Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities

The Rationality of Breaking the Rules

Controversy is raging around Thomas Friedman’s column today advising the presumptive Secretary of State John Kerry to “break all the rules.”

In short, Friedman—known for his faithful belief that technology is making the world flat and changing things for the better—counsels that the U.S. ignore hostile governments and appeal directly to the people. Here’s the key paragraph:

Let’s break all the rules. Rather than negotiating with Iran’s leaders in secret — which, so far, has produced nothing and allows the Iranian leaders to control the narrative and tell their people that they’re suffering sanctions because of U.S. intransigence — why not negotiate with the Iranian people? President Obama should put a simple offer on the table, in Farsi, for all Iranians to see: The U.S. and its allies will permit Iran to maintain a civil nuclear enrichment capability — which it claims is all it wants to meet power needs — provided it agrees to U.N. observers and restrictions that would prevent Tehran from ever assembling a nuclear bomb. We should not only make this offer public, but also say to the Iranian people over and over: “The only reason your currency is being crushed, your savings rapidly eroded by inflation, many of your college graduates unemployed and your global trade impeded and the risk of war hanging overhead, is because your leaders won’t accept a deal that would allow Iran to develop civil nuclear power but not a bomb.” Iran wants its people to think it has no partner for a civil nuclear deal. The U.S. can prove otherwise.

Foreign policy types like Dan Drezner respond with derision.

Friedman's "break all the rules" strategy is as transgressive as those dumb-ass Dr. Pepper commercials.  Worse, he's recommending a policy that would actually be counter-productive to any hope of reaching a deal with Iran.  This is the worst kind of "World is Flat" pablum, applied to nuclear diplomacy.  God forbid John Kerry were to read it and follow Friedman's advice.

I’ll leave the debate to others. But look at the central assumption in Friedman’s logic. If the leaders of a country don’t agree with us, go to the people. Tell them our plan. They’ll love it.  But why is that so? For Friedman and so many of his brothers and sisters on the left and the right in the commentariat, the answer is: because our proposals are rational. Whether it is Friedman on Iran or Brooks on the economy or liberals on gun control or conservatives on the budget, there is an assumption that if everyone would just get together and talk this through like rational individuals, we would agree on a workable and rational solution. This is of course the basic view of President Obama. He sees himself as the most rational person in the room and wonders why people don’t agree with him.

This rationalist fallacy is wrong. Neuro-scientists tell us that people respond to emotional and non-rational inputs. But long ago Hannah Arendt understood and argued that the essence of politics is neither truth nor reason. It is plurality and opinion. The basic condition of politics is plurality, which means people need to come together and pursue a common good in spite of their disagreements and differences.

For Arendt, Western history has seen politics had come under the sway of philosophy and thus the pursuit of rational truth instead of being what it was: a space for the public engagement of different opinions. The tragedy of the last 50 years is that philosophical rationality has now been supplanted by technocratic rationality, so that politics is increasingly about neither opinion nor common truths, but technocracy.

One lesson Arendt took from her fundamental distrust of unity and rationality was the importance of the diffusion of powers and her distrust of centralized power. Her embrace of American Constitutional Federalism was neither conservative nor liberal; it was born from her insistence that politics cannot and should not seek to replace opinions with truths.

Friedman wants rational truth to win out and believes that if we just talk to the people, the veils will fall from their eyes. Well it doesn’t work here at home because people really do disagree and see the world differently. There is no reason to think it will work around the world either. A thoughtful foreign policy, as opposed to a rational one, would begin with the fact of true plurality. The question is not how to make others agree with us, but rather how we who disagree can still live together meaningfully in a common world.



The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.

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  1. I am in complete accord with the above conclusion that, in terms of spreading the distinctively Western approach to politics to the rest of the world, the “rationalist fallacy” is wrong. As reporter and political commentator Stephen Kinzer so aptly demonstrates in his 2007 book Overthrow, the vast majority of American involvements in foreign affairs in the past two centuries has been dominated by the prevalent sentiment that the American way is fundamentally “right,” and that the values held within American society are, in fact, universal to all humanity. Thus, when those living in other civilizations repeatedly and forcefully reject American interventions, and the idea of a forced Westernization, the majority of the American public is left baffled. They have been taught by their government and the structure of their society that their own way of life is necessarily best, and is necessarily desired by all other peoples of the world, and therefore cannot understand how the opportunity to share in this way of living can be rejected.

    If American foreign policy is ever to radically change – if a shift away from the “overthrow” mentality that Kinzer presents is ever to occur – it is not only the policy-makers who will have to refine their understanding of the world. The renewed emphasis on plurality that is here suggested is, indeed, essential to bringing about a new national approach to world affairs, but it is not only those in Washington who would have to adopt Arendt’s vision of a plural world. Rather, this shift must begin within the broader American public. Only when the people of this country begin to recognize and accept the notion that the world is comprised of countless systems of distinct and equal sets of values, rather than a single, universal standard of “good” and “right,” will they start to challenge the policies of the government. One of the most important qualities of our American system is the fact that it is, by definition, a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, and, as such, must necessarily be a reflection of the people’s attitudes and desires. If the populace is accepting of plurality, it will not tolerate American interventions and forced Westernization; such behavior will therefore be eliminated from our national consciousness in favor of a new policy of respect towards all ways of life.

  2. I am not sure that Friedman’s suggestion of a negotiation with the Iranian people is the most efficacious way to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. This mainly for two reasons:
    1. Given that result elections in Iran have been manipulated in order dor the seemingly democratically elected president to assume power, how does that demonstrate that public opinion is in fact a concern of the president? Even if the Iranian people were to perceive the U.S. proposal as a decent one and see it in their interest to prevent the debelopment of nucler technology towards bomb-making, public opinion does not seem to mean anything for the Iranian government. The people could potentially revolt, leading to a civil war. But what good would it do to crate a civil war within Iran? No good. The U.S. would find it suitable to intervene, which would lead to the deaths of thousands of American soldiers. If the prevention of killing American lives is the goal of preventing Iran from possessing the nuclear bomb, then attempting to negotiate with the people, and thereby clearly disrespecting the government, would generate potentially deathly consequences for American lives anyway.
    2. As Hannah Arendt says that “Men, not man, inhabit the earth,” would she not argue that plurality in itself requires a level of understanding and acceptance of other cultures? In this case, it is not only the U.S. who inhabits the earth, but instead a whole multitude of countries with varying traditions and pursuits. The case for plurality becomes hazy as the pursuit of one country conflicts with the interests of another. Iranian development of nuclear technology for bombs presents an immense threat to the U.S.
    I wonder what Arendt thought of the international political arena, and how it’s historically and inherent anarchic system stands before plurality. After all, countries do compete for a variety of reasons, such as natural resources. Where does plurality fit in when there is conflict among nations? Is the humanity of “men” limited to national boundaries?
    That seems to stand in direct conflict with what Arendt is saying, but what does the wolrd of men, not man, encompass? To where does it extend?

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