July 3, 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 fifth rule: international politics is not always about big ideas; it often reflects highly specific personal politics.
Nixon and Kissinger, for example, backed Pakistan over India, not entirely because of some sort of grand strategy but because they thought Indira Gandhi was a bitch (Nixon’s word) while Pakistan’s whiskey-swilling general was a genial dolt they could deal with. History and current events are full of examples of people who like each other or can’t stand each other and the policies flow from those personal experiences.
Turkey has been peevish, for instance: because the US and other countries won’t do as much as Ankara wants to topple Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, Turkey won’t help with ISIS. Myanmar has been defensive: when Southeast Asian countries held a conference to address the crisis of boat people, primarily Rohingyas fleeing Myanmar, the Myanmar delegation returned to a heroes’ welcome at home for disputing that the refugees were from Myanmar at all. Saudi Arabia has been condescending: its intervention in Yemen has been high-handed and conducted on behalf of a government there is no evidence the people of Yemen support.
It goes beyond simply countries behaving like people. Diplomatic breakthroughs, like the end of apartheid in South Africa, have rarely been borne of calculated self-interest but rather of having people in place at that moment in time who can appreciate each other’s humanity and are both powerful enough and high-minded enough to want to build something on a higher plane, even if it means sacrificing something. Sadly, South Sudan did not have that mix of people at independence.
It’s sometimes tempting to think that foreign policy is made by a group of faceless men (yes, pretty much men) in suits sitting around a boardroom table and speaking unemotionally in terms of geostrategic advantage. That image ignores the very human foibles and emotions that govern the world. Not quite all politics is personal. But most of it is.