Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Symbolism: Not So Empty After All


Devoted actor versus rational actor models for understanding world conflict.”

It doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, but don’t be put off by the long title. Basically, anthropologist Scott Atran says that the “rational actor” model of decision-making, in which policy-makers are thought to take actions based on cost-benefit analyses, breaks down when discussing places that have become “holy”:

... When disputed issues are transformed into sacred values, as when land ceases to be a mere resource and becomes "holy" or when structures of brick and mortar become "sacred sites," then standard political and economic proposals for resolving conflicts don't suffice and can be counterproductive by raising levels of outrage and disgust. But even token symbolic concessions, such as an apology for a perceived wrong that touches a sacred value, can be more important than material trade-offs in making peace.

Almost all current approaches to resolving resource conflicts or countering political violence tend to assume that adversaries make rational choices. Such assumptions are prevalent in risk assessment and modeling by foreign aid and international development projects, and by U.S. diplomatic, military and intelligence services as well. Similarly, in economics, political science and psychology, most academic courses and journals analyze decision-making in terms of strict cost-benefit calculations regarding goals, and entail abandoning or adjusting goals if costs for realizing them are too high. ...

In place of the rational-actor model, Atran proposes, diplomats may need a language of highly public, symbolic gestures:

“Israel freeing some of our prisoners will help us to stop others from attacking it," the Hamas government spokesman, Ghazi Hamad, told me. "But Israel must apologize for our tragedy in 1948 before we can talk about negotiating over our right of return to historic Palestine." From the other side, Isaac Ben Israel, one of Israel's top military strategists, who currently heads his country's space program, drove home the point to me that "when we feel Hamas has recognized our right to exist as a Jewish state, then we can deal."

Material tradeoffs, like prisoner exchanges, are important. However, so are symbolic actions, perhaps even more so. In my discussions with Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniya and other Hamas officials, they have stressed the importance of Israel's recognizing their suffering from the original loss of Palestinian land. And our survey research of Israeli settlers, Palestinian refugees and Hamas reliably finds that violent opposition to peace decreases if the adversary is seen to compromise its own moral position, even if that compromise has no material value, for example by simply recognizing another's right to exist as a moral entity or by apologizing. In rational-choice models of decision making, that something as intangible as an apology should stand in the way of peace doesn't compute."

Atran’s interaction with and analysis of Middle Eastern conflicts has broad implications for public diplomacy because most diplomacy—and most statecraft writ large—is underpinned by the idea that a combination of threats, negotiations and finally “sweetening the deal” are effective ways to bring an adversary to the table and then to agreement. This approach may actually be counterproductive, and I’d be interested to see more study of how symbolism could be used as a powerful tool in negotiations across the Middle East.

Unfortunately, symbolism in foreign affairs is something the Bush administration has sworn off. I can only hope that since Atran clearly has the National Security Council’s ear, his words may yet have some effect.

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