Interview #17 – Tom Nichols

Dr. Tom Nichols is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and the Harvard Extension School. A former Secretary of the Navy Fellow, Forrest Sherman Chair of Public Diplomacy, and Chairman of the Strategy Department at the NWC, he previously taught international relations and Soviet/Russian affairs at Dartmouth College and Georgetown University. He is also a senior associate of the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs, and a fellow of the International History Institute at Boston University. He was awarded the Navy Civilian Meritorious Service Medal in 2005. Dr. Nichols was personal staff for defense and security affairs in the United States Senate to the late Senator John Heinz of Pennsylvania, and was a Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC. He is the author of numerous books and articles, including No Use: Nuclear Weapons and US National Security, and most recently, The Death of Expertise. Dr. Nichols was named on Politico’s 2017 list of 50 Ideas Blowing Up American Politics (and the people behind them), and is a five-time undefeated Jeopardy! Champion.

The following has been edited and condensed for clarity. The views shared here do not reflect nor do they suggest the views of the Virginia Review of Politics.

Liam Kraft (Virginia Review of Politics): Can you please give us a little background first about your career and your line of work?

Tom Nichols: Sure! I was originally trained and educated as a Soviet expert. I studied Political Science and Russian as an undergraduate and I got a graduate degree in Russian Affairs from Columbia at the Russian Institute there. I did my graduate degree at Georgetown in International Relations, on the Soviet Union. I worked at a think tank, I worked at CSIS [the Center for Strategic and International Studies], I worked in the Senate for Senator John Heinz, and I did some consulting. I did a lot of things that were sort of the normal career track for a Russian speaking Soviet-expert in the 1980s in DC.

LK: And then you found yourself writing, as a national security expert, a book that’s as much about trends in our culture and our society as it is about politics. What led you to go outside your own traditional field of expertise to write The Death of Expertise?

TN: Well ironically, it was because of arguments that people were having with me about Russia, and I had always – for a good 30 years, I’ve always noticed that Americans in particular tend to be pretty quick to give advice to experts and argue with them, but I didn’t really see that reaching a crisis. I mean, I had noticed the things like the anti-vaccine movement and the 9/11 truthers, and all that kookie stuff, and mostly I wrote it off as the usual tendency in the American culture toward conspiracy theories. But what sparked the article that turned into the book, I was talking about Edward Snowden during the period when Snowden defected to Russia, and I said, “Look! There’s a Russian hand behind this whole thing. This is not an accident. Trust me, I’m a Russia expert, I’m pretty sure about this.” And a young person said to me, “Tom, I don’t think you understand Russia. Let me explain Russia to you.” And that was it! That pushed, pressed the trigger, and I sat down and wrote this rather long piece about how ridiculous that was, and it just took off. It went viral.

LK: For those who haven’t read the book, can you just talk briefly about the book’s premise?

TN: Sure. The premise is that we’re losing respect for expertise and for the division of labor in a modern society – that Americans have gone from questioning experts, which is a perfectly natural and normal thing to do, to thinking they’re smarter than experts, which is completely dysfunctional. And in the book, I think it’s the eventual result of an outbreak of narcissism, of a long epidemic of narcissism that’s been growing for about 40 years in our culture. And, as an expert, I decided to speak up for other experts. I had many constituencies for the book. I mean, there were a lot of people encouraging me to do this. Doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers – a lot of folks were really hoping that I would do this. There is no field of expertology. But I wrote it primarily as a teacher, and I wrote it on behalf of a lot of other people who have been really frustrated by this.

LK: It’s been a year since your book was published. What have you learned since publishing it that you may not have fully considered when writing it, or have any of the responses that you’ve gotten surprised you in any way?

TN: The biggest surprise was how popular the book has been. I’ll tell you a true story: when Oxford contacted me about writing a book, they said, “We think there’s a market for a book like this.” And my answer was, “Really?!” Because I wrote it, and I thought I was pretty much just an old man yelling at clouds. I didn’t realize – I said, nobody really wants to read a book about an old professor telling everyone to get off his lawn. But, and I thought, even if it’s popular, it’s primarily an American problem. And then it became a bestseller in Canada. And that kind of got my attention, and then before I knew it, within a year, we now have the book contracted in 11 foreign language translations going on around the world. Clearly, that took me by surprise, how deeply I had pressed a nerve internationally.

In a more self-critical approach, I think I missed a few things. I think I should have talked more about the way we let metrics rule our lives, that experts are being pushed aside in favor of the, “How do you feel on the scale of 1-10 problem?” I also think I should have talked – although I did a whole chapter on expert failure –  I think I should have talked more about not just expert failure but expert corruption.

LK: What do you mean by expert corruption?

TN: Well, for example, experts who sell their expertise to corporations, or to political movements. I mean, there’s no better example of this than the President’s Economic Adviser, Peter Navarro, who just a week ago said, “Well my job is to do the research that confirms the President’s intuition.” That is exactly the opposite of what an expert’s job is. I mean, he couldn’t have been more wrong. The way he constructed that sentence is that he knew exactly what expertise is, and tried to construct a sentence to say the exact opposite of what an expert should do. I didn’t talk enough about that.

LK: In your book you argued we should not let experts off the hook for “massive failures of insight” but that we should avoid letting several bad predictions poison our view of expertise in general. How do we, as engaged citizens, work to hold experts more accountable for lazy or overconfident or corrupted wrong predictions, while not going so far as to aggravate the declining faith in the value of expertise? It seems like a tricky balance to strike.

TN: Well one of the people I mention in the book is Philip Tetlock, who says, “Look, experts should have to keep a track record of their hits and misses.” He says, the problem is that if the public doesn’t care, then there’s only so much you can do. If the public approaches this like a team sport, instead of as a judicious examination of expert records, then you’re not really going to get very far. So my answer is that – to me, everything in the book goes back to the role of the public. An informed and educated public. And I don’t mean college-educated, or highly trained public. I mean people that can read a map and can name all the branches of government, which only about half the public can do. They’re the ones that need to hold experts accountable, because I actually think we’re moving toward a technocracy, where experts are becoming increasingly less accountable because the public is becoming dumber and dumber.

LK: Projecting forward a bit, you wrote in your Foreign Affairs article promoting the book that “unless some sort of trust and mutual respect can be restored, public discourse will be polluted by unearned respect for unfounded opinions.” And you also mention that experts should “shout back at the mob and simply refuse to be moved.” To what extent, and in what ways, can tactical changes on the experts’ end make significant progress, or is the trend so culturally embedded that only some sort of national or systemic crisis would send the necessary shockwaves into society to reverse the trends you discuss?

TN: Yeah, I’m not really confident that we can do this without some kind of systemic shock. I do think though, and on this I have some differences with my fellow experts, that the experts do need to be more in the public arena. I mean, the experts are withdrawing from public debate, in part, and I think Dan Drezner’s book on The Ideas Industry is a really good book on this, because it’s not their cup of tea to try to make arguments to people who can’t hold a thought longer than 90 seconds. And so, they withdraw because experts prefer to talk to each other. They don’t like talking to the public. They don’t like dealing with that level of ugliness in the public sphere. And let’s face it, most of them are introverts. So, I think in the end, even if the experts engage, the public is being pretty much inoculated to think of everything as fake news anyway, and so, the example I always use is, you can argue with anti-vaxxers all day long, but nothing will convince them like a pandemic.

LK: As someone who’s very active on Twitter, what role do you see yourself having as a foreign policy and national security expert, as well as a public intellectual on social media? There’s a debate on whether or not scholars should be engaged in traditional forums like Twitter. What role do you see yourself having?

TN: Well, I enjoy Twitter as a hobby. And sometimes I’m not the most productive. Let me rephrase that. Sometimes I’m not a good example on Twitter, because like everybody I’m human and I lose my temper and get snippy with people. But I do think for public intellectuals who are interested in answering the public’s questions in good faith, Twitter is really a place – it’s really a matter of hunting where the ducks are. There are a lot of good people, a lot of good citizens on Twitter, who just want answers to complicated questions. And over the years I’ve been on Twitter, I’ve answered hundreds and hundreds of them. And I think that’s part of my job. As I say, if you’re a teacher or a public intellectual or a scholar, your client is society. You should build some time into your career to make sure that you’re answering the public’s questions. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t complain that the public is hideously stupid, and then refuse to talk to them. It’s the same reason that before Twitter, I used to go on the road and I would talk to almost any organization that wanted me to talk to them – the Rotary Club, the TV networks, the local veterans’ organization, whoever it was, because if intellectuals are only talking to each other, they’re not doing their job.

LK: So, changing gears a little bit, you’re a national security expert, so I of course would like to talk about North Korea. John Bolton, who is rumored to be in consideration to replace H.R. McMaster as National Security Advisor, recently tweeted that the assessment that a nuclear North Korea can be deterred is “deeply flawed.” Do you think that traditional deterrence can be effective against North Korea?

[Editor’s Note: Since this interview was conducted, John Bolton was appointed National Security Advisor by the President]

TN: Well, it’s a good time to remind you that my views do not reflect those of the U.S. government. So the problem with Bolton is that he doesn’t think anybody can be deterred. I mean, he is remarkably consistent on this, and, aside from Russia and China, Bolton’s default answer is that deterrence is never stable. So, I don’t agree with him. I think it’s a straw man. To take Cold War-era deterrence and say, that won’t work in North Korea misses the point, that deterrence itself, of some kind, can probably work in North Korea. And we have to figure out how to do that. I think Bolton’s default answer is war, and I don’t think that’s a good answer here.

Bolton was actually asked to respond to something I wrote in USA Today, on Fox News the other night. It’s a good example of the way Bolton argues, because he says, “no he’s wrong,” and then goes for 5 minutes and explains why I’m right about the summit. I mean, I said the summit’s a bad idea, it’ll collapse, it’ll be misery. And Bolton says, no, that’s not what’ll happen, and then he basically says the same thing, but he gets to a different conclusion which is, and that’s gonna leave us no other choice but fighting. So all roads lead down the same path for Bolton, at least as far as I understand. Maybe –  I’ll be fair and say maybe I misunderstand him. He’s a pretty smart guy, but sure seems that way to me.

LK: So regarding the summit, do you think that what we’re hearing about changes in the administration – Tillerson’s out, McMaster seems to be on the way out – do you think that these kinds of personnel changes in any way impact what’s going to happen with regards to the summit? Do you think it’ll still happen?

TN: I don’t think it’s gonna happen. I think the President made an off-the-cuff decision, and there’s probably a lot of people that are trying to stop him from doing that. I don’t think that’s related to why he’s getting rid of everybody. I think he’s getting rid of everybody because he doesn’t know what else to do, and this is just his default position – when he’s getting a lot of bad press, he fires people.

LK: Besides North Korea, what do you feel are the great challenges that US foreign policy faces today, both internally in terms of how US foreign policy is conducted   – and this might be independent of the Trump organization – but also abroad in terms of the international environment the US must navigate?

TN: The internal and external problems are connected. The most shocking development in my lifetime has been the complete collapse of the Republican Party’s understanding of the danger that emanates from Russia. Now, I was a Cold Warrior, and for the next 20 years, I argued that Russia was actually not a threat. But by 2012, certainly, even by 2010, it was pretty clear that either we had gotten Putin wrong, or Putin had changed. I still think that on this, Mitt Romney was smarter than all of us, when he told Obama, Russia is the number one geopolitical foe. And the fact that Republicans, for the sake of loyalty to Donald Trump, refuse to accept this, is endangering our national foreign policy, is endangering our national security, and our foreign policy. We desperately need a bipartisan stand on Russia, and the biggest obstacle to that right now are Republicans, which I would never have thought in 35 years of being a Republican, I would ever see.

LK: Speaking of Republicans, I do want to turn to US domestic politics. In an article published a few weeks ago in The Atlantic, conservatives Benjamin Wittes and Jonathan Rauch called for supporting the Democrats in “every race from president to dogcatcher” to change the GOP’s trajectory, because the GOP has become a threat to democratic values and the rule of law in its support of Trumpism. Similarly, you wrote that, “For the near future, the GOP losing is the only way to win.” How do you reconcile this outlook with your identity as a conservative and Republican?

TN: Because the GOP needs to survive as a center-right party, and right now it’s not. It’s not a conservative party right now. It’s a cult of personality. And until that’s over, it needs to be deprived of its majority. It needs to go into the wilderness and rediscover what its principles are. So, I don’t have any tension between those, because as a conservative, I want a healthy conservative party in America, and right now there isn’t one. So I also think the Democrats need to be confronted with the reality of once again being a governing party. I think the Democrats have invested far too much in their own cults of personality around presidential candidates. Mark Lilla talks about this in his work on this stuff. I don’t know if you know who Mark Lilla is, but he wrote a book on identity politics. And he’s a left-winger, he’s a liberal at the very least, at Columbia. He talks about how Democrats think that as long as they win the presidency, nothing else really matters. Well, America needs two functional governing parties. And right now, we don’t have any. So, the Republicans need to go into the wilderness, and the Democrats need to learn to govern again.

LK: So on one hand, we’re talking about the necessity of the GOP losing in order to change its course. On the other, how do you – if you’re looking at electoral races, and see GOP candidates that are center-right – how do you kind of go about evaluating what your stance should be, if on one hand, you think the GOP needs to be dealt severe losses, and on the other, you want to support those center-right candidates?

TN: Well at this point, as long as those center-right candidates are also supporting Ryan, McConnell, and Trump, then I don’t really have a lot in common with them. Because they won’t get a chance to be center-right in that environment. I think Ben’s piece made the point, that yeah there’s collateral damage in this – that there are good people. But the fact of the matter is, the defining line here is, are you standing in favor of constitutional values, or are you basically saying, “I’m gonna join this cult of personality, I just won’t be as enthusiastic about it as the others are.” There aren’t a whole lot of Never Trumpers out there running.

LK: You’ve written that you would “prefer to revive the GOP after it is forced back into the minority, when we can have a real fight within the party about what it stands for and who it should support by reforming the RNC, the primary process and the platform.” You also mention how important 2018 is as a year for you, implying that if not enough of your fellow conservatives agree with you in the 2018 elections to purge the party of “New Know-Nothings,” you might be driven from the party sooner. Even if 2018 sees significant losses for Republicans, do you think that the Party can effectively have that fight for what it stands for even while Trump remains in the Oval Office?

TN: Sure! This is where some historical perspective is helpful. Remember that in 1972, Richard Nixon won 49 states. And when Nixon resigned, people said, this is it for the Republican Party. They’re hopelessly degraded by Nixon. It’s Nixon’s party. You know, they’ll never come back. This is the permanent Democratic majority. And I should point out that when Obama won in 2008, people were talking about a permanent Democratic majority. And yet, it was only 6 years from 1974 to 1980, when Reagan comes back. By 1981, Nixon’s party is long forgotten, and the Republican Party is Reagan’s party. So sure, we can do that, that’s what the wilderness is for. And I should also point out, the Democrats did the same thing. It took the Democrats losing over and over and over again, and eventually losing their congressional majority, to think about how to reformulate themselves as a party. They lurched hard to the left in ‘68, and by 1988, within 10 years [of Nixon], they were really trying to correct that. So going into the wilderness is not a bad thing. And right now I think it’s just necessary.

Unlike other Republicans, I’ll add one other comment. I should say, unlike other conservatives, I do not believe there will be some left-wing apocalypse if the Republicans lose in 2018. I don’t know if you read the Flight 93 election article, but, it was written by a guy who’s now Trump’s National Security Council spokesman. And he said, “this election is Flight 93.” 2016. He said, “We have to basically storm the cockpit. With Clinton, we know we’ll die; with Trump, we might die, but at least we’re going to storm the cockpit and try.” Now, I think that was drama queen nonsense, and I think it’s nonsense then, and I think it’s nonsense now.

LK: I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with me today!