Fighting Analogies in International Relations

12 October 2021, 0411 EDT

I spent the years of the Great Recession torn between a love of Brazilian jiu jitsu and a love of IR. But getting better at one started coming at the expense of the other. Sometimes I’d skip class to train. Sometimes I’d skip training to go to think tank events or work on a paper. And while becoming a pro fighter was totally unrealistic, so was becoming a scholar. What became clear enough eventually was that I needed to pick a lane.

The amount of dwell time I spent in these two domains made me obsess about finding principles or heuristics that carried over from fighting to international politics and vice versa. After all, chess analogies are common to both jiu jitsu and IR. I’ve concluded that these are separate domains for a reason, and as I explain below, if you take fighting analogies too seriously, your perception of reality will be massively warped. Still, I occasionally found some crossover insights. Consider a couple of examples.

“Kuzushi” is the concept of off-balancing. It refers to a tactic of getting your opponent out of a fixed position where he’ll be vulnerable, maybe getting his weight tilted too much to one side or making him overcommit to a move. With kuzushi, you aren’t achieving anything; you’re opening up a window of opportunity. Window ajar, you have a split second to advance your position. A sweep or submission attempt that would’ve been impossible under normal conditions suddenly works against an unbalanced opponent.

It’s not hard to simply do something unpredictable. Capitalizing on new possibilities that your actions created is the hard part.

This is a fantastic way to understand the latent potential (good and bad) in Trump’s foreign policy given IR concepts like path dependence, settled narratives, and ideational consensuses. Trump was a master of kuzushi — he could come into any policy issue and unsettle fixed patterns or habits of decision-making. He used this technique repeatedly, and never more grandiosely than when he threatened nuclear war against and held fabulist summits with Kim Jong Un. It was the ultimate off-balancing.

But Trump was also the worst president in history when it came to exploiting openings. He had no strategy, and so he repeatedly created possibilities like peace in Korea that he couldn’t convert on because he lacked a theory of success. No endgame. All thrust, no vector.

And while it’s important for policy practitioners to understand this concept of kuzushi because of its ability to change issue frames (and thereby change choices, the terms of debate, and ultimately decisions), it’s not hard to simply do something unpredictable. Capitalizing on new possibilities that your actions created is the hard part; it’s what separates the strategist from the madman. Kuzushi is pointless (or stupid) if you don’t have a wager in mind for how you might exploit the off-balanced opponent.

Another example concerns positionality. John Danaher, widely considered the Yoda of jiu jitsu, has coached some of the world’s best grapplers. Danaher was a PhD candidate in philosophy at Columbia University before he started training jiu jitsu under Renzo Gracie, so his teaching style is uniquely cerebral. Below, Danaher talks about the relationship between position and time. He says:

From your first day in Jiu jitsu you were told that position is the most valuable commodity…superior position allows you to attack without fear of an opponent being able to attack you. Certainly this imbalance of attacking opportunity is a very important reason, but there is another. Position gives you the luxury of TIME. Once a dominant position has been attained, you can create pressure over time. You can attack and FAIL multiple times – IT DOESN’T MATTER. As long as the POSITION doesn’t fail…POSITION MAKES TIME A WEAPON.

John Danaher, Facebook, August 31, 2021

Pretty brilliant for an errant musing on Facebook. Tempo is unbelievably important in competition and military strategy, but scholars have not really tried to conceptualize it. Time itself is not taken seriously enough in IR, though there have been some juicy contributions. Yet, Yoda here is relating time and position can be combined to literally create power.

Losing dominance means you can’t be the Tom and Daisy Buchanan of international order without paying for your sins. One of the errors of policymakers today is that they’re trying to preserve a position that has already been lost.

Code-switching into IR, my forthcoming book illustrates how US statecraft since the 1970s has been pretty horrendous. Reagan’s arms racing with the Soviets, George H.W. Bush’s sabotaging of Asian regionalism, Clinton’s complicity in the Asian financial crisis and near-miss war over North Korean nukes, George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq — you get the point. The United States has made a lot of bad calls in foreign policy…but it made them in the unipolar moment. The United States exercised bad judgment repeatedly, but from a position of hegemony. America’s dominant position in the international system gave it the luxury of time, and to make mistakes with near-term impunity.

The argument in my book is not that the US makes boneheaded decisions; it’s that it can no longer afford to. At least in Asia. The pattern of order in the Asia-Pacific has shifted in ways that reduce America’s margin for things like ill-conceived wars precisely because it’s no longer in a regional hegemonic position. Losing dominance means you can’t be the Tom and Daisy Buchanan of international order without paying for your sins. One of the errors of policymakers today is that they’re trying to preserve a position that has already been lost.

There are so many insights like these. But analogizing fighting to IR runs into limits pretty quickly when you consider that fighting actually has a goal of domination and is setup with rules that make it zero-sum. And the field of IR is not exactly hurting for militarists. For every principle in jiu jitsu that I find resonates in foreign policy, there are three that have more disturbing misapplications. To take one, Danaher recently posted that:

…we rarely perform moves flawlessly against the strong resistance of an opponent who has the similar knowledge, skill and size to ourselves. Typically what determines winner and loser is PRESSURE OVER TIME. it is the ACCUMULATION of moves performed to a level that stresses an opponent that wears him down first physically and then mentally. As time passes his ability to counter your moves deteriorates faster than your ability to perform them.

John Danaher, Facebook, October 11, 2021

To take another:

Creating a threat: How your opponent behaves towards you in a match is closely tied to whatever perceived threat level he believes about you. The higher his assessment of your threat level – the more conservative and reserved he will be in his actions around you – the less risks he will take as he engages with you. It is important therefore, that you take every opportunity to create attacking threats at all times during a match. Make sure that…any indecision on his part is ruthlessly attacked by you.

John Danaher, Facebook, September 29, 2021

These are valuable lessons for martial competition. But if you treat everyday foreign policy as martial combat — a domain where you’re simulating life and death struggle — you’ll very quickly inhabit a Hobbesian hell.

The problem I see here is that ideas like this find expression in places like the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment (ONA). The “long-term competitive strategy” view of China, which has been popular in Washington for a decade and well predated China’s ability to realistically threaten the United States, has popularized the notion of “cost imposition” in China policy. When news of the Australia-US-UK submarine deal, I wrote a critique of it as aimless vulgar balancing, and one of the comments I received in response accepted my premise but answered “Even if it lacks a measurable purpose, surely it’s a good thing that we’re causing problems for China.”

Wut. ONA’s Andy Marshall said effectively that to Donald Rumsfeld in October 2002 — “it struck me how wedded people in DoD are to responding to threats. The notion that we should be causing other people problems…seems something they find difficult to take on board.” A view has taken hold among foreign policy hawks that causing problems for China is a virtue rather than a pathology of a competitive mindset. As if China was a wooden dummy that won’t punch back when you hit it. Sure, there’s a logic to this cause-trouble-for-your-adversaries thing…if, that is, you’re trying to put pressure on your adversary, or making sure you’re constantly threatening your adversary so as to make them timid.

So you see what troubles me. World politics is obviously a mixed valence enterprise. Some interactions are zero sum, but most are not. And if you’re sane, you would be reluctant to enter into long-term relationships that are strictly zero-sum. The idea that you should ignore the messiness of reality in favor of a view that the world is about domination and nothing else at best presents you a dilemma. You might even call it a security dilemma…