Some 30 years ago, at the height of the Cold War, Vladimir Bukovsky observed that if anything could bring Western democracy to its downfall, it would be “political scientists” and “Sovietologists.” Three decades have passed and there is no Soviet Union and no Sovietologists anymore. Yet, a number of totalitarian regimes have survived the Cold War and former Sovietologists have re-qualified themselves into other brands of foreign policy “experts.” Bukovsky’s observation, meanwhile, of these individuals’ “ignorance, doctrinaire attitude, and self-interest” remains highly relevant.
The latest foreign policy disaster for which the “experts” in question are responsible is the success of the North Korean nuclear program. The 15-year-long appeasement of North Korea has failed completely. Selig Harrison, the North Korea expert from Centre for International Policy, has now returned from Pyongyang and told the Congress and the public what he has heard from North Korean leaders: their nuclear warheads are now ready, and they are not going to disarm, whatever we do. The best we can hope for, according to Harrison, is to appease them to the extent where they would refrain from increasing their nuclear arsenal any further. Needless to say, that is exactly what Harrisson recommends to do.
A lot of people will be alarmed by the news Harrison has delivered, but very few would pay any attention to the personality of the messenger. This would be a great injustice to Selig Harrison, because in fact he deserves a lot of attention. He is the undisputed leader of all North Korea experts in the US - simply because he has unprecedented access to North Korean communist leaders. He has been visiting North Korea very often for many years, and he has had lengthy meetings with its most high-profile apparatchiks at every visit. No other Western expert has had that privilege. Little wonder that Harrison became the most prominent opinion-maker on North Korea, and that US policies towards that country in the last 15 years have been very much influenced by his “expert” recommendations.
His recommendations were simple: appeasement, appeasement and appeasement. Harrison’s unique knowledge of the balance of power between “hawks” and “doves” in Pyongyang showed how important it was to strengthen the “doves” (the Dear Leader Comrade Kim Jong Il, to name one) in their fight to return their country to the world civilization. Such was the only way, apparently, to ensure that North Korea would stay nuclear-free.
Now, of course, this strategy has proven itself entirely wrong, like the countless number of other appeasements in history. Yet, Harrison remains unapologetic. He insists that the policy was correct, and the reason for its present failure is that the appeasement has not gone far enough.
America trusts its experts. It is assumed that whatever opinions Harrison and his likes may hold, that they surely have the nation’s best interests in heart. The problem is that, in ideological confrontations of our age, you cannot separate one’s opinions from one’s loyalties. If US experts criticize the US administration and praise Kim Jong Il, the popular belief is that something is wrong with the administration and nothing is wrong with the experts. The question is: who made them the leading experts in the first place?
In retrospect, it is clear that the making of US policy towards North Korea has been caught in a vicious circle: the selection of one’s experts should not be entrusted to one’s opponents. Harrison was listened to because he was the leading expert; he became the leading expert because of his access to North Korean leaders; and that access was granted to him for his pro-Pyongyang stance. Is something not wrong with this selection mechanism?
Speaking of Selig Harrison, it should be noted that he was not always an expert on North Korea; he started, long ago, as an expert on India; later he became an expert on Afghanistan. By chance, I first encountered his name in a top secret Soviet archival document from that period. That document, written at the time when the Soviets had just withdrawn troops from Afghanistan but preserved their puppet regime in Kabul through massive aid, may give us a better idea of how such experts operate. In April 1989 Gorbachev’s advisor Vadim Zagladin saw Harrison, and then reported the meeting to Gorbachev himself:
On 13 April, on the request from Novosti Press Agency, I saw Selig Harrison, Carnegie Foundation’s leading expert on South-East Asia.
For a long time, S. Harrison has worked on the problem of Afghanistan. He wrote many articles unmasking the US intervention in the internal affairs of that country (starting from 1978 - early 1979, when he worked for Washington Post). […]
- At first, R. Reagan wanted the USSR to ‘stay’ in Afghanistan for as long as possible, which would make it easier to put pressure on us elsewhere. However, he began to change his mind by the end of his term, and supported the Geneva Agreements. Hence was his position at the negotiations with M. S. Gorbachev.
- However, Reagan’s view was not shared by everyone in his Administration. [State Secretary] Schulz believed it was necessary to help the USSR to ‘withdraw’ from Afghanistan. However, he was isolated.
- In a sense, George W. H. Bush’s Administration is even worse than Reagan’s. Bush himself has insisted that the US should continue and intensify the aid to the Afghan opposition. Personally, he wants to reject M. S. Gorbachev’s proposal to stop the aid to both sides simultaneously. However, [State Secretary James] Baker is rather inclined to ‘appeasement’.
- It is believed in the Administration that the US aid to the [Afghan] Opposition cannot harm the US-Soviet relations. In Harrison’s opinion, this is an important factor which contributes to ‘continuing adventurism’. He believes we should delicately hint to Washington, without tough ‘linkages’, that everything in this world is objectively interconnected, so the US behaviour in Afghanistan may eventually harm US interests in terms of the future developments ‘in other regions’.
(Gorbachev Foundation Archive, f. 3, inv. 1, 13 April 1989)
Expertise comes at a price. You go to Moscow (Pyongyang, Beijing, Havana, etc.) and give them some sensitive information about Washington; in exchange they give you their own sensitive information; you go to Washington and increase your profile as an expert, circulate in high places, gather political gossip, bring it back to Moscow (Pyongyang or whatever), and so the next round begins. This may seem fairly even-handed, but in fact, it is not. The enemy knows you are an American expert, and accordingly decides to tell you this or that; but the Americans don’t know that you share your knowledge with the enemy, so they tell you everything, counting on your patriotic loyalty. In the end of the day, predictably, the expert conveys disinformation to Washington and intelligence to Moscow.
One small detail in the above document is particularly alarming to those who know the Soviet system: the meeting was organized at the initiative of Novosti Press Agency. Novosti’s official mission was to spread the Soviet propaganda in the West. Unofficially, it was known to be a branch of the KGB. I do not mean to link Harrison to the KGB - he might well be manipulated without knowing what he was doing. But the Soviets certainly knew what they were doing. Most likely, their surviving small brothers in Pyongyang knew what they were doing as well.
Indeed, it is not my task to hunt any particular traitors in the glorious ranks of American experts. Harrison is not alone and he is not necessarily the worst of them; he is merely the latest example. On the other hand, not all foreign policy experts are like that: surely, many of them are honest and excellent specialists who are doing a great public service. My point is that the whole corporation of experts enjoys a very high degree of influence in the making of US foreign policy. Yet, they are unaccountable, and they are not restricted by sufficient checks and balances. In this situation, it would be naïve to expect all of them to put the national interest above their own interest.
Experts are humans. They may make mistakes. They may be stupid. They may be treacherous.