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.
That’s geopolitics. The reason it seems too complex to follow during the 15 minutes a day most people have to devote to catching up on the news is that we’re not intrinsically connected to the countless interactions between these nations that go on each day. On the international stage, every nation has a Jess — the country we’re not afraid of or intimidated by, but that we’d go to war to protect. There’s a Claire — the country we see as a well-intentioned peer, even if we don’t share all of the same values. And, of course, there’s a Ron — the country we smile and nod to, but more out of courtesy and acknowledgment than any desire to actually interact. Trade agreements, backroom deals, second and third order effects of unilateral decisions, past conflicts, and contemporary politics all come into play when these nations interact with one another; and in our modern world, they tend to at least try to do so with some level of maturity and civil discourse.
But then there’s always that one asshole.
Every bar’s got at least one guy that walks through the door with his shoulders squared and a strut meant to signify a level of tough-guy confidence you’re certain isn’t founded. He talks a bit louder than the crowd and engages everyone with equal measures of aggressive humor and thinly veiled threats. Ironically, he’s usually just about as tall as Vladimir Putin, just barely scraping the underside of 5’7″, but with at least seven feet of bravado in tow. Everyone knows he’s looking for a fight, so everyone gives him a wide berth. It’s not about being afraid of him, so much as it’s about being aware that getting into a fight with a guy like that is a losing proposition. Maybe you’d beat a little humility into him — but you know humility isn’t in his nature. So instead, you’d just head home with scuffed up pants and bloody knuckles you’d have to explain to your wife (and Congress).
There are a million tiny squabbles housed under any one bar’s roof each night. Some you’re aware of, others you only get a sense of as your focus remains on the friends and potential threats you both knowingly and unknowingly devote your attention to. In my case, as a U.S. Marine, mixed martial arts competitor, and member of the rugby club that’s occupying a third of the bar — there are no conflicts within that bar’s walls that I couldn’t handle. I’m a pretty big guy that’s no stranger to scrapping, and I’ve got the combined might of a mutual defense alliance with most of the other powerful players in the bar behind me, but even that informs my interactions.
I know that the skinny redhead at the end of the bar is Nate’s cousin, so even though I have no formal ties with her, my ally Nate has her back, and as a result, I may be called upon to defend her as well. I know that Jerry, the bartender, is sick of how Randy spills his beers once he gets a little rowdy, so although Randy is my friend and ally, I’ve got to try my best to keep him from acting a fool. The alliances we maintain require just as much attention and care as the threats we try to mitigate — but from our perspectives in our hometown bars, it’s nothing more than knowing your friends and trying to make it through the night.
I understand what it’s like to be the United States at the U.N. General Assembly because I know what it’s like to be a well built former Marine with a good job, a masters degree, and a sometimes embarrassing reputation for looking for a fight in decades past that walks back into my small town bar and sees the wave of recognition register on the faces of my friends and peers. Chances are that you know what it’s like too, thanks to last year’s office Christmas party when you had to keep your boss from embarrassing herself in front of Tyler from accounting for the sake of the greater good — even though you wouldn’t mind seeing your boss force-fed a bit of humility. We manage a complex web of interconnected relationships in our own lives every day; webs that would be too complicated to explain even if there were thousands of journalists devoted to reporting on and analyzing every facet of each of them.
That’s geopolitics. It’s a crowded bar, an office Christmas party, or a high school reunion. It’s a room full of familiar faces, old grudges, new aspirations, and the occasional surprise. Understanding the players is the game, but don’t be fooled into thinking that means it’s too complex or grandiose for you to understand.
You just need to spend a while in the right bar.