Schizophrenia in contemporary American foreign policy was outlined nearly three decades ago in a Report for the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) titled Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategy, Forces and Resources for a New Century.  Individuals involved in PNAC and the creation of this report have since been strongly involved in each administration, including the current under Mr. Trump. From the geography of conflict perspective looking at the PNAC veterans’ influence and resulting actions worldwide, one cannot avoid noticing a presence of the Dunning-Kruger Effect among them.

Clinical Diagnosis

Psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger’s research confirmed that some people tend to overstate their cognitive abilities. By so doing they ultimately have no realistic grasp in evaluating outcomes of their actions.  Dunning summarized the findings about an individual’s own ignorance:

…I provide argument and evidence that the scope of people’s ignorance is often invisible to them. This meta-ignorance (or ignorance of ignorance) arises because lack of expertise and knowledge often hides in the realm of the “unknown unknowns” or is disguised by erroneous beliefs and background knowledge that only appear to be sufficient to conclude a right answer. As empirical evidence of meta-ignorance, I describe the Dunning–Kruger effect, in which poor performers in many social and intellectual domains seem largely unaware of just how deficient their expertise is. Their deficits leave them with a double burden—not only does their incomplete and misguided knowledge lead them to make mistakes but those exact same deficits also prevent them from recognizing when they are making mistakes and other people choosing more wisely. I discuss theoretical controversies over the interpretation of this effect and describe how the self-evaluation errors of poor and top performers differ. I also address a vexing question: If self-perceptions of competence so often vary from the truth, what cues are people using to determine whether their conclusions are sound or faulty.

In regard to my area of expertise, geographical analysis, I can confirm that the Dunning-Kruger effect is frequently present in all spheres of life.  For a plethora of reasons people tend to believe that spatial complexity is an easy task to solve.  They perceive that human interaction in space and time is simple to grasp and easily explainable.  Therefore, a notion exists that anyone can understand geography and predict future directions in cultural geography, not just bona fide experts.  The reality, of course, is entirely different, leading individuals and organizations to make tremendous mistakes, then double down on them, thereby extending the mistakes’ magnitude even further. 

Those unaffected by the Dunning-Kruger effect scratch their heads in disbelief over how utterly destructive the incompetents’ decision is for everyone in their realm of operation.  Contemporary geopolitics is a perfect example of that. 

PNAC veterans continue to see the world as it was after the end of the Cold War, with a hegemonic dominance of the United States throughout the planet enforced with heavy weaponry.  Unable to comprehend cultural geographic reality that major change has occurred—let alone anticipating the Sino-Russian relations and emergence of a de facto alliance—they continue to double down in what they have outlined in their manifesto.  Incredibly, they even use identical rhetoric of exporting freedom and democracy and other delusionary statements, unaware that their time has passed; the rest of the world has not been buying PNAC veterans’ message for a long time.  A series of aggressive fiascos in Ukraine, Venezuela, and Syria, for example, further contribute to an image of the United States’ government as incompetent charlatans incapable of comprehending the new reality and adjusting their foreign policy accordingly. 

The world is laughing. Yet it is not a time for laughing, because that only infuriates incompetents who believe they are correct and others are not.  Their anger produces two outcomes equally counterproductive for global and internal American stability.  First, anger raises aggression levels.  Many of us have met individuals holding positions of power while in possession of limited cerebral gear.  Once they feel threatened, their aggression level rapidly increases towards everyone in vicinity.  Their anger is followed by the second action, an immediate attempt to influence access and isolation in operational space; that is trying to reduce others’ freedom of movement and interaction.  Both of these actions we are observing in the global theater, but also domestically in the United States.

Figure 1. Those who send people to fight and die in wars do it without hesitation, because they make sure to protect themselves, unlike ordinary people whose relatives commemorate them after they have fallen. (Photograph was taken by the author.) 

At home, continuous loss of freedoms the American citizens are experiencing is disturbing—rising comparisons with the former Eastern Bloc’s treatment of its own citizens—particularly their movement and interaction [See Resurrecting Erich Mielke].  Internationally, attempts to prevent access and expand isolation of a growing pool of adversarial countries are present on every continent except, perhaps, Australia (and, of course, Antarctica).

Boomeranging Access and Isolation

Access and Isolation are some of the most important aspects of geographic analysis.  A good geographer should easily identify the relevant issues as they pertain to tactical, operational, and strategic level and how they are connected to each other, regardless of subject matter studied.  A geographer who studies conflict employs a method of analysis in order to articulate how a content of study (in a region or an area) should make sense to a customer, so the customer can employ it for purpose of stability and security.

For example, I once gave a long brief to a Deputy Director for Intelligence (J2) at the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) by using tactical and operational level of analysis in a region outside of his domain and extrapolating that to a strategic level of analysis within his domain.  Much of my brief’s message was to illustrate the significance of truly comprehending the value of access and isolation in regard to cultural geography and military operations, in an attempt to grasp future outcome of current actions.  According to my colleagues, my customer was exceptionally satisfied and left with new ideas and a fresh perspective from my brief.

Imagine now if I were a charlatan exhibiting a Dunning-Kruger effect resembling the likes of PNAC veterans. What would have been an outcome of my brief other than incorrect comprehension of how the world works and relaying that message to PACOM?  Now imagine what the message PACOM receives from above, from PNAC veterans in the governmental administration?  First of all, their grasp of access and isolation is not even cultural geographic in nature, i.e., based on multiple factors. Rather, they see it as a single, absolute and rigid physical dichotomy defined by a person who controls physical space and has more effective weapons.  This is incredibly dangerous, because a party temporarily controlling physical space is not seeing the big picture and, as a result, it may itself become isolated while trying to isolate others and hurt itself the most.  It is also a trait many past empires have experienced prior to their demise.

Prognosis: Negative

We are witnessing a surprisingly drastic decline of the American Empire for the reasons outlined in the PNAC’s manifesto.  Their actions may very well lead to war with China and Russia and ultimately deteriorate the American way of life to a degree that majority of citizenry currently cannot even imagine.  At the end, the very same people will try to convince us how everything they did was for our own benefit and freedom, and that no one could have done it better than them (under the conditions they created in the first place).

Related articles: Geography from the Ringside of Conflict.

PNAC’s Geopolitical Dunning-Kruger Effect