Foreign Policy in a Polarized Environment, by Bill Wanlund

“Truth Decay” is the nifty name the RAND Corporation has given to the diminishing importance of facts in American public life. It “refers to a set of four related trends: (1) increasing disagreement about facts, (2) the blurring of the line between opinion and fact, (3) the increasing volume and influence of opinion over fact, and (4) declining trust in formerly respected sources of fact,” RAND says.

Previously, RAND turned its truth decay spotlight on such issues as media literacy and vaccine hesitancy to gauge how Americans view them through our politically polarized lenses. Now it’s national security’s turn. Researchers Heather Williams and Caitlin McCulloch dug into how political polarization and misinformation affect security decision making in the U.S. Government.

For perspective, remember when “politics ended at the water’s edge”? It’s not the case, now, the RAND team says. The “bipartisan consensus on U.S. foreign policy” has been weakened by our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, coinciding with “the rise of political movements that espoused a virulent nationalism.”

So, the public is thinking about foreign policy now – isn’t that what we’ve always wanted -- a little validation? In the spirit of “careful what you wish for,” Williams and McCulloch say that, in the current socio-political environment, “a negative cycle of polarization and Truth Decay can easily take hold. Opinions are shaped by the social cues that the public picks up (from) a trusted political leader… People confidently adhere to views endorsed by their party and ignore any contrary facts.”

 That’s why “polarization makes what leaders say more potent…” And the problem with that is, say the researchers, “politicians lie,” and it’s hard to know when they “are knowingly lying, and when they are deceiving themselves. Put all of this into the blender with social media and the 24-hour news cycle, and leaders can spread shameless lies rapidly across the globe.”

There’s an impact on the intelligence community as well. The authors say that, not only does truth decay make it harder for analysts to sift fact from opinion, there’s a risk that the policymakers they report to won’t trust them.

“If intelligence analyses were our daily vegetables, you could say that we pay to grow them, harvest them, prepare them, and plate them, but nobody is required to eat them. If policymakers lack trust in factual information, or analysis based on factual information, that can lead to national security policies that are based instead on opinion or, worse, conspiracy theory or misinformation possibly manufactured by the nation's adversaries.”

What makes PD’s job more difficult is the impact of truth decay on our national reputation. The authors write, “Perceptions that U.S. leaders are not speaking honestly or that U.S. assurances cannot be trusted diminish that credibility…. Former President Trump…who relied heavily on opinion rather than fact, was seen with little confidence globally.... Allies depend on U.S. intelligence and military collaboration, and weakening those institutions undermines the value of that cooperation.”

To make things worse, the authors point out, others play by other rules: “Populations in Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea do not expect honesty from their governments, so their leaders' embrace of misinformation or denial of facts do not similarly erode the social contract.”

It’s critical to “promote the credibility of the United States' national security and intelligence systems,” Williams and McCulloch conclude. “Such institutions, once damaged, are not easily rebuilt. Government agencies, private-sector organizations, the media, and nonprofit groups all have a role to play. These efforts do not necessarily need to be coordinated, but they all need to be more robust to stay the pervasive negative effects of Truth Decay.”

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Now I’m inspired to full disclosure in the service of truth. My summary in fact drew from another summary, “Truth Decay and National Security,” written by authors Williams and McCulloch for the online publication Lawfare, August 1, 2023. You can read that summary here.
The full RAND report, Truth Decay and National Security: Intersections, Insights, and Questions for Future Research, is here.

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Bill Wanlund is a PDCA Board Member, retired Foreign Service Officer, and freelance writer in the Washington, DC, area. His column, Worth Noting, appears in the PDCA Weekly Update and the PDCA Blog; it seeks to address topics of interest to PDCA members.