Foreign Policy Blogs

Big Babies

Why do countries act like big babies?

I bring this up in reaction to the U.S.’s walkout during Ahmadinejad’s UN speech last week.  Now I know, he was suggesting that the U.S. government’s explanation of 9/11 might be inaccurate, and many Americans may view this as “hateful and offensive,” as Obama said.  But Ahmadinejad was merely pointing out the different viewpoints held around the world.  Here’s what he actually said, with my inserted commentary in blue italics:

Please take note: it was said that some three thousands people were killed on September 11th, for which we are all very saddened. Yet, up until now, in Afghanistan and Iraq hundreds of thousands of people have been killed, millions wounded and displaced and the conflict is still going on and expanding.  This isn’t a very controversial statement – Tom Engelhardt made the same point in TomDispath piece last month, for one.

In identifying those responsible for the attack, there were three viewpoints.  Note that he isn’t taking a stance either way but merely laying out different perspectives.

1- That a very powerful and complex terrorist group, able to successfully cross all layers of the American intelligence and security, carried out the attack. This is the main viewpoint advocated by American statesmen.  It is obviously true that this is the viewpoint expressed by American government officials.

2- That some segments within the U.S. government orchestrated the attack to reverse the declining American economy and its grips on the Middle East in order also to save the Zionist regime. The majority of the American people as well as other nations and politicians agree with this view. Here he overshoots.  PIPA’s 2008 poll of 17 nations shows that many countries have majorities that don’t believe Al Qaeda was responsible (Ukraine, Jordan, Egypt, Mexico, China, and Indonesia, and the Palestinian Territories), but PIPA found no countries in which even a plurality blames the U.S. government.  It’s not that marginal of a view, though.  30% in Mexico, 36% in Turkey, and 23% in Germany blame the U.S.  As for U.S. public opinion, different polls from the past few years have given different results, but it seems like about a third of U.S. citizens believe there was a conspiracy.

3- It was carried out by a terrorist group but the American government supported and took advantage of the situation. Apparently, this viewpoint has fewer proponents. The main evidence linking the incident was a few passports found in the huge volume of rubble and a video of an individual whose place of domicile was unknown but it was announced that he had been involved in oil deals with some American officials. It was also covered up and said that due to the explosion and fire no trace of the suicide attackers was found. I think this is probably actually the majority opinion.  He certainly seems mixed up here.

So he gets some things wrong, but in light of world opinion, he’s not completely being from Mars.  And even if he were, why the walkout?  Doesn’t a walkout seem a little… immature?  And of course, the walkout is an act intended to delegitimize Iran, but why is the act of walking out deemed legitimate?  This time, there was at least the pretense of a credible excuse.  Earlier this year, the U.S. staged a walkout during an Ahmadinejad speech when really all he was doing was railing against the immorality of nuclear weapons and calling for global nuclear disarmament.

It may be tempting to view this immature behavior as characteristic of the U.S.  Perhaps the U.S. is just a baby-like country.  After all, as George Friedman writes in The Next 100 Years:

Psychologically, the United States is a bizarre mixture of overconfidence and insecurity.  Interestingly, this is the precise description of the adolescent mind, and that is exactly the American condition in the twenty-first century.  The world’s leading power is having an extended adolescent identity crisis, complete with incredible new strength and irrational mood swings.  Historically, the United States is an extraordinarily young and therefore immature society.  So at this time we should expect nothing less from America than bravado and despair.  How else should an adolescent feel about itself and its place in the world?

But rather than argue that this type of behavior is characteristic of the U.S. at this point in time, I think it’s more accurate to say that this type of behavior is characteristic of most countries most of the time.  As Thomas Friedman (no relation to George, as far as I know) wrote in 2003, the “single most underappreciated force in international relations is humiliation.”  Though Friedman, in his characteristic style, overplays his hand, his conclusion is valid.  Countries behave like extremely  sensitive, insecure people.

Iran is no different.  During negotiations in 2005, the E3/EU proposed an agreement to Iran in which Iran would give up uranium enrichment, agree to intrusive inspections, and sign an agreement pledging to never withdraw from the NPT in exchange for cooperation in trade, investment, and fighting terrorism.  In response, as the House of Commons’ report on the negotiations indicates, Iran not only rejected the offer (which is fair), but asserted that “the proposal amounts to an insult on the Iranian nation, for which the E3 must apologize” (which supports Friedman’s assertion about the role of humiliation).

Apparently, it has always been this way.  If we look as far back in history as we can, to the Amarna Letters, the earliest records of international diplomacy we have, from 1300 BCE, we find similar behavior.  In one example, the King of Babylon became quite emotional when the Egyptian Pharaoh didn’t show enough concern for his illness:

Furthermore, since I was not well and my brother showed me no concern, I for my part became angry with my brother, saying: “Has my brother not heard that I am ill?  Why has he shown me no concern?  Why has he sent no messenger here and visited me?”

As one interesting article about the Amarna letters notes, such immature acts were components of diplomatic games world leaders would play with one another.  It is interesting to consider how little has changed.