June 21, 2015 by Darius
[If you study international relations and political science, it’s impossible to avoid coming across Carl von Clausewitz. While Clausewitz’s credentials may have been a bit thin in his primary specialty, military theory, he has given us a number of pithy quotes. One of his most famous is “War is the continuation of politics by other means.” Most of the time, though, we never get to war: politics alone suffice. In my study of international relations, politics, and world history, I’ve discovered a few fundamental themes that seem to get lost in the shuffle. I’ll call them “Darius’s Rules of International Engagement.”]
Here’s my fourth rule: everyone has domestic politics.
Domestic politics can take a variety of forms. In essence, domestic politics is that all actors on the international stage, whether they are nation-states or terrorist cells, must consider how their actions in the foreign arena will impact their positions within their own organizations and communities.
For example, Palestinian and Israeli domestic politics have long bedeviled any resolution to that conflict: conservative Israeli prime ministers are afraid to alienate their political base, while Palestinian leaders fear being branded sellouts and losing their privileged positions. As a result, neither are willing to make the concessions necessary for a diplomatic solution. Similarly, in Northern Ireland, Irish Republican, Unionist, and British leaders had to contend with very delicate domestic political situations in the negotiations leading up the Good Friday Accords in 1998, where armed groups on both sides actively sought to discredit and prevent the eventual diplomatic breakthrough.
The challenge of domestic politics to foreign policy does not always come from the more extreme side of the spectrum or demand a hard-line course of action. Today, for example, the US is reluctant to engage meaningfully in conflicts from Syria to Ukraine because US public opinion remains very wary of foreign interventions as a result of the disastrous invasion of Iraq. Once burned, twice shy—even if intervention is warranted.
Failing to understand that the other side, too, has domestic politics, leads to a misreading of intentions and capabilities. When the Iranian government refers to America as the Great Satan, it is at least partially because the Iranian government must maintain its hardliner credibility with its own people and not because Iranian leaders wake up each morning thinking about ways to destroy America. When the United States chooses not to put boots on the ground in Iraq or Syria, it is not because President Obama is weak or because the US lacks the capacity to do so but rather because the American people do not want to get bogged down in another foreign war.
Failing to comprehend the nuances of domestic politics leads to misinformed and ham-handed foreign policy.