Bring Back Playground Psychology
In this week’s Editor’s Corner: American foreign policymakers would be more successful if they relied more often on a few simple rules of human nature
The laws of human nature are very much like the laws of physics: stubbornly intractable and dangerous to ignore. And yet, in recent decades, American foreign policy experts and the presidents they serve have often discounted these simple rules about human action and reaction. From Afghanistan to Ukraine to the Red Sea, our foreign policy elites have failed to properly account for some of the tenets of basic human psychology, usually with poor or even disastrous results.
Lately, this failure has come up again in connection with attacks by Iranian proxies against Israel, commercial shipping in the Red Sea, and American forces in Jordan, Syria and Iraq. As many have pointed out, we largely have ourselves to blame for this chaotic situation. Specifically, the lack of credible American deterrence in the region has increasingly emboldened Iran, prompting it to escalate both the scope and intensity of its attacks against the U.S. and its interests and allies.
The latest of these attacks, which resulted in the deaths of three American soldiers and the wounding of nearly 40 in Jordan on Jan. 28, has prompted many pundits and politicians to call on the Biden administration to hit back against the Iranians hard enough to make the cost of continuing these attacks unacceptable. Even with the retaliatory airstrikes in recent days against Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria, they have accused the president and his advisers—correctly, in my view—of ignoring what might be called basic playground psychology. To begin with, any bad actor or bully will see inaction, inadequate action, or attempts at negotiation or dialogue as a sign of weakness and will continue to behave aggressively.
Of course, the mother of all historical examples of this kind of dynamic involves Germany’s aggressive rise in the 1930s, when each territorial concession made to Hitler by Britain, France and other countries simply prompted him to demand more territory until the situation exploded into World War II. But there are plenty of recent instances of this as well.
When Russian President Vladimir Putin first invaded Ukraine in 2014, seizing and annexing Crimea and de facto occupying parts of the Donbas in the eastern part of the country, the United States and its European allies did little to genuinely punish him. The West applied some moderately painful but not crippling economic sanctions against Russia and then went back to business as usual. Not surprisingly, in February 2022, Putin invaded Ukraine again, this time precipitating the largest land war in Europe since Hitler and Germany were defeated in 1945.
But playground psychology encompasses more than just effectively deterring bullies. Another hard and fast rule that is often ignored by our policymakers is the notion that credibly deterring one bad actor in one place will make it easier to do so with others elsewhere. In other words, effective deterrence has a positive knock-on effect.
There are so many recent examples of problems stemming from the failure to recognize this simple rule that it’s hard to know where to begin. But let’s start by going back to Ukraine. It’s not difficult to make a connection between President Obama’s “red line” in Syria in 2013 and Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine less than a year later. After Obama’s ultimatum to punish Syria for gassing its own people proved an empty threat, can anyone doubt that Putin assumed he could probably eat a piece of Ukraine without too much interference from the U.S. and its allies? Likewise, it’s hard to imagine that President Biden’s disastrous withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan in August 2021 didn’t help embolden Putin to assume—incorrectly, as it turns out—that he could take the rest of Ukraine, again without incurring too high a cost internationally.
Before the second invasion of Ukraine in 2022 and the Hamas-led pogrom against Israel on Oct. 7, 2023, prompted the U.S. to more forcefully reengage in Europe and the Middle East, policymakers justified much of our disengagement and loss of credibility in both of these regions by the need to focus military and other resources more on Asia, particularly China. However, the so-called “pivot to Asia,” which began under Obama, did not stop the Chinese from illegally building a chain of artificial island bases in the South China Sea, effectively taking control of Hong Kong in violation of its treaty obligations and, most recently, harassing Taiwan militarily. Indeed, these things may well have happened, at least in part, because Chinese President Xi Jinping was also watching the U.S. disengage from Europe and the Middle East and making some assumptions of his own about America’s overall commitment to deterrence.
One final rule of the playground that foreign policy elites frequently fail to heed is that wishing does not make it so. American policymakers have ignored this useful maxim with many countries, but none more so than post-revolutionary Iran. From President Reagan’s disastrous outreach to Iranian “moderates” in the mid-1980s to Biden’s unsuccessful attempt to bribe and cajole the Iranians into restarting talks on their nuclear weapons program, almost all of these efforts to treat the Islamic Republic like a normal country have ended in tears.
This occurred each time because we refused to acknowledge to ourselves that Iran is not a normal country and is not interested in good faith negotiation or dialogue. As psychologists like to say: You can’t change other people; you can only change how you react to them.
The world is becoming more chaotic and dangerous by the day, due in large part to the decline of U.S. deterrence. In addition to China, Russia and Iran, Pakistan, North Korea and Afghanistan, as well as a constellation of failing and failed states in Africa, all pose greater and greater challenges to the American-led order. If the U.S. is to have any chance of meeting these challenges, it must do a better job of integrating the basic laws of human nature into its foreign policy. Applying these laws may not seem like the most sophisticated approach to policymaking, but ignoring them almost always results in bad outcomes.
What I’m reading: In two earlier Editor’s Corner essays, I wrote about two men who left Europe to escape Adolf Hitler: composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Right now, I’m reading a book by someone else forced by the Nazis to seek refuge in the U.S.: Victor Brombert. On the surface, my decision to feature yet another of these émigrés is pure coincidence. But given how many talented and, in many cases, brilliant people came to our shores in the 1930s and early ’40s to escape fascism, it’s not surprising to find one or more of them on my radar screen at any given time. In Hollywood alone, some 800 actors, directors, writers and composers (including Korngold) arrived as refugees from fascism.
In some ways, Brombert’s life parallels both Korngold’s and Kissinger’s. Like Korngold, he devoted his professional life to culture—in this case, as a scholar and professor of French and Italian literature at Yale and Princeton. Like Kissinger, Brombert came to the U.S. as a young man, served his new country with distinction as a soldier during World War II, and ended up in academia. Today, at 100, he is no longer teaching, but is still thinking and writing, which brings me to what I’m reading.
Brombert’s latest book, which was published late last year, is The Pensive Citadel, a collection of finely crafted essays about a lifetime of reading, learning and teaching. Like so many great essayists—including his hero, Montaigne—the author skillfully mixes autobiography with thoughtful insights about everything from laughter and jealousy to existentialism and the Eiffel Tower. And at every step along the way, there are books and more books. One essay finds Brombert rereading Boccaccio’s Decameron during the early days of the COVID pandemic, while another takes us to Baudelaire’s Paris.
In many ways, The Pensive Citadel is a tribute to a long life, well lived. But at its core, the book is an exhortation to all of us to immeasurably enrich our own lives by reading and rereading the great writers the author loves so much, from Shakespeare to Molière. As he writes in the title essay, great art and the good life are interchangeably linked: “I have long been aware of the shuttle going back and forth between lived experience and the works of the imagination. They color each other. No clear line of demarcation exists between them. Lived life and art exchange their resources.” For those looking to spark or rekindle an interest in great literature and great ideas, The Pensive Citadel is an excellent place to start.
Finally: Next Sunday, my colleague Jennifer Tiedemann will occupy the Editor’s Corner and tell us why we get the political candidates we deserve. Until then, wishing everyone a great week.
Robert Tracinski, “The Lessons We're Not Learning from Hamas”
Ethan Blevins, “Segregation by Any Other Name”
Maarten Boudry, “What Went Wrong at Harvard ... And Elsewhere?”
Christina Behe, “Will ChatGPT Soon Replace Editors?”
Tom Romeo, “All Public Health Is Local”
Michael Ard, “Can We Get the Statesmanship We Need?”
From the Archives
Marcus M. Witcher and Rachel S. Ferguson, “Taking the Long View of Black History”
Richard Morrison, “The Abundance Agenda: Energy, the Master Resource”