Adapting U.S. Policy in a Changing International System

From the Arab world protests to the abstractions of network theory, understanding the new world

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Anti-Qaddafi fighters gather at a house outside Bani Wali / Reuters

One of the hardest questions in foreign policy debates today is why the U.S. should support the protest movements across the Middle East and North Africa when we don't know what governments will take the place of current regimes but can be fairly certain that most will be less friendly to U.S. interests than their predecessors. Indeed, if popular revolutions were to sweep genuinely democratic governments into power across the region, it is the Iranian government that would likely become the most pro-American, perhaps followed by a new Libyan government. But even if the Syrian opposition were to succeed tomorrow, at least to the extent that the Egyptian protest movements have succeeded, the resulting government would still likely be quite anti-American, raising the question why then we should be doing what we can to help them succeed.

The immediate answer is that the U.S. and the rest of the West would only be reaping what we have sowed: we have supported governments that have oppressed their people, and justifying it to ourselves in terms of our interests, on the premise that otherwise a radical Islamist wave would sweep everyone under. And of course many of the governments that have been friendly to us have actually deflected popular discontent with their own rule by diverting attention to Israel's treatment of the Palestinians and to Israel's backer, the United States. But pointing out that our current predicament has long been foreseeable is no help now. Another argument is that even though we chose our interests in Israeli security, a secure oil supply, and a stable regional order over our interests in terms of living up to our national values and being seen to live up to them, now we must do what we can to show millions of young Arabs that we do in fact mean what we have professed so sincerely, at least some of the time. But it will take years of re-aligning our actions and our words before we are likely to change deeply ingrained perceptions of the United States, years in which new, fragile, and volatile governments in a highly precarious region are going to be closer to Iran, more hostile to Israel, and more determined to define their interests in ways that may conflict with U.S. interests.

The Cold War world was like chess; the 21st century world is more like tennis


Given this reality, why aren't scholars and commentators like my friendly foil Dan Drezner not actively recommending that we simply tell the Syrian government that it can do whatever it likes to its people, as Joshua Foust, Dan Trombley and their fellow defenders of absolute sovereignty insist is the right of all sovereign governments? Why didn't we encourage the Egyptian military to fire on the protesters in Tahrir Square, keep Mubarak in power, and enforce a transition to his son? North Korea's Kim Il-sung managed such a transition to Kim Jong-il, who looks set to do the same to Kim Jong-un. If states are what matter in the world, then why not do everything we can to encourage the continuation of governments that are friendly to our interests, regardless of what happens within their borders?

I'll be interested in my interlocutors' answer to that question. But one argument is that social forces can sweep governments, and indeed entire states, away. It is noteworthy how naturally oceanic metaphors spring to mind: tides, currents, tsunamis. They are all forces of great and unpredictable power. And when they come, we have to try to adapt to whatever world we find ourselves in, regardless of what we might choose. Even the most hardened realist can see that to recommend that a government stand firm and eliminate any dissent is not likely to go over well with the dissenters when they finally sweep into power.

This difference between choice and adaptation is at the core of my debate with Dan and other realists and a big part of living on the foreign policy frontier. It is easy to caricature this debate as one that pits a world of states versus a world of social forces, and it is certainly true that part of the debate focuses how much emphasis we should place on social forces and understanding and engaging those forces directly. But as I repeat over and over (with apparently little effect), I actually see a world of both states and networked social, economic, and political actors, which can impact international outcomes both directly and, by influencing states, indirectly.

When you put all this together, you get a complex, adaptive system, a world of diverse actors interacting with one another in many different ways and adapting to whatever circumstances arise as a result of that interaction. The Cold War world -- a strategic competition between two superpowers -- was relatively easy to model using game theory, which itself assumes rational (in other words, interest-maximizing) choice on the part of all the participants in the game. Most international relations scholars' models of the world still assume rational choice. But when lots of different actors interact in lots of different ways, they are more likely to adapt to changing circumstances than to choose specific moves based on any strategy designed to maximize their interests (see Robert Axelrod in The Complexity of Cooperation¸a book that unfortunately far fewer international relations students and scholars have read than his classic The Evolution of Cooperation).

Presented by

Anne-Marie Slaughter is the president of the New America Foundation and the Bert G. Kerstetter '66 University Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University. She was previously the director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department and the dean of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. More

From 2009-2011, Slaughter served as Director of Policy Planning for the United States Department of State, the first woman to hold that position. After leaving the State Department, she received the Secretary's Distinguished Service Award, the highest honor conferred by the State Department, for her work leading the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review. She also received a Meritorious Honor Award from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). 

Prior to her government service, Slaughter was the dean of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs from 2002-2009. She has written or edited six books, including A New World Order (2004) and The Idea That Is America: Keeping Faith with Our Values in a Dangerous World (2007). From 1994-2002, Slaughter was the J. Sinclair Armstrong Professor of International, Foreign, and Comparative Law and director of the International Legal Studies Program at Harvard Law School. She received a B.A. from Princeton, an M.Phil and D.Phil in international relations from Oxford, where she was a Daniel M. Sachs Scholar, and a J.D. from Harvard.

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