Where Have All the Wise Men Gone?

Where Have All the Wise Men Gone?

Decades after the nation's greatest foreign-policy officials left the stage, Washington needs new leaders with their vision.

All our great appointed foreign-policy officials left the stage some twenty years ago. The aged Henry Kissinger is still far more interesting than any of today’s officials. No one has entered that pantheon since the end of the Cold War—and we are not likely to see their ilk dominating U.S. foreign policy again.


In addition to Kissinger, these names are still well-known, if not quite household ones: George Marshall, Dean Acheson, John Foster Dulles, Zbigniew Brzezinski, George Shultz, Brent Scowcroft and James Baker. Some might well include a few others such as George Kennan, who single-handedly enunciated a major sustained policy—containment—that lasted fifty years, but he held no top position and mostly wrote highly insightful, eloquent books and articles.

They were all were determined men of ability and vision who thought conceptually and had an ability to get complicated things done. Not that there were not major internal battles, for example, on how to deal with the Soviets, such as over arms control. Nor were they error proof in dealing with numerous other issues—Vietnam being the most notable—but they were indispensable managers of the Cold War and helped bring it to an end. They knew how to pick mostly excellent people to help them. Some had disagreeable traits—masterful liars, black-belt bureaucrats and insatiable appetites for public approval—but it is hard to say such traits got much in the way of their public duties.

We have had no one of this stripe in office for the last twenty years, certainly not among appointed top foreign-policy officials—none. Hillary Clinton is far more well-known than any of the wise men for many reasons besides being secretary of state. Our other top foreign-policy officials lately have all been capable, dedicated men and women who worked hard for this country in a changed world and in increasingly difficult domestic political circumstances. There have been achievements, but they did not create or dominate policy—or prevent some very bad things from happening. They will probably get a few paragraphs in the history of this period.

But worse, it is hard to believe we will again see such a generation of the highest officials. There are at least five reasons for this extraordinary period of effective officialdom:

1. The Simplifying Nature of the Cold War

During the Cold War, strategic focus was on managing U.S.-Soviet competition and ultimately on hastening the end of the Soviet Union. Our power was unprecedented and could be clearly concentrated. Our officials did not have to be tested by a much more complex world with its vast diffusion of power. Until our failure in Vietnam, that enormously expensive sideshow which tested our confidence but did not deflect us from the overriding strategic issue, the major divisive political issue of this period was probably “Who lost China?”

But as the Cold War came to an end, we lost our footing. Indeed, Baker and Scowcroft, who were instrumental in managing the end of the Cold War as well as the first Gulf War, failed in one of the early tests of the post-Cold War era and the so-called unipolar moment—the end of Yugoslavia.

The world the United States now faces has become far more complex, and power has become significantly diffused for even gifted leaders to comprehend developments, balance vastly competing priorities and develop comprehensive strategies. Our thinking in coming to grips with an increasingly confusing international order is only beginning to catch up, while many of our leaders now often become enamored of special issues that make us feel virtuous but have limited relevance to the most difficult issues of the day.

Our last decade produced America’s biggest economic and foreign-policy disasters since Vietnam. Domestic politics on foreign policy and the overwhelming domestic strength of the military and its associated industries more easily limit presidential power and generate phantoms as well as constrain innovation, unorthodox thinking and better use of resources.

2. Citizen-Secretaries

These top figures mostly came up through the law, finance or academia, and they were invariably successful in their nongovernmental life. They rose the political way, and some had cabinet or number-two jobs in various departments. They were addicted to power but could at any time call it quits and go back to their usual pursuits.

They were not career officials with the mindset derived from working their way up the government ladder and endlessly trying to do good while satisfying changing political masters—where you go all of a sudden from Carter to Reagan or from Bush to Obama. They were accustomed to thinking big and heavily experienced in asserting and grabbing power. They were builders.

3. Presidential Support

These key individuals had the strong backing of presidents who had broad and extensive governmental experience, shared similar outlooks, and, in the case of Eisenhower, Nixon and the first Bush, had been enormously knowledgeable and very active in foreign affairs.

They could move with greater certainty, although bureaucratic fighting never stops. Our three recent presidents essentially were oriented toward domestic affairs. None of them faced extraordinary foreign dangers (except perhaps 9/11). With our less-experienced presidents and a pool of top aides less concerned with foreign policy (with the exception of Vice President Cheney) we often have witnessed greater caution, badly thought out enterprises or lesser leadership.

This problem may have gotten worse with the steady trend of centralizing power in the White House, which makes the president the center of everything. Secretaries of state become mostly spare carriers singing the praises of presidents—less builders and more managers who keep the gears grinding.

4. Effective Strategy?

The absence of a common foreign-policy strategy—except perhaps on dealing with terrorism—has led to enormous differences among our political parties, incessant partisan warfare and difficulties in designing coherent policy. We see policies so circumscribed or poorly funded that the possibility of failure is vastly enhanced.

There also has been a major change away from the largely acquiescent media of the Cold War and the incessant growth of a massive blogging industry that demands official attention and response but contributes a great deal of noise. Still, much greater administration efforts are being poured into the management of the press to enable administrations to look good—or at least not so bad. (That has been more a failing of Democrats than Republicans, who by and large do not care what the press thinks).

The tone of media today has become far more combative, now seemingly a permanent feature of public life. And the press rarely hesitates before publishing secret information or prodding senior officials with persistent tough questions.

5. Top People Are Hard To Get

Since the end of the Cold War, most of the very best talent goes to making money—relatively instantly—in the business and technical worlds. That may be a boon to our living standards and hopefully to the recovery of U.S. economic clout. But those achievements also add to the complexity of foreign-policy making by depriving us of talent to help run our government.

Some top-caliber people may not want to bother with the rules that come with taking a leading job in Washington, which subject them to great scrutiny of their private lives and vicious personal attacks from all sorts of bloggers, reporters and politicians.

If U.S. foreign policy is to prosper in this new age with no firm rudder, it will need to be even more of a team sport. The team must be armed with greater understanding of the world’s incredible complexity and led by exceptional presidents.


We will not be able to navigate the new era by falling back to the mantras of the “city on the hill” and the “indispensable nation,” although undoubtedly we will always hear much of them. The wise men of the Cold War-era heard similar rhetoric in their time as well, but they understood that it was no substitute for the hard work of real strategy.

Morton Abramowitz is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and a member of The National Interest's advisory council.