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Mistaking Political Branding for Reality in Foreign Policy

Michael Cecire comments on Western misunderstanding of the political realities in Georgia:

For the foreign-policy community, the Georgian election is a cautionary tale of the dangers of mistaking branding for reality and choosing personalities over institutions [bold mine-DL]. Given such a misread by the West of ground-level realities and apparent faith in the ruling party’s ability to stay in power, it’s fortunate that the Georgian people have chosen a party that has pledged to continue the country’s Western path.

Mistaking branding for reality is a common error that many Americans make in their assessment of foreign political movements and governments. If a particular leader flatters Americans by praising our country and our values, whether or not he intends to respect those values in governing his own country, many are inclined to take this praise at face value and ignore what that leader does. If American political leaders decide that a given foreign leader is “pro-Western” because he happens to share their antipathy for yet another foreign government, he receives even more slack. At that point, he is no longer just a “pro-Western” leader, but an important “ally.” It doesn’t seem to matter if the “ally” is a security liability for the U.S. so long as he says the right things and has the right enemies. After a while, Americans come to see his domestic enemies as he sees them, and many Americans self-importantly assume that the only people who could possibly oppose their “ally” must also “anti-Western” or, in this case, “pro-Russian.” To some extent, the foreign leader deserves credit for so effectively misleading Americans into seeing the politics of his country his way, but the Americans that fall for this do so because they want to believe that this is the way the world works.

The error of personalizing foreign policy is an old one, and it’s a habit that we seem to have a hard time breaking. Americans are not unique in this. If we were, other nations wouldn’t have expected the Obama administration to be dramatically different in its foreign policy than its predecessor. The hope that a change in leadership can usher in rapid change in long-established patterns of behavior is a common one, but one that overlooks domestic political constituencies and entrenched interest groups in a given country. If we didn’t personalize the way many of us think about foreign policy, Americans wouldn’t so ready to obsess over individual foreign leaders as repositories of evil to be defeated and destroyed. It may be easier to handle difficult issues if we can convince ourselves that a given issue is particularly contentious because of a particular foreign leader or regime. That way, one can dismiss a policy as the product of one leader or regime’s preoccupations rather than an ongoing divergence of national interests that can’t be ignored.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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