Americans have debated foreign and national security policy since the founding of the Republic, and in this presidential election season we’re (sort of) still at it. Many believe that the wheels have come off U.S. foreign and national security policy, and that we are hurtling toward a time of much peril. Others claim that the policy innovations of the Obama era have finally liberated the United States from the torpor of its quarter-century Cold War “establishment” hangover, promising to rationally realign U.S. interests and capabilities in accord with a changed and changing international environment. Things are messy because change can do that, but they are not particularly dangerous—so goes the palliating retort.
The reason for debate, then and now, is clear enough: Foreign and national security policies are the shield of the republic, as Walter Lippmann once put it, matters of American life and limb; but they are notoriously hard to get and keep right. However great U.S. military, diplomatic, and economic power may be, foreign and national security policies defy easy connections between intentions and outcomes arguably even more than is the case with most kinds of domestic policy. Both domains are complex, but active human agency abroad aims to foil or deflect our foreign policy efforts in ways simply not present in a domestic policy context. Moreover, things change: Even brilliant strategies and policies can decay as elites lose touch with the sensibilities of ordinary people, lose their memory of tragedy, and choke on the hubris of their own wasting success.
Foreign/national security policy debates transpire at three echelons of analysis. First, much of the time our debates rest on competing predictions about tactics—how these or those specific courses of action are likely to turn out on the whole—with strategy more or less taken for granted. Sometimes, however, our debates rest on differences in how we prioritize our interests and values, and so become at least implicitly about strategy. At or even near their best, second-echelon debates can consciously engage the relationship between policy and strategy; but they are rarely at or near their best, as the intellectual quality of the current campaign season attests. Far more rare are third-echelon analyses that are systemic in nature.
To make clear what is meant by systemic, an analogy from financial analysis can help. Financial analysis distinguishes between risk and uncertainty:
Risk presumes certain rules to be at work, certain parameters to be in place; uncertainty is about changes in rules and the sundering of parameters. Risk is intrinsic to a set of circumstances; uncertainty applies to the bounding circumstances themselves.1
First and second echelon analysis of foreign and national security policy is about risk; third-echelon analysis is about uncertainty.
The language of statistics offers another way to describe the same distinction. Risk is a stochastic phenomenon best captured by ordinal data, while uncertainty is a structural phenomenon best captured by dichotomous data. With risk we examine whether a given decision is likely to produce the best, second best, or tenth best chance of achieving certain goals as against the risks and costs involved in any course of action. Being wrong usually involves some incremental difference between expectations and outcomes. With uncertainty, on the other hand, if we are wrong about anchoring assumptions involving system parameters, it usually produces not incremental differences between expectations and outcomes but pretty near the opposite of expectations. Again, an example from the world of finance:
When someone buys a collateralized debt obligation (CDO) backed by a thousand mortgages, theoretically that buyer can analyze the borrowers, their income levels, the prepayment terms and so on, or he can depend on ratings agencies to do so—all articles of risk management. But the buyer cannot possibly determine just what might disrupt the structural assumptions behind the entire enterprise of housing finance, such as the possibility that the tools employed to manage risk might themselves generate risk.2
The idea that an element of a risk management system might itself, paradoxically, touch off a generative spiral of error and hence be a cause of parameter collapse is a pregnant observation to which we will return below.
A kindred observation comes from the world of intelligence analysis, which brings us back toward security concerns from economic ones. One purpose of information marketing and manipulation, especially in wartime, can be to get an adversary to have an exactly wrong idea of what will happen—to think, for example, that the D-Day Allied invasion will come at Calais rather than Normandy. That is what Operation Fortitude did. The point of such efforts is to induce not errors having to do with stochastic risk but with structural uncertainty. The potential victim of an intelligence “containment,” as Erving Goffman put it in the context of his “frame analysis,” knows that the most likely consequence of being mistaken is not to be a little wrong, but to be 180 degrees wrong.3 Since adversaries in an intelligence interaction are seeking to do this to one another simultaneously, large stakes always attend the engagement of intelligence versus counterintelligence, and hence the high levels of stress intrinsic to such engagements.
In such cases, of course, the inducement of error is deliberate. The question we need to ask is about self-containment: Can policymakers and analysts accidentally be wrong about framework parameters, and, indeed, can tools used within a working system of risk management become agents of parameter collapse? Put more directly, can the wheels come off U.S. foreign and national security policy not because of an accumulation of tactical misjudgments or strategic misperception, but because U.S. leaders misread systemic parameters, perhaps because those parameters are shifting unawares beneath their feet? And could trusted instruments of policy actually function as knock-on causal agents in that shifting, such that the more we trust them to work the worse things get?
The answer is likely twice yes. Americans have only ever known one socio-political worldview, with its concomitant orientation to international politics tagging along in train—and history now seems to be outrunning that worldview, which most of us vaguely refer to as modernity. If shown to be true, that answer would exemplify what Auguste Comte meant when wrote that, “at the bottom of every historical crisis is intellectual confusion.”
The Reality Status of the Case
A fish, they say, is the last to discover water. This is particular so for an American fish. What do I mean by this? Please abide a brief discussion, atypical of the standard foreign policy discourse, in which we revisit some basic social science for, without it, no comprehensive answer can make full sense.
Most people most of the time are unaware of the framework assumptions that organize their social perceptual system, very much including the assumptions that make sense of politics at various levels. We live mainly and most of the time in what Alfred Schütz called the lebenswelt, the “life-world,” the world taken for granted as most fundamentally real in our “natural attitude.”4 Nearly all adults in nearly all contemporary societies realize, however, that ordinary, everyday reality is regularly punctuated by experiences that differ in kind from those of the “life-world.” Fiction is an obvious example. The action depicted in all forms of fiction has to be based somehow on what is real in the “life-world” or it would be unintelligible to us. But the modeled action is transformed in such a way that we know it isn’t really real, yet we can become engrossed in it all the same. Various symbolic constructs shared within a given culture enable the transformations.5 Sometimes literature plays with recursive levels of our capacity to make these distinctions, such as, for example, in Shakespeare’s play within a play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
As it happens, between what is going on in the “life-world” when we are immersed in it and what is going on in fiction, chemically induced fantasy, and dreams when we are immersed in them is a wide range of variegated, intermediate forms of social apperception. Politics as a genre-set of behaviors is one of these intermediate forms, and international politics—the setting for foreign and national security policy—is, like Shakespeare’s play within a play, a kindred intermediate form layered on top of politics itself. Goffman calls the formula whereby behaviors common to the “life-world” are transformed via symbolic constructs into an intermediate form a keying, and he calls keyings of other keyings laminations.
If it helps to understand this, consider that all social institutions require keyings to define themselves and perform their functions—a legislature, an army, a university, a corporation, the press, the churches, trade union organizations, 4-H Clubs, and so on. In common language we say that institutions have subcultures, and that within subcultures there are what amount to rituals that only insiders know and are entitled—often obligated, in fact—to perform. These subcultures and rituals are part and parcel of the keying.
All such intermediate forms, and all institutions, depend to one extent or another on a use of metaphorical language—in other words, on abstractions built from the process of symbolization—that we do not need in the lebenswelt. If someone says to you in an actual, real garden, “Please pick that head of lettuce over there, and we’ll use it in a salad with dinner,” not much that is particularly abstract or metaphorical is going on. The word “lettuce” refers to a real vegetable, “over there” refers to a specific real spot, a “salad” is a literally edible physical concoction, and “dinner” is an actual event that happens in the here and now, usually daily. “Head” of lettuce qualifies as metaphorical to a point, which serves to illustrate that the boundary between the lebenswelt and what is beyond it is not cut and dry, and can’t be cut and dry because all language depends on symbols, providing a smooth on-ramp from the lebenswelt to destinations beyond. But if someone working in the State Department or the National Security Council turns to colleagues and refers to a “head of state,” or speaks of a “body politic,” or cites a shaky “balance of power,” or proclaims that “China feels humiliated,” or casually notes that “Paris disagrees,” you don’t need a degree in phenomenology to recognize, upon a moment’s reflection, that you’re not in Kansas anymore. You are understanding and communicating at a level of abstraction enabled by the wonders of metaphor, and the firm sense of reality you have in the moment is enabled by the human facility for metaphorical reasoning and communication.
None of this is cutting-edge intellectual revelation, or at least it shouldn’t be. Recall the cover of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, published in 1588, illustrating the metaphorical character of the “sovereign” composed of tiny people, and you will immediately see that the entire conceptual framework of politics is based on metaphorical language and symbolic reasoning. Politics is certainly real, but not in the same way that lebenswelt reality is real. The metaphorical language of the political frame also includes elements common to both politics and international relations—like ideology—which are also real, but not in the same way as a head of lettuce is real. An ideology, indeed, has been defined as a cultural system, which is just a way of saying that it embodies a metaphorical framework that gives meaning to behaviors that recursively both reflect it and arise from it.6
Now here is the rub: Most people most of the time do not indulge in a moment’s reflection, and for good reason. If we continually call attention to the symbolic conventions that distinguish various levels of social reality from each other, we cause them to stop working. For example, everyone knows that at the theater the curtain opening means that the fictive action is about to begin, and that we need to adopt a logical syntax that differs from the lebenswelt to immerse ourselves in what is about to happen. We know that when the curtain closes, we flip back to the lebenswelt. If people call attention in between these brackets to the effect that, “Hey, you know this isn’t really real,” their shouting out such remarks will make it impossible to become emotionally engrossed in the action and so will ruin the show for everyone else. Such “breaking the frame” or, in Goffman’s language, “downkeying,” is of course the definition of what a heckler is doing at a formal political event, which also has its brackets, its metaphors, and its own interpretive syntax. Participants as well as intruders can be hecklers of a sort, as exemplified by Trotsky’s “neither war nor peace” antics at Brest-Litovsk and by Nikita Khrushchev’s famous shoe-banging behavior at the United Nations in 1960. It is also what a terrorist is doing to break the frame of normal, statecentric international political behavior.
When it comes to fiction, this is no big deal except perhaps for a small child just figuring out how all this works. So of course Peter Pan can fly on the movie screen, but we can’t fly home to avoid traffic after the movie is over. We know that; we don’t need to discuss it because everyone knows that.7 The point is that as adults we slide in and back out of various layers of metaphorically enabled perceptual frames effortlessly, seamlessly, automatically.
We do the same when we’re dealing with the many intermediate zones between the lebenswelt and the fictional. We slide in and out of experiences that exist collectively for those engaged in them, each with their own characteristic metaphorical array, and we do it without calling attention to the fact that we’re doing it—and because we don’t call attention to the fact that we’re doing it. So when Geertz spoke of ideology as a cultural system, he did not mean a self-conscious ideology like communism or anarchism or fascism that had a name and a catechism that adepts know and can recite. He meant a system of structural assumptions that orients the believer without his or her being self-consciously aware of all its buttons, bells, and whistles. This is, in a sense, the difference between possessing an idea and being possessed by one.
Another term for an unselfconscious system of orienting structural-cognitive assumptions is a mythology—not mythology meant in the common vulgar sense of something merely false or fanciful, but in the sense that cultural anthropologists use the term: a system of beliefs about the forces deemed loose in the world that cannot be verified by empirical means. Like it or not, every culture has one, and the fact that a mythology cannot be empirically validated is both true and beside the point. The point is that mythologies are and must be capacious, for human beings are meaning-making animals whose promiscuously associational brains yearn for a certain logical (but not necessarily literal) consistency. Mythologies are functional without being objectively true; that is what they are for because in our symbolic cosmologies things have to make sense in terms of one another, but those things lack direct empirical referents. When Bismarck said that Germany needed to be one of three out of five powers in a geostrategic balance, for example, nobody could take a scientific instrument and go find those numbers to measure them.
It turns out that our metaphorical/ideological understandings are linked together like a web of beads on wires—not in the sense of the linear, causal logic of science, but rather in the associational way that children and artists think, and also everyone else whilst in the lebenswelt. Our implicit assumptions about how American foreign and national security policies work, in other words, are ineluctably linked to a conception of how the international system works, of how politics work, of how societies work, indeed at some variable remove of how the world as a whole works. Major changes in any one part of the web can and often do affect the other parts, even if we are unaware of it until much later (if ever). Cultural change, or changes in the state of scientific-technical knowledge and practice, for example, can be quite stealthy politically.
There may still be no better illustration of this linkage than one from 1611 that shows the connectivity between a new scientific discovery—the “new philosophy” below refers to Copernicus and Brahe—and both politics and social relations. Thus John Donne in his justly famous “Anatomy of a World”:
And new philosophy calls all in doubt,
The element of fire is quite put out,
The sun is lost, and th’earth, and no man’s wit
Can well direct him where to look for it.
And freely men confess that this world’s spent,
When in the planets and the firmament
They seek so many new; they see that this
Is crumbled out again to his atomies.
‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone,
All just supply, and all relation;
Prince, subject, father, son, are things forgot,
For every man alone thinks he hath got
To be a phoenix, and that then can be
None of that kind, of which he is, but he.
Now, it is in this specific sense that some sociologists have argued that social reality is “constructed,” in that it requires structural assumptions held in common to enable it to exist at all.8 It does not mean, and was never intended to mean, that there is no empirical reality such that one symbolic narrative is as good as another, if the narrator can get away with selling it. No matter how many intellectuals nowadays claim to believe that, it is still absurd. But social reality is flexible or malleable in the sense that apparently similar situations can admit various frames of meaning. For example, a raucous party and an Irish wake can share certain objective features in common, but we know the difference between them, and what we know had better affect the way we behave in one as opposed to the other. These intersubjectively shared constructions become so automatic (except for victims of severe autism, perhaps) that we usually are unable to call attention to them and to the framework structures that enable them to exist, because we are not, and usually cannot be, conscious of them “in the moment.” We may be deep into symbolic worlds when we “do” foreign policy, but we do it more or less as if we’re picking a head of lettuce in a garden.
Those who have thought about all this, having for one reason or another fallen into the luminous clutches of phenomenological sociologists, have in essence become voyeurs of human social interaction. It is like having a metaphorical (of course) kind of x-ray machine, enabling one to see, on occasion at least, how stuff works below the clothing-and-skin level. This can be fun. But it can be scary, too—and that brings us back, in Part II to come, to what all this means for U.S. foreign and national security policy. Please stay tuned.
1Jessica Einhorn, “The Leopard and the House Cat,” The American Interest (January-February 2011).
2Einhorn, “The Leopard and the House Cat.”
3See Erving Goffman, Strategic Interaction (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1969), in the context of Goffman, Frame Analysis: An Essay in the Organization of Experience (Harper & Row, 1974).
4The basics may be found in Schütz, On Phenomenology and Social Relations (University of Chicago Press, 1970). Lebenswelt, being a German noun, is always capitalized in German, but it looks awkward in English, so I have not followed that convention here. Both lebenswelt and “natural attitude” are of Edmund Husserl’s coinage, but Schütz developed the concept of the lebenswelt in ways that better suit our purposes.
5This is not the place to discuss how different cultures handle various kinds of fictive frames, only to note that it is variable. See, for example, Lawrence Rosen, Varieties of Muslim Experience (University of Chicago Press, 2008), chapter 7; and recall the episode wherein a BBC-Pashtun service radio series “soap opera” was interpreted by many rural Pashtuns as having been real, such that when the show ended many people demanded to know what had become of the “characters.”
6Clifford Geertz, “Ideology as a Cultural System,” in David Apter, ed., Ideology and Discontent (Free Press, 1968).
7Well, not everyone. When Peace Corps volunteers showed a Spider-Man movie in a village in Sierra Leone some years ago, the locals had no problem believing that someone could leap around as Spider-Man did in the film, because demon-ghosts did that all the time. But they did not believe that buildings as tall as the ones shown in the film could possibly exist.
8I refer to Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s 1966 classic, The Social Construction of Reality.