Home > Fallacies, foreign policy > Ukraine and Obama’s Anti-Swagger

Ukraine and Obama’s Anti-Swagger

Noah Smith has a good post up pointing out the obvious: Obama is a pretty good foreign policy president.

First, a disclaimer: I am not a foreign policy expert. I don’t want to be. I am, however, a bit of a specialist in human decision-making, bargaining, game theory and other topics which are directly relevant to these sorts of issues.

To put it bluntly, if foreign policy expertise is about trying to predict the behavior of foreign leaders like Putin, then I have expertise to offer into the actual decision-making process but not the motivations behind it. The later requires some knowledge of the history and politics that structure the constraints and motivations that guide Putin’s decisions. To put the point in Economese: I don’t have a clue about Putin’s utility function, but I do know something about his strategies.

So, it’s in this context that I have my own two cents to add; something that’s been on my mind for quite a while, which I like to call the Swagger Theory of Foreign Policy.

What’s Swagger Theory?

In short, it’s the George W. Bush Doctrine: the projection of strength (often nebulously defined) abroad will deter behavior from our enemies which may be detrimental to our interests. The basic idea seems to be that if we are sufficiently violent, sufficiently willing to overreact, then no one would be crazy enough to challenge our stated interests for fear that we will in fact overreact.

Every time you hear that some foreign leader is doing something against US interests abroad because they see Obama as weak; that is a statement of the Swagger Theory.

As I see it, notable Swagger Theorists are your typical neocons: John McCain, Lindsey Graham. Some left-leaning think-tank types like Michael O’Hanlon. Journalists like Tom Friedman. See here for an example in action.

I bring this up in part because for the last few days, since the invasion of Crimea by Russia, I’ve been hearing a near constant refrain from foreign policy “experts” on TV (including democratic-aligned ones) that it was Obama’s weakness (specifically with respect to Syria) that precipitated the current crisis. I call BS on that, but first let’s explore Swagger Theory to understand why.

The Limits of Swagger Theory

The first thing to note about Swagger Theory (ST for short) is that it is not entirely crazy. Really. There really is theory and evidence that I could cite suggesting that a reputation for irrationality can be used strategically to capture a greater share of surplus. The intuition is straightforward: if you knew that the other guy is likely to walk out on a negotiation, you’ll be willing to settle for a worse price.

The trick, and the under-appreciated cost, is establishing that reputation in the first place. In models, we can assume that the reputation exists, then work from there. In the real world, to get a reputation as being irrational requires doing something irrational… this is something I’ve harped on in the past, signals require realizations.

So, what are the hidden costs of using ST as a guiding principle of foreign policy?

  1. As I just mentioned, to be seen as crazy (willing to blow up important negotiations, invade part of another country, etc) you almost certainly have to be willing to DO something crazy. You sometimes hear from conservatives that Reagan was able to bring the Soviet Union down because the Soviets believed he was crazy. I don’t know if that’s true, but if it is, it was almost certainly the invasion of Granada and the largest peacetime rearmament in US history that convinced the Russians of this, not Reagan’s tough rhetoric. The point is that these crazy acts are expensive. Strategically, financially, or all of the above; it doesn’t matter, because paying that unnecessary price is the signal.
  2. Doing crazy and aggressive things, means that people are less likely to trust you in the future. Sure Putin gets Crimea now, but what of the ethnic Ukrainians in the west of the country? Do you really think they view Putin better now than before? What about the people of Europe? How did the world react to George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq? Not well, that’s how. There are real long term costs to any kind of foreign adventurism.
  3. Put #1 together with #2. To gain the advantage assumed by STs, you need to do something a little crazy, causing people to lose trust in you. Some of what you have gained by being “strong” is lost as those on the other side prepares to push back/fortify/etc. The game begins to resemble a classic prisoner’s dilemma. This cost is in addition to the costs incured in step #1.

At this point, you might object that I’ve replaced the STs’ “strong” moniker with “crazy”. You are correct, but diction aside there’s simply no there, there. How do the STs define “strong” leadership? They rarely seem to like negotiations… In fact, I first invented Swagger Theory to explain to myself the (confusing to me at the time) very negative reaction to Obama’s negotiations with Iran. He was weak for talking to the Iranians. Just talking to them, not doing anything else. Why? In ST, it’s simple, refusing to negotiate is itself a relatively inexpensive way to forgo some obvious benefits. That’s #1 above. Call that “crazy” or call it “strong”, I don’t care, it’s the same thing.

The Backward Application of Swagger Theory in Ukraine

So who has Swagger in Ukraine? Not Obama. Putin. How’s that working out for him? We’ll see, but I doubt it’ll look like a good idea to invade in a year’s time. Remember that just a few months ago, Putin’s Russia was the dominant force in Ukrainian internal politics. Sure, Putin didn’t get everything he wanted from the Ukrainians, but Ukraine was definitely allied with Russia. Now, Russia and Ukraine are hoping to thread the needle so as to escape a shooting war. Mr. Putin has the position of strength by the reckoning of the STs, but it doesn’t seem to me that he’s helping himself much.

On the other hand, Obama seems to me to be the opposite of a Swagger Theorist. If I were to pinpoint Obama’s foreign policy philosophy, I’d say he’s a realist-internationalist. An ST proponent can’t be an internationalist because all that Swagger damages relationships with foreign powers. Nor can an ST proponent be a realist; inflicting on oneself unneccessary costs and engaging in negative sum competitions seem to me to be anathema to the realist worldview.

So, read Noah’s post, and think about it in terms of the benefits of Obama’s Anti-Swagger.

Categories: Fallacies, foreign policy
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