International Relations in a Time of Nukes and Plenty

In olden days, if a neighboring kingdom was prosperous and capable, it was a risk to your security. A rich neighbor can assemble powerful armies to capture your resources and enslave your people. In those primitive times, any powerful empire was a real enemy, and you had to treat them as such.

Fast-forward to 2017, and some of those old rules have changed. A rich country with nuclear weapons won’t attack a weak country with nuclear weapons. Economics and national defense are somewhat disconnected in modern times. Nukes changed everything.

Our weapons have improved since the time of kings, but our way of thinking has not fully evolved. Consider Russia. We have every reason to cooperate for mutual economic benefit, and for fighting ISIS. And we have no real reasons for trying to screw each other at every turn. Our “reasons” are entirely in our heads.

The fancy word for that is cognitive dissonance.

We believe Russia is our adversary, because they were in the past, so we act as if they are now as well. Russia does the same, for the same reason. When they poke us, we poke back. When we imagine they might poke us, we poke them first, or prepare to be poked. But none of the poking helps either side in any meaningful way. It just feels as if it should. It is more reflex than reason.

President Trump came to power at an interesting time for civilization. He has exactly the right skillset (persuasion) to reframe our relationships with our traditional “adversaries” to something more productive. You might think prior presidents tried the same thing and failed. But unilaterally acting nice and talking nice isn’t enough. To sell the new frame you need real-world actions that shove all of us out of the old way of thinking. And it has to be a hard shove, mentally.

The “bad version” of this idea might include (as an example only) a treaty partnering NATO with both Russia and China to act against terrorism and against nuclear proliferation. In the year 2017, why do any of the big three military powers point their weapons at each other? No one has any intention of starting that sort of war. Why act as if we do?

If Russia wants a warm-weather port, or China wants to extend its military reach to some islands off their shores, those situations feel like problems for the U.S., so long as we regard them as military adversaries. But if we’re on the same team, it doesn’t mean as much.

This sort of reframing – from military adversaries to friendly competitors who are on a mission to improve life on Earth – wouldn’t work if limited to speeches and punditry. It would need real-world treaties and actions so everyone can see something physical changing. Words wouldn’t get it done.

In the modern world, the real enemies of the rich countries are some of the poor countries, with their nukes and their terrorists. Rich countries are not much risk to other rich countries in modern times. I think we would all do better if we recognized that reality. 

This would be a good time to remind you that cartoonists are not good sources of geopolitical wisdom. I present ideas such as this for entertainment, and to educate you on the finer points of persuasion when it applies. If anything I write here turns out to be useful in the bigger world, that would be a lucky benefit.

You might enjoy reading my book because people keep telling me they got fitter and got wealthier after they learned the difference between systems and goals. (I literally hear that every day now.)

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