Imagining the Poorly Known Adversary

A key principle of effective foreign policy is to make accurate default assumptions about the make-up of an enemy regime. To treat the enemy as evil, homogenous, and unchanging is the most self-defeating mental model imaginable.

…when all Rome was divided into three powerful parties, that of Pompey, that of Caesar, and that of Crassus (for Cato’s reputation was greater than his power, and men admired him more than they followed him), it was the thoughtful and conservative part of the city which attached itself to Pompey, the violent and volatile part which supported the hopes of Caesar, while Crassus took a middle ground and drew from both. [Plutarch, Life of Crassus.]

This classic exemplar of factionalism constitutes a good initial model for analyzing any political system that one does not know. Thus, foreign policy decision-makers attempting to formulate policy toward a poorly known adversary might begin, rather than by assuming a unitary state actor, by assuming that their adversary consisted of three opposing factions warily circling each other in an endless domestic political dance. Such a perspective might be wrong but would almost surely in most cases contain a greater element of truth than the simplistic assumption of a unitary state actor. More, the blind assumption of a tripartite factional structure of the enemy regime would provoke such questions as, “How do we identify a “thoughtful” faction willing to engage in negotiations?” or “How do we undermine a violent faction before it can gain enough influence to cause us harm?” The latter question would lead naturally to consideration of some unilateral show of moderation – not to engage the “violent and volatile part,” men quite likely to reject any offer of compromise, but to provoke the other factions to resist the violent faction’s calls for war.

Noteworthy in Plutarch’s description is the “middle course” of Crassus, a man surely not unique in his lust for gold. Such men are unlikely to sport a “for sale” sign on their backs and may be very difficult to identify from the outside. Assuming they exist is a safe bet and opens the door to designing low-risk economic policies to entice their cooperation.

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