April 23, 2020

To Prepare for a Crisis, Read Fiction

Fiction and policy too rarely mix. The learned policymaker reads reports and journal articles, books and research papers, all aimed at injecting the highest-quality thinking into key judgments. These inputs — even the inevitable classics — are almost relentlessly nonfiction. In my own field of national security, one turns often to Thucydides and Hobbes, Machiavelli and Sun Tzu, Waltz and Kissinger. It’s far less common to see those soaked in foreign policy or economics or health spend time with Tolstoy or Dickens, Mishima or Achebe, Marilynne Robinson or Michael Chabon.

Today’s global crisis demonstrates why they should. As policymakers make hurried judgments with vast, life-altering consequences, they draw on a stock of intellectual capital assembled over decades. Every discipline — psychology, economics, biology, history — examines the world through a particular prism. Yet only fiction invites us inside the minds of others, transports us across time and place, and produces in us a kind of experience we could otherwise never attain. By enmeshing us in its characters and stories, reading fiction helps policymakers better understand the human condition, and more ably fashion responses to it.

Read the full article in War on the Rocks.

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