Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 21:43 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 21:43 | SYDNEY

How much should leaders know?


Andrew Carr


11 October 2011 09:27

In 2000, George W Bush's campaign hit a rough spot when he couldn't answer an interview question over who was the president of Pakistan. With Herman Cain rising in the polls for the 2012 GOP nomination, similar world-knowledge questions are being asked. Cain, however, has a different answer:

BRODY: Are you ready for the 'gotcha' questions that are coming from the media and others on foreign policy? Like, who’s the president of Uzbekistan?…

CAIN: I'm ready for the ‘gotcha’ questions and they’re already starting to come. And when they ask me who is the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan I’m going to say, you know, I don’t know. Do you know? And then I’m going to say how’s that going to create one job?...Knowing who is the head of some of these small insignificant states around the world — I don't think that is something that is critical to focusing on national security and getting this economy going. When I get ready to go visit that country, I’ll know who it is. But until then, I want to focus on the big issues that we need to solve.

At one level, Cain's answer is smug and insulting. But, more fundamentally I think he's right. The next president of the US doesn't need to know who the president of Uzbekistan is. Even if Cain knew the answer, would that indicate he had any real idea about the country or its role in international politics?

Questions like this have only one purpose, to show up and make fun of politicians. Indeed, the press don't want politicians to be able to answer the question. Footage of a politician stumbling to think or getting it wrong is the only result they're after.

As a foreign policy wonk, I'd love every politician to be as passionate about the subject as I am. But that's not going to happen, and as we saw with Rudd, knowledge doesn't automatically translate into good policy. More important than knowledge is an ability to hire and listen to the right people, to sort out what is and isn't important for the nation's interests, and the ability to organise resources and personnel towards that goal.

Cain wouldn't be my choice for next US president; the insults in this answer alone prove he isn't a serious candidate. But he is right to push back against the media's implicit claim that they are serving the public by testing politicians with such questions.