Sunday,24 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1367, (2 - 8 November 2017)
Sunday,24 February, 2019
Issue 1367, (2 - 8 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Parochial decisions

As the world globalises and becomes more complex, leaders are spurred, ironically, to fall back on cultural and individual particularisms and biases in making decisions, writes Tewfick Aclimandos

I was and I am struck by something relatively constant: when you study some leaders’ decisions on foreign policy, you quickly find a “pattern”. This one enjoys calculated or impulsive escalation, the other is too cautious and wants to retain control of the whole process, a third has a keen sense of tactical surprise, and so on. And, of course, you can detect a set of values orienting the decision, and a commitment to these. This one is a nationalist, the other an Islamist, the third a liberal, etc.

Some years and maybe some decades later, the truth turns out to be much more complex. The archive and testimonies tell a different story. The leader hesitated for a while and cautiously studied many options. He often was on the verge of doing something radically different from the actual decision, and his country’s history could have been very different. The decision that was taken might look silly; it was nevertheless preceded by subtle discussions within the inner circle, and these subtle discussions might even explain the outcome — for instance, the final decision was a compromise between different views that turned out to accumulate their respective drawbacks.

Historians of diplomacy are especially adept at this game, proving that the leader’s character or set of values was not so “binding”. He indeed paid close attention to other options, and deconstructing his motives often proves a decision that turned out to be bad was not, after all, as absurd as it looked to pundits reacting immediately after the event.

Some consider these analyses as refuting, or at least nuancing, the thesis of a constant pattern. This might be the case in many cases, but I tend to think otherwise: these analyses strengthen the pattern argument. After all, acting regularly in the same way is not due to luck or hazard, and the fact other options were seriously considered is not a refutation. What matters is what was actually done.

In one of his best books, the late great sociologist Raymond Boudon said, to paraphrase, “when you can calculate the costs and the benefits, everybody behaves in the same way, regardless the culture and the psychology; when you cannot calculate them, culture matters.” Amid uncertainty, character, your set of beliefs, among other things, will have a decisive say.

I do not agree with the first half of Boudon’s sentence. Even in the case of possible clear-cut calculations, people can act differently, as proven by social psychology, but “logical behaviour that maximises benefits” is a compelling yardstick in interpretation of actions. The second half, however, seems to be a sound basis for further exploration in the leaders’ mind.

I am not qualified enough to discuss all the relevant aspects: the leader’s psychology and set of values, individual and collective memory, the political culture of his country, of his political party, of his own profession, his understanding of the world and general culture, his willingness or capacity to ignore, to orient or to abide by the public’s mood.

But I would like to emphasise two problems. First, it is well known that leaders tend to act according to their “ethos” if they do not have enough time to ponder their options. And we actually live in a world where the pressure to act quickly is enormous. You have social media, international media, 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week news TV, and the power of images and the relentless lobbying of many groups. Rumours spread quickly and reliable information can often be scarce. I cannot count the times where slowness proved terribly damaging. I know many high civil servants in Egypt and France, and all complain about this.

And, as Boudon put it, when you cannot calculate you act according to your “culture”, a grossly inaccurate term that covers many different topics and aspects. Then, it is quite clear we live in a connected, globalised world, when you can never exactly calculate the impact of your moves. Globalisation means much more players are involved in a conflict or affected by an interaction, and more options exist for each one. It also means each player has conflicting interests: economy dictates a kind of move, strategic thinking another, social cohesion a third. Long- and short-term considerations often collide. We live in a world in which almost any political move is, to some extent, a gamble that will have unexpected side effects. I might be exaggerating my point, but this is how it looks to me.

My point is: it is to be expected that in this increasingly globalised world, and despite, or more accurately because of, the enormous flow of information, despite or because of highly complex bureaucratic decision-making, political leaders will increasingly act accordingly to their own set of values, their own ideological credo and character.

This does not necessarily mean they will be more predictable. A set of values and a psychology narrows your options, but they do not determine your behaviour. Nor does this mean we are heading towards a clash of cultures or civilisations. Political cultures have much in common, and globalisation also play a role in homogenising, to some extent, economic and political elites.

The relation to public opinion is another complex issue. A lot of pundits deplore the leaders’ unwillingness to go against public opinion, and they are right. But in itself going against public opinion does not guarantee a good decision. British former prime minister Tony Blair decided to go to war against Saddam Hussein in 2003, against the wishes of the British public. We now know he was wrong.

Let me add a personal note. This evolution means the education of elites should be radically reconsidered. Common sense and general culture should be rehabilitated. Old classical books ought to be carefully read, especially Thucydides. It is not enough to master one or many specialisations. Sound judgement will be more and more necessary, and for now it often seems more and more lacking. 

The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.

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