Deceptive and dangerous dichotomisation.

datePosted on 17:08, April 17th, 2021 by Pablo

Humans are hard-wired to classify, categorise and compare, or in other words, to taxonomize. We may be born tabula rasa but quickly are taught that the world is divided into types of things, subtypes of those and assorted other categories. The operative term is “taught” rather than “realise.” Taxonomies are not a product of nature or divine intervention but a product of human invention and imagination. Consider the Introduction to The Order of Things by Foucault, in which he gives tribute to Jorge Luis Borges:

“This book first arose out of a passage in [Jorge Luis] Borges, out of the laughter that shattered, as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought—our thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography—breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things, and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old distinction between the Same and the Other. This passage quotes a ‘certain Chinese encyclopaedia’ in which it is written that ‘animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) suckling pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies’. In the wonderment of this taxonomy, the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that, by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that.”

Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (New York: Pantheon, 1970) xv.

In a recent conversation about foreign policy I was reminded of this by way of Italian political theory. Italian political theory is under-appreciated in Aotearoa and often misunderstood or misinterpreted. The works of the two most popular Italian political theorists in NZ, Niccolo Machiavelli and Antonio Gramsci, are regularly mangled by commentators who in many instances do not read Italian, and it is telling that one of the more accurate contemporary NZ readers of Gramsci is an Italian-born member of the Wellington Twitterati (the irony of paraphrasing various passages from the Prison Notebooks and Notes from Prison into 140 characters is clearly lost on many in those circles). While Gramsci and Machiavelli certainly are worth better consideration, so too are others. One that springs to mind in the context of taxonomies is Norberto Bobbio.

Bobbio wrote of the value of the “Great Dichotomy” as an analytic device. The separation of phenomena as bifurcated and opposed entities helps to clarify their differences and commonalities in a form of juxtaposition: either/or, good/bad, right/wrong, black/white, happy/sad, quality/quantity, substance/symbol, many/few, peace/war, base/superstructure, public/private, state/society, individual/collective, dictatorship/democracy…the analytic “cuts” are limited only by the imagination. Plus, there can be subsets of dichotomies contained within a larger dichotomous whole: “family” is a subset of the public/private “great” dichotomy, as is the notion of individual versus collective rights. The universe defined by them can admit no overlap or analytic other: they are the totality of what exists in a given sphere. The idea behind the use of dichotomies as analytic constructs is to distill the subject of study into its core analytic parts, to counterpoise, declutter and distinguish the essential of any given phenomenon from the non-essential.

Because Bobbio is grounded in the neo-Gramscian Marxist (and thus Hegelian) tradition, he views the relationship of dichotomous opposites as dialectical: thesis/antithesis. The important aspect of this is that each pole influences the other, leading to a fluid sequence of interaction that game theorists call “extensive form” (where the outcome of each specific interaction or play is different, as opposed to iterative games where the outcomes remain the same over time). This is helpful when studying many social phenomena because humans have a tendency to be unpredictable and inclined to respond in unexpected ways to similar situations or stimulae. That is why the study of human society–the social sciences such as sociology, anthropology and political science–are considered “soft” sciences. As opposed to “hard” or “exact” sciences such as physics or chemistry, the study of human behaviour cannot be reduced to absolutely predictable responses to given conditions that can be identically reproduced in laboratory settings in which all variables are controlled. To be sure, social scientists endeavour to impose rigorous quantitative frameworks on what and how they study, such as in the field of economics. But for all of those efforts it remains the case that the study of human behaviour is an inexact science when compared to the physical world in which we live. This is one major reason why using great dichotomies is a useful methodological approach to social science research.

Certainly the use of dichotomies as analytic tools has helped social scientists break the order of things down to their component parts. But there is a downside to the use of such devices, and that is evident in their application to foreign policy.

Foreign policy elites fully understand that the world of international affairs is complex and full of nuance and subtleties. But for them to undertake action they have to conceptualise the global landscape in simpler terms. Analytic schools such as realism attempt to do so by distilling the relations between states (and increasingly non-state actors) as essentially being about relative power, its distribution and its use. Power comes on many dimensions–economic, diplomatic cultural, military–and can be persuasive or coercive in nature. It may be enduring in some instances and short-lived in others, mostly because it is contingent on and contrary or complementary to that of other actors. The use of power is a product of self-interest pursued in a competitive setting, that being the “state of nature” that Hobbes saw as a defining feature of human life and which international relations scholars transposed onto the “anarchic” environment in which nation-states and other international actors exist and operate.

There are other schools of thought when it comes to international relations–systems theory, idealism, constructivism, symbolic politics, amongst others. In practice there is often a combination or hybrid approach employed by foreign policy elites depending on circumstances even if one fundamental strand remains dominant. Thus we hear of “principled but pragmatic” approaches or “independent and autonomous” foreign policies. The beauty of realism as an organising principle rests in its ability to distill the relations of nation-states and other international actors to an either/or proposition: either you have relative power vis a vis other actors or you do not. Everything flows from that.

The problem rises when foreign policy elites decide to use great dichotomies not as organising principles but to advance their political or partisan agendas rather than the national interest. They may do so out of ideological conviction or as a way of eliciting popular support for a foreign policy initiative or stance. But doing so often leads to a dishonest or mistaken read on international affairs, something that can be counterproductive if not catastrophic in the long term.

Consider the case the Dulles brothers in US foreign policy in the 1950s. John Foster Dulles and Allan Welsh Dulles were pillars of the post-war US foreign policy establishment. The former was Eisenhower’s Secretary of State while the latter was the first and longest serving civilian CIA Director. During that decade they were decisive in shaping the contours of what became Cold War US foreign policy, using one ideological and one practical tool to create a Great Dichotomy lens through which the US looked at the world. That ideological side of the lens was anti-communism. The practical side of the lens was based on George Keenan’s famous “long telegram” under the pseudonym “Mr. X” in which he outlined the need for a “containment policy” directed at the USSR in order to curb its expansion at the expense of the so-called free world.

From their seats of power the Dulles Brothers put anti-communist containment in practice. The world was divided into dichotomous spheres of influence in which the US and USSR had unchallenged supremacy and which were considered “shatter zones” if the rival power dared to contest primacy in them. Outside of the shatter zones existed peripheral zones where contestation for primacy was allowed, to include open conflict using proxies, surrogates and even the armed forces of the respective poles in the bipolar balance of power of those times. Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia and to a lesser extent South America were seen as regions where conflict could be managed, weapons trialled and strategic influence won or lost.

The problem of seeing the world through the anti-communist containment lens was that it over-simplified the dynamics of the post-colonial and postwar worlds. The communism versus democracy (read: capitalism) argument failed to account for national liberation movements and other forms of post-colonial resistance and struggle that were not related to the Great Power rivalry and which were not reducible to a mere struggle between communists and democrats. This led the US to back numerous rightwing dictatorships, foment coups, subvert progressive governments and wind up bogged down as the adversary in futile post-colonial wars of national liberation in Indochina and elsewhere that were initiated against other western colonial powers (France, in the case of Vietnam). The Soviets also had their share of misreads, straying into Afghanistan as if the graveyard of Empires was not a historical fact and bolstering Communist China and North Korea to the point that their strategic interests came to share pride of place in Soviet foreign policy considerations in East Asia and eventually superseded them.

The result was that the US continually came down on the wrong side of history in many places because it was blinded by its Great Dichotomy perspective. That was particularly the case in Latin America and glaringly apparent in the retreat from Vietnam (where US soldiers literally died on the same ground that their French predecessors did), but it nevertheless remained the foundational tenet of US foreign policy until well after the end of the Cold War and even persists to this day with regards to its approach to Cuba, Venezuela and other socialist regimes.* In fact, if one was to only listen to rightwing voices in the US, the US is still in a Cold War with communists except that China has been substituted for Russia in this latest version of dichotomisation (and Russia has become an ally defending so-called “Western values” in the minds of the more rabid or coopted quarters the US Right).

This would be merely a thing of historical interest were it not for the fact that the world today is once again being subject to dichotomous foreign policy machinations. On the one hand, the Biden administration speaks of a new balance of power between “autocracies and democracies,” with the US leading one side and the PRC and Russia leading the other. For its part, China has been pushing a more North-South worldview that is grounded in the colonial versus post-colonial dichotomy. It rightly points out that the international system and its component parts, including the UN, international organisations, norms and regulations as well as its economic structure, were all created to benefit the colonial exploiters well after they gave up their imperial pretensions. The PRC positions itself as the vanguard of a new post-colonial world order where that inherent bias would be replaced by a more equitable distribution of power. For its part, the US claims that after the retreat from world affairs under Trump and the rise of autocratic powers world-wide, the US is back to claim its position at the head of the table of nations dedicated to the rule of law, free markets and open and fair competitive elections.

Neither of these competing views is entirely true, of course. But they are mutually exclusive. This makes them the two axes of a foreign policy Great Dichotomy where the world is being divided into two competing blocs whichever side one takes. The fact that reality does not accord with the construction does not matter to the foreign policy elites that are driving the narrative because their goal is to shape and influence perceptions about the emerging multipolar international system.

This poses problems for a country like New Zealand because it may sit uncomfortably on the dichotomy fault line being constructed between these competing foreign policy perspectives and may in fact prefer to straddle it rather than choose a side (assuming that it accepts that such a divide is in fact in the making). The trouble is that as a small state faced with great powers heading towards confrontation, NZ’s position is akin to that of a homestead straddling the fault between two tectonic plates–it can do nothing to prevent the larger shifts that will have dislocating, if not devastating effects on it when the moment of clash eventuates.

In the end, whether or not the emerging multipolar system is being carved up into competing blocs , it is the perception of such that ultimately matters. And that is where small states can have an impact because, even with the pressures placed on them, they can try to resist the narrative that the world is now in the grip of a Great Dichotomy involving great power competition over how to shape the emerging international order. Here is where both Machiavelli and Gramsci may be of help, because the former was the consul of a small empire faced with the rise of more powerful states, while the latter spoke of the importance of waging wars of counter-hegemonic (ideological) position rather than wars of (physical) manoeuvre against a hegemonic elite. In their own way, each understood both the elegance and dangers inherent in seeing the world in dichotomous fashion.

It is in the combination of their perspectives where the deliberate deception of the contemporary foreign policy dichotomy may best be understood and countered.

*As a personal aside, I saw firsthand evidence of this perspective when I went through the security vetting processes that allowed me to get the clearances that I needed to work in the US security apparatus. On at least three occasions from the mid 1980s to the mid 1990s I was asked by polygraph interrogators if I was a communist or a member of a communist party. I could honestly say no and then volunteered that I supported the Peronist Party and Montoneros as a youth in Argentina. The response was always the same: as long as I was not a commie, then everything was fine.

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