From imaginary weapons of mass destruction to fantastical currency unions, “magical thinking” in foreign policy leads to nothing but catastrophe. Let’s not do the same with Iran.
- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Foreign policy is serious business, because getting it wrong has real consequences. When countries conduct foreign policy in a cavalier or incompetent way, real human beings lose their lives or end up much poorer than they would otherwise have been. In extreme cases, states that mismanage relations with the outside world end up completely isolated and maybe even conquered and occupied. This is rarely, if ever, a pleasant experience.
That’s why it is so surprising when allegedly “serious people” rely on various forms of Magical Thinking when they talk about foreign affairs. Like FP contributor Jeffrey Lewis, by “magical thinking,” I mean analysis and prescriptions resting on unrealistic assumptions, unspecified causal relationships, inapt analogies, a dearth of supporting evidence, and wildly naïve optimism. People who do this are like the scientists in that old cartoon whose blackboard solution to a thorny problem consists of writing, “And here a miracle occurs.”
What sort of “thinking” do I have in mind?
The most obvious example of magical thinking in contemporary policy discourse, of course, is the myth of a “better deal” with Iran. Despite abundant evidence to the contrary, opponents of the JCPOA keep insisting additional sanctions, more threats to use force, another round of Stuxnet, or if necessary, dropping a few bombs, would have convinced Iran to run up the white flag and give the United States everything it ever demanded for the past 15 years. The latest example of such dubious reasoning is the New York Times’s David Brooks, who thinks an agreement where Iran makes most of the concessions is a Vietnam-style defeat for the United States and imagines that tougher U.S. negotiators (or maybe war) would have produced a clear and decisive victory.
Never mind that while the United States ramped up sanctions, Iran went from zero centrifuges to 19,000. Never mind that there was no international support for harsher sanctions and that unilateral U.S. sanctions wouldn’t increase the pressure in any meaningful way. Never mind that attacking Iran with military force would not end its nuclear program and only increase Iran’s interest in having an actual weapon. Never mind that the deal blocks every path to a bomb for at least a decade. And never mind that the myth of a “better deal” ignores Diplomacy 101: To get any sort of lasting agreement, it has to provide something for all of the parties.
Instead of serious analysis, opponents of the Iran deal are just imagining that there was a secret spell, magic wand, or incantation that would have somehow produced a miraculously better result. Which is why they cannot in fact explain how their imaginary “better deal” could ever be obtained.
It is not surprising that opponents of the deal are relying on unspecified miracles to make their case: It’s their standard operating procedure. As U.S. President Barack Obama correctly said in his Aug. 5 speech at American University, opponents of the deal are mostly the same groups and individuals who either dreamed up or helped sell the boneheaded idea of invading Iraq. It wasn’t just their fairy tales about Iraqi WMD and Saddam Hussein’s alleged links to al Qaeda that led Bush and the country astray, it was their utterly fabulist belief that invading Iraq would somehow transform the Middle East into a sea of pro-American democracies. This was magical thinking at its worst, because it ignored both everything we know about how genuine democracy gets created and paid zero attention to the conditions in the country we were about to take over. Convinced that military power was a magic wand that could do almost anything, they assumed the invasion would produce a fantastic result at little or no cost. They are as wrong now as they were back then.
The United States is hardly the only country that has succumbed to magical thinking, of course. Europe’s leaders fell victim to it when they created the euro in the 1990s, blithely ignoring the many critics who pointed out that the conditions for a workable currency union did not exist. The euro’s advocates convinced themselves a common currency would magically turn Greeks into industrious Germans and Germans into free-spending Greeks and that eurozone members would meet their various obligations in an honest and forthright way. If by chance some country cheated or economic storm clouds gathered (as they did in 2008), these magicians assumed European countries would suddenly abandon deep-seated national feelings and quickly create the institutions needed to make the euro work. Presto! In short, they assumed the euro would magically succeed no matter what, and such reasoning continues today, in the assumption that continued austerity will magically put Greece back on its feet and enable it repay all its debts. That is one heck of a rabbit to pull out of a small and threadbare hat.
Fortunately, some of our adversaries seem equally prone to their own forms of magical thinking. Mao Zedong was a plentiful source during his years in power, and the Chinese people suffered mightily from idiocies like the Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward. Ditto Gorbachev’s belief that glasnost and perestroika could fix the accumulated problems of the former Soviet Union and somehow keep the whole ramshackle enterprise from imploding. U.S. leaders have succumbed to delusions of their own over the years (e.g., the “domino theory,” McCarthyism, etc.) but fortunately not on quite the same scale.
Today, the leaders of the Islamic State appear to genuinely believe that their puritanical and intolerant perversion of Islam will capture a wide following throughout the Muslim world and that beheadings, rapes, and other forms of violence will make them broadly popular (as opposed to attracting mostly marginalized misfits). They also seem to think their weak, landlocked, and Sunni-based “caliphate” is going to expand like a prairie fire and eventually spread into Europe and beyond. Such beliefs will no doubt cause a certain amount of trouble in various places, but their long-term goals are a fantasy that will never come to pass.
How can you spot “magical thinking” when you hear it? Jon Stewart’s disquisition on bulls—t from his final show is a good start, and I fully endorse his advice that “when you smell something, say something.” Here’s a quick guide on how to hone the necessary olfactory instincts.
First, when a leader, policy analyst, or foreign-policy organization suggests you support a policy that has never been done before and says that it will be easy, your nostrils should start twitching. Policy innovation does occur, of course, and history doesn’t always repeat itself. Occasionally, a government tries something unprecedented, and it works out really, really well. Nonetheless, when somebody says they are going to do something challenging and achieve results that nobody has ever managed to accomplish before, you should read the fine print. Carefully.
Second, when somebody says they’ve got a great solution to a thorny problem but won’t tell you what that solution is, it’s either a sign that they have no plan at all or that they believe they have rare powers that will enable them to do what mere mortals cannot. When Donald Trump says he has a “foolproof” plan to defeat the Islamic State but won’t say what it is, it’s either just a boldfaced lie or evidence he thinks he is a magician who can come up with a plan that has somehow escaped the entire U.S. government, even though he knows next to nothing about national security policy, the Islamic State, or the Middle East more generally.
Third, magical thinking invariably depends on a whole bunch of optimistic assumptions. To pull off a miracle, you need to assume that all will go exactly as planned, that opponents will react exactly as you expect, that unintended consequences will not occur, and that the ball will always take a home-team bounce. The corollary to this mode of reasoning is to assume the worst if the prescribed action is not taken. Policy magicians do this sleight of hand in order to convince you that taking their advice will produce a miraculous success, but rejecting it will lead to a terrible tragedy.
Fourth, and following from the last point, a good miracle promises something wonderful for little or no cost. (“The invasion of Iraq will pay for itself!” “The troops will be home by Christmas!”) Advocates of U.S. military intervention routinely use this ploy, focusing solely on the supposed upsides and studiously ignoring the potential risks. Most of us have learned to discount anyone who promises us something for nothing, and that instinct is especially useful when it comes to foreign policy.
Finally, a lot of magical thinking assumes that the world is poised on a delicate knife’s edge and that small inputs will have far-reaching effects. In this view, a tiny reduction in the U.S. defense budget or overseas military presence will embolden enemies everywhere, dishearten all of our allies, and trigger a rapid cascade of setbacks and retreats, leaving the United States isolated and vulnerable (if not utterly defeated). But by a similar magical logic, very small increases in defense spending, or a single successful military campaign, will discomfit enemies far and wide, reassure allies in every corner of the world, restore credibility and revitalize deterrence, and guarantee generations of lasting peace. Or at least until the next challenge emerges, when another dose of magical thinking will be supplied.
People like a good fantasy, which is why Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Game of Thrones are so popular. In these works of fiction, magical powers and miraculous events are central. But there are no wands, rings, wizards, or dragons in the real world, just a complicated set of policy issues and many complex interactions between a wide array of self-interested actors, some of whom have real capabilities of their own. In the rough-and-tumble world of international politics, states achieve wealth, influence, and foreign-policy success by generations of hard work, careful analysis, smart decisions, and (if they are lucky) some amount of good fortune. To obtain these things, successful states create political institutions that can resolve conflicts, learn from past errors, and maintain a firm grasp on reality. Letting national decisions be shaped by unrealistic fantasies guarantees trouble, and even a country as powerful and secure as the United States pays a price when it allows magical thinking to shape national policy.
Photoillustration by FP