The Unknown Unknowns of Empire

For all his failures, Donald Rumsfeld was right to warn of "unknown unknowns" in foreign policy. Unfortunately he didn't follow his own advice.

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Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense under George W. Bush (as well as secretary of defense under Gerald Ford; White House chief of staff, also under Ford; ambassador to NATO under Richard Nixon; and many other positions besides), died at the end of June. In response to Rumsfeld’s death, there were many predictable—and deserved—obloquies to one of the men responsible for the disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq. With Rumsfeld’s death, one of the genuine principals behind a brutal war, one that even the Republican Party has stopped defending, passed from the scene.

There’s no need for another vituperation against Rumsfeld, and I’m not going to offer one here. Instead, I’m going to focus on what was perhaps the man’s most insightful statement, his one utterance that has entered the American canon. On February 12, 2002, more than a year before the United States initiated its invasion of Iraq (but several months after it invaded Afghanistan), Rusmfeld gave a news briefing in which a reporter asked him whether there was “any evidence to indicate that Iraq has attempted to or is willing to supply terrorists with weapons of mass destruction.” This was a crucial question, the reporter continued, given “that there is no evidence of a direct link between Baghdad and some of these terrorist organizations.”

Rumsfeld responded with a short answer that students of US foreign policy will read for as long as such students exist. “Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me,” the secretary noted,

because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don't know we don't know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.

Moreover, Rumsfeld explained, no one really had “the omniscience that they can say with high certainty that something has not happened or is not being tried.”

For all the mockery and criticism Rumsfeld has deservedly received, in this instance the secretary of defense was correct: when making foreign policy, it is impossible to know with any degree of certainty what is happening in a foreign land, and in many cases, Americans won’t even be aware of the things that they should care about, but don’t.

Rumsfeld, of course, made this statement in order to justify the cavalier approach to truth that defined the Bush Administration in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks. As an unnamed official (who was most likely Karl Rove, the Svengali who helped orchestrate Bush’s election and who served as a senior advisor to the president before becoming White House deputy chief of staff for policy in 2005) remarked to reporter Ron Suskind in 2004, the United States was “an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. … We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Together, Rumsfeld’s and Rove’s statements embody the strange Progressivism1 (neoconservatism, to my mind, is ultimately a Progressive ideology) that defined the Bush Administration’s approach to the world. On one hand, Rumsfeld’s remark reflected a rather sophisticated epistemology; he was aware that any foreign policy decision needed to be made without perfect knowledge, and that in many, perhaps even most, situations, one wasn’t even aware of what one didn’t know, but should. On the other hand, however, Rumsfeld’s actions—his advocacy for Iraq—and Rove’s statement embodied the hubris of the United States in the moment of its imperial ascension. Rumsfeld and Rove, like Napoleon and Hitler before them, insisted they could remake the world through sheer force of will (backed up, of course, with significant military power). And, like Napoleon and Hitler, this conviction led them and their nation astray.

Today, very few people believe the United States can make, or remake, the world in its image. This is perhaps the biggest ideological consequence of the manifold failures in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and elsewhere. The Progressive dream that has guided US foreign policy for a century—the idea that power and will can overcome history, tradition, and local politics—is now recognized by many within and outside the foreign policy establishment to be a chimera. As the Joe Biden administration commits itself to a strategy of hegemonic stabilization, it’s unlikely that we’ll witness any dramatic foreign interventions that aim to overthrow regimes and replace them with US-led “democracies.” There are just too many unknown unknowns to make this a viable approach to foreign policy.

But if Americans no longer consider their country the “indispensable nation”—capable, as Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright affirmed in a 1998 interview, of “see[ing] further than other countries into the future”—what do we believe?

For those of us on the left, the answer is clear: we believe the United States should not govern the world and shouldn’t try; that spending an enormous amount on “defense” funnels money away from crucial social welfare programs; and that in the overwhelming majority of cases it is impossible—and immoral—for one nation to force another nation to adopt its own preferences. Again, there are too many unknown unknowns.

The right, ironically, seems to have arrived at a similar position, albeit for xenophobic and racist reasons that emphasize the importance of putting the interests of American citizens first.

It’s only the center that’s adrift. If no one believes the United States can remake the world; if most appreciate that “humanitarian interventions” are rare, and in some instances (see: Libya) make the world worse off; if our disintegrating society has forced many to look inward rather than outward; what is the future of centrist foreign policy? Put another way, how can the United States dominate the world if almost no one believes it has a world-historical mission? This is the question the Biden Administration will need to answer if the center is to retain its hegemonic control over the US foreign policy debate.

It’s likely that Biden—who, after all, is 78 years old and has evinced little empathy for future generations—will punt on this question. We’re therefore likely to witness a foreign policy on autopilot. The structure of the US Empire will remain unchanged, even if there are minor drawdowns in specific world regions like the Middle East.

Rumsfeld used his epistemology as an excuse to invade Iraq, setting off a chain of events that has resulted in millions dead and deracinated. But perhaps we on the left can deploy Rumsfeld’s point—that there will always be unknown unknowns—to argue that such uncertainties actually point toward less intervention, not more. The time is ripe for a real critique of the structure of US Empire to become mainstream. Emphasizing the importance of unknown unknowns might help us do that.


“Progressivism” refers here to the political movement that permeated American politics at the turn of the twentieth century.