Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Superpowers? Or Dinosaurs in Politicians’ Minds?

Power, at a very general level, is defined as the ability to obtain the outcomes one desires. In international relations, power is the ability to affect the behavior of other parties, be they states, political movements, armed militias, international organizations or NGOs, in order to get the outcomes one demands. And since history is non-compromising in illustrating that the influence of any power is always limited and that the ability of one party to obtain all what it wants on the international stage is forever circumscribed, then the term “superpower”, widely-used by theorists of international relations and political commentators, seems nothing but a flawed notion. The Roman Empire at its zenith, imperial Spain in the sixteenth century, the British Empire at the peak of its territorial expansion in the second half of the 19th century and the United States today are all subject to this eternal law.

So whatever the convictions American strategists and policy-makers may entertain about their country’s invincibility, empirical facts uncover the fallacy of their contentions. In fact, many factors considerably limit what scientific advancement, military superiority and economic expansion can actually attain on the ground. International norms and organizations, for instance, place limits on the ability to project military power, no matter how preponderant. The apparent inability of the United States vis-à-vis Iran – despite the unmistaken willingness to fulfill its well-defined, well-articulated objectives – is a clear case in point. The efforts of President Bush’s administration were partially hampered by the reluctance of veto powers in the UN Security Council to condone a resolution permitting the use of force against the Iranian regime. Before that, the US had failed militarily in Vietnam and politically in Iraq — both dramatically.

It is within this context that the interpretation of the recent events in the Middle East should take place. The kidnapping of three Israeli soldiers by the less-equipped less –potent militants of Hamas and Hezbollah revealed the grave vulnerability of the hitherto overconfident, even arrogant, Israeli army. Moreover, the failure of overwhelming force to compel the captives to release the valuable hostages and the huge losses it incurred on the battlefield added to the vulnerability an element of “humiliation”. Undoubtedly, vulnerability and humiliation can hardly be associated with invincibility.

Unfortunately, many Arab statesmen and intellectuals have surrendered to the ‘superpower’ logic that is the ability of the powerful to always make others, via coercion, inducement or co-optation, behave according to his wishes. As a matter of fact, so pervasive was this mentality in some policy-making circles that grand strategic planning and specific policy-formulation were in these states seriously plagued with this destructive mindset. The consequences were often fatal. But why is it the case?

The beacon is derived from political psychology. Political leaders, just like all people, do not always think and act in a flawlessly rational manner. Moreover, their most fundamental beliefs and opinions are, generally speaking, resistant to alteration and hardly adaptable to changes in the environment. In fact, politicians often make sense of the world by depending on a set of beliefs and images and continue to aim at maintaining consistency among the different facets of that predetermined paradigm. And since this mental construct is used for interpreting new situations, any information that is incompatible with the existing beliefs tends to be avoided. At the height of the Cold War, a cognitive approach to studying former US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’s negative image of the Soviet Union showed his tendency to resist new information conflicting with his well-entrenched image of the Soviets by engaging in a wide range of psychological processes such as questioning the new information, searching for other contradictory information, reinterpreting the information, engaging in wishful thinking and even avoiding to think about it. So fixed and rigid was Dulles’s negative image of the Soviets that it resisted crystal-clear changes in Soviet behavior.

To many Arab politicians, likewise, the implications of incidents such as the humiliation and defeat of US forces in the quagmire of Vietnam, their embarrassing runaway from the dusty streets of Mogadishu, the absolute vulnerability the attacks of September 11 had demonstrated as well as the current debacle in Iraq are not thoroughly processed, for they contradict the established set of existing beliefs they held for decades, chief of them is their profound conviction in the invincibility of the omnipotent US empire. But on the other hand, events like winning the Cold War, the swift military successes in Afghanistan and Iraq and the overall superior political, economic and military capabilities of the United States are used to reinforce their initial assumptions and maintain the coherence of their mental paradigm. In other words, overlooking the first set while emphasizing the second is predominantly driven by their minds’ eagerness for sustaining coherence and consistency. Waves of similar psychological processes repeatedly take place with regards to what these same politicians perceive as the regional ‘superpower’ —Israel.

In the game of nations, infinite power is an illusion, so is the assumption of the inescapability of rational decision-makers. The peculiar way the mind functions; construing information, erecting illusionary castles out of oblivion and reducing unshakable facts to nothingness, makes it probably the only true “superpower” on the international chessboard.

Nael M. Shama

This article was published in The Egyptian Gazette on August 17, 2006.

1 comment:

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