Daniel W. Drezner

My Very Important Post on… what statecraft can teach you about Thanksgiving travel

My Very Important Post on… what statecraft can teach you about Thanksgiving travel

I could point to full-blown reports, news stories, or portentious weather forecasts, but American residents already know the truth — Thanksgiving travel is an ordeal.  Traffic jams, crowded flights — it seems everyone is trying to get somewhere in the days before Turkey Day. 

With the general mantra of "hurry up and place your hands in a surrender position wait" governing these next 36 hours, I thought it would be worth considering how a better appreciation of the tools of stateraft might help those of you on the road to avoid unnecessary frustrations. 

Let’s say that another actor — which we’ll call the target — is pursuing a course of action that conflicts with your interests in world politics.  This presumably means that all your attempts to avoid this clash of interests in the first place have failed.  What are your options in developing a policy response? 

Well, there’s always the denial option — physically preventing the target from doing the thing that is bothering you.  Of course, denial often requires the overpowering, sustained use of force, and therefore is massively expensive.  Very few actors have this option available to them. 

If denial is not possible, another possibility is compellence.  In this case, the goal is to punish the target such that it recalculates the costs and benefits of doing what it is doing and acquiesces to you.  While less costly than denial, punishing the target will often involve punishing yourself, albeit not as severely.  Some actors possess this option, but its success rate is far from guaranteed

Compellence and denial sound very coercive — what about inducements?  Surely the most efficient way to alter the target’s behavior is to buy them off!  Not so fast — sometimes the price is extraordinarily steep.  Sometimes the target doesn’t want to be thought of as for sale.  And sometimes the target might con you. 

There’s always the possibility of persuasion — using sweet reason to get the target to reconsider their motives and reverse their actions.  Of course, what seems eminently reasonable to you might not look so smart to the target, so this is hardly a surefire recipe for success. 

Finally, one should always consider acceptance — allowing that the costs of trying to change the target’s behavior far outweigh the costs of adjusting to the target’s behavior.  Intuitively, this is a very frustrating outcome — but if you lack the capability or the budget to pursue the other options, then it still might be the best course of action.

What, you might ask, does this have to do with Thanksgiving travel?  Quite a lot, actually.  Let’s say you’re stuck in a traffic jam on I-95, or you’re on a plane with a crying toddler sitting next to you.  The natural instinct is to declare that the situation is "unacceptable" and that "failure is not an option."  All well and good, but let’s run through our  list of generic policy options and see what’s feasible if you’re, say, stuck in a traffic jam: 

1)  Denial:  If you’re on the road, sure, you could use RPGs to blast a hole through the traffic.  That would require an awful lot of them, however, and I hear they’re expensive and illegal to use.  Good luck having enough of them to force your way through the tri-state area.     

2)  Compellence:  Lot of drivers seem to believe that there are forms of punishment that could be pursued:  constant horn-honking, hanging right on someone’s bumper, and so forth.  This can work with a few drivers, but more often than not it simply creates reciprocal bellicose behavior/minor fender-benders/West Coast shootings by the targets. 

3)  Inducements:  The proffering of inducements on clogged interstates is exceptionally rare, for two reasons.  First, what can be offered?  Snacks?  Drinks?  A video player?  These are all exhaustible resources — so in a traffic jam, this will only get you a few car lengths ahead. 

4)  Persuasion:  As Tom Vanderbilt so wonderfully explained in Traffic, communication across cars is difficult.  There’s that horn, and of course gesticulations with one’s fingers can also often be used.  Neither of these really persuades, however. 

Unfortunately, but logically, this leads us to acceptance as the best approach to handling Thanksgiving traffic jams.  It’s the best of a bad set of policy options — much like modern-day statecraft. 

[What about the crying toddler on the plane?–ed.  Oh, then this metaphor works even better — crying toddlers are the uncontrollable rogue states of travel.  The parent could try denial, but suffocating children still carries serious legal penalties in most states.  Compellence is popular, except if the idea is to get a screaming child to stop screaming, punishment isn’t really going to work well.  Inducements — "here, have some chocolate!" — can work, but the child quickly figures out the associated moral hazard and has an incentive to act out again to get more inducements later in the flight.  Using persuasion on crying children is something that non-parents are convinced will work — until the moment they become parents themselves and realize their own utter stupidity.  No, if a child is bawling uncontrollably during a flight, it’s not because the parent is derelict in their parenting — it’s because they’ve already exhausted the first four policy options and have no recourse but acceptance.]

Safe and sane travels to one and all!