On Sending Messages

>> Thursday, January 07, 2010

I love this commercial:

The point, apart from some self-mockery of ESPN's Brett Farve obsession, is that the message sent isn't necessarily the message received. If there's any kind of mistaken interpretation along the way, the receiver can draw a conclusion that's exactly the opposite of what the sender intends. It's useful to remember this in the context of international politics, because communication can be staggeringly difficult. Actors have to deal with domestic audiences and have strong incentives to deceive, making it extremely difficult to convey accurate information, especially in relationships characterized by hostility.

These problems are multiplied when the message itself lacks clarity. In the midst of one of my seemingly endless twitter feuds with Eli Lake this morning, he wrote "It was obvious to any honest observer by 2006 that Bush would not bomb Iran. The options on table talk was a negotiating ploy." There's a basic contradiction inherent to that tweet; if it was obvious that bombing was off the table, then the threat was pretty useless as a negotiating ploy. Setting that aside, however, it seems to me that there's an implicit argument about message sending. Without putting words into Eli's mouth, I think it's fair to say that a consistent element of the neocon worldview is that the enemy only understands force, and that they'll "get the message" if we accompany it with sufficient amounts of high explosive. Force, the argument goes, has a clarity all its own. For neocons, I think that the Iraq invasion was intended as a message to the rest of the world, with the precise content of that message being more or less:

The United States is prepared to use force in a responsible manner in order to pursue and defend its interests. We are now engaging in a high cost operation that will demonstrate our resolve and commitment.
Unfortunately, this does not appear to have been the message that either domestic opponents of the Bush administration or the international audience received. The message actually received seems to have been closer to this:
We are batshit crazy, and plan to invade random countries based on nothing more than whim.
Or maybe:
We hate Muslims (either because of 9/11 because we're just mean), and plan to kill as many as possible.
Or maybe:
We wish to control the world's supply of oil, and will buy or conquer every state that stands as an obstacle to that project.
I'm a charitable guy, and so I think that the message that most of the relevant policymakers intended to send was closest to number one. I can certainly understand, however, how the message that people around the world received was one of the latter three. Indeed, because I know a bit about social psychology, I can even appreciate how states and organizations hostile to the United States are MORE likely to hear one of the latter three messages rather than the first one.

Each of the messages carry radically different policy implications. If, for example, you believe that the United States is an incorrigibly hostile, semi-random aggressor, then the incentives for accomodation are rather low. To bring this back to the disagreement with Eli, however, the problem is that many honest observers could come to many different conclusions, depending on what messages they received about US behavior and intentions. While Eli may have believed that it would be crazy for the Bush administration to attack Iran after 2006, and consequently may view anyone who was concerned about such an attack as either ill-informed or fundamentally dishonest, I have rather a different view. The message that the administration sent to me was:
We are fantastically strategically incompetent, can't really be trusted to make serious, rational decisions about national security, and consequently might just try to bomb our way out of this mess.

And so the takeaway is that we don't own our messages, and we can't control how others view us. I have serious doubts about the sincerity of the alleged neocon commitment to human rights, but even if I believed that the Weekly Standard crew were utterly committed to human freedom, I wouldn't expect anyone else to believe it. Consequently, we can't expect that what's obvious to us will be obvious to others. Basic mistakes of communication are exceedingly likely to beset any effort at message sending in the international system.


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