Perception Management: Countries have ego, along with insecurity & fear
The art of the deal: Using deception & sometimes the truth
Cold War discussions in 1960’s strangely parallel to today with China, Iran, & North Korea
The McAlvany Weekly Commentary
with David McAlvany and Kevin Orrick
Robert Jervis – Does Instant Twitter Diplomacy
Change the Game with China, Iran, and North Korea?
June 11, 2019
“Which is the real message? If the other guy feels the need to appease his public opinion by taking a very belligerent position, how is he going to be able to implement a reasonable stance when he comes to power, or when he comes to making an agreement? So the perceivers sometimes look at these messages devoted to the public to give real evidence about where the long-term relationship can go.”
– Robert Jervis
Kevin:We’re in a day and age where continually we’re hearing about China, we’re hearing about North Korea, hearing about Iran. Of course, you have the political sides taking sides, and you have the press trying to give you whatever side it that they are trying to sway you on. But there is a much deeper issue. David, the issue is, nations have egos, like we do. They have perceptions of who they are. And a lot of times a nation is defending the perception of who they think they are, and the other person who is trying to deal with them has no idea what they are talking about.
David:You’re right, we often disconnect our experience as individuals. I am a person with insecurities, I am a person with an ego, I am a person with certain attributes and characteristics that is in relationship with other people. And yet, when we move to the aggregation of people, a nation, a nation state, we forget that there are insecurities and egos and perceptions of self and perceptions of others that are deeply psychological and very applicable to the way events unfold.
This is one of the things that is so important for us as we look at international relations, as we look at current events, whether it is Iran or North Korea or China or Russia, to understand that there are nuances to decisions that are being made and comments that fly that go just beyond the surface.
Kevin:You turned me on to an author, Robert Jervis, and had me read How Statesmen Think, and I’m so glad that I did because this is a man who has been giving his advice going back into the 1960s on the psychology of how statesmen think and how nations think. One of the things that he brought out, and I love his insights on the Cold War and how the cold war came to be and then how it ended, at least at the time. The insights were that many of the aggressive stances that the two sides were taking were actually based on fear of the other side and insecurity about the other side.
David:This week Robert Jervis is headed to Washington to share with our political leaders some insights, specifically, on North Korea and Iran. And so his theory has practical application as he brings revelation, if you will, into the internal workings, both in terms of our foreign counter-parties, if you will, as well as even our own leadership and the psychology of our own statesmen.
Kevin:This is a man who writes reports for the CIA and for the NSA and talks to people behind closed doors. So taking the political sides out of this, David, the Republican versus Democrat siding, and saying, “Let’s just dig a little bit deeper to look at the motivations of nations and how we can hopefully avoid war and all benefit.
David:This journey for me began 2014. I was looking at a number of books by Thomas Schelling and was talking to Thomas about joining us on the Commentary as a guest, and we lined him out to about two years ago to join us as a guest on the Commentary.
Kevin:And he unfortunately passed away before he was able to join us.
David:About two months before we were scheduled to do so. In fact, Thomas Schelling is one of the advocates there on the back of Robert Jervis’ book. He says, “Students and spectators of international relations, or of bargaining anywhere, from families to political movements, will be intrigued and informed by the subtly seasoned study. It’s because we are people, and we are people in aggregate – as you said, we have egos, we have insecurities – and the way that we operate or cooperate, or fail to cooperate, is very significant for the way the world looks, for the way markets operate, and for the way assets behave in light of that.
Kevin:For the listener who doesn’t recognize the name Thomas Schelling, this is the man who won the Nobel prize for game theory. But what we are seeing today is that it is a lot more complicated than just game theory.
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David:Robert Jervis is the Adlai Stevenson Professor of International Politics at Columbia University, and he has written on a variety of topics, not typically in the area of international relations – Perception and Misperception in International Politics,System Effects: Complexity in Political and Social Life, most recently, How Statesmen Think, and if we go back a few years, how I originally came across Robert’s work was The Logic of Images in International Relations.
Robert, I came across your first book, The Logic of Images in International Relations, in 2015 when I was studying propaganda and the messaging found between nation states. You describe that work as a foundation to a theory of deception, in the context of international relations. What you explore is these shifts in images and what individual countries project, and behaviors that they adopt that observers of those images can, in fact, be influenced by.
Of course, not all communication is deception in diplomacy, neither is all communication true, although it is always sincerely expressed. There is deep psychology involved, and I think that is what you discovered when you started your original Ph.D. thesis, that psychology is interconnected with international relations. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Robert:I got into the whole business of signaling and perception a very strange way. I’ve always been interested in international politics. Then when I was in graduate school in the early and mid 1960s there was a big debate about Soviet-American relations and whether the American policy of deterrence was effective in restraining Soviet power and adventures, or whether it was making things worse, leading to spirals of misunderstanding, tensions, and of course, raising the danger of war.
And note immediately that that same argument that we were having over 50 years ago about what the U.S. should do toward the Soviet Union is, indeed, parallel to a lot of the arguments we are having about policy toward North Korea and toward Iran. That is, are threats making things better and do we just have to work on making them stronger and more credible, or are we digging ourselves deeper and deeper into a hole, and forms of conciliation and compromise are what is necessary in American initiatives to that effect will lead to good outcomes rather than encouraging the other side to see us as weak and press harder?
So I think that debate, actually, runs like a red threat throughout a lot of international politics. You can trace it back to the debates that Thucydides tells us about. At that point I was a hawk, siding with the more hardline foreign policy, but I was struck by the arguments of the so-called spiral model that came out of social psychology, that my discipline, or the discipline I was hoping to join, really neglected the question of how people perceive others’ sides, what common misperceptions there might be that might have interfered between treating things totally idiosyncratically as a function of personalities or accidents, and just ignoring it and assuming that communication channels were completely clear.
So although I thought that psychologists were wrong in their analysis of the Soviet Union and Soviet-American relations, I thought, “Oh my God, it’s embarrassing,” they really pointed to an important topic that my own field hadn’t explored. But then as I started doing that I said, “Wait a minute, how are states perceived as only one side of the coin? States are actively trying to manipulate others’ perceptions.” And your summary of my first book is absolutely right. Sometimes the images they are trying to project are, indeed, accurate. Sometimes they are deceptive.
And I realized that I needed to study that and it turned out studying both of these for one Ph.D. dissertation was not a good idea. So I ended up studying the signaling and the deception first, and putting that out as my dissertation and then as my first book. And I still think deception is an under-studied part of political science. I don’t want to be too cynical. As you said, of course, a lot of what states try to get others to believe is completely accurate. Especially, say, if you are in a crisis and you are really going to stand firm, your messages about your resolve are honest and are designed not only to prevail but to avoid an unnecessary conflict.
But there is a lot of deception because often it is that your interests convinced the other side of something that isn’t true. And it is also just a fascinating subject. I drew, in my book, a lot on the allied, especially British, attempts to deceive the Germans in World War II. There has been a lot more of that declassified and uncovered in the past 50 years, but we know that one of the reason that the Allies were able to win the war and to land successfully at D-Day was a long-term deception program aimed at building up the credibility of various sources that were then used to convince Hitler that the landing was going to come at Calais. Without that we might have had to have used the atomic bomb against Germany and the ending of World War II would have been very different.
So deception remains important. And again, you can see our debates about it coming up now. Look at the questions of what we think about what North Korea tells us, or what the Iranian leaders tell us. We think that is highly deceptive. We, being most American leaders under this administration, think that Iran is dedicated to getting nuclear weapons and to dominating the Middle East in its statements, that it is hardly afraid of us and sees the U.S. as a terrible menace, or just a smokescreen now.
Is that true or not? Alas, my research does not give a crystal ball or a magic wand, it is more a guide to what people are going to think about this, and a little bit how we should look at that. But these debates about whether the other side is deceiving us and whether threats or necessary or counter-productive, is an absolute thread running through all of international politics.
David:As I read Thomas Schelling and other of your books, what is clear is that there is more psychology involved in the way we relate to our international counterparts than most political science students are probably aware of. So political psychology spends a good bit of time studying deviations from rationality, and there is plenty to study there. I think there are many in the world today that assume rationality and it serves as the basis for modern finance.
We have, with the Efficient Market Hypothesis within finance, this idea, this assumption, that we are dealing with rational actors. But behaviors suggest that there is more going on than just a logical process of decision-making, whether we are talking about politics or finance. Can you shed some light on how behaviors tie in, and maybe even how self-image and identity factor into that?
Robert:First, it is interesting that you mention Schelling, who was my mentor and remains an inspiration for my work. He died two years ago, but I have extraordinarily fond memories of when I was at Harvard, or the other times I have seen him. Of course, he was an economist. He won the Nobel prize for game theory, which we think of at the epitome of rationality, but as Tom said to me at one point, “It’s really funny I won the prize for game theory. I don’t do game theory.” He went on to say that he didn’t do standard game theory. The last few years of his life he was starting to work on a book that would explain his view of game theory. It is really a great loss that he did not live to write it. But the point of this personal digression is, yes, in back of, I think, the most influential “game theorist” is a deep concern for psychology. Tom was very aware that the strict rationality assumption was useful for some purposes, but wildly misleading, and that’s why he always grounded his work in empirics and in history and in case studies. And what you say about the world of finance is, I think, absolutely right, that looking back at it, it is just hard to square what happened with the standard theories of rational expectations and efficient markets. And ironically, one reason we as a country and the world got ourselves into such deep trouble is that we believed the economists and others who said, “Oh, see, the markets are completely efficient.” This meant, of course, you couldn’t get bubbles. You didn’t have to worry about them because they couldn’t exist. That way of thinking, I think, really lowered our guard, made us psychologically just unprepared to look for signs that we were really in bubbles, that we needed more regulation, that we had to do things. So ironically, the belief in complete rationality is part of the reason why we ended up in such a mess.
Of course, now economics is seeing the growth of what they call behavioral economics, which, based partly on the work of the two Israeli, now American, psychologists, Tversky, who died several years ago, and Danny Kahneman, Kahneman whose work is better known. And this work builds in much more about the way people do see the world. But it is ironic, the name Behavioral Economics, because what is the rest of economics? Does it deal with the way people behave? Well, in fact, I fear that that is true, and you can build some very nice models in economics or political science that are clean and parsimonious and lead in interesting directions, and sometimes give real insight, but that is to neglect that fact that that is not the way people think, or the way interaction plays out, is to get us into real trouble.
And I think in an indirect, but not totally wrong way, you can see some of these beliefs play out in current American foreign policy. I have to preface this by saying that I think that the policy of the Trump administration – it isn’t entirely Trump – is very misguided and maybe my analysis is skewed by my not liking Trump. But when you look at the policy toward North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, and the Israeli-Palestinian issue, you see, really, several threads that link them. One is the belief that the U.S. has enormous power in the world.
That is fairly widely shared, and we can debate it, but the other is that the key to getting outcomes are economic, and have two sides to it, that if you can bring enough economic pressure to bear the adversary will, in effect, surrender because, really, that is what we are asking of the Palestinians, Maduro and Venezuela, North Korea and Iran. When you look at our demands which I think are not only put out for bargaining purposes. We’re not moving away from them. They really are a demand that the other side surrender. And the belief we can do it is because we can face them with the prospect of either surrendering or totally going broke.
And the other side of the coin is, we can offer rewards, we can offer to make them rich. You see that most clearly in the video that Trump showed Kim Jong Un. He told Kim, “You can have your heart’s desire. You can have condos on the beach.” What we are telling Iran is the same thing. “Change your policy, really, change your government, and you can get rich.” And apparently, this is the heart of the U.S. plan for ending the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. We haven’t seen the plan but all the reports are this.
And this is a remarkably cramped view of human nature and human values, the belief that economic incentives are not only important – I would not deny that – but are the only thing that matters, that people aren’t moved by nationalism, aren’t moved by pride, also aren’t driven by fear of us, don’t have a self-image that we, as a people, will not bow down to the demands of foreigners. All those things, I think, are almost beyond the understanding of Trump and Kushner and some of the others around Trump. I don’t think that is because they have taken too many economics or political science courses, but I do think it is a world view that partly is American, but just embodies these elements that would say, “Ah, we’re realists. We know how people behave.” But in fact it is terribly, terribly unrealistic. It just misunderstands what drives people.
David:So what role does fear and anger and pride, or even love, have in international politics?
Robert:International politics scholars, I think, have always been alert to the role of fear. It goes, again, back to our forefather, Thucydides, who stresses the role of fear in a quite complicated, subtle way. I have just read an article about Thucydides’ use of fear that gives us all the Greek terms, which don’t do me any good, but showing how many different kinds, flavors, sorts of fear, and the different words in Greek they have for this, and the way Thucydides sees different aspects working. And political scientists who have talked about all the security dilemma, which I sort of popularized but did not invent. A whole bunch of people before me, again, starting with Thucydides, and others developed it. That is, that you can get these spirals because each side thinks it is acting defensively but the other side thinks it is offensive. And the way in which what we call the security dilemma which is actions that one side takes to try to increase its security have the unintended, and often unforeseen, effect of making others less secure.
During the height of the Cold War most IR scholars lost sight of this because they were convinced that the Soviet Union was acting offensively and didn’t fear us, but they are disciplined, and my colleagues are really alert to the importance of fear. Decision-makers usually are aware of their own fear, but have real trouble empathizing with others. And part of the breakthrough that led to the end of the Cold War was Reagan’s realization that the Soviet Union, or at least its new liberalizing leader, Gorbachev, really feared the United States and that some of their actions were to be explained not be aggressiveness but by fear.
Gorbachev’s breakthrough, his so-called New Thinking, was an understanding of what we call the security dilemma. He said, “Oh my God, we, the Soviet Union, have engaged in self-encirclement. Our behavior has led the West to building up its arms, all these hostilities.” And so part of the reason the Cold War ended, not all, but part, was an understanding of the other sides.
I think, in the White House today is very little understanding that Iran really does fear the U.S. and believes that if it makes concessions the U.S. will just endlessly demand more. And that is also possible in our relations with North Korea. After all, we have made nuclear threats to North Korea going all the way back to 1953, and most Americans are unaware of that. The White House, Trump, I am sure, doesn’t know that. Bolton probably does, but doesn’t think it matters. But when you start thinking in those terms that makes a real difference.
And I think the considerations of pride and honor and self-respect, desire to be respected, I think, political science has been slow to appreciate because it doesn’t fit. Fear fits nicely, and Thucydides actually is concerned with honor. But as political science became more rationalistic the notions of honor, respect, pride, I think, tended to fall away. But here is the place where I think the decision-makers are better than us because they deal with their opposite numbers and even when they are self-righteous and slow to empathize, I think they are a little quicker to understand that the people they are dealing with are people and that pride and honor can play a role.
Maybe not quick enough. It is interesting that about a week ago either Rouhani or Zarif replied to one of Trump’s tweets about, “We’ll wipe you off the face of the earth if you do nasty things,” by saying, “Try a little respect. That works much better.” I thought that was interesting. So I think they are aware of that. Now, how you generalize about this, how you build theories around this, to determine when this operates, how much, what happens when states fail to understand it – that’s a real challenge, and one that we have not successfully risen to.
David:So you’re saying that decision-makers, in contrast to scholars, have a different view to things. Perhaps they are a little bit more pragmatic and are better in that sense of being closer to the human element.
Let’s transition. We have mentioned North Korea and Iran. In the past, Chinese security, or insecurity rather, was rankled by the U.S. interactions with them through North Korea, or when the U.S. moved troops to the Yalu in the autumn of 1950. How would you describe Chinese security, or insecurity, today? Because again, we’re talking about not just fear, you can’t step in and bully the Chinese, necessarily. Honor, respect – these are all things that go a long way, culturally speaking. But again, back to this issue of security and insecurity. How would you read the Chinese in the current context?
Robert:Let me go back a minute to your correct mention of our moving troops toward the Yalu which triggered the Chinese intervention in the Korean war in the fall of 1950. Dean Acheson was Secretary of State, and a very sophisticated diplomat. He didn’t have a Ph.D. in international politics, wouldn’t have wanted one, but had this stuff at the tip of his fingers. And there was worry about trying these interventions, so he was not completely naïve. But he did say, “How could the Chinese be worried? How could they see ending the North Korean regime as a menace to them?”
We now know that the Chinese communists were very, very worried. They had not consolidated the revolutionary regime, there were guerilla movements, remnants of the nationalists, in various places in the country – the U.S. played a little role in stirring that up – and they believed that if we were on their border we would do a lot more to try to overthrow their regime. There were no plans in the U.S. to do so, but that doesn’t mean the Chinese fears were wrong. Who knows what the U.S. would have done in the next stages in feeling the optimism? But even if the U.S. wouldn’t have done it, in retrospect the Chinese fears were obvious, and naïve of us not to have anticipated them. But even the most sophisticated ones didn’t.
Where we are now, it is usually harder to tell. The rear-view mirror is much clearer. The big debate is sort of lost sight of in the current kerfuffles with Trump, but the underlying debate is how we can accommodate the increased Chinese power role in the world with the interests of the U.S. and the American allies. Very few people think a war is inevitable, but the question of how you can develop flexibility that accommodates increasing Chinese power, at least for now, but who knows where it will go? Legitimate Chinese interests in the South China Sea, which after all is their backyard and certainly not our backyard, without allowing China to completely overawe its neighbors, is the basic foreign policy challenge for the next decade.
And part of it is understanding the way China has reacted to what they call the century of humiliation, the early to mid 19thcentury, the Opium War, through the period of the Chinese revolution, and clearly the feeling that they were humiliated and they can’t let anything like that happen again, is a very important part of their policy. Indeed, one of the slogans they use internally is, “Never forget national humiliation.” That seems, I think, to many of us sort of strange. Wouldn’t you like to forget the times you have been humiliated, personally or nationally? And yet, partly for political reasons because the post Deng Xiaoping regime doesn’t have a communist ideology to support it so it needs both economic progress and nationalism.
So the use of the slogan of never forgetting national humiliation is partly purely strategic, but I think it would be a mistake to dismiss it entirely as that. This is a country that has been humiliated, whose people know this every well, and I think makes them even more sensitive to slights than would be true of other countries.
David:How do you think Xi Jinping and the politburo perceive the U.S. today?
Robert:Boy, that is extraordinarily hard. First, I suspect they are, as most foreigners are, confused by first the fairly rapid changes in American policy. Second, I think they are confused by the incoherence, or the conflict within the Trump administration. You look at most issues, at what Trump is saying, and what Bolton or Pompeo is saying, it is, as Trump, himself, has said, hard to reconcile this. And we in the U.S. are somewhat used to something like this and most of us can see this as an administration that can’t get its act together.
But we know external observers often draw more hostile inferences. They don’t say, “Oh well, that other government is just totally uncoordinated,” they look for the plan in back of it. This is apocryphal, but the Congress of Vienna, when the Russian ambassador died, Talleyrand, the French Foreign Minister, supposedly said, “Ah, I wonder why he did that?”
Robert:People look for patterns and plots when they are not there. So this, undoubtedly, confuses them. I think also, Trump’s blowing hot and cold about exactly what he wants on trade, because at first he focused on just the trade imbalance, just the pure number, which actually I think he misunderstands what that means. But leave that aside. He was focused on that.
But then, partly because of what his advisors believed, he started focusing on the need for structural changes in the Chinese economy, which many of us would agree with him on, but that sort of shift must have confused them, and it happened fairly suddenly. And then, of course, the latest move on Huawei, regardless of whether you think it is justified or not, it came very suddenly.
So I think they must, on the one hand be confused, and on the other, I think, certainly looking for some master plan behind this, and also wondering if this is an America they can live with. Do they have to just hunker down and maybe give up some goals, but on the other hand push harder to get rid of the American military presence right off their border? I think they probably are rethinking what their relations with the U.S. and the West will have to be like. It would be fascinating to read their intelligence analyses of the United States. I hope my friends at the NSA are able to read that.
David:(laughs) In the past we have had messaging which was fairly carefully crafted from one state to the other, and that could have been formally in letters, or informally in various moves through ambassadors or troop movements or actions taken. I wonder if technology has allowed for a less thoughtful and more impulsive communication between states. Do you see implications from this?
Robert:Yes, it’s true. Diplomacy, you go back 200-300 years, was inevitably slow. It took weeks or months to get messages from one side of the Atlantic to the other, let alone the Pacific. In the War of 1812, the biggest battle, the Battle of New Orleans, was fought after the peace agreement had been reached because neither Jackson nor the British in New Orleans knew that the war was over, and the telegraph was considered a great aid, not only to diplomacy, but to peace-keeping, because you could communicate more reliably and quickly.
It may be case of the aphorism, “Be careful what you wish for, you may get it.” Because now, especially with Twitter, you see what happens, not only with Trump. Trump isn’t the only one tweeting. Now, partly because Trump started it, you get Iranian leaders sending out tweets. And this is really not a good thing. I can imagine some cases where you really communicate, “Oh my God, that isn’t what I meant, but I had to get it out right away.”
But I think that is going to be a minority of cases. People’s first responses often are more belligerent. In the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy and his colleague, their first reaction was the bomb the missile sites in Cuba. On the other side, Khrushchev and his colleagues, their first reaction was, “We’re not going to back down. We’re going to continue.” And for 24 hours they believed that. And then just thinking about it more they said, “That’s pretty stupid.” And Kennedy analyzed the plans – “That’s pretty stupid.” So we were able to get out of that.
Speeding up communication too much is not good, and it also means when you can communicate very quickly, if you don’t, the other side may start drawing other inferences. “Hmm, they haven’t tweeted back. Well, maybe that’s because they are weak.” And that’s not helpful. And the profusion of communication channels, we see a problem domestically, but internationally other countries monitor all the cable shows and try to figure out who is speaking for the U.S. It makes a cacophony, and makes the true or authoritative messages much harder to get through.
The diplomats have just a much smaller role, and part of their role is explaining what doesn’t matter, telling foreign leaders, “No, you can ignore what Rachel Maddow said, or what Hannity said, and listen to me.” But it is hard when the diplomats are talking and a lot of other people are shouting.
David:When a statesman is communicating, the message is going out. Sometimes if it is quiet communication or secret communication you know who the intended audience is. But in this case, we could be talking about the audience being one of two. If Trump says something to the Chinese or to the Iranians, or to whomever, is the audience a domestic audience or is it another state power? Maybe you can elaborate on that, the distinction between the gains by communicating with a domestic audience versus what you would hope to gain from a state power and communicating to them?
Robert:The so-called multiple audience problem is one that we have always had, but now is much greater because of the hyperactivity. It came up again at the end of the Cold War that Shultz was meeting with Shevardnadze, the Soviet foreign minister. This was probably in 1988. That is when relations were really getting quite good and we were solving a lot of problems and Gorbachev was really backing down on a number of issues.
Anyway, Shultz expected this meeting to go quite well because they were on track. And the Soviet foreign minister was very angry and started talking about a Reagan speech and how they were so upset because Reagan was parroting the Cold War hard line, and Shultz scribbled a frantic note to his aid, “What is he talking about?!” The aid said, “I don’t know,” and went and sort of checked and checked, and finally someone figured out that Reagan a week before had given a speech to a Republican hard core in new Hampshire, and had just, in effect, read off the old script.
David:The Cold War script.
Robert:It was just to keep his base happy. And not only was it not a statement of foreign policy, Schultz and his top aides didn’t even know about the speech. Occasionally, leaders will tell others, “Hey, ignore this.” Bush senior told Gorbachev during the presidential campaign, Bush’s first 1988 campaign, “Look, I’m going to have to say a number of things to elected, but don’t let it disturb you. We’ll do serious work after January.” So sometimes aides can really do that, but not too often.
And again, if you’re on the receiving end, you have to ask which is the real message. If the other guy, or gal, but it’s usually a guy, feels the need to appease his public opinion by taking a very belligerent position, how is he going to be able to implement a reasonable stance when he comes to power or when it comes to making an agreement. So the perceivers sometimes look at these messages devoted to the public to give real evidence about where the long-term relationship can go.
David:This is the point that is fascinating to me, in terms of perception and misperception, the communications that are given, we as citizens would step back and say, “What was just said? Was that for me? Was that for someone else?” Typically, in our lives, in a trusting relationship, we tend to focus on understanding what is conveyed more than determining intent or design or trustworthiness, and yet in international relations, I’m wondering, is there a reliable method for determining what the message is and what actions are likely to follow from it. Or has that been even more greatly confused given the proliferation of communication forms and channels?
Robert:Well, it has always been difficult, and I fear it is more difficult now, also because states are aware, especially when they look at us, of how quickly American policy can change. Even if they, for instance, know what Trump is going to do, his successor could do something different. Again, let me take North Korea. I think Trump is perfectly willing to make a deal that ignores the repressive, horrible nature of the North Korean domestic regime. He has told us this and it fits also with Pompeo’s worldview, not so much Bolton’s, but Pompeo’s.
But if we were to make such an agreement, there is a good chance the next president would do for it what Trump did for the agreement with Iran. They will say, “This is insufficient. My predecessor thought that he could give you a pass on horrible human rights abuses. I don’t, so I’m not going to abide by the agreement and I’m going to reinstitute the sanctions.”
And partly, looking at all the domestic voices, the other side can always see many that will be critical of anything the president is saying or being willing to sign. And the leader has to ask, “Well, even if I get an agreement, will it last longer than this president?” Again, at the end of the Cold War when Gorbachev and Reagan had established a pretty trusting relationship, they talked exactly about that. Each one said, “You know, you’re not going to be there forever, and I’m not going to be here forever, and how do we cope with that?” Given the nature of international politics there is no way to be sure.
And because of that, detecting or trying to detect deeper currents in the other side’s society can be particularly important, especially when you don’t have much trust. Say that Reagan and Gorbachev, and then Bush and Gorbachev, and most of the European leaders did develop a great deal of trust in each other and that made it much easier for them to smooth over the disputes and the fact that you had discordant voices. When you don’t’ have any trust, well, you’re going to see these other things internally, and draw the most menacing inferences from them.
David:The Cold War conflict between superpowers, there obviously was not an agreement at that time as to what the international system would be, two different competing ideologies. Do today’s superpowers want to preserve the international system? Do they value the system? Do they have common, or do they have conflicting interests?
Robert:Well, I feel like it is an important, and very hard, issue. Until about three years ago, pre-dating Trump, Americans were fairly optimistic about China. After all, it was, if you will, the liberal world order that had permitted China to rise, and Chinese economic growth was largely a function of their own industriousness, but would not have been possible without Chinese trading with the U.S., the institution of the World Trade Organization and our willingness to allow China to join it, and actually, to cheat on some of its provisions, considering. And we did that partly because at that point China was very weak and we wanted them to grow. So the thought then was, well, China has an enormous stake in this.
Now, it’s less clear. Of course, the Chinese tell us they, in fact, are the main upholder of the old world order now that Trump has moved away from some of it. And the experts on China ask themselves, and ask the Chinese in these meetings, how China wants to change the rules, what things they think are unfair and disadvantage them, and what general principles they think should be put into place, and what general principles that have been operative would be maintained. And it is really hard to get the full picture, even hard to get the Chinese to articulate a full vision, and if they did you wouldn’t know if they were speaking for the government. And even if you knew that, you wouldn’t know if it was deceptive.
For Russia, I think it is clear, and partly for China, that it is transnational forces that worry them because they can undermine their internal undemocratic system. So both China and Russia always propound sovereignty. Now, they do violate other countries’ sovereignty, as Russia did when it interfered in our elections, but they talk about the importance of sovereignty and they do, I think, believe it, because the nature of at least the world rules that were envisaged in the first ten years of the Cold War did erode sovereignty in various ways, especially for countries that were not democratic.
And here again, it is ironic, Trump’s view is much closer to the Chinese view and the Russian view than Obama’s was, or that all of the Democratic candidates are, Trump partly because of his position on immigration which in his worldview stresses importance of sovereignty and distinct national cultures. So there is more of a common view of how the world should be between Trump, Putin and Xi than there has been for a long time. That can’t lead to real international cooperation because that world then breaks down on specific issues, and anyway, Trump, I think, is incapable, I think, of implementing a coherent policy. But it is interesting.
David:On the issue of Trump emphasizing national culture and sovereign distinction, I think one of the things that has come to mind is that there is almost a contemporary zeitgeist, not just within the Trump administration, but you see the rise of populism, whether it is the [unclear] or the Five-Star movement, clearly the Trump election in 2016, but national identity is a part of a picture, but this is something that is happening globally, not just in the U.S. What does that say about the near-term future of international relations where populism and the domestic audience are a priority, both here and abroad?
Robert:And of course, we see this in the elections of the European Parliament on Sunday. That was the, if you will, national, and nationalist parties in various forms did very well. And I think even some of the left wing green parties were still a different form of nationalism, but I think it did fuel at least some of that vote, so it is not entirely limited to the right. And you are certainly correct, it is not only American.
And also, I think it is easy for people like me who live in a very international world and are insulated from a lot of the pressures and problems that are driving this, it’s to easy for us to be condescending about what is behind the nationalist movement. And I think these things partly are pendulum swings. I don’t think it is going to keep moving in that direction, but while it is here, yes, it certainly will affect international politics. I don’t think you can expect to see the European Union grow into – what is the phrase they used – an ever-deeper relationship.
And I think the world may have to tolerate, and it may not be a bad thing, less efficiency for other values, that is, a lot of what drives freer trade is the basic economic advantages of division of labor. But I think we should face the fact that efficiency and greater wealth overall is not necessarily the highest value. It comes along with very important distributive and redistributive consequences that can really overwhelm the advantages in efficiency. And that, for many people, growth in wealth, although important, isn’t the only thing, and we are going to have to accommodate, I think, a greater sense of national differences.
In that way, I think international politics for the next decade may have greater resemblance to earlier periods in history when the nation state was not being eroded and when national feeling was quite strong. We know rampant nationalism increases conflict and can lead to war. I don’t think it has to, I think it is a force to be reckoned with and it will certainly cause some friction, but I think if leaders are aware of it and see how it can be managed, it makes the world more difficult but not necessarily apocalyptically bad.
David:In the conversation that we had with a previous guest from Eastern Europe, Tomas Sedlacek, we talked about growth, we talked about the priority of growing wealth and there being a price for it, and the question of whether or not we were really looking at things comprehensively. Perhaps growth at any cost is not so healthy. You look at the national balance sheet and debt continues to increase, whether it is domestic, household debt, corporate debt, and yet if it is serving that priority of growth, then fine, I’m happy, you’re happy, we all have more. And yet assets values fluctuate, debts are permanent. So there is this lingering question we all have to answer – if growing wealth is our summum bonum, if it is our greatest good.
I have a different question altogether for you as it relates to self-deception, and as it relates to what famous physicist Richard Feynman said to a group of scientists, “You must not fool yourself.”
Robert:Yes, and you are the easiest person to fool.
David:That’s right, so if self-deception is possible in science, how about in politics?
Robert:Yes, I think self-deception is extremely important. In one of the essays in How Statesmen ThinkI talk about the fundamental drivers of beliefs, not in the substance, but in the process. And one of them is expectations. People will interpret incoming information in light of what they already believe. And the other is related to self-deception, that people try to ward off psychological pain. Seeing things that are really painful is something we try to avoid.
So if the world is facing us with, say, a severe value trade-off to get more, say, growth, we have to give up more national autonomy, or to get more growth overall we have to get more inequality. People don’t want to see that in the world, so they deny it, and they want to see what another political scientist says. All good things go together. Or turn it around, all bad things go together.
Self-deception, relates also to people’s self-images. They want to think well of themselves and their country. Dean Acheson didn’t want to think that the Chinese could believe that the U.S. was going to behave aggressively if it got to the Yalu. These are very, very destructive mechanisms that, psychologically, we have adopted because it is hard to live with the world where you see trade-offs, and when you fully understand that others may think you are aggressive, or a lout, or stupid, or something. That’s really very hard.
So the pressures for self-deception are very great. In a well-functioning government, we hope that some of the people in the bureaucracy who are, in a sense, a little less ego involved, can provide corrective information. But that’s very, very hard, and no guarantee it will be done, or that it will be listened to.
David:And whether or not you are in the leadership position, or in the more bureaucratic position, as you discuss, judging Soviet intentions in the 1980s, facts are not always facts. Facts are not entirely objective. Frankly, it reminds me of financial market heuristics. You find what you are looking for, and ignore the rest. Can we ever move beyond our assumptions and ideology, or is there always something to color perception, whether you are in the leadership role, or in the bureaucracy.
Robert:Sometimes decision-makers are really insightful and are right, and it’s very impressive. But there is no magic wand. The world is very ambiguous, and especially when you deal with other sides’ capabilities that can be hidden. I have written in one book about intelligence failures, drawing on the post-mortem I did for the CIA of the Iraq WMD intelligence failure, that even capabilities that are supposedly easier to detect than intentions – a lot of ways to go wrong, the evidence is almost always ambiguous, and that is even more so when you deal with intentions.
And once personality, political interests, pre-existing beliefs necessarily play a role in interpretation, there is no such thing as a “pure” interpretation of the evidence, and this means we do constantly live with the possibility, indeed, the probability of error. And again, that is very hard for people to come to grips with. I can say this, I’m an academic, I go and talk to people in Washington. I have no power or responsibility, but if you were in the position of responsibility and you are making decisions that could lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, the future of your country, it is very hard to say, “Oh well, I easily could be wrong. This is ambiguous, and I’ve got my own view, so maybe I’m right, maybe I’m wrong, this is what I’ll do.”
That’s very hard. You need self-confidence, and self-confidence leads to self-deception, and it conflicts with an awareness of how ambiguous the evidence you are dealing with is. It is partly why decision-makers often really get annoyed when people disagree with them. It is partly that the very existence of that disagreement, especially if from someone who is otherwise sensible, indicates that the way you are seeing the world isn’t the only possible way, and that is very uncomfortable.
David:There are only about a dozen other questions that I have for you and I would like to spend the next three hours chatting about everything from Eisenhower to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. Let me home in on a couple of things because we have touched on a few of the potential risks to the world which could be misunderstandings and conflict between North Korea, Iran, China and Russia. Also, we haven’t talked anything about Muslim identity. But could you argue that the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent forays into the Middle East by U.S. forces over the last two decades has further codified Muslim identity and created issues that we will still get to, or have to deal with, in the decades ahead.
Robert:A very good question and outruns my area of expertise. It is certainly quite possible. The general knowledge of politics indicates that is the case. If you look at the civil war in the former Yugoslavia, the people in Bosnia, who were in a way technically Muslims, didn’t consider that part of their identity. They drank, they didn’t go to Mosque at all. But once they were being killed for being Muslim they did become that. And being under attack partly for those characteristics is one way to really reinforce it.
In Afghanistan, I think, the religious identity was pretty deep to begin with, but undoubtedly reinforced by the nature of the war, or rather, the continuing wars, and probably the American action in invasion of Iraq not only solidified the links between religious identity and nationalism, but probably also increased the Shi’a/Sunni split in the region, and Iran and Saudi Arabia always were rivals, going back to the days of the Shah, but I think the religious inflection to that is now much greater. And the basic point that you are making is absolutely right, that events have very long tails. You feel the consequences long after the event, itself, has passed.
David:When it gets to that issue of national identity, national identity can be codified by certain events. Can it actually change through time? Is it reinforced or influenced by certain events?
Robert:I think national identities certainly can change. The most striking example, I think, is Iran, going back to the overthrow of the Shah. For the Shah, and I think many Iranians, certainly the educated elite, the identity was not religious, but ethnic. They were Persian and that kept them aside from the rest of the world, including their Arab neighbors, and the Shah always talked about them. And as Persians and the heritage of a big celebration for Persepolis for how many years of Persian civilization.
For Khomeini and the revolution that put him in power, of course, identity was much, much more Shi’a, and that, I think, has stayed. Of course, a lot of the bearers of the old version identity were either killed or fled the country, but even, I suspect, if we go a level or two down in the strata in the Iranian society, you find many individuals who considered themselves Persian before the revolution who now see themselves as Shi’a and have much more loyalty to their fellow Shi’a in other Arab countries.
David:You comment that the U.S., going back to the Cold War, was very little changed. It changed very little after the Cold War. Yet it seems we still need an adversary. If you look at 9/11, our war on terror, it is a nameless, faceless and endless war. I wonder if that doesn’t factor into sort of the ongoing underscoring of our identity and role on the global stage. Why, if this is, in fact, the case, do we need an adversary?
Robert:Again, a very hard question, both in general that countries need adversaries, and is the U.S. extreme in this? No clear answer. Gorbachev toward the end of the Cold War said he was going to do something terrible to the U.S., he was going to deprive it of the adversary. And I think that was misreading the American domestic society and character then. I don’t think by the 1980s that U.S. needed a Soviet adversary.
It is interesting, of course, American society now is much more heterogeneous than it was 40 years ago. Its economic inequality has grown enormously. The rural/urban divide has increased. And of course, in terms of immigration we are back to the levels at the height of immigration in the 19thcentury. Now, I don’t think people in power who urged the war on terror were moved by the hope for the foreign adversary to unify the country, but it is striking that right away, right after 9/11, Bush and several members of the administration, even people who were not in Washington at the time, independently converged on the idea that this was a war and should be treated as one, an idea that many of us at the time thought was remarkably foolish. And I think we have not changed our minds.
And it isn’t clear, even in retrospect, why people fastened on this as a war, especially on terror as opposed to a campaign against particular terrorist groups, which is really very different. Just as right now it is really not clear why we are dropping bombs in Somalia against a group that certainly is bad actors and kills a lot of people, but hard to see Al-Shabaab as much of a threat to the U.S., although it may be one now thanks to our bombing it. So there are many aspects of the war on terror that are puzzling.
Does the U.S. need a foreign adversary? I’m a little skeptical. Most of the focus of the people in the country are not like you or me or all the people I talk to who are preoccupied with foreign affairs and what is happening abroad and the dangers of war. I think the focus tends to be really, understandably, quite internal to what is happening, not only nationally, but even more locally. So I am not as convinced as some people that there is a need for an adversary in that way. I certainly hope there isn’t. Getting adversaries may make jobs for those of us who study IR, but is not pleasant.
David:I go back to the slogan that you mentioned, that the Chinese continue to circulate, just so people don’t forget – “Never forget national humiliation.” Every time I go to the airport and I am faced with a picture of the flag – this goes back to propaganda and images – the flag at the airport is made up of the individual names who died in 9/11, and these are all the people that I am supposed to remember as I go through the TSA line and want to flex my independent muscle and say, “What the heck is all this about? Are we really that much safer, and are all of these contraptions really necessary?” It seems to me that to move the needle on domestic agendas – that is why we have needed the war on terror, because people will go along with a lot of things if they feel that there is a threat.
Robert:Yes, and of course, all the fetish for wearing the flag in the lapel, which when you are in Washington, it’s a divide. If you are going into government office, all the political appointees will have flags in their lapels or on their blouse, and it always struck me as an odd thing. I went into one meeting with Brent Kavanaugh when he was still in the White House Counsel’s office, and the person who was directing us gave us all little flags and said, “You may not like this, but put it on, it will help the atmosphere.”
Robert:And then sometimes, of course, foreign conflicts are useful for inducing domestic change. The welfare state in Great Britain grew out of the shared suffering during World War II. World War II also gave a boost to the Civil Rights movement in the United States. It didn’t make as much progress as we wanted, but the notion of what we were fighting against – racists, and also we were in this together – did make a significant difference in how African Americans were treated.
So one question may be how to harness feelings of nationalism and the good of the country that are stirred up by these into goals that actually improve the country. But if I knew exactly how to do this I would be the 24thperson running for the Democratic nomination.
David:I think you are actually very well placed to continue to influence change, whether you are running on a political ticket or not. We will wrap our conversation today, but the idea that observations influence outcomes – this is something that you discussed in terms of theory swallowing itself. To the degree that academics are treating the topics well, you can solve many problems, simply by bringing discussion into the public arena.
There was a recent guest on our Commentary who discussed the panopticon, the idea that when individuals are observed behaviors can be altered. This is somewhere between theoretical physics, information theory, again back to psychology and what you describe as theory swallowing itself. Awareness changes things, and what you have done through your career as an academic is raise the discussion that there are things we need to be aware of, that do influence politics and international politics, and some of them are not as obvious as you think. Some of them tie directly to the psychology of statesmen, and that’s why I wanted to have you in our conversation today and on the Commentary today, just to underscore the importance of those sometimes-neglected areas that are so important to public policy and outcomes.
Robert:Yes, I think that is right. I must say, when I was offered the Chair I hold, the Adlai Stevenson Chair – I normally don’t care about titles, but I campaigned for Stevenson, handing out campaign leaflets when I was 12 years old, and I’ve always been a Stevenson fan. One of the things he said in the campaign was the importance of talking sense to the American people, and I’m glad to do my bit to that end.
David:We appreciate your contribution – The Logic of Images in International Relations, going back to the 1960s – and just here in the last year or so your publishing of a number of essays – How Statesmen Think: The Psychology of International Politics. As we try to wrap our minds around the risks inherent to the world, both financially and politically, it is important to understand the minds of the decision-makers who are so important in the process of making decisions in public policy. So thank you for that contribution, and for joining us today on the Commentary.
Robert:Glad to do it. Bye now.