Chris Fettweis joins us this week to discuss his book Psychology of a Superpower: Security and Dominance in U.S. Foreign Policy. Fettweis argues that as a country, Americans, tend to be so fearful of our perceived enemies that we are willing to spend much more on national security measures than is neccessary. Ultimately, we may end up doing more harm than good.
What is unipolarity? Is the United States the most fearful country in the world? Do we spend more money on national security because of that fear? Is the world safer than it was during the Cold War? If so, why do people have nostalgia for the Cold War? What is the “enemy image” problem and do we need an enemy in order to continue interactions abroad? Does everyone value human life in the same way?
00:06 Trevor Burrus: Welcome to Free Thoughts, I’m Trevor Burrus.
00:08 Aaron Ross Powell: And I’m Aaron Powell.
00:09 Trevor Burrus: Joining us today is Christopher J. Fettweis, Associate Professor of Political Science at Tulane University. His new book is Psychology of a Superpower: Security and Dominance in US Foreign Policy. Welcome to Free Thoughts, Chris.
00:21 Christopher Fettweis: Well, thank you for having me.
00:23 Trevor Burrus: A lot of your book is about the concept of uni‐polarity in the foreign policy world, what does that mean? Are we in a uni‐polar world?
00:34 Christopher Fettweis: Uni‐polarity just means that there’s one dominant power in the system. For political scientists, polarity refers to the distribution of power. So during the Cold War, we had a bipolar system where we had two roughly equal powers, and before World War I there was a multipolar system. By most people’s estimates today we have a unipolar system. One country is strong enough to make and enforce the rules on everybody.
01:00 Trevor Burrus: What happened to American foreign policy thinking and on that period after the Soviet Union, when you thought we would just sit back and say, “Wow, we’ve been spending on our military for 50 years, in order to fight the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union is gone.” What happened when we became a unipolar world?
01:18 Christopher Fettweis: Yeah, you’d think that after the Soviet Union collapsed, we could have rethought a lot of things about… A lot of aspects of our foreign policy, spending on our national security because we got a lot safer, but we don’t seem to have believed that we’ve gotten safer. We don’t seem to perceive safety, which is a bit strange because the threats we face now, any diplomats of any prior era would love to have our problems. The threats we face now are relatively minor, especially compared to the Soviet Union. But we are the most fearful country, and we’re the most afraid country in the world in a lot of ways, which doesn’t make any sense. So what I’ve been trying to figure out for a few years, is why that is? Why are we so scared of the Iranians, and the North Koreans, and Al‐Qaeda and ISIS? There’s a lot of different reasons, but they all come back to our power.
02:07 Aaron Ross Powell: So the Soviet Union’s gone, but doesn’t China counter balance our power a bit?
02:13 Christopher Fettweis: A bit, and regionally. They don’t have the capability projecting power across the Pacific. They could make life more difficult for us in the South China Sea, various areas right around around China, which we might ask, “Why do we care much what happens there anyway?” But that’s a different story. The Chinese, though, don’t have the capability of projecting power around the world and don’t seem to have the interest, frankly, to do it, like we do. They don’t have a blue water navy to any real extent that we do. And they don’t… Even though they’re increasing their spending on their military, it’s not at nearly the pace that they could if they felt more threatened by us, as we perceive them to.
02:56 Aaron Ross Powell: If the world then is less dangerous now than it was when we were locked in the Cold War, why do we seem so convinced? And by we, I mean maybe both the foreign policy establishment, but also just ordinary Americans that the world is a dangerous place and an increasingly dangerous place?
03:13 Christopher Fettweis: That’s a great question. I’ve been trying to figure out that out for a while, and I think some of the answers are in basic human psychology, that the strongest members of any group tend to be the ones that worry more, especially the strongest countries worry more ’cause they assume that there are bad actors out there, scheming against them. We seem to be hardwired to not be able to relax or not be able to recognize safety. And there may be some aspects of US culture too, US society, where we’re a much more religious society than most, for instance, and religious people tend to see… Are comfortable with notions of good and evil, that make other other people a little bit queasy. So there’s a lot of factors that go into it. But we seem to be culturally incapable of recognizing that we’re pretty safe and secure. And because of that, we do a lot of stupid things. We get into a lot of unnecessary conflicts and unnecessary problems because we think we’re in such danger.
04:11 Aaron Ross Powell: But the world… So the world in this unipolar set up, that it’s in now is, you’ve said it’s, whether we believe it or not, it’s safer. And so maybe it’s a good thing that we might think it’s not, or that we might think there’s lots of threats because that would encourage us to keep being powerful, which might maintain the unipolar world. I guess, the question is, can we trace the relative peacefulness of the world now to the United States being the single dominant factor? And if the United States stop thinking that there were threats, would it then jeopardize that a bit if we kind of backed off some?
04:49 Christopher Fettweis: Well, that’s a great question. And that’s one of the big outstanding issues in US foreign policy. What would happen if we were to cut back on our presence and our spending and our activism abroad? And there’re some people, especially the neo‐conservatives who will tell you that the only thing standing in between chaos around the world, and abject genocide and total destruction of the liberal order is US power. Which strikes me as a bit of an odd statement. We don’t have that gigantic of a Navy for instance, we have a couple of hundred ships, but they’re not… They wouldn’t be able to keep peace at sea unless the sea was already pretty peaceful.
05:27 Christopher Fettweis: And that we don’t have enough power that we would be able to stop, say the Europeans from fighting if they really wanted to. It could well be that we have this large expensive police force out there that is patrolling a relatively stable beat. That is the world itself is much less violent than it has been at any earlier era, which is a statistic that I’m sure you guys are familiar with, but other people may not be, that there’s much less warfare going on in the world now than ever before. Whether or not that’s because we are patrolling the world, or there’s other factors going on at the same time, is not clear to me at all, and it’s… It would be more rational to test that, to cut back a little bit and see if violence… It starts to spread, see if the old rule starts to come back in, because I’m not convinced at all that it’s our power and our presence that keeps everybody else from fighting. We’re not that strong.
06:23 Aaron Ross Powell: So that sounds, though, like a potentially pretty costly experiment. If what we’re talking about is whether or not the US being strong and involved is keeping the peace, if we’re, if you are wrong that it’s in fact not the US, but the US maintains its strength and presence and the peace continues, great, because it certainly doesn’t seem to making at least as you’ve articulated, so far things more violent. But if the US were to step back to test the hypothesis, that the cost of you being wrong might be high in human lives.
07:00 Christopher Fettweis: It could be disruptive if done wrong, if done fairly stupidly. I don’t know, if we ever… Say I have a president, who has no diplomatic act at all, and it makes in… [chuckle] And alienates allies around the world and dislocates, injects chaos into alliance relationships, maybe. If it were done relatively slower, if it were done cautiously and in a piecemeal fashion, that could be easily reversed, I would suggest that for instance, if the United States were to pull back a bit from Northeast Asia, then it’s unlikely the North Koreans would go on a rampage and try to reunify that peninsula by force of arms, but we could get back there pretty quickly, though, if they do try. It’s not the case that pulling back towards, say, even just pulling back our forces closer to the United States would mean that we can’t get back there quickly if we needed to.
07:56 Christopher Fettweis: We could fly around the world pretty quickly these days. This isn’t the Roman Empire where it took three months to walk up the goal. We can get anywhere pretty quickly. And it doesn’t necessarily mean that we would be abandoning the world, nobody thinks we should wall ourselves off and stop trading. Well, a few people think that, I guess some do this, to stop trading and stop interacting with the world, but it’s just like I think we’re getting to an age, I’m getting to an age where I have back problems, and there’s no back problem that surgery can’t make worse, and there’s really no international problem that US intervention can’t make worse. And I think that if we stop thinking of ourselves as the first and second line of defense of democracy abroad, the other problems may sort themselves out, and it might not only be cheaper, but be better in the long run.
08:45 Trevor Burrus: You write about how there’s a strange nostalgia for the Cold War amongst especially the foreign policy establishment, and I think that the foreign policy establishment, the DC foreign policy world are kind of the people you’re writing about here, ’cause you’ve mentioned many times that there’s a big disconnect between scholars, academics, like you, who write about foreign policy and the people who work in foreign policy in Washington DC, and the people here at Washington DC, tend to be kind of Chicken Littles, for lack of a better term, and one of the things that they do is they reminisce fondly to the Cold War and how wonderful it was that we had 30,000, I think, Russian missiles pointed at our head. And I think one of the metaphors you bring up is, it used to be ‘locked in a room with a cobra’. Now we’re ‘locked in a room with a bunch of bees’ and it’s even worse. Why do you think it is that people think that the Cold War… I lived through a little bit of it, I don’t remember it that well, but why do people think that the Cold War was such a great time?
09:44 Christopher Fettweis: That’s such a great question. Nothing drives me crazier than nostalgia for the Cold War, especially among people who lived through it, who knew what it was like, who knew, number one, how much daily violence there was around the world, how many proxy wars were going on and number two, how the danger that we all felt that any time… Now we know, it came close a couple of times, when there were either mistakes or rogue morons that could have pushed the wrong button or could have just got us into more issues and brought it all tumbling down. No one who lived through 1983, now we know about the Able Archer [10:19] ____, should have any nostalgia for the Cold War, but they do. You hear it over and over again. And I talk about it in the book, about how there are psychological explanations for this. First of all, we know how it came out, we know we won and so we can look back, and things always look better in retrospect, we remember the good times, remember the good things, the good emotions, but the scary things tend to fade. The emotions that came with fear, the kids going to bed at night worrying about nuclear war, like I did, and I imagine generations and generations did before me. That fate. But we know we won. We had this sort of clear morality to it, there was the bad guys and the good guys… And now, we don’t know necessarily who the bad guys are…
11:01 Christopher Fettweis: We know that we have small, regional bad guys, seem like the world is coming apart at the seams, and people have nostalgic, including some really senior people: Martin Dempsey, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs used to say, “This is the most dangerous the world has ever been in his lifetime,” which you… What is he talking about? There were so many more dangerous moments during the Cold War, and not just dangerous for local people around the world, which they certainly were, but for, say, the species than there are now. We don’t have a capability, it seems, to appreciate how much better things are getting. And both people on the right and the left will reject the positive news that comes in. Stephen Pinker has written a couple of great books, talking about how in most aspects, life around the world, the system is getting better, but people have this whistle reaction to it. They attack the notion that things can get better, “Well, that we can’t let down our guard.” Fine, but we should be somewhat happier than in previous times. And then it has a practical implication, because if we recognize how relatively safe we are, we might not go abroad doing such stupid things.
12:07 Aaron Ross Powell: This puts me in mind also of Carl Schmitt, and there’s this notion that you see… Like David Brooks, I think epitomizes this, without a grand enemy we can’t have a sense of common purpose. That we need… It’s not just that we overestimate how much better, or we underestimate how bad things were back then and underestimate how much things are better on now, but this kind of… There’s a psychological angle to it too of the Cold War gave us purpose.
12:39 Christopher Fettweis: Absolutely, absolutely. There’s a bunch… A lot of psychologists who think that people need to have an enemy to function, because we all need to know we’re the good guys, we’re the good people, and there’s no point in being good if there’s no corresponding bad. There has to be evil out there, and there is a very clear pattern of how that evil manifests itself into an enemy. And we see right now, people are quite happy to have Iran as the enemy. The focus of all of our anxiety, and all of the evil in the world is the Iranians, which, despite the fact that they’re manifestly weak, they can’t do much of anything. They can’t project power outside of the Gulf region, but we think of them, or some people in this country think of them as the replacement for the Soviet Union.
13:22 Christopher Fettweis: There’s a great article, it just came out a couple of days ago. I forget exactly where it was, talking about how the Israelis or people in Israel have a higher level of happiness, of general societal happiness, than most other countries. These authors were saying, yes, because they have an enemy. They have, they know they’re united in a struggle. It brings them together, and people have a purpose for their lives. There’s a lot of times where enemies give us that, so we feel better sometimes deep down, perhaps, but we feel better when we have an enemy upon which to focus all of our hatred and maybe self‐loathing and all sorts of things, but at least there’s somebody we know we hate, and that seems to be ubiquitous in the world, and it’s just in humanity and certainly in the United States.
14:09 Trevor Burrus: Yeah, we’re also very bad at understanding our enemies because of where we sit in the world, you’re right. [14:17] ____ is a quote you have from Ronald Reagan’s autobiography, which I just wanna read a little bit of it because it struck me as amazing, “Perhaps this shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did. I’d always felt, that from our deeds, it must be clear to anyone that Americans were moral people who were starting at the birth of our nation, had always used our power only as a force for good in the world. During my first years in Washington, I think many of us took it for granted, that the Russians, like ourselves, considered it unthinkable that the United States would launch a first strike against them, that that we assumed that the Russians knew that there’s no way we would attack them.” And this is the kind of way that we think about our enemies that is extremely damaging.
14:54 Christopher Fettweis: Yeah, and that’s a very common psychological phenomenon that sometimes they refer to as the overestimation of benevolence. We think, we know we’re good down deep. We’re good people, therefore, we generally sense that other people, other countries, see us as good too that, they know that our intentions are good. Sometimes we’ll screw up, but we’re at the root good people, and we’re trying to do the right thing. That is not how countries perceive one another. In fact, it’s sort of quite the opposite, that if you need a general rule in international politics, the other is always a realist. The other country, whoever it is. They only are interested in power, and you can’t trust their word, but they’re certainly only interested in maximizing their strength, like we think of Putin and China and Iran. They are just trying to maximize their power. And in the regions and around the world they’re coolheaded realists, they’re not… And they’re not any more complicated than that.
15:51 Christopher Fettweis: And that’s certainly how countries see us. Good luck convincing anybody in the Arab world that we invaded Iraq for anything other than oil, because they see us as a realist, that’s ubiquitous in human society. The other countries are realists, but we don’t see it that way. We assume that they know we’re good. Reagan assumed the Soviets knew we were at heart good people, which seems a bit… It certainly surprised the Soviets, but it wouldn’t surprise psychologists who studied this overestimation of benevolence.
16:20 Trevor Burrus: And related to that is the fundamental attribution error, which is that your opponents are acting in concordance with their character, correct? Versus you.
16:30 Christopher Fettweis: Right. Anything they do reflects their character. But when we do bad things, it’s because we’ve been forced into it by events. We had really no choice. Everyone should understand that this isn’t what we wanted to do, but it was forced upon us by our situation. And psychologist [16:46] ____ it’s so widespread, is the fundamental attribution error, that when they do something it’s a reflection of their character, but when we do something, it’s a reflection of what was going on at the time of the situation we found ourselves in.
17:00 Trevor Burrus: How has uni‐polarity affected the second nuclear age, as you describe it, in a world where there are fewer nukes than there were in the Cold War? But we seem to be more scared of it.
17:10 Christopher Fettweis: Yeah, for about 15 years people in my business have been writing about the second nuclear age with the general feeling that it’s gonna be worse than the first nuclear age, which was the Cold War. The Cold War was the first nuclear age and now, this one is gonna have new rules, we’re gonna have a lot more actors, will be trustworthy actors with nuclear weapons. They’re gonna give these weapons over to terrorist maybe, and there’s a good chance they might use them, it’s a new nuclear world out there. However, so far, all the evidence says, “Yeah, it’s a new nuclear world, and it’s much better.” We’ve gotten rid of about 90% of the nuclear weapons we had during the Cold War. We’ve not had a great deal of proliferation. In fact, during the Cold War we had nine nuclear states, and now we have nine, because South Africa gave them up and North Korea is the only country that has joined the nuclear club. There hasn’t been run‐away proliferation. There hasn’t been anybody sharing them with the terrorists, there hasn’t been use. So, yeah, it’s a new nuclear age, but it’s better, and I don’t understand… One of the many things I’ve been trying to understand, is why are we so pessimistic about the future of nuclear weapons when all the trends are, what we would say, positive?
18:24 Aaron Ross Powell: So early in our conversation, Trevor mentioned something that you’ve argued, that there’s this huge disconnect between what the foreign policy establishment, the people who are doing foreign policy within Washington think about the world, think about these issues, and what you and other academics and people who study foreign policy but aren’t part of that establishment, the consensus among you. And it seems to be related to, one of the things that we notice is you’ll… Presidential candidates will frequently run as, if not doves, at least, “We shouldn’t have as many wars, we shouldn’t get… I’m not gonna bomb all these countries the way my predecessor did.” Barack Obama seemed to be a good example of this. And then they get into office and shortly thereafter, they’re bombing everybody and seemed to be just as belligerent as the guy who came before. And so, we might on the one hand say, that’s because of all these psychological issues that you’ve listed out, but is it possible that it’s simply because since they are in Washington, and they are the ones actually doing this stuff, and so they are out there engaging the world, and know about what’s going on in the world that the world is simply a scarier place than you know, because you’re not privy to the same information they are?
19:44 Christopher Fettweis: It’s possible. Sure, and that’s certainly what people in the Intel business, who I’m sure you’ve run into many people in Washington who love to tell you that, “If you knew what I knew, you wouldn’t be so happy,” but I’ve never really found out what they know that would make me scared. And sure, there’s gonna be details. John Mueller from CATO often talks about how if all you do is, if you’re exposed to classified information about terrorism all day, it’s sort of like sitting in the basement with a police band radio. You would never leave your house.
20:16 Christopher Fettweis: But, if you look at the aggregate trends, the overall data, what’s actually happening and get outside of the Beltway, get outside the bubble, things are pretty good. I tell my students all the time, look at Europe. Europe is the most peaceful part of the world right now. That’s weird. That’s historically weird. Jefferson called them an arena of gladiators. And now it’s the most peaceful area in the world. I’m German by ethnicity, and my people aren’t peaceful, but now they are. Something’s going on in the world. Maybe it’s the United States making, for instance, the entire Western Hemisphere to be at peace. There’s no civil war, ethnic conflicts, or any wars of any kind going on the Western Hemisphere for the first time since at least the 17th century. Nobody seems to care. So I’m not sure what people could be learning when they get there. I think much more likely is they just kind of get socialized into ways of thinking, rather than exposed to different kinds of intelligence, because the people around the White House, they don’t have access to any kind of scary Intel, but they do have a very clear notion that Ben Rhodes, the former Obama administration official, used to call the blob, very clear notions about how absolutely inevitable it is for the United States, and important it is for us to be active everywhere. So it could just be being socialized into the thoughts rather than scared by the Intel.
21:39 Trevor Burrus: You argue in the book that it could be the case or it is the case, I don’t think it’s necessarily so, but I think there’s a tendency you argue, for the powerless, the relatively powerless nations to be better at forming. And, of course, I’m putting that nations don’t have beliefs, but the people in these nations. But those nations are better at forming accurate beliefs than people in the uni‐polar power, such as the United States. Why would that be the case?
22:04 Christopher Fettweis: Yeah, there’s some reason to believe out there that power is indirectly related to wisdom. That either strong individuals, or strong countries, when they might perceive reality much differently than people who are weaker. And just give you one example, the strong don’t have to worry about the weak as much. The strong don’t have to worry and put themselves in the position of lesser actors, so they’re not as good at empathizing, of understanding others, because they don’t… They’re not encouraged to spend much time trying to figure others out. So whether it’s a CEO, and there’s a lot of sort of business literature about this stuff. The people high up in companies are not as good at understanding other people than people lower down in the corporate ladder. So the same thing happens in the international system, United States is never gonna be as good and understanding other countries as they are at understanding us, because they have an incentive to try to figure out what we’re doing, and good luck, by the way, figuring out what we’re doing now. But we have very little incentive to try to figure out what the Albanians are up to. At least, maybe there’s a few people in the state department who do, but empathy suffers. And there’s a lot of other things that help out little David’s, when they’re fighting against, or just having to deal with Goliath. ‘Cause Goliath’s perception, he’s not taking David too seriously. And sometimes things can go wrong.
23:27 Trevor Burrus: Now, my favorite part of the book is your discussion of what you call the enemy image and how it just sort of read like an item list, check‐off of listening to people talk about foreign policy. So I like to get in some of those, but first of all, what is the enemy image, and how does it come from this sort of uni‐polar world?
23:47 Christopher Fettweis: Right. Well, the enemy image is essentially just a persistent negative perception of another person or another country. And a lot of this came from research for the Soviet Union and the United States. How did they perceive each other? It’s essentially a set of misperceptions or at least a set of, a way of thinking about another actor by which everything they’re gonna do, everything they do is perceived negatively, and other actors can’t change their image because everything they do is gonna be interpreted through the lens of the enemy image. And so, it blocks empathy, it blocks any kind of international reconciliation, and when the enemy image is present in an international relationship, there’s a good chance you’re on the road to war.
24:29 Christopher Fettweis: You’re at least down the road to international rivalry. But right now, the United States and Iran are just seeing each other through that image, and there’s no way to break that necessarily, unless you kinda recognize it’s there. And we could be on the road, especially with the particular people running the government now, we may be on the road to some trouble with the Iranians in the future.
24:47 Aaron Ross Powell: This enemy image, is it uniform across the people versus their government? So we might think that their government, the government of Iran is belligerent and bad and all these ways, and no matter what it does we’re always going to read it through that, but do we, in general also apply that same thinking to the people of Iran, who are, of course, the ones who are going to die when we start a war with them?
25:12 Christopher Fettweis: No, generally speaking, we make a distinction, and people make a distinction, and both sides, that we like the Iranian people, we understand, we tend to think that they’re like us, but we don’t like their governments. Same thing during the Cold War you heard all the time, we have nothing against the Soviet people. We know that they’re being oppressed by their government, it’s their government we don’t like… And you hear the same thing when you go in the other direction. I don’t know if you’ve ever traveled to the Arab world, people say all the time, “We love the American people. It’s the government we don’t like.” So it’s the government that’s holding back the people and right now, the people in the throes of the enemy image wanna help the Iranian people, and the assumption is that the evil lies in the State House.
25:54 Trevor Burrus: And that’s one of the ways that it misleads our thinking. One of the ones that I think that is very fascinating that you point out is focusing on intent, rather than capability. So if you have this enemy image, you decide that intent is all that matters.
26:10 Christopher Fettweis: Yeah, it was strange. During the Cold War, we’d say, a lot of intelligence analysis would come out and say, “We don’t… We really can’t know the Soviet intent. Are they gonna strike us first with nuclear weapons, for instance? So we can’t know their intent, so let’s just focus on their capability ’cause we all… We understand that the threat is some kind of function of capability and intent. So when we couldn’t tell their intent necessarily, that was controversial, let’s just look at their capabilities.” Now, it’s totally reversed. Now, we only look at the Iranian intent and don’t look at their capabilities because we assume that because the Soviet has had a huge capability, the threat was high. Well now, the Iranians have a minuscule capability. They can’t really hurt us in any kind of significant, substantial way, but they want to. [26:54] ____ talks of it all the time, “The Iranians want to conquer the world.” Well, fine, they’re not gonna do that, though.
27:00 Christopher Fettweis: The threat for them to do that is zero. Their capability is marginal, but we focus instead on the intent. So when you have a very powerful country, in a uni‐polar system, we don’t look at the capability of our potential enemies. Like, ISIS’ capability was never particularly high. But if you listened to the news, you listened to our leaders, it sound it like we were fighting against superman. The threat that they posed was enormous. So if we keep in mind that threat is a function of some way of capability and intent, and if either one of those is zero, then the threat is zero. We don’t worry about the English threatening us. They have huge capability, but they have zero intent, so it’s the same with the Iranians, very low capability. So even if they wanted to hurt us, if they wanted to conquer the region, and by the way, I don’t see so many signs that they do, but if they wanted to, they couldn’t do it. Threat’s very little.
27:53 Aaron Ross Powell: Does terrorism change that equation, though? So we don’t have to worry about, say, ISIS invading America and taking over the eastern seaboard, but they can still strike us at any time in very acute ways.
28:10 Christopher Fettweis: Right.
28:11 Aaron Ross Powell: So the fact that we have terrorists, that we have international terrorist, so they have access to weapons that can at least hurt us on the micro level and do it in ways that we can’t seem to protect against, would seem that it doesn’t really matter that they don’t have a large arsenal.
28:25 Christopher Fettweis: Well, it does. I think this is a very important point to try to, if we could help keep the terrorist violence in perspective, if we realize that the threat that they can pose to us. And they can kill people, they can make life miserable for a brief period of time in a very small area, but they can’t do any longterm lasting damage to the United States. All they can do is really commit an enormous graphic crime, and they would like us to be scared of them. I don’t understand why this country is so eager to succumb to terror that the terrorists are trying to promote.
29:00 Christopher Fettweis: And the metaphor I’ve always used, that if I were in part in charge of the Department of Homeland Security, I’d be like a stewardess or a flight attendant. If the wing is on fire, the flight attendant’s gonna say, “Oh, yeah, the wing’s on fire. That’s okay. Would you sit down, sir? Would you like some peanuts?” Instead, our Homeland Security department says, “There’s a very small chance the wing will explode, and the plane’s gonna [29:19] ____, but just sit down and try not to worry about it.” It is the opposite, the message should be… You’re not gonna die from a terrorist attack. And I tell that to people all the time, and they say, “How do you know? You don’t understand how they think.” I say, “Yeah, but I understand math, and no one else seems to around here. And if you do get killed by terrorists, you can come back and haunt me from beyond the grave.” Because the message should be, “They cannot do any real harm to us,” rather than, “We need to be eager, we need to be so vigilant and track them down.” That’s counterproductive, and that’s exactly what they want us to do. So I don’t understand why we’re so happy and so willing to do exactly what they want us to do.
30:00 Trevor Burrus: What about the specter… We kind of touched on this before, but everyone I think is thinking, “Well, what about suitcase nuclear weapons?” That this 0.1% chance of a nuclear weapon is too high, and if they got a nuclear weapon, they would want to use it in America. I think that… Do you agree with that? I mean, maybe not, but that therefore means we have to be vigilant.
30:26 Christopher Fettweis: Well, no one thinks it’s a good idea to give nuclear weapons to terrorist groups and to ask them, “You guys behave yourselves,” but even if they got suitcase nukes and all of our concerns about these suitcase nukes goes back to something a Russian general said during a press conference, about 15 years ago, and say, “We are missing some suitcase nukes, comrade,” and we say, “What?” but it’s number one, they couldn’t set them off. It’s very difficult for, even if terrorists got nuclear weapons, it’s not like there’s a button on it that they could push. And let’s just go over and go beyond what I think are the pretty much insurmountable technological issues a terrorist group would have in either building or stealing and setting off a nuclear weapon.
31:09 Christopher Fettweis: I don’t think it’s possible. But if it did happen? And if a suitcase nuke went off, it would be, obviously, horrible, but it wouldn’t be something that we couldn’t recover from. However, grimly we had to do it. And I don’t think the odds, and if you look into this, I teach weapons of mass destruction classes, and I don’t think the odds of this happening are anything that really any realistic kind of concern, but… And it’s certainly not something that we should be considering going to war, to try to prevent. I think in the background of lot of people’s minds, “Would the Iranians give nuclear weapons to [31:46] ____?” It strikes me as very unlikely and not something that we should necessarily be putting at the forefront of our foreign policy.
31:53 Trevor Burrus: I’d like to go over some of these indicators you list of that you might be suffering from the “enemy image” problem. It’s almost like a self‐help book for people. Have you checked seven of these boxes, you wanna be suffering from the enemy image problem. So there’s a some comments on these. The first one is, our differences are fundamental and existential.
32:15 Christopher Fettweis: Right. Yeah, we are much different from them. People think the enemy is fundamentally different from us. At the heart of it is, of course, we’re good, they’re bad. But during the Cold War it was the Soviet evil, and we were good, and now it’s the radical fundamentalists in Tehran. Fundamentally evil, there’s no point in trying to change them because it’s their nature, not something that we can find common ground between us, because they’re just different and evil.
32:45 Trevor Burrus: They do not value human life like we do.
32:47 Christopher Fettweis: That’s consistent. Throughout my whole life I have heard people say, “Oh, you know, the enemy whoever it is, Japanese, Vietnamese, Soviet, certainly, now Arabs, that they don’t value human life like we do.” That’s always wrong. Everybody values human life the same, but maybe some leaders could be more callous about it. It’s ridiculous to think that we have found… And either the United States is terrible at choosing enemies, “Oh, we always choose enemies that have no regard for human life,” or that’s a misperception that… And that’s a sign that you’re not perceiving them properly. You’re in the throes of the enemy image, buddy, re‐examine what you’re thinking.
33:26 Aaron Ross Powell: It seems related to that, that we, especially Americans, wildly overestimate how much we value human life. Yeah, we don’t tend to value it much if it’s not within our shores.
33:38 Christopher Fettweis: And people around the world, especially near Arab world, think United states does not value human life, because we sell the Saudis the ability to try to blow up school buses, so we clearly can’t value human life.
33:50 Trevor Burrus: Their word cannot be trusted, negotiations are a waste of time. This one sounds familiar, especially now.
33:56 Christopher Fettweis: Right. Yeah, North Korea and skeptics of negotiations. And those who are in the throes of the enemy image will say, “Look, there’s no point in talking to them.” There was no point in talking to Soviet in 1970s when we started, we sat down and had [34:08] ____ talks and the ABM talks, “They’re gonna cheat. There’s no point in having those discussions, ’cause the enemy can’t be trusted.” That, more than anything else, more than any other reason, is why the Iran deal, the JCPOA was opposed in so many circles ’cause they… It’s not so much they didn’t like the deal, they made up reasons, from our arms control perspective, an unbelievable deal, but people didn’t trust the Iranians, and they could never get past that. So any deal with the Iranians was, by definition, gonna be a bad deal. I don’t know a basketball coach that said: “Any pass to a bad player is a bad pass.”
34:43 Christopher Fettweis: And that’s the same kind of thing, same kind of thinking that occurs with the Iranians. That’s why they opposed The Iran deal, it had nothing to do with the substance, ’cause the substance was irrelevant if it was a deal with Iran.
34:55 Trevor Burrus: The enemy regime is simultaneously dangerous and fragile.
35:01 Christopher Fettweis: Yeah, there’s a paradox here, because if the Iranians on one hand are so strong, then why do we think that more sanctions will make them collapse. The paragon of this is there’s a guy named Michael Ledeen at the Foundation for Defense and Democracies who has been arguing for years that we all need to… If you just had a small marine landing in Iran, the people would rise up and overthrow the dictator immediately, and…
35:30 Trevor Burrus: Wasn’t that Bay of Pigs, too? That was Bay of Pigs, too, wasn’t it?
35:32 Christopher Fettweis: Right and yeah, the Bay of Pigs and their ground work essentially for a rock that we thought, “Oh, we show up, we’ll be greeted as liberators. Everything will be great.”
35:42 Trevor Burrus: But they’re so dangerous too. [chuckle]
35:45 Christopher Fettweis: This belief that the people are on our side, that there’s no such thing as nationalism, that they might not appreciate getting invaded. That as long as we show up, they will be on our side, and we can overthrow their dictator, so their dictators, therefore, are fundamentally insecure, and they’re fragile, so they’re likely to lash out more ’cause they know they have to… People objected when President Obama, seemingly didn’t do much to support the green revolution in Iran a few years ago. But what the heck could we have done? There’s this is notion if we had just made some statements the right way and maybe parachuted in some supplies, they could have overthrown the regime. This is crazy talk. And it’s very common among people who think in terms of enemies, that they’re at the same time dangerous, but fundamentally fragile, which is weird, but it’s ubiquitous.
36:38 Aaron Ross Powell: Following up on that, when we as Americans look out at the world and aren’t… Don’t go and visit on a regular basis these regimes or have a lot of contact with everyday Iranians or everyday North Koreans, the kind of underlying assumption of the all we need to do is send in Marines, is that, say, the reason that the people are supporting their government right now is out of fear, is that they fear the repercussions of rising up, and so us sending marines, or us just going in there, would show the people that their government is not the threat that they thought it was, and then they would rise up. So is that part of the underlying mistaken assumption is that if we look at a place like North Korea, or we look at other governments where we think that they’re brutalizing their own, Saudi Arabia for example? Is it not fear of the regime that keeps the… Fear will keep the systems in line, is nationalism a stronger force than we give it credit for?
37:45 Christopher Fettweis: Yeah, it’s certainly an issue that people believe that it’s fueled by a variety of different expats. People come out of their countries, is like Ahmed Chalabi came out of Iraq and convinced the Bush Administration that every Iraqi will join aside the Marines, and they’ll fight Saddam Hussein together. What all that underestimates is nationalism. As much as the people who are most anti‐Trump in the country, if you had some Russian show up or somebody show up and say, “I’ll help you get rid of him.” They might say, “Hey, woah, woah, what are you doing? Get out!” They might not like their leader, but it’s their leader, and it’s their problem that they will deal with. It’s very rare that people like to be helped by very heavily armed foreigners, unless they’re throwing out other heavily armed foreigners. Sure, the French liked it. People should all be like, going into Paris in 1944. What are you talking about? They were overthrowing the Nazis. If we had said, “Okay, we’re gonna put a new regime here. It’s not gonna be French.” They would of had a different [38:46] ____.
38:48 Trevor Burrus: In 1975 or something, yeah. Number five on the list of ways you might know that you’re suffering from the enemy image problem: They are realist… We mentioned this before. They are realist and only understand the language of force.
39:00 Christopher Fettweis: Yeah, how many times? It’s always phrased that way too. How many times have you heard somebody say, “The only thing Putin understands is the language, is force, you hear the language of force,” but that’s the way everybody from the beginning of my life, I’ve heard it, maybe it was Gaddafi, and then only the Ayatollah, who only understands force. And in Eastern Europe, people only understand force. The Chinese, right now, well, you know, the only thing they really understand is force. This is crazy, people understand lots of things, but it’s all part of this notion that the others are realist, and because he’s a realist, the only thing they really respond to is force. That’s the only thing Putin will respond to. That’s dangerous because that encourages people to act with force when a lot of times people understand the language that uses words too. And they can figure out a language of money, for instance, we have a lot of that, we can get our way a lot of times with money. It turns out, the Iranians could understand the language of diplomacy until we screwed up that deal, everything was working out pretty well.
39:56 Trevor Burrus: Our various enemies work together.
40:00 Christopher Fettweis: Yeah, there’s this notion that, especially, my favorite example of it was our former National Security Advisor who lasted almost three weeks, he had written a book that…
40:10 Trevor Burrus: Michael Flynn, you’re referring to Michael Flynn, yes?
40:12 Christopher Fettweis: Michael Flynn, he unified all of the US enemies into one big anti‐US conspiracy, essentially. There’s a belief system, psychologist refer to it as a closed belief system, the notion that all of our enemies are working together, which helps explain for instance, why we would swallow the notion that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were gonna work together ’cause this belief, “Oh, the enemy of the enemy is my friend.” Well, okay, but it’s not the case necessarily that all of our enemies will like one another at the same time, turns out they can despise us both pretty equally.
40:53 Christopher Fettweis: But because we know we are good, we assume evil is united. So we think probably the Iranians and Russians are working in cahoots, and ISIS is probably working with the Iranians, even though they’re totally opposite in the major religious matters. But once we think that everybody’s working together, then it’s us against the world. It’s certainly the case with a lot, especially the Neo‐cons, that Robert Keagan talks about how there’s a authoritarian axis forming out there. No, I don’t really think so. I think that’s once again the enemy image at work.
41:25 Trevor Burrus: This is one that Trump, I think recently said, or used when he described Iran as having a 100‐year plan that which is, there are superior strategists who take the long view.
41:38 Christopher Fettweis: Yeah, it’s always the case that our enemies, they’re patient. We need to have some initial, especially the Chinese, they think in terms of millennium. No, they don’t. It’s not the case that they are much better strategists than we are. In fact, it’s well‐known misperception that the enemy is very strategic and very calculating. Well, we know we don’t know what the hell’s going on a lot of times. And we’re arguing amongst ourselves, we’re doing it. You’re taking it one day at a time, reacting to things, but we know Putin, he’s a chess player. God, the metaphor that drives me crazy. They play chess, we’re playing checkers. More on during the Obama administration, I would occasionally here, “You know what, it’s not even checkers, Obama’s playing marbles.” Okay, fine, but it’s not the case necessarily. Maybe it is, the case that Putin is thinking five steps ahead, and he’s a master strategist. Maybe he had no idea that his active measures that went on in the 2016 election were gonna result in the way they did, and now he doesn’t know what to do. It might not be the case that every authoritarian out there is a super genius, that we’re facing a bunch of widely coyotes. But that’s what the enemy image encourages us to think.
42:49 Trevor Burrus: They understand us better than we understand them, and they know we are reluctant to use force. This is related to the Reagan quote, I read previously.
42:58 Christopher Fettweis: Yeah, that benevolence that we, they know we’re good. And that gives them an advantage, because they know, for instance, you hear people now say, “The Iranians know that we’re not gonna start a war. So they can do whatever they want, they have such an advantage.” We don’t know that they won’t start a war, is certainly the case, they hear it all the time during the Cold War, “The Soviets have an advantage, they know we’ll never strike first.” What? And we know now, they were more scared of us striking first, than we were ’cause we generally had a military advantage. But our enemies know us, and they know we’re good, which is just demonstrably wrong. No one thinks the other side is good. In fact, they generally think that we’re realists too.
43:38 Trevor Burrus: It takes a foreign policy “expert” to understand their true nature. I like this one a lot.
43:45 Christopher Fettweis: Yeah, after 9/11 experts on Islam popped up all over the place, just like during the Cold War there were experts on the Soviet Union. A lot of them, the neo‐conservative movement in the 1970s, a lot of them were former [44:00] ____, people who were deep, hip deep, once upon a time, in communist theory. So they’d say, “Oh, you have to really understand how they think to really understand them.” And so people were digging after 9/11 into the intellectual precursors of Osama bin Laden and trying to really understand how they’re thinking and the threat they pose, and it’s never the case that people in the defense business, who get into the mind of the other figure out, “He’s not too bad.” It’s always that they’re super evil, and in order to really understand the extent of their evil, you can’t really just read the news and figure it out on your own. You need the experts, ’cause the experts in defense circles generally are more hawkish than everybody else.
44:45 Christopher Fettweis: And Leslie Gale before 9/11 famously said, “Look, I ended up supporting the war in Iraq. I’m not for 9/11, for the war in Iraq, “I ended up supporting the war because of professional pressure. Everybody was supporting the war, I didn’t wanna be on the outside,” so experts tend to be more hawkish. And especially, particular experts with particular expertise, which is a stupid way of saying experts with expertise, but they tend to be more hawkish than the average person do, that’s for sure.
45:12 Aaron Ross Powell: But does this mean then that we should only look to the average person’s opinion. I mean, so it’s like, I’m… There’s a foreign policy issue going on in Ghana, and you were to ask me, I don’t know anything about Ghana, whether I know foreign policy there or not. And so you wouldn’t wanna ask me… So you saying, should we look to different sorts of experts?
45:31 Christopher Fettweis: Yeah, yeah, if you imagine a Venn diagram, the most dangerous area in the middle there, is when you have a conservative or right wing or at least a hawkish political ideology and expertise overlapping. When you have experts surrounding the President, for instance, who are both of a neo‐conservative background… Hawkishness is pretty much one of the central parts of that identity or some definitions of a neo‐conservative and expertise in another country. Then those are the ones we’re gonna be exceptionally hawkish and exceptionally likely to recommend a military solution to problems, rather than a cooperative one, ’cause they… And they’re most likely in particular to just see life through the enemy image.
46:19 Trevor Burrus: And I feel like I’m doing David Letterman here, and number 10 on the list of ways you might know that you’re suffering from the enemy image problem, is, “They are Nazis.”
46:29 Christopher Fettweis: Yeah, if there’s one marker, as soon as people are referring to the other side as Nazis, they’re probably not using a good way to perceive the other. And everybody’s been a Nazi since I have been old enough to understand these debates, from Saddam Hussein, Islam Nazis, Islam fascist, we used to hear it all the time, not so common now, perhaps, but these are just the next version of Nazis. Fortunately, there is only one version of Nazis, and no, they combined intent and capability, and so they were a threat, but luckily those ones, even if we don’t like them, most of our potential enemies out there don’t have one or the other.
47:16 Aaron Ross Powell: So speaking of people often accused of being a Nazi. Let’s talk about our current President. So, given the kind of framework that you have articulated in the book and that we’ve discussed today, and then given what you see in the current administration, how do you see the next several years playing out? Do you think that things are gonna get… Is there any chance they’re gonna get better? Are they gonna get worse?
47:46 Christopher Fettweis: Well, there’s no chance of things getting better. And because all the stuff we’ve been talking about… So, for very, very little of it applies to Donald Trump, because it would assume that he’s thinking about anybody else or thinking about other countries. And I think if you go back and read these diagnostic tools that psychologists have and look up the narcissistic personality disorder, it’s like it was written for Donald Trump. So, there’s no change this guy is gonna change it all and get better. But it doesn’t necessarily mean everything’s gonna fall apart. And I’ve been writing recently, it’s talking about how… What we’re doing right now, we’re having a massive test of the international system, we’re gonna find out what norms and rules are actually gonna be persistent.
48:33 Christopher Fettweis: We’re gonna have a test of say the overall downward trends in violence that we talked about before. Like there’s… If everything… If these ever survives the next few years of Trump, are gonna be the things that are going to be probably more persistent and more lasting than others. ‘Cause if they can survive the Trump years, if there’s still less violence around the world, if it’s democratic order still holding together after the Trump years, then maybe we can say with some confidence that that might be around for a while. But for now, it’s a little bit like, if your team is in the NCAA tournament, you just… The early rounds you just kinda wanna survive and advance. And that’s what I feel about the Trump years. We’re just gonna try to survive and advance. Maybe at some point, maybe, it’ll be over.
49:21 Aaron Ross Powell: Thanks for listening. Free Thoughts is produced by Tess Terrible. If you enjoyed today’s show, please rate and review us on iTunes. And if you’d like to learn more about libertarianism, find us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.