Random Thoughts

Assymetrical Symmetries

One of the most critical asymmetries that diplomacy must seek to resolve, so that nations do not end up seeking to solve the imbalance with force, is laden in the most fundamental definitions of what a nation is and what its goals must be.

Before going further, I want to mention an amusing bit of advice I encountered in Inc. Magazine back in the depression of 1991-92. In order to improve your growing company's cash flow, the writer recommended that you "collect quickly" and "pay slowly." Now, of course, taken from the perspective of only your company, this advice would work. Collect payments on your invoices promptly, and you get cash on hand. Pay your bills slowly, and you put off the depletion of that cash (presumably so it can be used to generate new sales, which you can get paid for, before paying the bills).

Of course, if every company pursued this strategy, only the ones strong enough to get away with it would be able to. It would not help companies in a weak negotiating position, which would probably be the ones who needed it the most. This little bit of logic is an application of what is known as the Categorical Imperative, after Immanuel Kant. It is also colloquially known as "what if everyone did that?"; "what's good for the goose is good for the gander"; and, at its simplest, "fairness."

Now, if we apply this concept to many of the natural desires of nation states on behalf of the their people, we will encounter an almost never ending list of asymmetries that fit this pattern.

For instance, two nations sharing a simple border and no other threats, will each feel the need to be "secure" by having a larger army than the other readily available near their mutual border. This is obviously absurd, and given a reasonably equal bargaining position, diplomacy will, with any luck, develop various mutually beneficial pacts regarding strength of armies. The biggest benefit in thie case is of course economic, in that the two countries can avoid a costly arms race and instead devote their national output to goods and services.

Of course, bargaining positions are rarely equal.

Another very serious issue along these lines involves, in general, domestic self sufficiency in what might be considered vital commodities - such as basic foodstuffs. Being able to develop an export market by forcing another country, through low tariffs or threats of war, to import large quantities of some basic grain, will be good for the exporting country. It will, however, reduce the self sufficiency of the importing country by driving their farmers out of business.

For example, there may be huge political pressure in the U.S. to develop export markets for excess corn and wheat. While some of these markets might be "natural," in the sense that there is strong local demand for the goods, others might not be so. So, forcing a less developed country to our south to reduce tariff barriers to imports of our cheap surplus corn could be "good" in some way for our corn growers, it will destroy their local agricultural economy, for which they have no immediate reasonable alternative. They might, however, have even worse, "unreasonable" alternatives, such as borrowing money from our financiers in order to encourage investment by our corporations in low wage factories in their cities. Inflicting the worst of the Dickensian miseries of the Industrial Revolution is not necessarily the best foreign policy. (Agricultural employment collapses due to mechanization, workers move to cities to pursue other industrial employment at barely subsistence wages, Malthusian cycle of hell ensues)

Up to now, this all just so much of "me yapping," but where it starts to matter is when we observe domestic discussions about various policy aspects that transcend national boundaries that ignore that what is our perceived interest domestically has an assymetrical interest for the countries we are talking about.

The most egregious current example is some of the talk about Iranian "influence" in Iraq (and to a lesser extent, Afghanistan). The exemplary inversion would be if some country far away installed outposts on the Mexican border to minimize U.S. interference, I mean, influence, on Mexico.

The problem, as it has always been throughout history, is that due to our assymetrical economic and military (as if they were really different) power, we can demand and enforce a similar assymetry in acheivement of national goals.

A better abstraction of this phenomenon can be due to simple patriotism or nationalism, wherein the inhabitants of one country see their side of the assymetrical problem as better justified because of an assumed "moral quality of intent." Again, using a U.S.-centric example, our rhetoric about spreading democracy and freedom, which rests for its justification on the gilded laurels we have been happily burnishing since World War 2, contrasts favorable in our eyes with any local nationalistic aims or goals elsewhere. We claim the moral high ground without checking to see if there is any real meaning to it. This example could be rewritten to be from the perspective of virtually any culture or nation, since the very elements that lead to a homogenous culture or nation state rest on the shared mythologies proving how unique and blessed that nation is.


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© Huw Powell

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