By David K. Shipler
American football is a convenient metaphor, and it’s sure to be overused on this Super Bowl weekend. But what if we turn it around and recognize that our foreign policy is actually the metaphor—a metaphor for football, and that our trick tactics and testosterone-driven plays internationally are often modeled on what works in the National Football League?
The decision this week to ramp up US military deployment in Europe, like putting more muscle on the line, is designed to cow Vladimir Putin’s “aggression,” to use the word that is kicked around casually by the Pentagon. It seems logical if you think you’re in a game to win by defeating the opponent rather than finding victory on common ground. The real world of foreign affairs is rarely a zero-sum game, however, and there’s never a final whistle.
The American-Russian face-off is full of football-style moves that look tough but have had the perverse effect of strengthening the hand of the other side. Expanding NATO, which commits the United States to go to war to defend any of its members, has alarmed Moscow as the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have joined the alliance, along with Eastern European countries once in the Soviet sphere of influence. Russia’s reaction has been the opposite of what’s good for the West.
NATO’s forward military posture appears threatening from Moscow’s perspective, and Putin has behaved more as an offensive coordinator than a sophisticated head of state. Building up his own armed forces, annexing Crimea, and taking over eastern Ukraine to prevent its slipping into Western Europe’s orbit, he in turn provoked Western responses that damaged his interests: economic sanctions, and now a proposed quadrupling of US military expenditures in Europe to include increased deployments, joint exercises, and pre-positioned weaponry. Poland and other East Europeans want American combat troops stationed on their soil.
Deterrence is a workable concept in many situations, and this might turn out to be one of them. But a sense of insecurity is also a powerful incentive to make self-defeating decisions, as Israel has done in its conflict with the Palestinians, and as Republican candidates for president are advocating today. Their tough-guy trash talk, suitable for beefy linemen on the gridiron, is so much hot air in the international arena, where brute force has proved ineffective in the complex warfare that has erupted since World War II.
To be fair, Barack Obama and John Kerry have often played like deft quarterbacks who know how to slide out of the pocket and find the receiver, and even ditch the passing play to run when the meaty heavyweights open a hole up front. For all the criticisms of Obama over Syria, he deserves credit for knowing when to hang back instead of rushing with armed force into a melee, as he is being pressed to do now in Libya. Kerry conducted the Iran nuclear talks with finesse. This is a reminder that even if you can’t put a clear number up on the scoreboard, you can play judiciously to protect your interests.
To the crowds who roar approval of Donald Trump’s primal, empty pledges to bludgeon the world into compliance, foreign affairs might seem susceptible to the quick, rough tackles and blocks that millions of Americans will relish this Sunday. It would be really satisfying to see how 11 of those ISIS guys, disarmed, would do against the crushing Carolina line. But international problems have a way of spilling beyond the neatly delineated 100-yard rectangle where rules and replays prevail.
If foreign policy used another model, suggested by Hillary Clinton when she was Secretary of State, things might go better. She likened diplomacy to jazz, with all its creative improvisation around central themes. She drew the analogy in 2012 in presenting an award given posthumously by Search for Common Ground to Chris Stevens, the American ambassador killed in Benghazi, Libya. He played the saxophone, she noted, which she knew something about, being married to another guy who doodled around on the instrument.
Listening to her unscripted, admiring speech about a diplomat she counted as a friend, it was hard to accept the Republicans’ propaganda line about her supposed callousness to that event. Stevens, she said, was an inventive diplomat who played by ear in working in close touch with the country to which he was assigned. Her brief talk had the powerful beauty of a heartfelt tribute to the man and his honorable dedication to the profession of advancing American interests without resorting to force of arms.
In a jazz piece, nobody wins and nobody loses. Success depends on intricate interactions, symbiotic runs of phrases and melodies. It’s more like the real world than football is.