Foreign policy is serious business, because getting it wrong has real consequences. When countries conduct foreign policy in a cavalier or incompetent way, real human beings lose their lives or end up much poorer than they would otherwise have been. In extreme cases, states that mismanage relations with the outside world end up completely isolated and maybe even conquered and occupied. This is rarely, if ever, a pleasant experience.
That is why it is so surprising when allegedly “serious people” rely on various forms of magical thinking when they talk about foreign affairs; analysis and prescriptions resting on unrealistic assumptions, unspecified causal relationships, inapt analogies, a dearth of supporting evidence and wildly naive optimism, Stephen M. Walt wrote for Foreign Policy.
The most obvious example of magical thinking in contemporary policy discourse, of course, is the myth of a “better deal” with Iran.
Despite abundant evidence to the contrary, opponents of the deal keep insisting additional sanctions, more threats to use force, another round of Stuxnet, or if necessary, dropping a few bombs, would have convinced Iran to run up the white flag and give the United States everything it ever demanded for the past 15 years.
However, never mind that while the US ramped up sanctions, Iran went from zero centrifuges to 19,000. Never mind that there was no international support for harsher sanctions and that unilateral US sanctions would not increase the pressure in any meaningful way. Never mind that attacking Iran with military force would not end its nuclear program.
And never mind that the myth of a “better deal” ignores Diplomacy 101: To get any sort of lasting agreement, it has to provide something for all of the parties.
Instead of serious analysis, opponents of the Iran deal are just imagining that there was a secret spell, magic wand or incantation that would have somehow produced a miraculously different result, which is why they cannot in fact explain how their imaginary “better deal” could ever be obtained.
It is not surprising that opponents of the deal are relying on unspecified miracles to make their case: It is their standard operating procedure. As US President Barack Obama said in August, opponents of the deal are mostly the same groups and individuals who either dreamed up or helped sell the boneheaded idea of invading Iraq.
It was not just their fairy tales about Iraqi WMD and Saddam Hussein’s alleged links to Al-Qaeda that led Bush and the country astray, it was their utterly fabulist belief that invading Iraq would somehow transform the Middle East into a sea of pro-American democracies.
Convinced that military power was a magic wand that could do almost anything, they assumed the invasion would produce a fantastic result at little or no cost. They are as wrong now as they were back then.
The US is hardly the only country that has succumbed to magical thinking, of course. Europe’s leaders fell victim to it when they created the euro in the 1990s, blithely ignoring the many critics who pointed out that the conditions for a workable currency union did not exist.
The euro’s advocates convinced themselves a common currency would magically turn Greeks into industrious Germans and Germans into free-spending Greeks and that eurozone members would meet their various obligations in an honest and forthright way.
In short, they assumed the euro would magically succeed no matter what and such reasoning continues today, in the assumption that continued austerity will magically put Greece back on its feet and enable it repay all its debts.
No Easy Way
How can you spot “magical thinking” when you hear it? Here is a quick guide on how to hone the necessary olfactory instincts.
First, when a leader, policy analyst, or foreign-policy organization suggests you support a policy that has never been done before and says that it will be easy, your nostrils should start twitching. Occasionally, a government tries something unprecedented and it works out well. Nonetheless, when somebody says they are going to do something challenging and achieve results that nobody has ever managed to accomplish before, you should read the fine print, carefully.
Second, when somebody says they have a great solution to a thorny problem but will not tell you what that solution is, it is either a sign that they have no plan at all or that they believe they have rare powers that will enable them to do what mere mortals cannot.
When Donald Trump says he has a “foolproof” plan to defeat the Islamic State but does not say what it is, it is either just a boldfaced lie or evidence he thinks he is a magician who can come up with a plan that has somehow escaped the entire US government, even though he knows next to nothing about national security policy, the IS or the Middle East more generally.
Third, magical thinking invariably depends on a bunch of optimistic assumptions.
To pull off a miracle, you need to assume that all will go exactly as planned, that opponents will react exactly as you expect and that unintended consequences will not occur.
Fourth, a good miracle promises something wonderful for little or no cost. The invasion of Iraq for instance: It will pay for itself and the troops will be home by Christmas.
Finally, a lot of magical thinking assumes that the world is poised on a delicate knife’s edge and that small inputs will have far-reaching effects. In this view, a tiny reduction in the US defense budget or overseas military presence will embolden enemies everywhere and leave the US isolated and vulnerable.
But by a similar magical logic, very small increases in defense spending or a single successful military campaign will discomfit enemies far and wide, restore credibility and revitalize deterrence.
People like a good fantasy, which is why Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter are so popular. In these works of fiction, magical powers and miraculous events are central. But there are no wands, rings, wizards, or dragons in the real world, just a complicated set of policy issues and many complex interactions between a wide array of self-interested actors.
From imaginary weapons of mass destruction to fantastical currency unions, magical thinking in foreign policy leads to nothing but catastrophe. Let’s not do the same with Iran.