John Bolton, public menace but useful expository device

Sep 14 2019

Thanks to President Trump (and I don’t often start a sentence that way, believe me), it’s an auspicious week to rechristen a newsletter as the Nonzero Newsletter. 

For a long time now, a huge part of my worldview has been the belief that, as technology marches on, the world’s nations are playing more and more non-zero-sum games with one another—games that can have win-win or lose-lose outcomes, depending on how they’re played. On Tuesday Trump fired National Security Adviser John Bolton, who perennially fails to play such games wisely, or for that matter to even recognize that they’re non-zero-sum. More than anyone else—more even than Trump himself, which is saying something—Bolton epitomizes the zero-sum world view this administration has become famous for.

To list big non-zero-sum opportunities in the world is to list the kinds of opportunities Bolton has made a career of sabotaging: treaties for controlling nuclear weapons, bioweapons, weapons in space, cyberweapons; accords that address climate change and other environmental threats; international tribunals for peacefully settling border disputes and trade disputes; and the whole overarching project of nurturing global governance and the various multilateral institutions that mediate it. Bolton once said that if the United Nations building in New York “lost ten stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.” (So, naturally, George W. Bush later made Bolton America’s ambassador to the UN.)

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When NPR is more dangerous than Fox News

Jun 21 2019
What to do when military conflict between the US and Iran seems to be approaching, and you’re trying to get a clear picture of the situation? I’m only half-kidding when I say there’s a case to be made for staying glued to Fox News. Sure, you’ll hear a lot of pro-war propaganda. But at least you’ll know that’s what it is. If you instead tune in to “mainstream” media, you may think you’re getting an objective account when in fact you’re getting an account that’s biased in favor of war—just biased in subtler, harder-to-detect ways than the accounts on Fox News.

Disclaimer: I’m not saying that mainstream journalists and commentators who evince these biases are consciously anti-Iran or pro-war. Usually the problem is just that they’re Americans, viewing the world through American lenses, relying on America’s ecosystem of expertise. And, of course, they’re human—which means they have cognitive biases that distort reality in accordance with their group affiliations (such as, say, being American).

Consider a report that ran on NPR Thursday, hours after Iran downed a U.S. surveillance drone that, according to Iran, had violated Iranian airspace and, according to the United States, hadn’t. Rachel Martin, host of Morning Edition, began the segment by providing some context: “Since the Trump administration announced a maximum-pressure campaign against Iran, Iran has responded by attacking oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman.”

American Foreign Policy Has an Empathy Problem

Dec 20 2016
[First published in the Nation, December 21, 2016]

American foreign policy has an empathy problem.

The problem isn’t a shortage of empathy. Large quantities of empathy have been harnessed to build support for ill-advised interventions. The Iraq War was waged in part to help suffering Iraqis, many of whom, as it happened, wound up dead. The United States and its allies justified the arming of Syrian rebels as a way to help the oppressed Syrian people, though, in retrospect, had there been no armed insurrection, hundreds of thousands of Syrians would be better off — living under an oppressive regime, but still living. Not to mention the millions of refugees and the many Syrians who have suffered under ISIS’s rule.

No, the problem isn’t a shortage of empathy, but rather an imbalance between two kinds of empathy. Psychologists distinguish between “emotional empathy” — the feel-your-pain kind, which supporters of military intervention are good at cultivating — and “cognitive empathy.” Cognitive empathy means putting yourself in the shoes of other people in the sense of seeing how the world looks to them: perspective-taking.