Saturday, October 23, 2010

Daniel Drezner:
Based on the indictment, however, it appears that the Russian spies gathered nothing from the decade-long enterprise that a well-trained analyst couldn’t have picked up by trolling the internet. The problem is that Russia’s intelligence services believed that a secret cabal runs American foreign policy.

Similarly, the current Iranian leadership seems to have very little understanding of how the American government works. Hossein Shariatmadari, a key adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, recently told a reporter for the New Yorker that the green movement was a US-led conspiracy organised by, among others, the neoconservative think-tanker Michael Ledeen, Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, and the billionaire George Soros. These three individuals agree on very little. They are more likely to form a new hip-hop group than successfully organise the Iranian reform movement...

Why are foreign policymakers — who presumably would not be able to rise to leadership status without some appreciation for their own country’s domestic politics — so awful at understanding the domestic politics of other countries? Alas, there are a surfeit of reasons. The most basic is that our standard models for understanding international relations are based on a radically simplifying assumption: that states can be treated as rational, unitary actors. Realists assume that all states act in an opportunistic manner, fearing the relative power of other countries. Liberals assume that states are self-interested utility-maximisers interested in co-operation. What these theories have in common is the assumption that states have something resembling a national interest, and that these interests are similar across states.

It’s not just the rational mind that causes policymakers to ignore the domestic politics of other countries — the emotional mind works in a similar manner. When interpreting the behaviour of other actors, individuals will often perceive allied nations differently from adversaries even if their policies are similar. If an ally does something positive, it is attributed to the country’s ‘good’ internal character. If an adversary does [the same thing], we look for evidence that the country was forced into co-operating. Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as ‘fundamental attribution error’, and it has a curious effect on how policymakers perceive the domestic politics of other countries. With allies, there is usually a greater appreciation for the nuances of domestic coalitions and institutions...

There is one final reason why policymakers are often wilfully ignorant of the domestic politics of other countries — such awareness can actually lead to a bargaining disadvantage. International relations scholars from Thomas Schelling onwards have observed that leaders can translate domestic weakness into international strength. Both Netanyahu and the Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, for example, have not been shy in pointing out the domestic constraints on their ability to cut a deal. If the other side can comprehend the domestic political situation, it might make them willing to offer concessions.

Increasingly in international relations, it seems that all politics are local... Even in authoritarian countries like Iran and China, leaders need to play to their domestic bases. The political incentives for acting this way are understandable. The problem is that, when everyone cares only about their domestic standing, sustainable international co-operation looks more and more like a chimera.
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