The ultimate Blob blind spot
Plus: The Asimov plan to tame AI, the trouble with war crimes tribunals, nuking the moon, NZN member benefits, and more!
If you had to come up with a grand unified theory of US foreign policy failures—isolate a single meta-failure that underlies all or at least most of them—a good candidate would be cognitive empathy deficit. US foreign policy elites seem to have trouble understanding how people abroad view the world.
So, for example, these elites have been known to assume that American troops would be greeted as liberators in countries that wind up making the troops feel intensely unwelcome. Or, to take a current example: Many in the foreign policy establishment have been surprised at the number of world leaders who refuse to join America in sanctioning and condemning Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. (Two-thirds of the world’s people, according to the Economist, live in one of the dozens of countries that either support Russia or are neutral.)
So it is cause for celebration when the most elite of all US foreign policy journals—Foreign Affairs—makes a concerted effort to address cognitive empathy deficit. The current issue features no fewer than five essays that aim to illuminate the perspective of “the nonaligned world”—nations that have refused to rally around the US effort in Ukraine or have refused, more broadly, to choose sides in the intensifying struggle between the West and its big adversaries, China and Russia.
The results are genuinely valuable. In fact, they not only underscore the failure of US foreign policy elites to understand perspectives outside of America but point to a second, and closely related, blind spot as well. See if you can guess what it is by perusing these excerpts from some of the essays Foreign Affairs commissioned:
Brazilian scholar Matias Spektor writes:
Across the global South, leaders know that Russia’s behavior in Ukraine has been barbaric and inhumane… [But] as the Chilean diplomat Jorge Heine pointed out, the United States cannot expect other countries to sanction Russia for its brutality in Ukraine when Washington is supplying weapons to Saudi Arabia for its proxy war against Iran in Yemen, which has resulted in the unlawful killing of thousands of civilians… The moral high ground requires consistency between values and actions… Most countries in the global South find it difficult to accept Western claims of a “rules-based order” when the United States and its allies frequently violate the rules…
The developing world also sees hypocrisy in Washington’s framing of its competition with Beijing and Moscow as a battle between democracy and autocracy. After all, the United States continues to selectively back authoritarian governments when it serves US interests. Of the 50 countries that Freedom House counts as “dictatorships,” 35 received military aid from the U.S. government in 2021…
Nirupama Rao, a longtime Indian diplomat, writes that India considers US calls to isolate Russia “hypocritical”:
Europe and Washington may be right that Russia is violating human rights in Ukraine, but Western powers have carried out similarly violent, unjust, and undemocratic interventions—from Vietnam to Iraq…
… The West routinely cut deals with violent autocracies to advance its own interests… Remarkably, the West nonetheless claims that its foreign policy is guided by human rights and democracy.
South African scholar Tim Murithi writes:
Attempts to cajole or strong-arm them [African governments] into picking a side in the latest might-makes-right contest in Ukraine are bound to fail, since no one in Africa believes that the international order is based on rules… Despite claiming to uphold an international system based on rules, [the major powers] and their allies have frequently imposed their will on other countries, from the NATO bombardments of Yugoslavia and Libya to the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq to the Russian invasions of Georgia and Ukraine…
Thanks in part to the chaos spawned by NATO’s intervention in Libya, Islamist terrorism has taken root across the Sahel region, affecting Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. Similarly, in East Africa, religious extremism imported from the Middle East is undermining stability in Kenya, Mozambique, Somalia, and Tanzania… These threats are not acutely felt in Washington, London, Paris, Brussels, Moscow, or Beijing. Rather, they are faced by Africans who had little say in the interventions that ignited them.
The scholar Huong Le Thu writes of the perspective of leaders in Southeast Asia:
Washington… has justified its competition against China by arguing that it is promoting democracy, the same explanation it gave for the war in Vietnam decades ago. It is an excuse that will win the United States few friends in Southeast Asia. The region is home to many different political systems, and its states proudly work across ideological lines to advance their interests.
This kind of pragmatism is a recurring theme in these essays. Rao writes, “India, at least, lays no claim to being the conscience-keeper of the world. Like any other state, it acts in accordance with its interests—and severing its partnership with Russia would harm them.”
And Huong Le Thu explains that most Southeast Asian nations don’t want to join either a US or Chinese bloc in a new Cold War because the last Cold War brought misery to the region. They want to maintain good relations with both China and the US in hopes of sustaining the global economic integration that has allowed “the region’s states to become manufacturing hubs and the recipients of substantial investment.”
So there are two themes here that go a long way toward explaining why so many nations are reluctant to follow America’s leadership: (1) Nations pursue their interests as they see them; (2) Nations won’t be moved to depart from that mission by moral appeals that they see as self-serving or hypocritical.
This sounds pretty straightforward. So why did it take the better part of an issue of Foreign Affairs to even begin conveying these two facts to the people who constitute America’s foreign policy establishment? One possible answer lies in a kind of connection between the two facts.
Sometimes we Americans think our moral appeals are also appeals to nations’ self-interest. We think a “rules based order” is a morally good thing, but we also think it serves the interests of other nations by fostering a peaceful, stable, predictable world.
And it’s true that their interests would be served by this kind of order—but unfortunately this isn’t the kind of order America actually supports. Our “rules based order” allows us to inflict mayhem when and where we please, because it doesn’t involve the consistent application of rules. It’s an “order” that camouflages the pursuit of US interests as the US (however confusedly) conceives of them. And people in the “nonaligned world” see this—which helps explain why they’re not signing onto our mission.
The people who don’t see it are the people responsible for it: US foreign policy elites. So their failure to understand the motivations of other world actors is sometimes intertwined with, and in a sense rooted in, a failure to understand their own motivations—the ultimate blind spot. If we saw ourselves more clearly, we’d have an easier time understanding why others react to us as they do. Sometimes cognitive empathy begins at home, with simple self awareness.
Attention NZN members!
This week we bring you early access to Bob’s conversation about artificial intelligence with tech writer Timothy B. Lee (you can access that conversation here or look for it in your paid-subscriber podcast feed).
And, as always, tonight you’ll have access to the Parrot Room, Bob’s after-hours conversation with arch-frenemy Mickey Kaus.
Have you ever looked up at a full moon on a calm night and thought to yourself: Man, I wish someone would nuke that thing? US officials have!
In BBC Future, journalist Mark Piesing tells the story of Project A119—the top-secret government plan, hatched in the late 1950s, to detonate a nuclear weapon on the moon. The planning advanced far enough that a research team was commissioned to determine, among other things, how to ensure that the explosion would be visible from Earth.
The idea was to show the Russians who was boss. The Soviet Union had startled the world by launching the first satellite, Sputnik, in 1957. That same year, some American newspapers reported that Moscow was planning to nuke the moon. The report seems to have been false—but it inspired American officials to consider beating the Soviets to the punch (and it seems to have inspired the Soviets, too, to consider the possibility of nuking the moon!)
In the end, both the US and the USSR decided against attacking their neighboring orb. But the episode remains a cautionary tale about the strange places a Cold War mentality, once unleashed, can lead us.
Should the world create a special tribunal to punish wars of aggression—and, in particular, to hold Russian leaders accountable for invading Ukraine? In Foreign Affairs, two former state department officials, Brian Finucane and Stephen Pomper, note one problem with this currently popular idea: It could complicate the challenge of bringing this war to an end—and, worse still, could cause the war to escalate into a larger conflagration, maybe even a nuclear one.
Advocates of such a tribunal have likened it to the Nuremberg trials, but Finucane and Pomper say the comparison is misleading. For one thing, after World War II, when those trials were organized, the Allies could impose their will on Germany, since they had achieved total victory and were occupying the country.
A more likely end to the Ukraine war is a negotiated settlement. And the current drive to organize a special tribunal could make a settlement less likely by suggesting that regime change is among the West’s post-settlement goals. Finucane and Pomper issue this vivid warning: