The tendency to view complex global events through the lenses of oversimplified narratives leads to disastrous decision-making. Liam Glen writes on problems with foreign affairs discourse.
Political mistakes are easy to spot in hindsight. The Western Allies should not have put so much trust in Stalin, the CIA should not have overestimated popular opposition to the Castro regime during the Bay of Pigs Invasion, and George W. Bush should not have dismissed obstacles to occupying Iraq.
But in the uncertain modern world, we are surely making similar mistakes without realizing it. To some degree, we cannot be blamed, as our information is limited. However, even when facts are laid out clearly, we often fail to interpret them properly. Instead, we get caught up in narratives that confirm our preexisting beliefs.
This tendency is on full display in US foreign policy discourse. It is a problem that affects everyone, from right-wing populists to left-wing progressives, to self-proclaimed pragmatic centrists. If we want to avoid grievous misrepresentation of the facts, we must at least be aware of it.
Us Vs. Them
Perhaps the most inherent human error is to see the world in terms of in-groups and out-groups.
President Donald Trump’s rhetoric on immigration and trade, for example, draws a clear line between Americans and everyone else. Implicit in this is the idea of life as a zero-sum game. Immigrants can only get jobs by taking them away from American workers, while foreign nations can only obtain prosperity by draining it from the US.
Lost in this win-or-lose mentality are the basic principles of economics. The modern world is one of massive growth in which everyone can gain. While these types of issues are notoriously complex and dependent on situational factors, economists generally support both free trade and immigration to advance economic growth.
Exaggerated and Understated Evils
On the front of international security, the Trump administration has adopted a hard line against Iran as a threat to democracy and regional stability. Most recently, it has designated Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization. On its face, there is nothing wrong with this. No question exists about the authoritarian nature of Iran’s government or its willingness to aid terrorists to achieve strategic aims.
However, all of this seems hypocritical when the administration remains chummy with Saudi Arabia, which is listed by Freedom House as even less democratic than Iran and has been accused of failing to combat funding for terrorism by its citizens. One may also question why Iran is a great evil that must be combated, while détente is appropriate with North Korea.
To a certain extent, this can be strategically justified. For example, North Korea may be more likely to follow through on its deals than Iran. But crafting inconsistent narratives that emphasize the latter’s crimes while downplaying human rights violations by the former is a cynical attempt to trick Americans into believing the administration’s policies to be morally righteous.
Critics of American foreign policy are not free from this. Although they are an extreme minority, there does exist a vocal subsection of leftists and anti-interventionists who will distort facts in whatever way necessary to paint American actions as imperialistic and anti-Western dictatorships as heroic.
Thankfully, most of this is contained to college campuses and fringe rallies. I have been equal parts bemused and disturbed by such antics. Members of the communist Spartacist League have sold newspapers while displaying all-caps signs urging the viewer to “DEFEND CHINA AND NORTH KOREA!”, two states that most surely have Karl Marx rolling in his grave. I have seen chalk graffiti proclaiming “Long live the Bolivarian Revolution!” a slogan used to defend the regime in Venezuela.
Worryingly, some of this rhetoric risks making its way into mainstream politics. Most notable is a bizarre tweet by Representative Ilhan Omar condemning the “far right opposition” against Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro. She ignores the fact that the leader of the opposition, Juan Guaidó, belongs to a social democratic party.
The Will of the People
On the subject of Venezuela, the ongoing crisis demonstrates the illusiveness of the “will of the people.” Both sides portray the conflict as one between common Venezuelan citizens and an entrenched elite propped up by foreign powers. The Trump administration maintains that Maduro is an unpopular dictator and hints that an American invasion force would be welcomed as liberators, while pro-regime voices accuse the US of launching an undemocratic coup.
However, if Americans should know anything, it is that public opinion is rarely united. Both factions can claim supporters in the streets of Caracas. While a large majority of Venezuelans oppose the Maduro regime, enough opposition exists to US intervention that military action would surely meet heavy resistance.
It is because of potential catastrophes such as this that we must be aware of biases and false narratives in current events. To avoid the mistakes of the past, it is essential to analyze international issues with the necessary depth and nuance.