Reciprocity, Secrecy, and Blowback

Will the covert nature of many aggressive operations conducted by the Obama Administration make Americans unprepared for the eventual retaliation?

Reciprocity involves responding in kind to another’s actions.  It can take either a positive form–where cooperation begets cooperation–or a negative form, as in “an eye for an eye” retaliation.  In the anarchic world of international politics (where no world government exists to enforce cooperation or punish wrongdoing) reciprocity is an important tool for states to achieve mutual goals and enforce otherwise unenforceable international laws and norms of behavior.   In short, states can generally expect that positive actions toward others will be rewarded while negative actions will be punished.

Reciprocity works best when information is perfect: each actor knows both (a) what they have done to others and (b) what others have done to them.  This kind of transparency is necessary in order to know how to respond to others (because you know how they treated you) and what kind of behavior to anticipate from others (because you understand the character of your actions toward them).  But when accurate information is lacking due to secrecy or misperception, carefully calibrated strategies of reciprocity can give way to confusion, ignorance, counterproductive policies, and costly conflict.

With this as background, it is interesting to read Stephen Walt’s take on the recent revelations of secret “kill lists,” drone strikes, and cyberwarfare launched by the Obama administration against an array of enemies.  As a die-hard realist, Walt is not troubled by the moral implications of these attacks, which he terms violations of the “Golden Rule.”  Rather, he has practical concerns about the consequences of these actions for American interests down the road: “…Lately I’ve been thinking that Americans ought to reflect a bit more on the long-term costs of our willingness to do unto others in ways we would most definitely not want them to do unto us.”

In other words, Walt is worried about negative reciprocity.  But most interestingly, he argues that the covert nature of these attacks makes the American people vulnerable to misperceptions about others’ motives: “…What I find troubling is the inevitable secrecy and deceit that is involved. It’s not just that we are trying to fool our adversaries; the problem is that we end up fooling ourselves, too. As I’ve noted before, when our government is doing lots of hostile things in far-flung places around the world and the public doesn’t know about them until long after the fact, then we have no way of understanding why the targets of U.S. power might be angry and hostile. As a result, we will tend to attribute their behavior to other, darker motivations.”

Middle Eastern  populations experience similar misperceptions when conspiracy theories abound that attribute any negative outcome in their societies to CIA or Israeli plotting.  In this distorted informational environment–a far cry from the ideal of perfect information–neither side is able to engage in a mature, clear-headed reciprocity relationship with the other.  Instead, each side may find itself “shadow boxing”–locked in a battle with a somewhat imaginary, stereotyped foe whose actions they don’t comprehend well enough to respond to effectively.

What do you think?  Does Walt provide a convincing explanation for many Americans’ professed ignorance on the “why do they hate us” question?  Is there any alternative to keeping these covert operations out of public view?  Short of declassifying all such operations, how might governments begin to remove distortions in the “informational environment” that might lead to suboptimal decision-making?


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