Monday, November 05, 2012

How are we to understand the actions of another country?

In order to understand the actions of another country, it seems important to understand the culture, especially the political culture of that country. How much power does the executive branch have, and how centralized is that power. How much power does the legislative branch have? How much do the political leaders have to defer to popular opinion, and how does that popular opinion lie? How much control do central authorities exercise over the government's actions in the periphery, and how much room is there for individual initiative at different levels of governmental action.

A common fallacy is to assume that a government implements the decisions of the chief of government, made after informed, rational analysis. Of course, governments are seldom well informed. Instead they deal with a number of items of information, each with its attributed level of credibility and accuracy. Moreover, governments hide what they are doing, intentionally leaving other nations in ignorance,

In the United States, the president makes decisions based in part on the arguments brought to him from subordinates in the executive branch. The better the thinking from those subordinates and the bureaucracies they head, the better the decisions may be. On the other hand, a president deals in the possible -- in foreign policy, what support can he get from allies, what opposition from other nations; what will the legislature embody in law and what will it appropriate money for; what will the Supreme Court accept as Constitutional; what will the electorate support?

Time is an actor in foreign policy. The conditions which enabled a government to introduce and implement a policy one year may not exist the next.

While humans seek to see patterns, inferring a pattern in the actions of a foreign power over time is dangerous. It is easy to see the wrong pattern, or indeed to see a pattern when there is simply random action. Imputing teleology to inferred patterns also appears to be inbuilt in our psychology, but it is dangerous  -- especially if one does not understand the processes by which courses of action develop.

Americans tend to believe in American exceptionalism. We believe the motives of our political leaders to be largely good (and of course our leaders seek especially to maintain that public impression when their motives are not so pure). We have trouble perceiving, much less understanding the alternative impressions that foreigners have of us. Yet without such understanding, we are prone to serious foreign policy errors. One of our difficulties is that few of us understand how policies evolve from out own political processes, and almost all of us fail to understand how people abroad come to conclusions about the American policies that they perceive.

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