Shrinking War-Heads: Could Hawks Use a Good Psychologist?

05/29/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Conservative and hawkish pundits are still twittering -- in the pre-technological sense of the word -- about President Obama's "global apology tours" of recent weeks.

It is inappropriate for a president to act decently to leaders of other nations, they charge. Does he seriously think America will be rewarded for bringing good manners and good hygiene to global gatherings? Does this callow fool not understand that America must play a ruthless Moe to the planet's other stooges?

These experts' main achievement has been to betray an unfamiliarity with human nature and with that touchy-feely psychology thing that they so fear.

Josef Joffe, a German-born foreign-policy expert at Stanford's Hoover Institution, best captured the hawk zeitgeist in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, which he concluded thusly:

Conflict between states is made from sterner stuff than bad manners or bad vibes, past grievances or imaginary fears. International politics is neither psychiatry nor a set of "see me, feel me" encounter sessions. It is about power and position, about preventing injury and protecting interests. Love and friendship move people, not nations.

Could it be true that "love and friendship move people, not nations"? Hardly. What works at the individual level is just as likely to work at the collective level, and what fails at the collective level is just as likely to fail at the individual level.

When it comes to the United States' relationship with Israel, it is most decidedly about love and friendship; otherwise we'd have tossed it aside long ago in favor of Arab oil. And this love and friendship represents a recent psychological shift, driven in part by conservative American Christians who now value traditional nation-state interests less than the ability of Jesus to return soon to a Netanyahu-governed Jerusalem.

Love and friendship, not simply a cold and calculating sense of self-interest or national interest, are what bound Tony Blair to George Bush, as Blair towed his unwilling nation behind him.

Look at the flip side. Mean words, not sticks and stones, are why many view Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmedinejad as threats. But American hawks should have more interest in those leaders' natural resources and geopolitical influence than in their posturings, which means that hawks are far more vulnerable to psychology than they realize.

Chavez calls the haughty Bush a devil, and hawks decide he's an enemy. Chavez gets some nice photo ops with Obama, and hawks deride Obama as a wimp. A more mature approach is to understand that, just as we would demonize Chavez less if he stopped calling us devils, other nations would hate us less if we stopped treating them and their leaders like fools.

So I would refute the words of Joffe in his column, by saying something like this:

The way the last superpower chooses to bestride the world brings with it hard consequences. Does the United States open its arms or ball up its fists? Growling rarely elicits smiles, and distrust never reaps its opposite. To present a friendly face to the world is not a matter of saccharine niceness but of well-considered interests, especially for a fearsome giant like the United States. For trust breeds authority, and authority breeds influence.

But here's a twist. This refutation of Joffe is a word-for-word quote of another column by Joffe, from May of 2008. That column ran in the Washington Post, which is a bit less bellicose than the Journal and which was willing to run Joffe's sunnier side.

What explains the difference in his recent hawkish views and last year's "friendly face" views? It would only seem fair to ask Joffe directly. Contacted at his Hoover Institution offices, he wrote back to say that I quoted his 2008 Washington Post piece "a bit out of context," insisting that he was writing not about foreign policy in the Post but about encouraging American bureaucracies, post 9/11, to be more welcoming to foreign visitors.

I can concede that. Yet Joffe's comment about how trust breeds authority, and authority breeds influence, shows that even he can see that love and friendship can move nations.

Further, "bad manners or bad vibes, past grievances or imaginary fears," at which Joffe rolled his eyes in his WSJ piece, also move nations: Nuclear-tipped Pakistan and India are forever moving one another based on past grievances and imaginary fears and bad manners. Pakistan holds its status as "the world's most dangerous place" precisely because of imaginary fears that India and others have done nothing to allay.

It may not be fair to call Joffe, a critic of the Iraq war, an outright "hawk." But like many war-fans and like most Obama critics, he struggles to make sense of human behavior, at either the individual or collective level.

Joffe, in his email to me, rationalized his criticism of Obama as a practical matter.

The point about my judgment in the Wall Street Journal is that being Mr. Nice Guy, as Mr. Obama's experience with the Europeans at the G20 and the NATO summit, is not enough, for he did not get his way on two critical items: increase Europe's economic stimulus and its contribution to fighting forces in Afghanistan. As much as the Europeans may love him (in contrast to George W. Bush), they did not yield on basic interests. Whence you may draw the conclusion that interest will trump infatuation any time.

I suppose that is another way of saying, "You might as well slap these idiots around, because they won't give you what they want." Did Obama believe that his friendlier approach would immediately lead to other nations pouring out untold billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of troops on him? I doubt it. He asked nicely, but I don't suppose asking meanly would have helped. Obama is playing for the long haul, though.

The dismissiveness by hawks reveals, like a slip, their belief that dialogue and understanding are for sissies, and that the manner of civil and mutually enlightening discourse that harks back to Pericles is merely an obstacle on the course of aggressive action.

Joffe concedes, "It is better to be liked and not get one's way that to be disliked and not get one's way," but he adds that "consistent niceness runs the risk of being taken for a patsy. The test will come in the next several months: whether Iran and North Korea will be more forthcoming with Obama's than with Bush's America. And whether the Russians will shift from geopolitical competition with the U.S. to cooperation."

Fair enough. If Obama is consistently nice and is consistently taken for a patsy in the coming years, we will all say that he has failed. Does accepting a book from Chavez constitute being a patsy? Was he supposed to hit Chavez on the head with it?

Oddly, many hawks claim that we'll need another generation to see the value of Bush's Lone Ranger approach, yet they haven't needed more than a few weeks to dismiss Obama as a wimp who had too many "see me, feel me encounters" in college.

But move from the touchy-feely realm of therapy to the more empirical, hardnosed realm of evolutionary psychology, and you see anew how the human brain's reptilian stem is hard-wired to choose enemies, especially at the tribal or national level, based on simple impulses of fight or flight. An American president who doesn't act like a jerk gives fewer reasons for foreign publics or leaders to mobilize against us.

In a remarkable Foreign Policy magazine article in early 2007, Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon surveyed a host of cognitive biases, placed within us by evolutionary forces, that tilt leaders to heed the hyper-cautious and aggressive counsel of hawks.

As Americans attempt to decide whether to cajole or crush the world, the detractors of Obama's "global apology tour" remind us how dangerous their false toughness can be. But I'm happy to sign them up for the next available "see me, feel me" encounter.