Obama and the Forest Fire

If you haven’t seen this Onion clip (via Laura Rozen), it’s worth taking a look. My reaction to the Onion is usually just to think, “That’s funny.” This one actually made me laugh. But then it made me think. (I know, I know. Humor. Less.)

It puts its finger, in a way that our nation’s comics seem better able to do these days than our political pundits, on a pretty determinant question in international relations. Namely, are nations, like raging forest fires, guided by natures that are unchanging and unresponsive to engagement and dialogue? Or are they guided by reason, taking into account changing circumstances and interests in order to adapt behavior? The same question applies to their leaders, obviously, who, because they are human, are to varying degrees rational, ideological and constrained by their own natures, both personally and culturally determined. (As my dear old Dad is fond of observing, character is destiny.)

My suspicion is that the more you consider people’s natures to be ineffable, the more you’ll perceive nations and their leaders as constrained by their national character. And the more you see people as rational — if flawed — actors, the more you’ll perceive nations and their leaders as responsive to arguments of interest and circumstances. And the degree to which you fall to one side or the other of that spectrum will determine how receptive you are to President Barack Obama’s foreign policy assumptions.

So, is Obama trying to negotiate with forest fires? To a certain degree, yes. But a lot depends on what degree that is. Unfortunately, there’s no crystal ball. But it is interesting that with all the allusions these days to Nixon in China, as well as to the Vietnam War, less attention is given to the fundamental outcomes of those two turning points in American foreign policy: Engagement can work, and yesterday’s enemies can become today’s grudging friends. Even one we “lost” a war to.

Yes, there was a generational change in leaders, that is to say, a kind of “regime change.” But perhaps the lesson is there: To engage is not the work of one administration, or even one generation. But once begun, it affects the national character and thereby shapes the leaders to come. Only long-term vision can get you long-term payoffs.