One of the social theories I work with is that international relations -- the interactions between national governments and economic leaders that variously lead to cooperation, shared interests, competing interests, conflict, or war -- occur according to norms that resemble everyday interactions between individual beings. People intepret each other; nations intepret each other. People engage in a performance of their 'self' to other people; nations similarly perform a version of who they are to other nations.
This 'peformance' by both people and nation-states is an attempt to shape the way people or other countries see you, to bring out a response by the other that is what you want, that is in your interests.
According to this social-psychological theory of international relations, the key to successful foreign policy is understanding other countries, how they understand themselves, you, and the broader international environment. In this theory the goal is to master understanding of your adversary's interests, values, hopes, desires, habits -- in short, to develop solid knowledge of how your competitors see the world, and how they see you. Once you know what motivates or does not motivate the other, you are in a better position to get what you want out of the relation.
It is this knowledge of the other, I argue, that is missing from US foreign policy in the Middle East. A failure to know the other is currently preventing the US from having foreign policies suited for success in that part of the world. For example, remember the old 'they will greet us as liberators' line of thought that was at the center of Iraq policy? It came from either a total lack of knowledge about Iraqi social consciousness, or a willingness to simply ignore knowledge if they did have access to it.
I think this theory is relevant in other areas of the world, too. Last month I wrote about Stratfor CEO George Friedman's analysis of August's Georgia-Russia conflict, found in the New York Review of Books. Of US foreign policy experts I regularly read, I think Mr. Friedman is the best practicioner of international relations as everyday social interaction. Last month I wrote this about his take on Georgia-Russia:
What I find especially interesting about [Mr. Friedman's] article is the author's use of social-psychological principles to make sense of large-scale, geopolitical relations. His interest is in figuring out countries as if they are basically like individuals -- the key is to develop knowledge of how countries 'think,' how countries interpret their competitors and the world around them, and then to figure out how a country's thoughts will shape their future interactions with other countries.
In the current issue of the NY Review, a letter-writer articulates displeasure with Mr. Friedman's use of social-psychology to understand international relations. The letter writer is US Assistant Secretary of State Andrew Fried. Mr. Fried takes exception to Mr. Friedman's analysis, calling Russia's standpoint "urban legend." While you can read the whole exchange here, the following is the relevant part of Mr. Fried's letter:
On the history of NATO enlargement . . . Mr. Friedman unfortunately gives undeserved credence to a Russian-propagated urban legend that the United States somehow "betrayed" Russia by enlarging NATO. No US president has ever made a promise to keep NATO at its cold war membership, and for good reason. NATO membership for Western European countries during the cold war brought peace to nations that had known centuries of war. NATO membership for Central and Eastern Europe after the cold war extended this peace. Indeed, NATO enlargement, and EU enlargement that followed it, were leading factors in making the region to Russia's west the most stable and nonthreatening it has been in Russia's history. I don't expect Russia will thank us for this act, but it should.
Mr. Friedman's reply is steadfast. He maintains his social-psychological perspective, insisting that what matters is not some objective right that either the US or Russia might claim to have on its side. Rather, the point is that in understanding how different countries relate to one another, reality is what the two actors (in this case, Russia and the US) interpret it as being, and each side has to deal with the other not like they wish the other interpreted things, but how they actually in reality interpret things. Here's Mr. Friedman's reply:
Mr. Fried is quite persuasive in his case for the way the world ought to be and the way that the Russians ought to think and behave. Unfortunately, he is persuading the wrong audience. If the guarantees to Russia concerning NATO expansion were indeed an urban legend, it is a legend with a great deal of strength in one particular urban setting—Moscow. The Russians have been asserting this claim for years. If Mr. Fried is right and this was a myth, it was a myth with consequences that should have been anticipated by the State Department.
He goes on:
Mr. Fried argues that NATO has brought peace and stability to Europe. Russia believes that NATO has brought a military threat to its borders. It is possible that Mr. Fried will persuade Mr. Putin of the error of his thinking, but I rather doubt it.
The question at hand then is what the United States will do, given Russian views and, more important, actions.
Mr. Fried has missed the key point in my argument, which is that irritating a nation of Russia's stature without possessing the power to compel it to behave differently may be morally satisfying but practically dangerous. My own hope is that the US State Department, in issuing its condemnations of Russia, would realistically take account of its own power, or lack of it, to compel Russia to change its behavior.
The louder the condemnation, and the weaker the US response, the less credibility the administration has. Moscow's audience for its Georgia policy was not Washington, but Kiev and Vilnius and the other capitals in the region. The Russians have driven home the key message: that if Russia wishes to act, NATO and the Americans will not place themselves at risk on behalf of their allies. They will content themselves with passionate letters.
Indignation is not a foreign policy.
To say the least, I look forward to reading Mr. Friedman, as well as every new issue of the New York Review of Books. For my money and time, it is consistently the smartest periodical in the country. Mr. Friedman's analyses are no exception.