The World Explained by Seinfeld

The Financial Times finds that US foreign policy is following the principles of George Costanza. In an episode of Seinfeld, George came up with the idea that his luck with girls would improve if he did the opposite of what his past experience tells him he should do. They found many examples of how the policy in Iraq fits the opposite principle:

The Iraq policy pursued by the Bush administration satisfies the Costanza criterion: it is the opposite of every foreign policy the world has ever met…

First, military and diplomatic resources are finite and should be directed towards your greatest priority. An example of the opposite approach would be for a country that has been attacked by a non-state terrorist group to retaliate by removing a state regime that had nothing to do with the attack.Second, take care not to weaken your intimidatory powers through poor military performance. Aim for short, sharp victories (such as that in the 1991 Gulf war) that get your adversaries worrying about the extent of US power. The opposite would be to launch a war of choice involving the drawn-out occupation of an Arab country – the kind of thing that gets your allies worrying about the limits of US power.

Third, you get by with help from friends. Although the powerful are sometimes tempted to go it alone, international support helps determine the perceived legitimacy of an action, which affects its risk and costs. Building this support requires discussion and compromise. The opposite would be to spurn real negotiations, slough off your allies, bin multilateral agreements you do not like and declare that you are not bound by the rules that govern everyone else.

Fourth, state-building is hard. Few of the international efforts at state-building since the cold war’s end have succeeded. Luckily there are numberless reports identifying lessons learnt. The alternative would be to do the opposite of what those reports recommend, for example by deploying insufficient troops and dismantling any extant national institutions such as the army.

Fifth, democracy is a blessing that requires patient nurturing. The opposite approach would be to seek to impose democracy by force of arms on a population traumatised by decades of vicious and totalitarian rule.

Sixth, politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. If two dangerous states are struggling for dominance of a strategic region, maintaining a balance between them may be the least worst option. The opposite would be to emasculate one of them, thereby greatly increasing the relative power of the other.

Finally, historians often cite the need for prudence in international relations, quoting the physician’s dictum: “First, do no harm.” The opposite would be: “Don’t think too much, just chance your arm and see what happens!”

There is much to be learned from Seinfeld. Two years ago I applied a lesson from Seinfeld to current politics, which fits in well with some of my recent posts here on the changing policies of the two political parties:

The Jerry Seinfeld Rule For Voting Republican
22 April 2005

The players change, the manager changes, the ballpark changes. About the only thing that stays the same is the uniform. When you get down to it, what you’re really rooting for is the shirt.”–Jerry Seinfeld

Jerry Seinfeld’s observations on baseball remind me a lot of current politics. While many long-time Republicans supported John Kerry in 2004, realizing his views are more in accordance with their underlying values than the extremist views of the neoconservatives currently in control of the Republican party, many people continued to vote Republican. Obviously the players have changed. The “ballpark” has also changed–in this case the underlying viewpoints. While there are no uniforms, what they were really rooting for was just the party name.

On foreign policy, imagine if a Democrat had taken office receiving specific warnings from the previous administration about a foreign threat and ignored it, and then continued to ignore continuing warnings about an impending attack. In the old days, Republicans would have been all over such incompetence, not voting to reelect the administration based upon national security concerns.

True Republicans would respect the military service of John Kerry, not attack it in order to make the record of someone such as George Bush who avoided his responsibilities appear less objectionable.

The modern conservative movement often refers to the Goldwater take-over of the GOP in 1964 as their start, forgetting how Barry Goldwater was a major opponent of their new allies on the religious right. Republicans who in the past promised to get government off our backs now support a government which has become more intrusive in individual’s lives. [More recent posts on Goldwater here and here.]
Republicans warned about deficits and big government in the past, Bill Clinton announced that the era of big government is over, and left office with a surplus. George Bush brought back both deficits and big government. Corporate welfare has replaced their support for free enterprise.

Republicans oppose the current judges, forgetting most were appointed by Republicans. For example, according to the Los Angeles Times, “Ninety-four of the 162 active judges now on the U.S. Court of Appeals were chosen by Republican presidents. On 10 of the 13 circuit courts, Republican appointees have a clear majority. And, since 1976, at least seven of the nine seats on the U.S. Supreme Court have been filled by Republican appointees.” Similarly Republicans have forgotten their old support for Federalism on issues ranging from the Terri Schiavo case to tort reform.

If Republicans had cool uniforms, maybe Jerry Seinfeld’s ideas on baseball would apply to voting Republican. Unfortunately, not only have they abandoned their values, they don’t even have uniforms. Observing the Bush administration, a better analogy would be to say that the emperor wears no clothes.

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