The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Zen and the art of American foreign policy

President Obama:  a Zen master. Vladimir Putin:  a facts on the ground guy.  One shall stand, one shall fall. (Alexei Nikolsky/RIA Novosti)
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A decade ago, Ron Suskind wrote a pretty memorable New York Times Magazine cover story about the George W. Bush administration’s worldview.  The memorable part is this paragraph:

The [White House] aide said that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

In listening and reading a lot of foreign policy punditry this year, I’m coming to the conclusion that the divide laid out by Suskind’s source persists to this day when it comes to understanding world politics.  The events of 2014 are segregating America’s foreign policy community into one of two camps.  At the risk of incurring the wrath of Thomas Friedman the foreign policy gods, let’s call these two camps the “Reality Creators” and the “Zen Masters.”

The Reality Creators believe strongly that powerful actors shape and mold view world history through their will to act.  In 2014-speak, it’s called “changing the facts on the ground.”  Reality Creators looks at what Russia, China and various Islamic actors are doing around their borders, and they are wigging out about it.  They see Russia having successfully changed the facts on the ground in Crimea, and trying to do the same in eastern Ukraine.  They see China doing an awful lot to change the facts on the ground in the East China Sea and South China Sea.  They see the Sunni jihadists and Iran carving up various parts of Syria and Iraq.  What they worry about is that each of these moves enhances the power of anti-American actors and reveals a United States that chooses not to stand up to revisionist actors.  To use the language of social science, Reality Creators believe strongly in the power of path dependence in world politics.  They fear that by tolerating Russian, Chinese, or ISIS bellicosity in the present, the United States will find itself facing a more unfavorable status quo, which increases the likelihood of an even more unfavorable trajectory for the future.  The worst foreign policy sin, from the Reality Creators’ point of view, is inaction.

The Zen Masters, on the other hand, belong to what Suskind’s source would label the “reality-based community.”  These people think that the long arc of history is bending in their direction — that the fundamental strengths of the United States and its key allies are more robust than any potential rivals on the global stage.  The worst thing to do, therefore, is to overreact in the short run to things that will balance out in the long run. They don’t believe in getting riled up too much, and that, in the end, the universe tends to unfold as it should.  It’s not that they’re unaware of what Russia or China or the Islamic State is doing — it’s that they believe that these actions are short-sighted, counterproductive and very likely to fail.  They believe that actors that try to forcibly revise the status quo will pay a serious price.  The Zen Masters predict that Russia won’t be able to do much to directly control eastern Ukraine, China is alienating all of its neighbors, Iran is itching to re-join the international community, and the Islamic State will eventually alienate its subject population through its zealotry.  If the Reality Creators emphasizes the ability of actors to alter the course of events, the Zen Masters believe in the power of structures to constrain and punish even the most ambitious revisionist.  So long as the United States doesn’t do stupid s**t, as it were, then eventually the United States will find itself in a favorable geopolitical position — even if the current moment seems chaotic.  The worst sin, from the Zen Masters’ point of view, is overreaction.

The Reality Creators include most GOP critics of American foreign policy, most foreign policy columnists for The Washington Post, most of the foreign policy community, a minority of Americans, and possibly Hillary Rodham Clinton.  The Zen Masters are comprised of most Obama administration officials, the Democratic Party establishment, Rand Paul and other liberty conservatives, a majority of Americans, and possibly Hillary Clinton.

Not surprisingly, the Reality Creators think that the Zen Masters are foolish and naive.  Equally unsurprisingly, the Zen Masters think the Reality Creators are reckless and overconfident in the use of force.

I’ll have more to say about this divide this week, because it helps to explains a few of the foreign policy frictions that are going on right now.  For now, however, I’ll simply note that from a Beltway perspective, it stinks to be a Zen Master.  Even if the American public currently supports the Zen Master approach to the world, they’re still not thrilled with the short-run outcomes.  On the other hand, the compelling thing about being a Reality Creator is the profound belief in the will to act, to do something to alter the tides of history.  The optical bias in politics always favors action over inaction.

Furthermore, Reality Creators do not control the reins of American foreign policy right now, so they can talk an excellent game.  This doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily wrong, but it does mean that until 2017, we’ll have no idea if they would have been right.  In the world of politics, it’s good to be able to claim that your way is the right way without having to prove it.