Inciting Violence & Personal Responsibility

What is the true message in a politician’s words, when does it cross the line to become so dangerous that it constitutes a crime, and how should politicians who may be provoking crimes of violence be held personally responsible…not for their policies but for their rhetoric? The way the tone of public comment is deteriorating, the American public needs to focus on the acceptable limits of public commentary by politicians.

When does a politician’s speech constitute a crime? Would it be a crime if a politician were to incite violence by using code-words clearly understood? Would the combination of officials inciting violence via code-words and members of their “base” inciting violence directly constitute a crime? If someone acted on this violent language and committed an actual violent act, would American courts find the politician at the top of this pyramid of extremism legally responsible for the ultimate act?

The U.S. government has been on a campaign for, depending on how one marks the start, approximately a generation of fighting terrorist acts and those who incited such acts by their extremist language, for example, while speaking in madrassas (Muslim schools) and mosques. U.S. foreign policy during that period has rested greatly on the principle that those who incite violence and those who follow up by committing this “terrorism,” as Americans—popular and official—have typically termed it in recent decades, are both guilty.

If a politician publicly warns citizens that they “had better watch out” when they dissent from his policies and a follower of that politician bluntly calls for folks to kill journalists or intellectuals or political opponents, and then someone actually stands up and commits such an act of terrorism, who—under American law—is guilty? If a tough guy, obviously more powerful than you, approaches you on a dark street and says, “You better watch out,” do you take this as a threat or motherly advice? To cite a specific historical example, when Nazi thugs during the 1920’s, inspired by Hitler’s ravings, put on brown shirts and starting attacking peaceful citizens because of their religion, race, or political opinions, who was—by the standards of modern democracies—guilty? Were the dupes who thought they were “just following orders” guilty of the violent crimes they committed? Was Hitler guilty? Which—the rabble-rousing politician or the thugs implementing policy—deserved the severest punishment? The politicians have the most power, so should they be held to a higher standard of behavior?

We study history in order to learn lessons that will help us protect ourselves from making the same old mistakes all over again. There is nothing new about this issue. In world history, hundreds of examples could be cited; in the U.S., a century ago, the Supreme Court made some remarks about “screaming ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater. Perhaps the moral and legal nexus between free speech and responsibility nonetheless needs to be thought through again…


Kim Wins a Battle

Kim wins a big victory for Pyongyang; Trump weakens U.S. national security a tad, but it’s “the base” that counts, right?

Congratulations to Mr. Kim: by speaking maturely and focusing on diplomacy, he scored a touchdown for his side in Singapore…and did it so smoothly that his hapless, smug adversary still does not have a clue what happened If Obama had ever negotiated like this, the whole Republican Party would have screamed, “Traitor!” What happened is that Kim walked away smiling for good reason: he won a small victory at no cost. Kim persuaded Trump to cancel the traditional but nonetheless threatening U.S.-South Korean war games and, judging by publicly available information, even did so while marginalizing our South Korean ally, an astonishingly irresponsible and gratuitous slap in Seoul’s face by Trump (if indeed true). Judging from the public evidence, Kim gave absolutely nothing in return. He had gone to Singapore calling for the removal of nuclear arms from the peninsula, which would require a huge U.S. concession if one assumes that the U.S. has based nukes there, and he left having maintained precisely that position; Trump caved. Whatever nuclear threat existed yesterday, still exists today; Kim can reverse his position and change his mood just as arbitrarily as Trump can.

That said, the world is better off with these two loose cannons suddenly acting more or less like adults.

On the downside, Seoul has learned a lesson it will not forget: America cannot be trusted. That, readers will note, is exactly the lesson that Trump just finished teaching Iran. Now, has the new message from Washington been received by the world, loud and clear?

Meanwhile, Kim is no longer marginalized. While Trump burns bridges arduously constructed by the U.S. since Pearl Harbor, Hermit Kingdom Kim has maneuvered himself into becoming the new Toast of the World, with summit lunches in Beijing every Saturday and Putin positively salivating on the sidelines for a date. And not one North Korean nuclear bomb has been dismantled; not one North Korean artillery piece aimed at the millions of civilians in downtown Seoul has been pulled back out of range. Obama persuaded Iran to accept highly discriminatory nuclear inspections; Trump negotiated a smile.

Over the (very short) run, the world is better off following the Singapore summit, and things might possibly continue to get better, but over the mid-term, U.S. national security is at least slightly less certain, less stable than it was last week, and our President is reduced to pretending that giving the victory to Kim with nothing in return constitutes the end of Pyongyang’s nuclear threat.

I wonder how the “base” really feels tonight…

Mr. Kim Takes Charge

The marginalized take risks. Their goal is to get attention; they don’t usually hop into the driver’s seat.

Mr. Kim was visibly angry and frustrated by 2017: the world was passing him by. The marginalized don’t look in the mirror; they get mad. But Mr. Kim got mad thoughtfully: he waited until he had the means to force the world to pay attention. Any leader who fires nuclear-capable missiles over the territory of another state while bragging of his ability to put nuclear warheads on them is a little bit insane and utterly repugnant, but Kim is by no means the first. Moral judgment aside (he risked the survival of his people), Mr. Kim’s gambit certainly looks like successful political tactics as of May 31, 2018. The leader of Libya, who gave up nuclear arms, is dead and his country wrecked; Iran, which agreed not to build the bomb in return for economic cooperation, is instead facing renewed economic warfare plus the renewed threat of attack. Israel, which spurns the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, seems to have an eternal blank check to do whatever it wants. All the world can see these four examples and learn the obvious lessons.

As for Mr. Kim, he is spending the fine spring month of May 2018 in meetings with top officials of South Korea, Russia, and China. As if that were not enough, he has seized the initiative from Washington, which is jumping around like a barefoot man walking on hot coals. Mr. Kim is hardly one to eschew nasty threats and insults when the spirit moves him, yet he takes umbrage when others do so to him, and he has now wiggled into a position that is enabling him to turn his back when treated with hostility by Washington and simultaneously seize the diplomatic initiative not just with adversaries of the U.S. but also with U.S. allies. The mysterious young leader of the Hermit Kingdom is learning to be quite the negotiator!

Does he have the vision to make a deal?

Empowering Putin

Iranian diplomats one day, Israeli generals the next: Putin fancies himself the new Mideast kingmaker, and perhaps he is right.

With Washington voluntarily undermining its own flexibility by adopting the extreme Likudnik position on the Iran-Israel contest while arming the brand new, made-in-America Saudi war machine in Yemen, Moscow is emerging as the key power broker in the Mideast. Is empowering Putin truly Trump’s goal, or is he just stumbling into it? In any case, despite the fact that Moscow may be playing somewhat above its weight class in raw economic and military terms, Putin’s tactical superiority as a nimble negotiator willing to make a deal with anyone is giving Moscow a huge strategic advantage over Washington, which once again has its ankles tied in neo-con knots.

While Washington grovels before the Israeli right wing, Putin zigs and zags, offering a bit to Tel Aviv, a bit to Tehran, keeping both sides eagerly awaiting his next move…and simultaneously does the same with fawning Erdogan—thereby neatly burrowing his way into NATO. Putin’s strategic skill remains to be determined, but his tactical maneuvering over the past two years has rested solidly on a steadily strengthening military foundation centered on the low-risk, high-payoff deployment of ground-to-air missiles. Putin may be criticized for talking a good game without following up with much substantive support, but when it mattered to him (i.e., preserving the Assad regime and expanding Russia’s military footprint in Syria), Putin made substantive moves quickly and smoothly. Whatever one thinks of Washington’s recent performance in the Mideast vs. that of Moscow, the fact is that Washington has been pouring blood and treasure into the hot sands over there and seems to be getting less and less in return, while Moscow is gaining ever more influence at the expense of little more than Putin’s smirks.

There is, no doubt, something to be said for gracefully walking away from the too-hot-to-handle Mideast and just giving Moscow a chance to show what it can do, but the American people would be better served by Washington doing precisely that rather than making itself the servant of Likudniks and semi-Salafi petro-shiekhs. Staying profoundly involved and doing so in a way that marginalizes itself while angering adversaries, and insulting traditional allies, and pleasing only aggressive theocracies and plutocracies is just about the most harmful Mideast policy that could be imagined from the long-term perspective of U.S. national interest.

Aligning Strategy With Goals in the U.S.-Korean Nuclear Crisis

Hardline tactics in international relations are easily confused with hardline goals, all the more so because the two tend to co-occur. Understanding the maneuvering, much less actually conducting it effectively, however, requires distinguishing the two, as the world is finding out watching the contorted and self-contradictory maneuverings of Pyongyang and Washington over the Korean nuclear crisis and broader failure after three generations to formally terminate the Korean War.

Bullying (applying “maximum pressure,” refusing to negotiate unless the adversary surrenders first, asserting that “they only understand the language of strength,” claiming “war is the answer”) is a short-sighted policy that unnecessarily reduces one’s own flexibility and provokes resistance. If a weak state is bullied, it may well conclude that regime change is the strong state’s goal, assuming that hardline tactics imply hardline goals. This reasonable conclusion will strengthen the weak state’s resolve, since it will be less likely to feel that it has any option but resistance. Assuming that a strong state in fact seeks the surrender of its adversary, does it really enhance its chances of succeeding in achieving this maximal goal by revealing its intent up front? Even more questionable is the approach of acting as though it will demand surrender, when it is not prepared to push for that extreme goal. “Bullying Your Way to Defeat” warns the adversary and probably pushes the adversary toward more rigid tactics, raising the likelihood that the weak adversary will find a way to resist. Unless the strong state is looking for an excuse to start a war, bullying is thus a questionable approach for a strong state.

Hitler used this approach successfully with Czechoslovakia in a brief crisis against a small state that quickly discovered it was to be sacrificed by its so-called friends. Many conditions must be satisfied before the Sudetenland crisis can reasonably be cited as grounds for a strong state applying a narrow policy of threats, threats, and more threats—in particular, threats accompanied by intentionally humiliating public slaps in the face–against a weak state. Czechoslovakia had no credible deterrent, and Hitler was not bluffing: he was willing to start a war.

Bullying as a strategy for long-term success in international relations sacrifices all lesser victories in the hopes of achieving total victory even as it lessens the prospects of such a total victory. The longer the strong side maintains bullying as the core strategy, the greater the likelihood that the weaker side will find an escape route. The more time passes, the more likely that the weak side will establish sufficient credibility to gain supporters.

As this process unfolds to the detriment of the stronger side, a separate dynamic arises with negative consequences for the stronger side (especially a status quo society that cherishes security and a high standard of living): extremist offense generates extremist defense, i.e., the threat to the strong state will increase over time…as the unintended consequence of its own voluntary behavior because leaders backed into a corner will often prefer risking death to kneeling down in humiliated submission. Intervention in a neighbor’s civil war will likely radicalize the side being attacked from abroad. Hostility from overseas is likely to empower hardliners. Bullying not only starts out as a high-risk strategy but contains the seeds of further risk for the strong state as time passes.

Questionable as bullying may be as a strategy for achieving maximal goals, bullying is even less logical in international relations when, as is almost always the case, a lesser victory would in fact be a real step forward. If total surrender is the goal, bullying may be useful as a brief tactic, but almost always total surrender is unnecessary. Even for such extreme goals as persuading another state to accept power-sharing to end a civil war, grant independence to a repressed minority, or give up its nuclear arms, the victory cake can be sliced into an infinite variety of sweet slices. Announcing up front that you insist on eating the whole cake yourself is simply pig-headed, and this very common pigheadedness explains much of the sorry record of modern foreign policy failures.

A policy relying on nothing but compulsion confuses the adversary because the adversary perceives danger even when the other side is simply bluffing in order to frighten the adversary into moderating its stance. Therefore, it is important in such a situation to distinguish hardline tactics from hardline goals: the former is just how one behaves, the latter what one actually wants. Assuming that one’s opponent uses hardline tactics because he has hardline goals is a risky assumption. Confuse the two, and you will never understand what your opponent is up to. A frequent scenario is hardline tactics (e.g., extreme rhetoric, harsh demands) to impress a domestic audience that conceals a willingness to compromise behind the scenes. (Many leaders find civilized behavior politically inconvenient, and, yes, some leaders even find civilized behavior embarrassing.)

In fact, these two characteristics (the nature of one’s tactics and the nature of one’s goals) may be the two fundamental things to know in order to understand and cope with an adversary in global affairs. This proposition offers a simple model with two dimensions:

Dimension A. tactics – extreme hardline to conciliatory

Dimension B. goals – zero-sum to positive sum (actions may be negative-sum—and in reality frequently are–but goals seldom are).

Strategy should, for reasons of logic and rationality, be designed to achieve goals. Otherwise, the results will be unexpected…and probably unpleasant. By combining the type of conflict resolution strategy (from “conflictual” to “cooperative”) with the nature of the goal (from “negative-sum” to “positive-sum”), four theoretical scenarios can be distinguished. A fifth possible theoretical outcome is a moderate equilibrium region in which each scenario influences the results, an outcome that one might expect to be the most likely, although history teaches that it is all too easy for states to venture into the dangerous territory of the four “extreme” scenarios.

The equilibrium region is the normal state of affairs, where foreign policy should be conducted. All the scenarios are extremes – extreme hostility, unbelievable fantasies, or bizarrely illogical and unstable temporary situations; public policy solidly sited in a particular scenario is likely to be an example of bad governance. The real world is just not that consistent.

Public policy that lurches from one scenario to another, going in and out of the equilibrium zone is also likely to be bad governance. Real-world policy should stay in the equilibrium zone where consistency borne of caution amid a sense of fairness and consideration for the other party are key to long-term success. Hence the tracking of events on the scenario landscape within which various analytical scenarios exist can offer clues about the viability of a policy.

Evolving Strategies in Korean Nuclear Crisis - 1

Scenario analysis for evaluating how strategy and goals are related

Three scenarios will be easily recognized as representing familiar real-world situations, though the real world cases will of course evolve in complicated ways, traversing the outcome landscape without regard to the theoretical boundaries of a model. Those three scenarios are all characterized by a degree of logic: strategy tends to match up with desired outcome, facilitating that outcome in an understandable manner. Albeit utterly distinct in terms of implications for mankind, all are commonplace historical patterns because plausible arguments for choosing such outcomes can be made.

The fourth scenario, “Self-Defeat,” stands out for its bizarre nature. Real-world examples may not seem easy to identify—for good reason. As the name implies, “Self-Defeat” is irrational, illogical, and in a rational world would not exist. This is the region of unintended consequences, the mark of incompetent leaders, where disaster not only can be expected but will occur in surprising ways that will be hard to comprehend. “Self-Defeat” is policy-making territory one should never explore. A democracy should never permit its leader to take the irresponsible risk of venturing into this territory. Policy-makers and the analysts who support them need to avoid this policy-making minefield.

It follows that the Self-Defeat scenario merits detailed analysis, analysis going far beyond these introductory steps, for Self-Defeat contains the seeds of utterly avoidable national security disaster. Within the limits of the very simplistic model in this article, there is already much to consider. How can regimes stray from each of the three “rational” scenarios into the no-man’s land of Self-Defeat? What are the pitfalls within each of the three typical scenarios that would warn a regime that it was headed down the perilous path? How would one recognize that one’s country was actually mired deep in Self-Defeat?

Such techniques as scenario evolution will be appropriate for exploring the answers to these questions. The idea of “scenario evolution” is to focus attention on how conditions change rather than on choosing one’s favorite fairy tale. Scenarios are all wrong: we don’t know the future; they can have value to the degree that they spark more informed inquiry. A scenario can provoke you to ask, “What if…?” Focusing on how the story changes leads to asking, “How?” This question takes us to underlying causal dynamics for the mapping of how change occurs. Scenarios are not end points but regions in the political landscape of the future through which reality will trace a zig-zag path. The “scenario evolution” technique can help to bring the scenario analysis to life by creating an analytical process that is constantly updated by inserting real events as they occur.

Evolving Strategies in Korean Nuclear Crisis - 2

Evolution of U.S. and North Korean policy on the Korean Nuclear Crisis


Several prominent events or collections of events from January to May 2018 in U.S. relations with the two Koreas are laid out in the diagram to illustrate the nature of U.S. relations with these states and illustrate the basic analytical approach of scenario evolution. These events, as numbered in the diagrams, are noted below.

U.S. moves:

  1. Trump’s extremely insulting and threatening language in 2017 was conflictual even though his goal may have been a mutually beneficial peace treaty.

  2. Feb. 2018: Pence isolates U.S. at Olympics by behaving with hostility amid a breakthrough in N.-S. Korean atmospherics.

  3. 4/29/18: Bolton threatens to apply “Libya model” to N. Korea (Libya’s leader gave up nuclear arms only to be overthrown and murdered).

  4. 5/16/18: Max Thunder U.S.-S. Korean military exercises.

  5. 5/24/18: Trump makes nuclear threat in withdrawal letter, significantly raising the level of hostility even though the context was the effort to cooperate by meeting Kim.

  6. 5/24/18: Trump withdraws from U.S.-N. Korea Summit.

  7. 5/27/18: After the North and South Korean leaders responded by meeting without U.S. participation, Trump—having been marginalized—switched to a conciliatory stance.

  8. 5/27/18: U.S. delegation visits N. Korea.

N. Korean moves:

  1. North Korea’s 2017 behavior was even more hostile than Trump’s, centering on missile and nuclear bomb tests. While logic suggests that Pyongyang, long marginalized, wanted to get Washington’s attention, during 2017 it was easy to jump to the conclusion that Pyongyang indeed “only understood the language of force:” Pyongyang was playing a dangerous game.

  2. In Feb. 2018, Kim shifted dramatically to an Olympic charm offensive…positive-sum posturing if lacking substance.

  3. 4/27/18: Kim and Moon meet at Panmunjom in a meeting characterized by notable atmospherics but lacking substance.

  4. 5/25/18: N. Korea destroys Punggye-ri nuclear test site.

  5. 5/27/18: N. Korea receives U.S. delegation.

Evolving Strategies in Korean Nuclear Crisis - 3

Evolving Korean Nuclear Crisis Policy Diagram Without Annotations

A second version of the diagram replacing text descriptions of each event with numbers rapidly becomes more legible as the number of events grows. For working analysis, such techniques as pop-up text windows, animation, and zooming in on busy regions of the political landscape should be standard to amplify the practical utility of scenario evolution.

Such diagrams prove nothing; rather than looking to analytical techniques to offer proof, the analyst should seek the clearest, most precise possible presentation of working hypotheses. To construct a magnificent building, one needs a good architectural drawing. Great care in selecting events to diagram and in positioning them is required, given the sensitivity of the appearance to these factors. Selection of events is made significantly more difficult by the degree to which the two sides themselves are likely to disagree on the salience of various events. Neither side behaved during 2017 in a way that clarified its true intentions; it could be argued that US behavior should be placed in the “Unconditional Surrender” quadrant, or that the N. Korean behavior in 2017 should be put in the “Self-Defeat” quadrant. Additionally, the degree to which Max Thunder was intended as a genuine war threat by Washington and the degree to which Bolton’s shocking rhetoric about the Libyan disaster should be interpreted as a call for regime change are both open to question. The number of high profile public actions by Washington zigzagging across zero-sum portions of the political landscape does at least give some confidence to accepting the diagram as accurate.

Even using just these simple, static diagrams, both the erratic path of Washington’s 2018 actions (risking misperception) and Washington’s emphasis on negative signals leap out from the diagram. Pyongyang began in 2017 with a level of hostility fully matching that of Washington and by the end of May 2018 had reached the same degree of cooperation as Washington, but Pyongyang’s path to get there appears much more logical, consistent, and planned. While neither party behaved in a manner easy to interpret as it occurred, in retrospect, as long as one assumes that the events cited are the correct ones (even the public record–which may be significantly incomplete and distorted–includes numerous other statements and actions), the strategic distinction between the two regimes’ maneuvers is clear…and troubling. Judging from the diagram, Washington’s strategy is internally contradictory and its intent therefore murky. Indeed, one gets the feeling that Washington is only reluctantly being pulled along by an increasingly determined and aligned pair of Korean leaders. In contrast to Washington’s course of action, the steady evolution in Pyongyang’s moves suggests that Pyongyang’s intention throughout the first five months of 2018 was to reach a breakthrough of some sort, though evidence to distinguish between a mere improvement in atmospherics and a substantive solution to the three-generation-long standoff does not yet exist, as of May 29, 2018.


Additional Information About the Period Up to June 1, 2018:

  1. 5/25/18 – Pyongyang reportedly promised to allow U.S. inspection of the Punggye-ri nuclear test site before destroying it but did not, a notably uncooperative move that mars Pyongyang’s post-Winter Olympics charm offensive. Based on this report, a new “Unconditional Surrender” event should be added just before Event 4 in North Korea’s evolution, giving North Korea’s evolution a markedly less consistent appearance.
  2. 5/31/18 – Pompeo reportedly maintains unrelenting hard line on terms of settlement with North Korea following New York talks.
  3. 5/31/18 – Summit is on(!)…but with Putin, not Trump.

Washington Marginalizes the U.S.

Having spent nearly 40 years weathering all manner of Israeli-U.S. threats and punishments, mostly in isolation, Iran now is a key member of a loose but functioning military coalition including Russia and the key member of a global coalition working to maintain a signed and functioning international nuclear agreement. Thanks to brilliant strategy by the U.S. Administration, Iran now occupies the moral high ground, and the U.S. is the one isolated.

Trying to roar louder than his boss, America’s brand new top “diplomat” loudly renounced diplomacy, blasting Iran with uncompromising hot air. Predictably impressed, Rouhani calmly observed that Iran would continue working with the rest of the world to maintain the landmark Iran-P6 nuclear accord in its current Iran-P5 state.

Harsh and threatening, the egregiously negative tone of Pompeo’s speech on Iran sounded like an Administration effort to provoke an angry, self-defeating reaction by Tehran. The bullying sends the clear message that Washington will not compromise, a message that both speaks to the extremist Trump base and taunts Iran’s extremist faction. If Washington is looking for an excuse to start a war with Iran, this is precisely the way to do it, both because Iranian moderates will be undermined and because Iranian hardliners typically jump at the chance to respond in kind to public slaps in the face. But Iran the insider may not be as sensitive to provocative slights as Iran the outsider was…

While Washington, Riyadh, and Tel Aviv stand on the sidelines slapping each other on the back, the rest of the world is busy. Just through hosting an Iran delegation and the leader of Germany, Putin will meet with France’s Macron later this week. Top of the venue is maintaining the nuclear accord with Iran. But that will turn out to be just the beginning. In the context of Washington’s determined public slap in the face of its European allies, all Putin really needs to do to win is offer his habitual Cheshire Cat grin, but Putin is a better tactician than that, so watch for something additional to enable Macron and Merkel to look good to their voters…perhaps a price concession on Russian gas exports or a joint Russian-West European initiative for Syrian peace. Or something to knock Washington off balance…possibly a call for U.N. mediation of the Yemeni war being so vigorously promoted by Riyadh. Presumably Putin will not be so clumsy as to suddenly open an S-400 umbrella over Damascus, but a “technical” meeting on the subject between Russian and Syrian generals is not to be excluded. Tehran would naturally expect equivalent treatment, Netanyahu would instantly run to Moscow, and…although Pompeo might not like it, “diplomacy” would ensue.

The world is entering a period of readjustment. While Washington blusters, a rather new global strategic dynamic is emerging. Propelled both by Washington’s hostility and a clear sense of common interest, a disparate collection of states that typically have a hard time getting along is suddenly finding all sorts of reasons to cooperate.  Just to cite one potential contributing factor, hydrocarbon prices are rising rapidly, offering Russia and Iran increasing opportunity to come to West Europe bearing gifts.

Much is at risk right now, and the outcome will depend greatly on both chance and diplomatic skill. Putin is trying to balance relations with Iran and relations with Israel, ignoring the glaring contradictions. Turkey is a loose cannon. Yemen is an open wound on the global body politic. Israel is an angry tiger about to bite through the bars on its cage. Any number of incidents or tactical errors could make it all fall apart, but the longer the world focuses on calm negotiation to maintain a working accord, the more momentum will build, the more everyone will begin to see the many current crises as opportunities for a new and untried coalition without superpower domination to accomplish something, and the less great America will look.

Dealing With Iran. Pt. 1. Contradictory Strategies

Politicians, particularly those unskilled in foreign affairs, frequently believe that threats are more effective than flexibly applying the full range of options, admittedly an approach requiring some skill and patience. What are the impacts of relying on the zero-sum policy of threats rather than seeking a positive-sum outcome? This post is the first in a series to examine the complexities of assessing in advance how Tehran may respond to the new U.S. policy based on threats.

For four decades, U.S. policy toward Iran has wavered back and forth, moving for a moment toward conciliation, then back to a strong emphasis on threat. “Carrot or stick?” is the perennial question in foreign policy. One hopes no leader would ever phrase the endless variety of choices in such a dangerously simplistic manner; this is no binary choice, though the behavior of politicians sometimes suggests that in their hearts, they truly believe it is. Simple as the question may be, no political science theory provides a surefire guide to policymakers; no analytical method a surefire process for calculating how an adversary will respond. As a result, both conciliation and threat repeatedly backfire.

With the understanding that policy is a flow of action like a pipe containing a mixed stream of warm and cold water, global dealings with Iran can be summarized as a world policy with a flow toward Iran connected in a circle to an Iranian policy flowing back to the world. In the “Dealing With Iran: Obama Strategy” diagram, the joint strategy toward Iran of the Six Powers (the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany) at the end of Obama’s second term is connected in such a circle with Iran’s response. Although Obama’s actual policy always included both threats and inducements, the diagram simplifies this, showing only inducements, i.e., a “flow of warm water.” The diagram pictures a “reinforcing” loop (actions of A reinforce actions of B), over time yielding exponential growth (a “virtuous circle” if you like the results; a “vicious circle” if you don’t).

Dealing With Iran - Obama StrategyDefined narrowly (in terms of the nuclear agreement, without linkage to other issues), the diagram illustrates accurately the positive-sum outcome that Iran limited its nuclear development and in return received economic benefits, benefiting both sides. This statement says nothing about the overall state of or trends in relations; it says nothing about the “limits to growth” of this particular cycle, of other dynamics that might be growing faster and perhaps pushing relations toward a turning point. All such considerations would require a more detailed assessment than is presented in this initial view. This is the simplest of models that nonetheless contains an essential, if temporary and limited, truth–a bit more than a snapshot, for it endured long enough to demonstrate its utility, but a good deal less than an accurate long-term forecast, given reality’s sensitivity to rapidly evolving political conditions. The diagram is a model of one dynamic, a dynamic that was for a time dominant; it is far from a model of reality.

In May, Trump unilaterally broke the nuclear agreement between Iran and the West, demanding new concessions from Iran as the price for continuing to honor any agreement constraining Iranian nuclear R&D.  [See “Dealing with Iran: Trump Strategy.] The choice for Iran was to pay a higher price for maintaining their side of the bargain or going free and being faced with the threat of additional U.S. hostility. Indeed, before it had even had time to react, Tehran was in fact subjected to further threats. Washington, in sum, was punishing Tehran for keeping its side of a narrow (nuclear) bargain based on the claim that the original agreement made by Obama should have restricted other, non-nuclear Iranian activities. In stark contrast to thee unified P6 strategy during the Obama Administration, the isolated US strategy as of May 2018 under the Trump Administration tossed out the former global coalition policy of emphasizing inducements while keeping threats on the table, leaving only the threats/punishments and arguably strengthening those threats/punishments. 

Dealing With Iran - Trump Strategy

Does the reinforcing loop of bilateral cooperation (world offers trade; Iran gives up nukes) mean that reinforcing loops always work? No, the truth is that reinforcing loops almost always fail, perhaps because they require careful management or people with good will on both sides simultaneously. A reinforcing loop is simply a situation that is getting more and more…, i.e., exponential growth. Pretty soon something has to change, but if you happen to like the results, you won’t want to stop the momentum until it is too late…a good reason to think ahead. The Obama Administration might have benefited from following up the initial victory with a determined effort to adhere strictly to its side of the bargain and a sincere search for ways to strengthen the accord or the broader relationship. The joint campaign against ISIS gave Obama the opportunity; Obama’s arming of Riyadh for its bombing campaign in Yemen poisoned the broader context. By the time Obama left Washington, the agreement was ripe for failure for external reasons. 

U.S.-Iran relations have for four decades been characterized by people of good will on both sides but almost never simultaneously. Timing is crucial. Careful management is also required: each side, looking anxiously for its promised payoff, will be quick to accuse the other of cheating if any unforeseen delays occur, such as Western failure rapidly to deliver on its economic promises. Domestic politics also interferes with positive-sum reinforcing feedback loops: anti-Iranian conservatives in the U.S. have from the start rejected the beneficial nuclear agreement for not including more benefits (preferring no loaf to half a loaf). More general obstacles to the continuation of desired reinforcing loops include running out of resources, since once the loop gets moving, its exponential nature will consume resources at a rapidly accelerating rate. Sadly, especially in international relations, many people fail to give credit to controversial positive-sum agreements for side benefits. The agreements are likely to be controversial in the first place only because of some prejudice against the other side. Even when the other side plays nice, the prejudice remains. Just as the nuclear agreement went into effect, Washington and Tehran both discovered to their mutual embarrassment that they needed each other’s help to fight ISIS in Iraq, but how many opponents of the nuclear agreement admitted that their opposition might have prevented needed military cooperation? The most basic contribution of the circular diagram is simply that it tells the user that the reality is a flow of current whose speed must be managed by the policy-maker, not an event to be chalked up as a permanent victory.

All of these considerations were obvious at the time, but something is only “obvious” when you focus on it, and policy-makers have many things to focus on. Putting a risk in a diagram helps keep it in focus. Computer models that show how dynamics (e.g., the flow of trade, the level of rhetoric, the size of troop deployments) evolve or might evolve helps keep subtle background changes in focus.


Europe Needs to Stand Tall

John Bolton has threatened to punish European companies that violate a new round of U.S. sanctions, now that the U.S. has violated the Six Power-Iran nuclear accord that Iran is acknowledged to have observed.

Europe needs to wake up and organize: both its democracy and its security are under threat by a war party axis in Washington, Tel Aviv, and Riyadh. This bizarre coalition of fundamentalist Jewish state, fundamentalist Salafi state, and 19th century social Darwinist throwbacks finds its common ground in dreams of the past and fervent faith in war as the answer. What “answer” Afghanistan, Iraq, Gaza, Syria, or Yemen gives to the world may not be clear to the rest of us, but this coalition seems to find some comfort and sense of purpose in those endless, continuing disasters.

For those who are fortunate enough to overlook these seemingly eternal fires on which this coalition has poured so much gasoline:

  • the Afghan war began four decades ago and continues;
  • the Gaza war arguably began eight decades ago and continues;
  • the Iraq war began four decades ago and may optimistically be judged just barely to have…well, if not “ended” at least morphed into the Syria war;
  • the Yemen war began five decades ago and continues;
  • the Syria war is less than a decade old…but continues.

Does this fine record of achievement contain any lessons for policy-makers?

Europe–that great source of colonialism, fascism, and neo-colonialism–is by no means an innocent victim, but if Europe was first to contract these diseases, perhaps it can also lead us to a cure.

Vicious Circle of War

An Iranian cleric has just been goaded by Trump’s threats into exactly the kind of immature shouting match Trump loves. That’s too bad. Falling into Trump’s trap just keeps his base riled up…at the expense of the future of mankind.

So, an Iranian extremist cleric plays into the hands of American extremist Trump. Or perhaps I have it backwards. Is it Trump playing into the hands of a power-hungry Iranian extremist cleric? The world held hostage again as childish rhetorical wars boost popularity with “the base” and justify the oh-so-profitable war budgets on all sides.

One thing Trump knows how to do – provoke a barroom brawl. Perhaps this is how CEO’s amuse themselves; certainly it is how Hollywood portrays mafia thugs. What the true behavior of CEO’s and mafia thugs may be, I do not know, but such provocative behavior by a man with the power to start a war is shameful, unpatriotic, and most certainly a “high crime.” Real leaders prevent fires; only fake leaders light them.


Tech note: The normal English phrase is “vicious circle,” but it should be “vicious cycle.” The circularity does not return one to the original condition; it does not “balance.” Rather, each iteration starts from the previous result (if anger rises 10% the first time around as the two sides insult each other, the result gets worse each time, just like compound interest or the growth of bacteria). The cycle is exponential, i.e., it can explode in your face. This dangerous characteristic of a cycle is why making war threats constitutes an inexcusable risk.

Policy-making note: The U.S. has vast power, i.e., a wide range of options for influencing international behavior. When a U.S. leader replaces real policy with screaming and taunting and threatening, that leader lowers himself or herself to the level of the adversary. All leaders, all bullies–no matter how weak–are more than capable of flinging insults. This type of behavior, by the leader of the world’s most powerful nation, is playing to America’s weakness. That’s dumb policy-making.

How Walls Fall

Building walls alters the environment. The ultimate success or failure of a policy of defending a border depends greatly upon policy details, and the impact of these details will be hard to figure out until it is too late. A little cognitive rigor up front can prevent a disastrous policy failure down the road.


Humans have a weakness for walling themselves in. Do we miss our caves? Whatever the reason, since Neolithic man left the cave for the farm some ten thousand years ago, he has repeatedly tried to reinvent those comforting rock walls. China’s, it is said, remains visible from the moon, though it has not protected its builders for centuries, nor did the Berlin Wall secure the sadistic East German psycho-state. Nonetheless, those who like walls still drag their knuckles through the modern world, desperate for a simple solution to the problems of multiculturalism that were already old when the First Emperor was busily connecting all those much older walls built by various pre-unification principalities.

The common public debate revolves around two dumbed-down propositions: the risk-averse advocate self-protection; the risk-taking advocate good-neighborliness. If the former are selfish and short-sighted, the latter are naively trusting. Is there a better way?

The world contains both linear, consistent, predictable processes and the other kind…those whose complexity creates confusing turbulence. Almost everything that is interesting is of that other kind. This may make the world a challenging place in which to survive, but good news is hidden within: stuff that is “complex” (interdependent, multivariate, self-adaptive, uncontrolled) by definition is sensitive to a wide range of remedies, and no law demands that one restrict oneself to those that are zero-sum.

Consider a policy designed to build a wall to strengthen a porous border (without considering whether one is trying to lock others out or lock one’s own people in).Border Control - Berlin Wall Fix

The very simple feedback loop simply asserts that “the wall stops unauthorized border crossings and the problem is solved.” But is this assumption warranted? Is a wall miracle medicine with no side effects, or does the existence of a wall alter the environment in a way that may undermine its impact?

“The Wall Collapses” illustrates the tidal wave of resistance that can result from one particular type of wall-building, specifically, the shutting of a state border to prevent outsiders from “joining the winning team.”

Border Control - The Wall Collapses

The “Wall Collapses” diagram is of course not neutral, for it omits any indication of the various additional dynamics that might enhance the prospects of the state attempting to protect its borders. It does not model everything; the diagram is designed rather to address one question: “How might the policy of shutting of a border fail?” The diagram’s answer is, “In any number of ways, so before you build, think about the implications of your plan.”

More, think about alternatives. But first, glance at the red arrows. Not only do the red arrows all add to the problems of defending the closed border, but buried within the mass of (red) processes undermining the wall’s prospects are smaller reinforcing feedback loops. For example, the relationship between social instability and economic decline is a reinforcing loop – each worsens the other…and the whole result feeds into the overall feedback undermining the effectiveness of the typical policy of closing off a border within the context of worsening relations between the two societies. Delays (pair of parallel lines) are marked on both sides of the “social instability-economic decline.” All the causal dynamics indicated by red arrows are likely to occur with delays, but shifts in socio-economic conditions are particularly long-term processes, so these delays are marked to suggest the particularly slow and deeply buried impacts of this vicious cycle upon the ultimate outcome of the border wall policy.

The first message of the diagram is that multiple pathways to failure interact: failure is built into the policy as reinforcing feedback loops proliferate and overwhelm border control efforts. Simple though this diagram is in comparison to reality, there is little evidence that policy-makers advocating border walls think through their idea with even this degree of sophistication.

The second message of the diagram is more encouraging: yes, there are better ways. It is much easier to enact a policy of border closure in an atmosphere of hostility, but the pathways in the diagram leading to policy failure also offer solutions. If “locking them out” has historically tended to lead to the zero-sum outcome economic exploitation of the society locked out, an obvious potential policy alternative would be to combine a stronger border defense with a more generous policy of economic aid designed to reduce the neighbor’s dissatisfaction. A rich man is safer in a community of neighbors happy in their own homes. If a “banana republic” run by lackeys of the rich state constructing the border wall tends to become repressive in order to maintain control and if that repression tends to generate more instability as the repressed decide to revolt, the alternative of negotiating with the poor neighbor to find a mutually acceptable border management policy also exists. Diagramming the implications of a policy helps to reveal ways of transforming a zero-sum approach into a positive-sum approach. This is more than just a moral step forward. What looks at first like a zero-sum approach is likely over time to turn into a negative sum outcome (in this case, perhaps the eventual revolt in the poor country spills has negative economic, military, illegal narcotics, or epidemic implications for the rich country). The longer you want your policy to work, the more valuable become cognitive tools to clarify your options.