We have come to associate the term “technocrats” with the kind of unelected and non-political experts that serve in European governments, particularly those responding to the recent financial crisis that has devastated several economies there. For example, economists like Mario Monti who served as Italy’s prime minister from 2011 to 2013, leading a government of technocrats in the wake of the Italian debt crisis. Their task wasn’t to transform the economic status quo in Italy, but to use their knowledge and expertise to fix that country’s economy.
In fact, “technocrats” was considered to be a term of abuse in the 1960s and the 1970s. It was used then by American intellectuals, especially on the political left, to describe the economists, engineers, and scientists that came to play a critical role in making decisions about domestic and foreign policy. As the critics saw it, asked to build structures that would carry human blood from New York to Chicago, your average technocrat would tell you how much such a project would cost and how long it would take to complete it, but would refrain from asking a very basic question: Why the hell do you need to carry human blood from New York to Chicago?
Robert McNamara, the former president of Ford, and later secretary of defense during the escalation of the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, was considered the archetype of the detested technocrat, who like the rest of the Best and the Brightest in Washington never came to challenge the intellectual foundations of U.S. military intervention in Southeast Asia, or for that matter, of the entire American Cold War strategy.
Instead, McNamara was searching for ways to make that policy work, to make it more cost-effective. But what he and other technocrats failed to take into account was that foreign policy, like other social affairs, involves human beings and not machines that can be calibrated in response to our needs. In a way, it’s the job of political leaders to make decisions based on the needs of their respective societies or, in the case of foreign policy, their national communities (in the form of the “national interest”). Only then does one hire the most talented technocrats to implement their decisions.
From that perspective, General David Petraeus, the leading architect of the 2007 “surge” in Iraq, was another technocrat who succeeded in devising and implementing a policy of providing security to Baghdad and Al Anbar Province. He never questioned whether the decision to oust Saddam Hussein and invade Iraq made sense in terms of U.S. national interests. Petraeus therefore failed to consider the possibility that while the “surge” may have helped fix the American vehicle, it didn’t change the fact that we were driving towards a dead-end in Mesopotamia.
If we make this distinction between political leaders and technocrats, it may lead to the conclusion that when it comes to Donald Trump, we may have gotten the entire “thing” wrong. Trump is not ready to become a political leader. He is the ultimate technocrat, a man who loves to fix things in the same way he helped bring back to life the business he inherited from his father. Unlike our great presidents, he really doesn’t have a personal sense of what America is all about, a perspective which is usually grounded in reading history, in a set of values (religious and otherwise), and a feeling for the current Zeitgeist.