Counterintuitive Foreign Policy

Imagine that you’re in a feud with your evil neighbor, Max. Max always steals your Amazon packages, throws his garbage into your yard, and brings all kinds of shady characters into the neighborhood. He hates you, and you hate him. Now imagine that you control Max’s fate. If you push the green button, he will become a successful and wealthy doctor with a loving family and an active social life. If you push the red button, Max will lose all of his friends and become an unemployed, penniless failure. Which button do you push?

The selfish choice would be to ruin him and experience the joy of crushing an enemy. But will that actually make your life outcomes any better? After all, who’s more likely to key your car, steal your packages, or throw a rock through one of your windows? A rich guy with a great career and a family and a lot to lose? Or a poor guy with no career and no prospects and nothing to lose and nothing to do except sit around all day brooding and blaming you for his problems?

If your goal is to maximize your own success and self-enrichment, sometime the best course is the exact opposite of the intuitive option. This isn’t guaranteed to work out better: sometimes rich enemies just use their extra resources to cause you more trouble. But it’s an interesting line of thought.

I don’t know much about foreign policy, but I worry that it’s the most important topic in politics. It sometimes seem like a few crucial decisions set off a chain reaction that determines the world’s direction for generations. Recently, I’ve been wondering if crippling economic sanctions against hostile nations are the exact wrong approach. Economic enrichment seems to be one of the main driving forces towards making countries more mature and less violent. Nations almost always seem to have their values converge with ours as they become wealthier. But it seems much more natural and intuitive to keep enemies sanctioned and poor and weak and impoverished. This probably works sometimes, too. The impoverished population might blame their government for keeping them off of the global playing field. Over time, that ought to weaken those regimes. Those regimes will also have less wealth and fewer resources to work with.

The long-term results of foreign policy are always so murky and unclear. It’s much easier to get passionate about issues like gun rights or gay marriage, but I worry that foreign policy might be about 100,000 times more impactful on the fate of the world. Which foreign policy strategies are best at steering the world towards progress? Currently, I feel completely unqualified to answer that. Hopefully I’ll have a better grasp of this someday. In the meantime, I hope I’m not getting the most important questions in politics completely wrong.

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