Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Asshole Theory of Diplomacy

To me this sort of thing seems to be the wrong way of looking at things:

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's criticism of Prime Minister Netanyahu for his goal of peace this year with the Palestinians, as well as Lieberman's request for an apology from Prime Minister Recip Erdogan for Turkish participation in the Gaza-bound flotilla, has cheered friends of Israel everywhere because they are rare examples of self-respect and national honor coming from an Israeli public official (news story, Dec. 31).

However, Lieberman apparently shocked shtetl-minded members of the Netanyahu government. A spokesman for Netanyahu immediately assured the hostile foreign news media that Lieberman's views are his own and do not represent those of the government. One minister in this supposedly right-wing Likud government even accused Lieberman of appealing to right-wing voters! He also agonized over what "the world" would think.

Unlike Netanyahu and his other ministers, Lieberman has learned something important from history. He knows the world respects a people who respect themselves and despises weakness and self-abasement. He also knows that appeasement alienates friends and incites and energizes Israel's enemies while greatly increasing the chances for war.

I call this the "Asshole Theory of Diplomacy" because it seems to follow the perverse logic that the only way to get people to like you, or respect you, is to act like an asshole to them. The assumption is that countries that apologize, or use diplomatic language, or are more interested in keeping friendly relations with others than using blunt, macho language that exemplifies "the truth," only serve to make other countries hate them even more, and view them as weak and pathetic; in other words, not worthy of respect.

A similar argument is that the only way the Israelis can dwell securely in Israel is to build even more settlements, even further from the Green Line, to show the Palestinians that Israel will never leave, and that therefore they should give up their silly dreams of nationalism and maybe move to Hawaii, or be content to chop our wood or hew our water or something. Again, the logic is that only by adopting politics of spite can we convince them of our righteousness.

There are a few flaws in this reasoning. First, just intuitively, why would we think this is true? Just from our day to day interactions with other people, can we conclude that acting like an asshole gets people to like, or even respect us? I don't think so. Sure, if you're being bullied, perhaps the best response is not, "Please sir, may I have another," but in the vast majority of interpersonal relationships, acting like a douchebag does not make people respect you. No one likes the office douchebag, or the douchebag cousin.

Second, the people who subscribe to the Asshole Theory tend to be the sort of people who believe the Israelis do have a right to establish civilian settlements anywhere, and that Arab-Israelis should face discrimination, and that it is the rest of the world that is immoral and that therefore they should be treated with contempt. The Asshole Theory lets them do everything they wanted to do anyway, but now assures them that this will make people like them. So, not only is this the right thing to do, despite the objections of everyone else, but indeed by following our preferred course of action, we will eventually make everyone stop objecting and see the rightness of our position. Conversely, stopping the activity that everyone objects to, or apologizing for it, only encourages them to find more things to object to, and more reasons to hate us.

Now, I think we should be instinctively suspicious of this sort of logic, the same way we would be if our doctor told us the only way to lose weight was to eat more and exercise less. It's like saying, not only is my smoking not injurious to my health, it has a salubrious effect as well! It's just a little too perfect.

Now, you might say, hold on, naive little liberal. The world of diplomacy is not like your fluffy dreamland of interpersonal relationships with friends, family and coworkers. It's full of cutthroat realists; politicians and dictators that would sell their mothers down the river to a place where they can throw their grandmothers under buses for a quarter they got from selling candy they stole from babies.

I doubt it. In fact, I would assume that the world of diplomacy is probably overpopulated by diplomats. In other words, people who tend to think diplomacy and diplomatic language and behaviour is important. Career foreign service types. It is precisely these sort of people that would see the benefit in apologies and not acting like a dick. And the politicians they serve didn't get to their high positions by acting like assholes, though I'm sure most of them in fact are. And I don't just mean that for Barack Obama to get to where he is, he has to be nice and friendly and yes, diplomatic, to hundreds, and probably thousands of people. Even a dictator like Hosni Mubarak, or whatever Abbas or Fayyad are, can only achieve and maintain power by being able to cultivate allies, and to persuade others to join his coalition, or at least put aside their differences for a long time. Becoming dictator is not all just purging your enemies in bloody coups, you know. Before Stalin was in a position to purge the Soviet Union, he had to become head of the Soviet Union, or at least his faction. This required him to make lots of friends, and to be able to call on lots of favors, and to know how to back winning horses, and to know when to pick his fights. In fact, one of the observations that people made about early Stalin was that he was a very very very good listener.

And even if the world of diplomacy was populated by thugs and psychopaths, I still don't think being an asshole would be a good strategy. Doubtless the world of mafia men is governed by scum and murderers, but it's also a world that is famously governed by elaborate diplomatic norms. In Mario Puzo's novels, the point that is made again and again is how Vito Corleone's greatest strength was his diplomatic style. He never threatened when threats were unnecessary, and never insulted another man to his face.

And, again, I don't think the world of diplomacy is ruled by the very worst people in the world. The United States is Israel's greatest ally, and Israel's relations with the PA over the next 20 years will say a lot about whether there will be an Israel in 20 years. Both of those countries are overwhelmingly populated and governed by people who do not enjoy being insulted, in other words, normal human beings. If it would be a mistake to be an asshole to those normal people in normal situations, it's probably a mistake to be an asshole to them when nationalism and religion are thrown into the mix.

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