The national security field has an Expertise problem.
Relax, this isn’t a Trump-style attack on science, facts, or smart people. The problem, as I see it, isn’t with the smart cookies who wear the “Expert” label, but rather with the label itself. As I noted in my previous Inkstick piece, the concept of Expertise is “nebulous at best, and elitist at worst.” In this piece, I’ll explore why this is the case.
To begin, let’s examine a basic fact: everyone wants to be an Expert. If you look at the bios of our senior colleagues, many are self-described “Experts.” On panels, speakers are usually introduced as “Experts.” Ask a young person what they want to be when they grow up; chances are they’ll say “an Expert” in their particular field of interest.
But what does it really mean to be an Expert? And more importantly, who decides whether you get to be one?
Picture an expert.
What do they look like? Which schools did they go to? How many degrees do they have? How do they dress? Do they have tattoos? How old are they? Are they financially stable? Are they attractive and able-bodied? Is English their first language? Do they speak in acronyms and technostrategic abstractions, or in casual slang?
This shouldn’t surprise anyone, but national security Experts aren’t exactly a diverse bunch; however, they wield an extraordinary amount of influence. It’s no secret that only a couple hundred people within the DC Blob decide foreign policy for the entire country. And systemic biases that favor white, cisgender, heterosexual, wealthy, able-bodied men clearly contribute towards the homogenization of Expertise.
Picture an expert. What do they look like? Which schools did they go to? How many degrees do they have? How do they dress? Do they have tattoos? How old are they? Are they financially stable? Are they attractive and able-bodied? Is English their first language?
This certainly doesn’t mean that Experts haven’t earned their place. One generally doesn’t get to the top of the food chain without brains and hard work, and most Experts have deservedly worked their way there through decades of rigorous education, training, and experience. That being said, when you’re at the top, a bit of self-reflection is always healthy. If you’re an Expert, ask yourself, “Why me, and not someone else?”
It’s perfectly okay to chalk up your success to your unique combination of skills, qualifications, and personality traits. However, it’s also important to recognize that you’ve probably received an invisible helping hand from a biased system that statistically benefits certain races, genders, and classes of people. Very simply, we don’t live in a true meritocracy; for every group of Experts, there are countless deserving equals who haven’t been similarly anointed.
The national security field revolves around Experts.
When looking for someone to represent the field, we consciously—or perhaps subconsciously — turn to Experts time after time after time. This means that panel participants are selected from the same small pool. It means that journalists turn to the same few sources. It means that funding goes to the same big names. And most crucially, it means that we often repeat the same ideas, lenses, and paradigms, many of which might be well past their expiry dates. This is usually done at the expense of new, diverse, and unique perspectives.
As a result of this exclusivity, Experts are financially and socially indebted to the system that helped place them on this pedestal. Thus, they are generally less inclined to strive for systems change, even within their own field. As a result, there is a systemic, embedded inclination for Experts to ignore legitimate, emerging voices, rather than amplify them.
To that point, the cult of Expertise is not only inherently exclusive, but it is also hierarchical. Like it or not, there is a pecking order for ideas: the further away from Expertise you are, the less your ideas matter. Therefore, the system is particularly tough on emerging voices. An over-reliance on experience as the metric for Expertise prohibits younger individuals from engaging fully in the conversation, because they haven’t yet crossed this invisible, undefinable threshold; they haven’t yet become Experts.
So how should we tackle this systemic issue? To me, there are two options: either reclaim the word “Expert” by collectively promoting more diverse individuals to Expert status, or wean ourselves off of the word entirely.
Although the latter option might appear somewhat drastic, I would argue that it is the more equitable option. Unfortunately, no matter how many diverse Experts we anoint, the nebulous, elitist, and hierarchical cult of Expertise remains. And this exclusivity is what has helped fuel the Trumpian backlash against elites. Those who buy into his “drain the swamp” rhetoric don’t inherently hate facts, and they certainly don’t hate those who speak with authority. However, they do hate the fact that their voices have been systematically disenfranchised from the policy processes that dramatically affect their lives. The new progressive mass movement — primarily led by women, minorities, and young people — is rebelling against the Blob in similar fashion. Both campaigns are tired of being alienated and ignored by the Experts.
To that end, I would encourage us all to check ourselves when we consider Expertise. The next time that you’re organizing a conference, perhaps consider how you could alter panel compositions to prioritize perspective over experience. And when you’re moderating such discussions, try not to refer to your panelists as Experts. Instead, try introducing them with more inclusive language, like “individuals with unique perspectives on Issue X.” Similarly, if you have the word Expert in your CV or twitter bio, consider whether it really needs to be there. Small steps like these are incredibly useful in reducing the subconscious gatekeeping that permeates the entire national security field. It slowly shifts the Overton window towards developing more intersectional conferences, policies, and hiring practices. And by collectively prioritizing Perspective over Expertise, the national security field will become a healthier, happier, and more inclusive place to work.
Matt Korda is a Research Associate for the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists.