Tuesday, May 1

US 21st century foreign policy and wrong application of game theory

I seem to recall snapping at him on this blog for a fatuous Newsweek cover story he wrote on China, but I have a soft spot in my heart for Fareed Zakaria. He understands the modern era, he coined the term "illiberal democracy," and he pinch-hit for free on short notice as a translator when John Batchelor was interviewing terrorists who spoke Arabic.

Yet I found myself muttering, "The world is not high school, Mr Zakaria," while reading his latest column for Newsweek titled Losing Another War in Asia.

I'm still trying to understand what I meant by the remark. At one point Zakaria observes that a problem with US policy in Asia is that the Bush administration "is still beleaguered by the total collapse of its image abroad, which makes it difficult for countries such as Indonesia and Thailand to take measures that are seen as pro-American."

Why should it be difficult, if the leaders in those countries have pro-American sentiments or see value in certain American initiatives? Will they turn into a toad if found supporting an American position? Will lightning strike them? That didn't happen to Tony Blair, even though many Britons are still hopping mad that he sided with Bush on the Iraq invasion.

Zakaria continues:
When I asked [Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong] how to change this dynamic, he reminded me that nearly half of Southeast Asia's population is Muslim and said, "The single most important thing that the U.S. could do to shift its image in the region would be to take a more active role on the Israeli-Palestinian issue and in a balanced way. The issue is more important for Southeast Asia's Muslims than even Iraq."
We should try for balance, huh? Okay, where is the mid-point for the United States between factions that refuse to recognize Israel and factions trying to wipe Israel off planet?

Pundita is not being deliberately dense. I understand Lee's point: If government leaders in Muslim countries don't distance themselves from the American government, the Muslims might riot and bring down their government.

I also understand that Lee's advice represents a world view that elevates consensual thinking to the highest human value. That view is counter to the American one.

Here in America, we believe that genocide is not okay even if the rest of the world should say it's okay. This is the kind of thing you're supposed to know if you are born and raised in the USA -- even if your parents are from the most consensual of Asian societies and the most Muslim of societies. You are supposed to understand that the group dynamic must never overwhelm individual conscience -- the place in the heart that can judge between what is a help and a harm to another.

I suppose the only assimilated Americans who have a hard time understanding that a group of one's peers is not God are high school students. But Fareed is past high school age, and he does not have Lee's excuse of being very East Asian in his outlook -- an outlook that abhors disorder.

Granted, Fareed wasn't born and raised in the USA but he was university eductated here and he's a city-bred Indian; he's from Mumbai and from a very cosmopolitan family. It's no joke to say that if you get two citified Indians together you immediately have eight different opinions. He of all people should know that Lee's advice, no matter how well-meaning, is not right for anyone who refuses to cede to groupthink just because it's a dominant group. So it's also not right for American foreign policy.

Wikipedia says that Zakaria is of the "realist" foreign policy school, but it could be that he doesn't understand the limits of applying game theory to foreign relations issues. Whether or not I'm on the mark about Zakaria, I suspect that many who consider themselves foreign policy realists have that problem.

Last week's Numb3rs TV show was about the application of game theory to police negotiations with a prisoner, which taught how the theory can break down. The classic game theory tactic of tit-for-tat rewards and punishments was applied to the negotiations.

The tactic worked up to a certain point. But the prisoner was suffering from psychological trauma, which the negotiators didn't know about. The trauma caused him to recreate an event in memory in a way that it didn't actually happen. The upshot was that the prisoner kept supplying information that the FBI knew was false.

The FBI negotiators kept insisting to the prisoner that he was lying and kept trying to apply game theory; the prisoner remained adamant that he was telling the truth.

The impasse was broken by a lie detector test that showed the prisoner believed he was telling the truth. That led to an MRI, which helped reveal the trauma, which led to the prisoner confronting what had actually happened.

But the US government can't haul an MRI machine to the negotiating table with Palestinians or North Koreans. Game theory cannot overcome certain human conditions, such as traumatic hatred that causes one side to disbelieve whatever you say. It cannot overcome brainwashing. It cannot overcome the fear that causes severe trauma. It cannot overcome many things.

Game theory works in negotiation, but negotiation presupposes certain conditions that are best viewed outside an assessment of mathematical probabilities.

Many Muslims honestly believe they're going to hell if they do not follow the instruction of their religious preceptors. So if their preceptors tell them that Israel must be destroyed, one cannot negotiate them out of their position. There is no middle ground, no balanced point one can find, no outcome that gives something to both sides through application of game theory.

All North Korean negotiators are firmly and justifiably convinced that they face very serious personal consequences if they make concessions that angers Beijing. So while an application of the punishment-reward gambit -- via the Treasury moves that froze millions of dollars and the promise of substantial aid-- brought North Korean's government back to the negotiation table with five other countries, there is a hitch. The negotiators have in mind a different set of punishments and rewards while listening to inducements and threats from the other five governments.

So it's as if you're trying to negotiate with a ghost when you deal with people who have in mind an entirely different set of punishments than the ones you can bring to the negotiation table.

So what to do? Recognize that there are alternatives to negotiation without cutting off relations. Every married couple and readers who frequently visit Pundita's blog know the alternatives. There's argument, debate, sarcasm, insults, wild overstatements, pleas, teaching -- in short, there's always the tactic of acting human.

To put this another way, you don't walk out on the beach and yell at the water, "Let's negotiate your progress," when see a tidal wave bearing down. This on the theory that life is not a negotiating table, no more than adult society is high school.

You can't always get what you want through negotiation without stopping, as the FBI agents did on Numb3rs, and first going through steps that are outside the negotiation process. I wonder if the US Department of State is willing to cede that point with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian standoff.

Fareed Zakaria had to operate within the bounds of journalism protocols, so one can't very well fault him for not initiating a debate with Prime Minister Lee. But he could have injected some debate into his reasoning when he sat down to write of his interview. He could have asked, What is Lee suggesting? That the US negotiate Israel into accepting a balanced approach to the Hamas position of genocide?

The US image abroad has not "collapsed," as Zakaria contends; it has run into disagreement. The challenge for US foreign relations is not how to achieve balance because balance is a highly abstract concept. The challenge is defining US policy as distinct from EU and NATO policies.

The United States is a distinct minority at NATO, which is an overwhelmingly European institution since the addition of several countries to the organization.

For decades the US has not had an American policy; we've had a NATO policy. Yet we have to define ourselves on the sound theory that if you don't clearly define yourself, others will do it for you. So you can't hope for great success in negotiations if you don't first have a crystal clear position from which to negotiate.

No small part of the disagreements with the United States are grounded in confusion. Many people, the world over, are not clear on what the United States stands for, which is our fault not theirs. The upshot is that they've supplied their own definitions for what America stands for.

I understand that my advice flies against tradition because for more than a half century the United States has led in the development in multilateral organizations such as the United Nations, NATO, WTO, and the IMF-World Bank. This has created a multilateral mindset in Washington that by the 1990s had drifted into a very unclear projection and understanding of a purely American position.

Yet we have entered an era that finds great flaws in the multilateral approach. This is because of demands from developing countries for equal voting rights at the World Bank, the UN, WTO, etc. Multilateralism is heading into anarchy. That's exactly why so many bilateral agreements are springing up, all over the world.

How to eke out a distinctly American position? One place to make progress could be at the Prague Conference, which I'll discuss tomorrow.

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