The problem with foreign policy and geopolitics has never been about the mechanisms of international relations. For all intents and purposes, our global powers interact quite a bit like patrons at a crowded bar: trying to manage polite dialogue with familiar strangers, all the while maintaining closely held ulterior motives. That guy in the corner chatting up those girls that looks like trouble? He’s here looking to have an affair — a violation of trust that doesn’t seem to phase him much despite how it offends my personal sensibilities. The nation to his left? They’re ethnically cleansing a minority group within their borders. Also offensive to my national sensibilities… but we, as a nation, have opted not to get involved there either.

What makes geopolitics complicated is in the number of variables at play between each patron at the bar. During my rugby days, I’d walk into our little hole in the wall bar on Main Street in my small Vermont town and have a seat next to the mountain-sized men I found myself fortunate enough to play alongside. I’d order a drink before turning on my stool and surveying the scene.

Growing up in a small town means there are rarely unfamiliar faces in the crowd of a bar like that… and as you scan past the sea of faces, your brain assesses your relationships with each before you even realize it. Claire, the cute girl in the back, had her dorm room one floor above mine during my brief stint at a local college. Jess, the photographer with a banker dad, is a good-natured guy with a sadness he revealed to me four beers deep after high school graduation. Ron, a lawyer, used to beat the hell out of me before football practice back when I was a freshman. From the look of his clothes, he’s found a successful outlet for those urges in his law practice.

You don’t have to consciously inventory your past experiences, your feelings, or your instincts when you see those familiar faces — your brain does it for you, and provides that data in the form of easily interpreted emotion. You feel like you want to speak to some people, and like you may want to avoid others. Just about every bar with regulars all across this great nation operates in a similar way: a crowd full of known-entities, and interactions that are directly informed by variables like the beers I shared with Jess after graduation, or the time Claire saw me streaking through the quad fifteen years ago. To an outsider, those countless variables seem too complex and interwoven to follow even if I were to try to explain each of them… but to me, drowning out the pain of the afternoon’s rugby game with glass of whiskey in one hand and a tall beer in the other, it’s just a matter of knowing the players.