯⎯ ‘Look at the first paragraph in the second column where it says that this possibility ‘would not prevent us from offering foreign aid, or from participating in nation building projects in underdeveloped countries, or from offering humanitarian aid to countries that need it.’
⎯⎯ ‘Oh yeah!’
It wasn’t that anyone had any difficulty understanding what these sentences mean. And it wasn’t that they didn’t take the time to read the description of the possibility (though I am told that that sometimes happens). It was simply that their presuppositions about the area of concern and the policy possibilities for addressing it had somehow prevented them from taking these sentences on board.
Understanding what a policy possibility says is the first step toward evaluating it. And it may be especially difficult if the possibility says something new or something you don’t expect. It often means getting down and dirty with the language that describes it. And there’s not too much you can do to get around it. You certainly can’t do it with pictures. They may, no doubt, be worth a thousand words. But they do not say or mean any one of them. And while developing a policy possibility may be a fine art, the possibilities themselves are much more like laws. They are articulated in language. They are supposed to mean something fairly definite⎯this, and not that⎯and we may actually need to rewrite them if they don’t. They may, of course, be subject to different interpretations. And they may stimulate you to think about different possibilities. But they can’t mean anything you like⎯they would be more or less meaningless if they did⎯even if it does sometimes take a judge or two to say what they currently mean for us. And ignorance, just like in court, is no excuse here.
Understanding what a policy possibility says is the first step toward evaluating it. But you obviously do not need to understand what a policy possibility means in order to discuss it with your friends or neighbors, or even to discuss it intelligently. That, on the contrary, is a large part of what our public discussions are all about. For the process of coming to understand a possibility is the process of exploring its description and the concerns that inspired it, and what it would permit and forbid, and how it might differ from other possibilities for addressing the same governance concerns. You do, however, need to know what the possibility means, and what it does not mean, if you want to evaluate it. For otherwise you are quite literally evaluating something else.