Thursday, October 8, 2015

Foreign Policy and a Pure Theory of Obama

“The market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent.” - investing adage

“His answer was that his style was a system, or upon system, or some such cant; and when a man talks of system his case is hopeless.” - Lord Byron, Letters

One of the jokes in the TV series The Big Bang Theory, is genius theoretical physicist Sheldon Cooper believing he's taught himself how to swim in his apartment via the internet. Sheldon, who works in string theory, thinks actually jumping into a pool is unnecessary for knowing how to swim. Last week a Russian general gave the US an hour to get out of the way in Syria, an event which closely followed the concluding of what many consider to be a disastrous nuclear deal with Iran. The criticism has consistently focused on weakness and inexperience. While I don’t think this is wrong, I think it is missing something which makes it more not less disconcerting. That is the extent to which Obama’s foreign policy is abstract, a normative theory arrived at through pure reason. Sheldon as leader of the free world (minus the extraordinary intelligence).

In the statements in which the administration suggests that it knows Iran and Russia's interests better than they do, and references to the arc of history we are dealing with a kind of homo-politicos (latin?), an abstract and necessarily uniform conception of the nation state. And while the result is nowhere near as well developed as the crudest investment theory, it does remind me of Long-Term Capital an investment firm founded by Nobel winners which put into practice the Black-Scholes option pricing theory. Unlike Obama's foreign policy Long-Term Capital had a period of great success before going bust when (nice coincidence this) the Russian market misbehaved.

And this is why I think Obama's foreign policy being predicated in theory makes it especially dangerous. Chamberlain at Munich, Carter in the 70's is weakness, a misreading of the situation. But when events brought to light their mistake, they corrected. But the theorist is likely to respond by holding only more tightly to his/her theory as indeed LTCM went in search of more capital because their positions were right it was the market that was wrong [I'm somewhat unfairly simplifying here, it's actually more complicated than this].

In the introduction to the 2nd edition of Alien Powers; The Pure Theory of Ideology, Ken Minogue remarks:

"Ideology was deadly in the twentieth century because it spread the illusion that those in posession of ideological wisdom had found the secret of understanding society as a whole. Such wisdom transcended the limited points of view we had inherited from the past. The remarkable illusion shared by communists, feminists, many nationalists, and lots of other advanced thinkers was created by imagining that the contingent world we actually inhabit, with all its unpredictabilities, was actually a system. Systems are sets of mechanisms that work in scientifically explicable ways."
For allies and adversaries, the operative idea in America's current foreign policy IS weakness. But it is rooted in something else. Particularly in the Middle East and in our dealings with Russia we are seeing Obama's Pure Theory.

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