Of Street Fights and Beauty Contests

By Robert Wallace
America’s Right

On the anniversary of the USSR’s invasion of Poland, American President Barack Obama announced that the United States was scrapping our plan to deploy missile defense components in Poland and the Czech Republic. I think liberal blogger Matthew Yglesias’s response was typical of how the left viewed the decision:

Today, the Obama administration announced officially that it will kill a Bush administration initiative to build a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic in order to protect Europe from Iranian missiles. This is a good call.

Yglesias went farther:

Conservatives, because they’re stupid and immoral, have decided that antagonizing the Russians is a feature rather than a bug of the program … This is another example of inane spite-based thinking in foreign policy. Basically the idea is that if the Russians don’t want us to do something, we have to do it because otherwise we’re appeasing them and next thing you know Vladimir Putin will be marching on Paris… it should also be seen as part of a broader conservative worldview that wants to lodge the United States in a lot of negative-sum conflicts and fails to see the possibility for positive-sum cooperation.

Now, I don’t think for a moment that serious Democratic foreign policy analysts are as naive as Yglesias. There are a lot of Americans who are socially liberal and yet very realistic on matters of foreign policy. (They probably also know what the term “zero-sum” means.) But you can’t deny that in popular America fiscal and social liberalism go hand-in-hand with a particular view of foreign policy like Yglesias’s. I’m going to classify it as liberal for the sake of simplicity, even though I know there are important exceptions. Whatever you call it, it’s a very specific paradigm that leads to the view that conservatives are “stupid and immoral” at home while completely failing to comprehend international relations abroad.

Based on this paradigm, the result of rescinding the missile defense strategy should have been greater peace, cooperation, and friendliness between America and Russia. Instead, just a few days later, we got this headline: Russia to Allow Pre-Emptive Nuclear Strikes

The problem is that bleeding-heart liberals treat domestic politics like a no-holds barred street fight and international politics like a beauty contest.

The Flawed Paradigm

The paradigm revolves around a central metaphor: nations as individuals. You can represent China by one person, Russia by another person, and the United States by another person. Then you can apply the basic rules that govern interpersonal relationships to international politics. No one comes out and states this rule because it would sound silly, but it’s there behind the scenes whenever you hear a statement like “The US should be nicer to other nations.”

The simplicity of the model is what makes it so attractive. You can ignore game theory, military strategy, geographic resource distribution, and centuries of complex history and reduce all foreign policies to “how would I treat my neighbor?” The simplicity it offers is therefore not only intellectual, but moral. This explains why people who use this paradigm view anyone they disagree with as both stupid and immoral. It is because according to this simple paradigm the answer to most foreign policy questions – morally and intellectually – is obvious. Treat others the way you want to be treated. Be nice. The Golden Rule. Etc.

Simplicity is a chief consideration when evaluating any model of the real world, but the degree to which the model explains or predicts the the real world is even more crucial. And that’s where this paradigm collapses.

Failure No. 1: Nations Are Not Individuals

Obviously. you’re going to run into problems attempting to get one metaphorical person to represent an entire nation. Even if you average out the opinions, tastes, and politics of everyone in the nation your approximation is not going to represent many of those individuals very well.

But the real pitfall is much worse. The fact is that average Americans don’t know very much about ordinary people from distant lands. What we know about Iranians, for example, comes mostly from the media. And up until the protests after the most recent elections the only Iranians in the media were sectarian hardliners, and so when Americans used that convenient “imagine that Iran is just a person” paradigm, who do you think that person looked like?

This means that even if the premise that being nice to people is the way to get what you want did apply on the international level, the tendency to associate the nation with the leadership means we’re invariably going to be nice to the wrong people when it matters most.

Failure No. 2: The Bad Guys Have a Different Model

The most famous example from game theory is called the prisoner’s dilemma. Here’s the setup:

Two suspects are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction, and, having separated both prisoners, visit each of them to offer the same deal. If one testifies (defects from the other) for the prosecution against the other and the other remains silent (cooperates with the other), the betrayer goes free and the silent accomplice receives the full 10-year sentence. If both remain silent, both prisoners are sentenced to only six months in jail for a minor charge. If each betrays the other, each receives a five-year sentence. Each prisoner must choose to betray the other or to remain silent. Each one is assured that the other would not know about the betrayal before the end of the investigation. How should the prisoners act?

Obviously the best solution in an ideal world is for both players to keep silent, but rational players will always defect because they have no way of knowing what the other guy is going to do. There’s a lot of interesting analysis (especially when it comes to repeated iterations of the game), but the key takeaway here is that if you assume the other guy is playing by our rosy-tinted view of the world you are setting yourself up as an easy mark.

Unfortunately that’s exactly what typical liberals do when it comes to their paradigm: they either assume that everyone uses it or they don’t even realize that it’s an approximation that might deviate from reality. The truth is that it is precisely those nations we need to be most worried about that are least likely to share the idealistic assumptions of this model.

Consider the Russian reaction to Obama’s missile defense strategy. They got what they wanted and they’d like more of the same, so they paid lip-service to reconciliation and gratitude. They know that as long as a few friendly quotes show up in papers over the next couple of days many Americans will walk away with the impression that Obama’s gesture worked. The attention span of the American media is not long enough to track whether their actions matched their words.

Well the #1 action that Obama wants from the Russians is an agreement not to veto new sanctions against Iran. The Russians delivered some tough rhetoric to boost the credibility of this stupid American strategy, but so far there are no new sanctions and no real prospect that there will be any new sanctions.

We’re getting played.

The same failure applies domestically as well as internationally. Yglesias believes that conservatives are “stupid and immoral”. That’s because he can’t comprehend that his view of the world is a mere approximation, and a bad one at that. If conservatives were using the same paradigm as Yglesias and liberals, then it would be “stupid and immoral” to needlessly provoke the Russians. But we’re not. Our reasoning is rooted in logic rather than in emotional idealism.

Failure 3: There’s No Framework, but There Are Bad Guys

Americans live day-to-day lives of peaceful security. Violent resolution to conflict is a rare aberration. This leads many liberals to believe that we live in a world where conflicts either don’t arise, or are naturally contained.

In reality conflict is an inevitable part human life. The reason that conflict between private citizens so rarely turns to violence is because we inhabit an extremely intricate system that provides layers of interlocking negative incentives: people are punished for escalating confrontations. This happens on the subtle, psychological level. We don’t like being thought of negatively, yelling at your coworkers will make others think of you negatively, and so we generally control our tempers in the work place. At the next level we have all kinds of voluntary associations dedicated to conflict resolution, from formal grievance committees to arbitration boards. Next we’ve got a dense network of local, state, and federal civil and criminal laws along with a justice system to see them enforced.

All of this makes up an extremely delicate and artificial thing we call “civilization”. Violent conflict is not the aberration; civilization is.

When liberals look at America’s place in the world they see decades or even centuries of unbroken domestic peace. They see stability and order in our relations with other nations. And their metaphor of nations-as-persons leads them to believe that it’s for the same reason: that either conflict is unnatural or that there are naturally occurring systems that regulate and contain that conflict.

Both views are delusional.

Not only does conflict invariably exist – as a consequence of competition for limited resources among other reasons – but there have always been and always will be those individuals who are willing to resolve conflict by using force to get what they want. Sometimes they lead nations.

Since these bad guys don’t restrain themselves from simply taking what they want, something else must. What provides the external constraints to deter violent behavior on an international level? The rules of societal expectation don’t have as much force – or any force at all. After all the same human psyche that is capable of empathy for family and friends is also capable of dehumanizing a “them” as opposed to the empathy-worthy “us”. The ability of voluntary associations like NATO or trade organizations to restrict conflict is invaluable, but limited. There is no system of ultimate international law akin to the supremacy of American laws within America. Even if there were, there is no international entity with willingness or power to enforce them.

The ultimate thing that keeps America at peace with the rest of the nations on the globe is her capacity and willingness to visit destruction on those who attack us. When morality, psychology, and voluntary associations fail that threat of force – nothing more and nothing less – is the final barrier between order and chaos.

Not only are liberals blind to the importance of economic, political, and military power to establishing peace, but they mistake these vital assets for liabilities. Since the natural order is peace and cooperation they must look elsewhere to account for the persistence of violent conflict and they come to the conclusion that America’s military might must be the source of tension and conflict. Thus they argue that America must take a more deferential position. They don’t realize that this is undercuts America’s willingness to fight and therefore erodes negative incentives to prevent attacks on America.

Not content to stop there, they believe that the mere existence of relative power invites conflict. (This is sort of like a belief that antibiotics cause bacterial infections.) They argue for a decrease in the relative capacity of America to to fight and so further erode the negative incentives that restrain bad actors.

The fundamental premise of liberal foreign policy is that a more docile and relatively weaker America would lead to a safer world. The tragic irony of this is that it is precisely the relative strength of America – and the bloody sacrifices we have made to demonstrate that strength – which have made possible their ignorant complacence. America has been successfully defended that we take our survival for granted. And only because our continued peace and prosperity is assumed to be a given do we have the luxury of forgetting not only the cost of that defense, but the reason it was ever necessary to begin with.

The painful truth is this: America’s peace is not a given. It was purchased with the blood of our veterans and the sweat of our workers at home.

Because they have forgotten this fact, liberals have come to believe that we can achieve greater peace through incapacity for war, never realizing that it is only capacity to win wars that guarantees they don’t start. In their pursuit of peace they are destroying the very thing that makes peace possible. By eliminating the disincentives that keep the bad guys from attacking, they are inciting attacks on America.

Street Fights and Beauty Contests

Liberals believe that international relations is a beauty contest. World opinion represents the judges, and if only we can get people to think highly enough of us they will give us what we want.

When it comes to domestic politics liberals have no such niceties. They howl and scream about warrant-less wiretaps, but when their political futures are on the line privacy stops being an issue. The free press is all well and good in theory, but unless a media company gives demonstrably favorable bias to the White House they will declare war on it. In example after example fighting dirty seems palatable . . . as long as its only against other Americans.

Foreign policy realists understand that while we may have a lot of friends abroad we also have enemies. And that when conflict does arise there will be no rules and no referees. It will be a street fight, and the surest way to avoid it is to prepare for it.

Domestic politics, on the other hand, should be conducted in a civilized, restrained way. And – quite frankly, the GOP has not been any better at this than Democrats in recent years. There was nothing remotely ethical about Tom Delay or Jack Abramoff, and nothing remotely restrained about Bush spending.

They key is for conservatives – and the GOP if they want our support – to be ready for violence outside our borders and to rely on persuasion at home.

Robert Wallace is classical liberal studying economics in graduate school. He and his wife work as business analysis consultants, and they live as undercover conservatives with their two small children in a socialist bastion of a college town. He has been writing for America’s Right since December 2008.



  1. John Feeny says:

    Awesome article, Robert. The most fascinating thing to me about this strange worldview, however, is the source. From what 'font' does this thinking spring?

  2. Robert Wallace says:

    I honestly don't know where it comes from. We often speak casually about countries as if they were atomic (indivisible) entities. "China wants…" or "The US is concerned…" Everyone does this in casual conversation. Why? I think maybe because it's just easier.

    Correcting "China wants…" would require going beyond "the government of China wants…" (because governments aren't people any more than countries are people) and talking about the desires of specific members of the government of China in the context of how much political influence those members have on how China operates.

    The fact is that talking about the behavior of institutions is linguistically and conceptually hard. Treating institutions like people is easy.

    So that's where it comes from, and I don't think it has anything to do with a liberal vs. a conservative mindset.

    The second problem is why it never moves past that. And this is where I think politics gets back into the equation.

    One hallmark of populist liberalism is that it favors satisfaction of emotionally/morally satisfying rhetoric over the drudgery of policy analysis. Why bother questioning what the real impact of foreign aid to Africa is (ruined economies and perpetual starvation) when it just *feels good* to send your used clothes to the "needy". (Who needs a sweatshirt in Somalia?)

    Plenty of policy failures from the progressive side (if not all of them) boil down to the difference between something that sounds good / satisfies the doer vs. something that actually has good effects / satisfies the person at the other end.

    So anyone could fall into the trap of treating countries like people, but liberals are more likely never to get back out of it.

  3. Boston Blackie says:

    "The problem is that bleeding-heart liberals treat domestic politics like a no-holds barred street fight and international politics like a beauty contest."

    Nate, Excellent, excellent article.
    The russians will allow pre-emptive nuclear strikes is bad enough but thanks to Obamama they will know exactly where to direct the missles since he is allowing the russians to come to the USA to inspect our top secret sites.
    Maybe with luck, one the missles will be direct up his foolish arze

  4. NUTJOB says:

    In that photo, it looks as though Manboob Alliwantisablowjob's eyes are tracking an incoming .223 round.

  5. Gail B says:

    Robert, you write brilliantly once again!

    Foreign policy aside, where do the liberals get off pointing fingers at conservatives (reference: "stupid and immoral" at home)?

    This government is so screwed up, it will take a total turnover for conservatives to get into power, just to get things back on track!

    God! PLEASE let Jeff run for POTUS in 2016 and win! Goodness knows that his stable of writers will make a fine Cabinet.

    "Jeff and Stable," y'all are the only ones I've found who have any understanding of what to do and what not to do. Charles Krauthammer would be hard pressed to find fault with you guys! And Glenn Beck could take a vacation.

  6. Rix says:

    Politics aside, the Prisoner's Dilemma (and a few related items I found on Wikipedia) was the most intriguing food for thought I had in months. I am immensely grateful for referring me to the topic.

  7. Mitch says:

    Nate.You break it down very well as to the inner mindset of liberalism and what it means to myself and all other conservatives who are frustrated by what is happening to our way of life here in America.Keep up the good fight my friend!

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