U.S. Foreign Policy Challenges; the Games of John Bolton, Part 1

In September of 2017, I wrote a six-part series: Advice for a New Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson

Part 7 is written, but it doesn’t seem germane right now. (Edit: It got published 11/26/2020: Advice for a New Secretary of State, Part 7).

Given his inexperience with foreign policy,  Rex Tillerson may have actually read it. But John Bolton has spent a lifetime with foreign policy. So this is couched not as advice to him, but as a general review. Those whose brains have been smoked in think tank ideologies may find it interesting.

U.S. foreign policy since Korea,  excepting the Kissinger years, is a history of serial mistakes. The greatest error, of which people attracted to power are particularly prone, is to think they alone will stand above their predecessors by not making mistakes. Instead, they make different mistakes. This includes administrations of both parties. Nobody, dove or hawk, has escaped this. Inevitably, it seems, members of government are blinded to logic by prior inclination.

So the logical question is, why should this time be any different?  In a rational framework, the terms hawk and dove should be non descriptive. Why should we hope for any better? One could hope that Bolton has a hidden side, that he is actually a surgical operator. But who knows?

The world has changed hugely since the last great intervention of the U.S., the  Iraq War of 2003.  Post World War II, with the tragic exception of Vietnam, all the major U.S. actions had the legitimacy that accrues to coalitions, but  not to unilateral action. The great blocs, the Free World, the Communist World, and the Third World, have splintered to bits. In their place are actors, large and small, practicing diplomacy in the national interest, in the mold of Bismarck. Until recently, the largest actors attempted to patch or restore the blocs, without realizing that the vital glue, fear, is diminished.

With the exception of Russian attitudes, both of and about, the fear that binds has been upstaged by economic opportunism. Modern industries benefit from economies of scale that transcend national boundaries. Hence a  small country desires to associate with a large one.  Duterte sees the natural place of the Philippines as an economic satellite of China. He was not entirely joking when he said, (National Interest, Duterte to China:) ‘If You Want, Just Make Us a Province’.

Let’s pinpoint the interval during which the economic bloc centered on the U.S. was unmade. It began during the Clinton administration, and continued through Bush II. Capital flows and resultant economies of scale were diverted away from the U.S. core to the China core. The blindness was bipartisan, the result of short-term thinking characteristic of our system. With it has come an evisceration of soft power, which in virtually every instance is more important than the hard variety. In his last few days at State, Rex Tillerson noted this. (CNBC) US’s Tillerson warns African nations not to ‘forfeit their sovereignty’ by taking Chinese loans. Said by anyone, the words are impotent. Money talks, bullshit walks.

Could the decay of the U.S. center have been averted? Only very clever thinking, which appears in short supply, and some sacrifice by the American people, offer the possibility. Perhaps decay could have been slowed. But the process by which nation states rise and fall analogizes strongly with Vilfredo Pareto’s circulation of the elites, and may therefore be inevitable.

The world now consists of practitioners of  realpolitik, lightly bound by treaties that have lost the sacred quality.  A U.S. foreign policy action may obtain support, or it may be denied by national interest. This means that every action potentially sets in motion a game of combinations.

A lack of understanding of games of combination may be rooted in the proper households in which most of our future diplomats were raised. In most cultures, a social game has strict rules, and each player participates as an individual according to those rules. In a game of combinations, players are free to form alliances with each other. Role playing games exemplify this. The rules of such games encourage  a changing landscape; expansion, contraction, and unpredictability, the set of outcomes left undefined. To contrast:

  • In contract bridge, the number of players is constant.
  • In a role playing game, your role can die.
  • In contract bridge, the possible outcomes are set. You win or you lose.
  • In a role playing game, the set of outcomes is infinite.
  • In contract bridge, the duration of the game varies within tight limits.
  • A role playing game need not have an end.
  • In contract bridge, you have your partner.
  • In a role playing game, players can gang up on each other, forming new combinations of unexpected power.

Whether an individual, who has never been devoted to a game, can spontaneously exhibit gamesmanship in real life is an open question. Whether an individual who has never played a game of combinations can have that skill is another. There is a tradition, among think tanks, of something called “policy analysis.” The related mindset, of contract bridge players, may not provide the proper antecedents for  today’s challenges. Those people need a dose of Dungeons and Dragons.

Different games encourage development of different insights. Army officers say American football comes closest to the experience of combat. The chess player learns to deal with a closed, intensely logical system. A poker play reads his opponent. But foreign policy is now a game of combinations. An action by a strong power could result in a hostile combination of weaker powers.

So what kind of games does John Bolton play?

To be continued shortly.



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