Saturday, April 2, 2011

Worse than a Rorschach Blot

My subject is the National Interest, not psychology, ink, or blots. And my purpose is to contemplate how well that concept works in justifying policy decisions such as bombing this coast line or that. And I’ll give you my conclusion right out of the box. Using a concept like National Interest translates into saying, “I can do whatever I damned well please.”

Now for the fun part. To use something as a justification, it ought to be capable of description in some rational, traceable, and somewhat measurable way. Let’s take such a justification. It may be policy to defend the U.S. population by keeping its borders secure. Very well. We can draw lines on a map that closely approximate the actual borders of the United States, including the 12-mile limit sanctioned by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Now, grant you, even here, I could create insurmountable problems. I’ve learned this years ago studying fractal geometry. It turns out that applying fractal methods, the U.S. borders are infinitely long. Fortunately Great Nations made up entirely of Conscious Bacteria do not as yet confront us, so defending borders as we know them is still in the ballpark of the rational, traceable, and somewhat measurable.

We’re also still in the ballpark if we define national interest as the protection of the U.S. population. That would justify action to protect our citizens, even if they are elsewhere, from harm by groups that violate international law or those prevailing where they happen to be. But problems already surface at this point. Theoretically such an interest would apply equally to a single person whose rights have been violated by a very powerful and large country at the very center of its large geographical landmass. But would that also necessitate going to war with that country?

But is it in the National Interest generally to defend people against “bad things that can happen?” In the future? Whatever they might be? That one fails the test. Irrational, untraceable (the future actually is, is untraceable), and immeasurable.

But let me illustrate that more narrowly. Supposing some of our petroleum companies have invested millions in risky exploratory ventures somewhere far away—and some foreign land now seizes these assets and nationalizes them. Better yet, what if some country that supplies one-sixty-fourth of our total imports of oil is attacked by a third party that, in the past, has expressed hostile attitudes toward us and does not trade with us now? Here the national interest becomes extremely fuzzy. Our national interest might include getting cheap gas, and that invasion, not of our land but another party A’s, by a third party B, might, if it succeeds, eventually cause our gas price to rise by a cent or two. Should our national interest therefore cause us to mount a major military expedition to defend A from B?

In both cases above, the government as such is not a party. Investors invest where they please, importers import from where they wish. The national interest is difficult to define much better than the way I have defined it: we’d all rather not pay as much as we usually have to.

The moment we get away from something as basic as the defense of our shores or of our citizens, the National Interest rapidly turns wondrously fuzzy. An infinity of interests start to be part of it, virtually all of these private, undertaken freely, usually for gain. Tracing them all out is impossible in practice. It’s certainly logical to keep terrorists and their weapons outside our borders. Trying to transform entire foreign regions in the name of National Interest, preemptive wars and the like, is not justified by rationality, traceability, and precision. To say that a stable Egypt is central to the U.S. National Interest is merely to say that we don’t like unpredictability. But nobody does. To think that we can actually manage these fuzzy balls of total ambiguity amounts to claiming that we can see precisely what each of Rorschach’s ten ink-blot cards actually represents.

Only it’s actually worse. I discovered today that Hermann Rorschach didn’t actually use ink blots. Rather, he discovered a way to design very interesting figures, with a meaning built in but made ambiguous, and to make them look like blots. I have this from a chapter of scholarly book (here). That makes good sense after you view the ten chart close up (visible here).  Unfortunately I could not discover, from the document itself, either the title of the book or the name of its author. In Rorschach’s blots, a certain meaning is intended, but in many of our claims to act in the National Interest, all that we can discover is that that interest is a mask behind which anything might be justified—if it sells to a benighted public that only wants it, whatever it is, cheaper, sooner, and better.

That blot above is Number 7, also from the already linked Wikipedia site.


  1. Well put, I'm afraid, very well put.

    The disappointment I feel in the Obama Administration these days is... complete.

  2. By the way, the last link in this post is broke, FYI.

  3. I menat, of course, broken...

  4. And, that should be meant.

  5. It's really maddening, Monique, that Blogger does not permit us to edit our comments like WordPress does. But what can you do. The service is FREEEEE!

  6. Oh, yes. The broke link is fixed now.

  7. and that should be "broken"....Ugh...

  8. Hee, hee, hee... I certainly need an edit function and even get things wrong when I have one!