Friday, December 24, 2010

Dam the River or Steer the Boat?

Both Turkey and Switzerland have discovered that it is hard to teach Washington to steer through the flood of global affairs when its feet are stuck in the mud. What will it take to persuade Washington that it can no longer keep the old world it likes so much?
Ankara’s current efforts to find a compromise to resolve the Washington-Tehran dispute illustrate a broader tendency in U.S. foreign policy: insistence on the maintenance of the current international system with the U.S. on top regardless of cost. What Erdogan is doing today, Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey did a couple years ago. Washington’s fundamental approach to the world is to raise high the levies along the global political river regardless of the intensity of its currents.

If global affairs are basically stable, then perhaps it makes sense for Washington to fight harder and harder to resist any compromise. But if the global political system is a complex system of mutually interdependent parts that influence each other, so that all are evolving toward some new, unknown future, then for Washington to deny that reality would constitute digging its own grave.

Can Ankara explain its new foreign policy in a way that alleviates Washington tendencies to interpret any independent thinking as a threat?

If the U.S.-Iran relationship is best viewed as a complex adaptive system, rather than as a simple shoot-out at the OK Corral between good guys and bad guys, then decision-makers must accept that the relationship and the broader context within which it exists are evolving in a complex dance in which everyone influences everyone else. This is not very profound and should come as no shock to any decision-maker. Nevertheless, there is a difference between a frame of mind searching for ways to stand fast and a frame of mind starting from the expectation that everything is changing. Insisting on damming up a river offers one fewer options than literally “going with the flow” but trying to steer. Both Erdogan and Calmy-Rey were trying to help Washington steer, a concept of no use to a man with his feet stuck in the mud.

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