Too many Americans, by and large, prefer to be spoon-fed foreign policy in a thick gruel; obediently they open their mouths wide and swallow without any conscious thought as to the ingredients or taste. Just as infants inherently trust their mothers, Americans trust in people with fancy degrees and fancy terminology. Well, this morning I thought it’s time for a short primer on how to think for yourself about foreign policy, without the fancy terminology and without needing to read piles of dusty history books. All you need possess is common sense and an ability to think for yourself. Trust me on this one.
Foreign policy is basic human interaction writ large, so just think about how you get along with other people, how your schoolyard days replete with friends, enemies, cliques, bullies, classroom rules, and of course teachers operated. In the world, several international organizations and powerful countries serve as the teachers – they want to set the classroom rules, educate, monitor, and keep order in the classroom. All the rest of the countries in the world fit into the other categories and each might see itself differently than other countries see it, but the interactions are understandable in simple human terms. You don’t need to understand a lot of fancy terminology or theories, but you need to understand how humans interact.
A couple years ago, I wrote a simple explanation of how to look at foreign policy, in a piece on the Global Zero initiative, a group dedicated to eliminating nuclear weapons by 2030 :
“Let’s talk about people, since the solution to all human problems falls on our shoulders. People always form groups – it’s how we live. Groups always compete and also many groups don’t get along (let’s face it Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, the long-running American TV show to teach kids to be “good neighbors” seems to be the global exception, not the rule). So, let’s look at life in the “Neighborhood of Make Believe”, the imaginary setting in Mr. Rogers Neighborhood for his puppet show segment in each episode. I watched Mr. Rogers Neighborhood for years when my kids were young and unlike many children’s shows, Fred Rogers’ show, highlighted important lessons on the people problems, that carry us further toward finding peaceful solutions than most of the touted geopolitical experts in the world. In the Neighborhood of Make Believe reigned a bullying, irrational, impulsive monarch, King Friday XIII – the worst type of leader to deal with and as his name implies – bad news. Each episode highlighted a different “people problem” and solutions to work out these problems. King Friday never wanted to admit he was wrong, but his calm, more rational wife, Queen Sara Saturday, usually intervened to help resolve the crisis and to calm down King Friday and try to reason with him. Sadly, the Neighborhood of Make Believe mirrors our real world rather closely, except in the real world we don’t have enough level-headed, steady leaders, like Queen Sara Saturday, running things (yes, she made running a group, “Food for the World”, a primary duty).
King Friday often made impulsive, poorly thought out decisions and it’s leaders like him that pose the challenge on dealing with the nuclear proliferation issue. While King Friday loved to give long-winded speeches (he didn’t own a teleprompter thankfully), he still could be reasoned with, but in the real world we must contend with the threat of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of batshit crazy leaders, who don’t have a Queen Sara Saturday nearby to calm things down.”
Now, going back to the classroom, if everyday a bully told everyone that he was going to beat you up, it might be prudent on your part to first, believe he means you harm, second, be prepared to defend yourself. Would you go and sit at the same lunch table with him and believe he wanted to be your friend or share his cookies with you? Well, that is the Obama/Kerry nuclear weapons talks with Iran in a nutshell. Iranian leaders rant, “Death to America!” and President Obama and John Kerry pretend Iran is trustworthy. Truly, foreign policy experts and politicians like to ramble on about all sorts of other stuff and throw in fancy terminology, but at the end of the day it boils down to Iran means America harm and we shouldn’t trust them.
The second part is about the other thing to consider and that is how to decide on who or what is a “threat” we should be concerned about as a country. We’ve got all sorts of academics pontificating about that, where there’s a strong contingent of them who believe America itself is America’s and the world’s greatest threat. There are others who would like to align America with the worst bullies in the world and form all sorts of new ties. Still others see existential threats in nature itself at every turn, like the climate change hysterics. We also have traditionalists who seek historical examples of American strategic successes and try to parlay those into our present day circumstances.
Now back to that same piece, “Global Zero: Another Nothing-Burger Plan”, I tried to explain how to look at defining “threats”:
“Here’s another one of those home truths that I am so fond of using to make my point. Let’s state what should be obvious, but apparently needs to be driven home once more – any weapon, be it a slingshot or a nuclear weapon, is an inanimate object. Inanimate objects aren’t the problem. Yep, it’s always the people that pose the problem and let’s be more precise here, it’s what’s in the hearts of man that can turn that slingshot or nuclear weapon into a “threat”. We’ve always got to contend with people first and the rest of the inanimate objects truly rank as a secondary issue.”
Now unlike your average homemaker, I love reading piles of dusty history books and I especially love books on military strategy and foreign policy. One of my favorite military strategists is Dr. Colin S. Gray. Dr. Gray challenges theories with the question, “So what?”, while my favorite question is, “Why?”, but when it gets down to brass tacks, he offers such a wealth of historical knowledge to his arguments that I always come away feeling privileged to be able to learn from such an outstanding teacher. It takes me forever to read his books, because often I’ll read just a paragraph or two and have to spend the rest of the day thinking about that, asking both, his “So what?” and my, “Why?” Dr. Gray published a short, excellent article, “Thucydides Was Right: Defining the Future Threat”, in an April 2015 Strategic Studies Institute monograph. He talks about the importance of history in understanding military strategy;
“To understand future threat, it should be realized
that the 2 1/2 millennia of strategic history fairly accessible
to us can and should be utilized in order to
generate some theory with explanatory power, at
least potential, over the rich and characteristically
ever-changing flow of events. Fortunately, we do have
enough to hand some grip and grasp on the principal
factors that, in combination, often malign and drive
our strategic history.11 Specifically, strategic history
can be approached and understood as the ever dynamic
outcome of relations among human nature, political
process, and strategic logic and method. It is my
argument that none of these three broad driving forces
in history are discretionary. As human beings, we are
what we are and, effectively, always have been.”
The post-Soviet era led to an array of misguided, dangerous and flat out wrong theories on American foreign policy , assessing “threats” , and formulating plans for the future. Dr. Gray doesn’t gloss over the failures. There’s been a reliance on fancy terms, instead of getting down to the brass tacks of as he put it in simple formula: threat = capability X intentions. He states:
It is worth noting that, over the past century, many
scholars and politicians who should have known better
gave robust indication of their failure to grasp the
essential point just registered here. The whole modern
history of arms control has revealed confusion of
understanding about the significance of arms in their
relation to political intentions. Identity of political
ownership of weapons largely, though not absolutely
invariably, is key to understanding strategic and political
meaning. Military capability may well be rich
in strategic, operational, and tactical implications, but
the ascription of threat depends upon the political
ownership of the instruments of interest. Of course,
such ownership often will be innocent of malign intention,
or at the least will only be deemed likely to be
Since context typically drives contingency, and
given that context should lend itself to influence by
behavior that shapes political judgment, the grim possibilities
that one can identify with particular inert
military items may serve as providing timely warning
for statecraft. Episodically throughout recorded strategic
history, developments have been interpreted as
being in an adversarial context, and the identification,
possibly misidentification, of great security threats
What Dr. Gray made me think about is it’s really easy to focus on the weapons themselves and not pay enough attention to the intentions part of that equation. He explains clearly that intentions, due to being reliant on the human element can change rapidly, just as school yard friends and foes change often based on events that transpire. The world is complex, but in the end getting to know people is far more important than believing in fancy terminology and strategic catchphrases that you can’t even really explain or trusting in people because of their titles.
To be a better strategic thinker, here is my libertybelle advice:
1. Get to know people, not about people. Only by building trust can people resolve conflicts without resorting to violence.
2. Ask Dr. Gray’s, “So what?”, but make sure you try to understand the “Why? too before you accept politicians’ and experts’ theories and policy prescriptions. It’s a lot like taking a new medication on the market. Read the fine print, read the list of possible side effects, but be aware there could be unforeseen bad reactions, just like even the best-intentioned foreign policy initiative might have unforeseen horrible consequences too. With bad drug reactions, we act swiftly and our doctor will tell us to stop taking that drug immediately. Yet with foreign policy gone awry, for some inexplicable reason,way too many of our politicians and experts get entrenched in their pet theories and they refuse to stop taking the bad medicine and in fact, they often want to increase the dosage.
3. Be prepared to be wrong and be prepared to change course.
4. Follow the news. Read some history and if you have time, read lots of history. Oh, and read Dr. Gray’s excellent monograph: “Thucydides was Right: Defining theFuture Threat”!