Enlightened Self-interest and International Relations

January 18th, 2012

By Dan Miller

In theory, it may beat commonly praised alternatives.  But to what extent can we rely on it in practice?

Bertrand RussellBertrand Arthur William Russell, 3rd Earl Russell (1872 – 1970) was a British mathematician and philosopher. He wrote prolifically in both disciplines and also wrote a few mediocre short stories. He stood three times, unsuccessfully, for a seat in Parliament (N.B. In Britain, politicians stand for legislative seats; in the United States, they run for them.  Perhaps we are more interested than our British cousins in watching politicians exercise before being seated).  In his later years he was often referred to as “a very intelligent old silly,” not without reason.  A pacifist during the First World War, he was briefly imprisoned.  He opposed Hitler and generally supported the allied cause during the Second World War and, having seen Communism through perceptive eyes, did not approve. In 1956, he wrote Why I am Not a Communist.  There he stated,

In relation to any political doctrine there are two questions to be asked: (1) Are its theoretical tenets true? (2) Is its practical policy likely to increase human happiness? For my part, I think the theoretical tenets of Communism are false, and I think its practical maxims are such as to produce an immeasurable increase of human misery.

I have always disagreed with Marx. My first hostile criticism of him was published in 1896. But my objections to modern Communism go deeper than my objections to Marx. It is the abandonment of democracy that I find particularly disastrous. A minority resting its powers upon the activities of secret police is bound to be cruel, oppressive and obscuarantist.

A reasonably good short biography can be found at Wikipedia. A blogger at The Call of Troythulu has written several times about Russell. One my earliest (April 2006) articles, Channeling Some Dead White Males, fabricated a seance during which I interviewed Bertrand Russell and Douglas Adams. As Seance Chairman I likely twisted a few of their views to correspond to mine, but an advantage of interviewing dead people is that they don’t resist such distortions.  Dead people can be similarly cooperative when they vote.

Here is part of the conclusion from Russell’s speech entitled “What Desires Are Politically Important?, delivered when he accepted a Nobel Prize for literature in 1950.

I do not wish to seem to end upon a note of cynicism. I do not deny that there are better things than selfishness, and that some people achieve these things. I maintain, however, on the one hand, that there are few occasions upon which large bodies of men, such as politics is concerned with, can rise above selfishness, while, on the other hand, there are a very great many circumstances in which populations will fall below selfishness, if selfishness is interpreted as enlightened self-interest.  And among those occasions on which people fall below self-interest are most of the occasions on which they are convinced that they are acting from idealistic motives. Much that passes as idealism is disguised hatred or disguised love of power. When you see large masses of men swayed by what appear to be noble motives, it is as well to look below the surface and ask yourself what it is that makes these motives effective. (Emphasis added.)

All of that remains relevant and we still need to examine why and how idealistic motives are often ascribed to actions motivated instead by less benign emotions such as hatred and love of power.  There should be more opportunities for doing so now than in 1950.  Then, the internet for practical purposes did not exist, television was in its infancy and cable television was generally unavailable. Today,

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 32% of Likely U.S. Voters will get most of their political news in 2012 from cable television and 22% from traditional TV network news. The number following the election news online has inched above the audience for traditional TV networks. Twenty-four percent (24%) will primarily rely on the Internet for coverage of Election 2012. Nine percent (9%) who will still rely on print newspapers  and seven percent (7%) will chiefly count on radio.

Despite these advances, and in part because of the garbage in = garbage out problem, when we try to understand the factors that motivate people we are often unsuccessful.  In consequence, much that we do remains inconsistent with our own self-interests as we perceive them.

Some motivations have changed a bit.  In the early 1950s, the U.S.S.R. and the United States alone possessed and were capable of using atomic weapons; both seemed to recognize that it would be in the self-interest of neither to engage in mutually assured destruction. Now many more nations, some of them “rogue,” have atomic weapons and some non-nation entities have or are soon likely to have them.  Rational fears of mutually assured destruction seem less likely to deter some of them than deterred the United States and the U.S.S.R. Would Iran refrain from nuking Israel because Iran might then suffer the same fate? Perhaps, perhaps not.  As observed here,

Clearly Iran is on the cusp of becoming a nuclear weapons state. Given the apocalyptic pronouncements that the Islamic Republic would willfully use atomic weapons to obliterate Israel, observers are warned that the mullah regime will use a nuclear first strike not only as an option but as a messianic duty. The ramifications are chillingly obvious and the counter-response must be calculated. (Emphasis added).

Unfortunately, the “calculations” — hardly exercises in mathematical certainty — are largely subjective, based on deficient knowledge of different cultures and the motivations of their leaders and of their people. That is not to say that we should like them; cancers are bad but with deficient knowledge of what causes them as well as how and why they metastasize we can do little to prevent or cure them.

How about Egypt as it devolves under the Muslim Brotherhood? According to this article,

President Barack Obama’s view of the Muslim Brotherhood is based on his — and his advisors’ — apparent rationale that the Islamist group is reformed and much more like the American and European models of pluralistic societies.

However, experts on Islam and terrorism claim that the Muslim Brotherhood’s — and the radical Salafists –dominance of the Egyptian government, by virtue of its recent parliamentary election victories, will eventually lead to the imposition of Sharia law on Islamic Arabs and jihad against infidels.

One problem with Russell’s enlightened self-interest thesis, and with the Obama Administration’s apparent perception of what people want, is that people of different cultures and ideologies have different perceptions of their own self-interests than do we.

The Golden Rule, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” suffers from a similar problem: what if others reject for themselves what I would like them do unto me?  It’s easy enough to say, do unto them according to their self-interests, which could easily have unfortunate results. Beyond that, how can I do it if I don’t know what they perceive their self-interests to be? After many years of imprisonment in a dungeon cell, Lord Byron’s Prisoner of Chillon came to “love despair.”

It was at length the same to me,
Fetter’d or fetterless to be,
I learn’d to love despair.
And thus when they appear’d at last,
And all my bond aside were cast,
These heavy walls to me had grown
A hermitage – and all my own!
And half I felt as they were come
To tear me from a second home:
With spiders I had friendship made,
And watch’d them in their sullen trade,
Had seen the mice by moonlight play,
And why should I feel less than they?
We were all inmates of one place,
And I, the monarch of each race,
Had power to kill – yet, strange to tell!
In quiet we had learn’d to dwell;
My very chains and I grew friends,
So much a long communion tends
To make us what we are: – even I
Regain’d my freedom with a sigh.

Do the unfortunate denizens of North Korea and Iran, for example, desire freedom or might they have learned to love despair?  If they desire freedom, for whom do they desire it?  Are they willing to risk what little they have to secure the freedoms few of them have experienced?  Should we risk the freedoms we have in order to give them theirs? Freedoms can rarely be “given” to those with little interest in having them.  Efforts to do so have not always worked as we desired.

The United States Army has a long tradition of humanitarian relief. No such operation has proven as costly or shocking, however, as that undertaken in Somalia from August 1992 to March 1994. Greeted initially by Somalis happy to be saved from starvation, U.S. troops were slowly drawn into interclan power struggles and ill-defined “nation-building” missions. The American people woke up one day in early October 1993 to news reports of dozens of our soldiers killed or wounded in fierce fighting in the streets of the capital city Mogadishu. These disturbing events of a decade ago have taken on increasing meaning after the horrific attacks of 11 September 2001.

The Army began by assisting in relief operations in Somalia, but by December 1992 it was deeply engaged on the ground in Operation RESTORE HOPE in that chaotic African country. In the spring of the following year, the initial crisis of imminent starvation seemed to be over, and the U.S.-led Unified Task Force (UNITAF) turned over the mission to the United Nations, leaving only a small logistical, aviation, and quick reaction force behind to assist. The American public seemed to forget about Somalia. That sense of “mission accomplished” made the evens of 3-4 October 1993 more startling, as Americans reacted to the spectacle of dead U.S. soldiers being dragged through the streets by cheering Somali mobs — the very people Americans thought they had rescued from starvation.

Our perceptions of our self-interests seem similar in some ways, but less than identical, to those common in countries with which we (in some cases decreasingly) share similar cultures and histories.  Our perceptions generally differ from those, for example, in Islamic countries; our histories, cultures, religions, social structures and senses of morality are quite different. Could it be that they have “learned to love despair?” I don’t know; unless given to more thoughtful introspection than is apparent they may not know either.  We generally lack adequate insights into how they perceive their self-interests and they lack adequate insights into how we perceive ours.  In dealing with them, while having little knowledge of how they — and their actual and potential leaders — perceive theirs and also how they perceive ours, how can we deal successfully with them in their self-interest, let alone ours?

According to a new Rasmussen poll,

The Obama administration is reportedly considering negotiating with the fundamentalist Taliban to help bring the war in Afghanistan to an end, particularly following reports of Marines urinating on dead Taliban fighters. But most voters don’t believe negotiations with the enemy could end the war in Afghanistan satisfactorily.

The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that just 17% of Likely U.S. Voters feel it’s possible negotiations with the Taliban could bring the war in Afghanistan to a satisfactory conclusion.  Fifty-six percent (56%) disagree and do not think negotiations with the group that America drove from power could wrap up the war satisfactorily. Twenty-six percent (26%) are not sure.

On what insights do the seventy-three percent who have opinions base them?  If surveyed, I’d be among the fifty-six percent who disagree if for no reason beyond that negotiations with the Taliban and others about whose desires we know comparably little, such as North Korea, have rarely worked to our advantage.  Negotiations with Germany’s Hitler didn’t either and we knew more about German culture than we know about Islamic culture.

Mass StarvationHow about dealing with the Kim Regime in North Korea?  We tend to fantasize that their desires are at least similar to ours.  We may think we know by introspection what they want, but those in power (and therefore in positions to do things far beyond trying to stave off hunger) probably don’t agree with our assessments of what they should have.  Do the peasants of North Korea — who daily have to try to stave off hunger — agree with what those in power want for them?  Do they agree with what those in power say they want for them (often very different)?  Do they agree with what we say we want for them?  During his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Russell asked,

What is the influence of hunger upon slogans? How does their effectiveness fluctuate with the number of calories in your diet? If one man offers you democracy and another offers you a bag of grain, at what stage of starvation will you prefer the grain to the vote? Such questions are far too little considered.

Will the opening of an Associated Press news bureau in Pyongyang finally help us to learn of conditions in North Korea?

The bureau expands the AP’s presence in North Korea, building on the breakthrough in 2006 when AP opened a video bureau in Pyongyang for the first time by an international news organization. Exclusive video from AP video staffers in Pyongyang was used by media outlets around the world following Kim’s death. …

The bureau puts AP in a position to document the people, places and politics of North Korea across all media platforms at a critical moment in its history, with Kim’s death and the ascension of his young son as the country’s new leader, Curley said in remarks prepared for the opening.

“Beyond this door lies a path to vastly larger understanding and cultural enrichment for millions around the world,” Curley said. “Regardless of whether you were born in Pyongyang or Pennsylvania, you are aware of the bridge being created today.”

Curley said the Pyongyang bureau will operate under the same standards and practices as AP bureaus worldwide.

It is “situated inside the headquarters of the state-run Korean Central News Agency in downtown Pyongyang,” an often pleasant city where residence is generally limited to those in favor with the Kim Regime.  It seems unlikely that we will hear and see significantly more than KCNA permits us to hear and see or that it will provide a “vastly larger understanding and cultural enrichment for millions around the world.”

It may impose a color of legitimacy upon what the KCNA wants us to see, but that’s rather a different matter and is hardly likely to improve what we know about North Korea.

I have more questions than answers, but the recognition of ignorance is at least a start in understanding the world in which we need to play more than the bit part advocated by some.

The last two sentences from Russell’s 1950 Nobel Prize speech were,

I would say, in conclusion, that if what I have said is right, the main thing needed to make the world happy is intelligence. And this, after all, is an optimistic conclusion, because intelligence is a thing that can be fostered by known methods of education.

Optimistic?  Well, yes; excessively so.  Methods of education commonly used to foster  intelligence — if by that is meant rational thought — often foster little.  In any event, information — knowledge — beyond what can be secured by rational thought is needed if we are to act in our own best self-interests.  Rational thought can permit us to reject false information, but alone cannot help us to obtain the valid information we need. Without better insights into what we ourselves desire, and what others very different from us but with whom we must deal desire, rationality requires us to understand our informational limitations (and theirs) in dealing with them and in achieving what we want.  Recognizing that need will be a small but necessary step toward improving how we interact with them in our own self-interest. Another, but more difficult and rather bigger, step will be to improve upon the information we have. We need to do both.

(This article was also posted at Dan Miller’s Blog.)


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One Response to “Enlightened Self-interest and International Relations”



  1. Tom Carter |

    Excellent and insightful article, Dan. My own views of foreign policy and international relations, formed by years of academic study and personal involvement, are fairly simple. Everything we do in our dealings with other countries must be based first and foremost on valid, clearly defined U.S. national interests. That applies to the entire spectrum, from stripey-pants diplomacy to foreign aid to waging war. Any time we make foreign policy decisions based on other considerations it doesn’t turn out well.

    A prime example is the potentially endless war in Afghanistan. It was clearly in our national interest after 9/11 to invade, attack al-Qaeda and those who supported them, and kill and disperse them. We did that magnificently and very creatively. But instead of then pulling back and monitoring the situation, using off-shore or special operations power to deal with problems that might re-emerge, we got stuck to the tar baby of so-called nation building. Anyone with a clear-eyed, non-ideological view of reality should have understood that no amount of force can drag a primitive tribal society into the modern world as a democracy. Trying to teach a pig to dance, again. The U.S. has no national interest in Afghanistan in those terms.

    Foreign aid, in particular, must be consistent with U.S. interests. Many conservatives hate foreign aid as a matter of principle. That’s ignorant, not suprisingly. What they should oppose is foreign aid that’s inconsistent with U.S. interests, poorly managed and monitored, and prone to corruption in countries receiving it. There are plenty of problems like that to deal with, and that’s where the focus should be. To stop all foreign aid, as many conservatives advocate, would stupidly deny us an important tool in foreign policy.


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