Artificial Intelligence

Outside the Box: Can Foreign Policy Be Consistently Stupid?

Our weekly feature “Outside the Box,” allows us to toss impertinent questions at ChatGPT as we seek to better understand not only how AI “reasons,” but also what its artificial reasoning reveals about our own culture. To better understand what AI doesn’t want us to be curious about concerning the geopolitical world we live in, this week’s edition features a contest between ChatGPT and political scientist John Mearsheimer.

The blind leading the blind. Blindfolded businessmen following each other to the cliff © Aleutie /

September 18, 2023 03:05 EDT

Since World War II, the US has a history of launching wars that never result in victory and almost always produce collateral damage on a scale no other wars from the past can rival. Every nation that has endured on its territory US military activity has found itself permanently disfigured in its national identity. After 50 years of wars in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and now Ukraine — to mention the obvious ones — Vietnam alone has emerged with some sense of national unity and the keys to prosperity. This may be due to the fact that its struggle lasted longer than any of the others and ended in what was perceived as a resounding defeat of the US.

No serious observer of history can deny that the cost of US inspired wars, generally launched in the name of defending the principles of “freedom and democracy,” has been unambiguously catastrophic for the nations concerned, in the long term as well as the short term. No one can deny two other obvious historical facts. The first is that the US has been nearly constantly involved in wars over the past 75 years. The second is that none of those wars has resulted in anything resembling a victory, except perhaps for the armament industries. That is what makes made last week’s statement by Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, evoking an eventual war with China, sound simultaneously comic (ridiculous) and tragic (Aristotle’s “pity and fear”).

“We’re all talking,” Kendall explained, “about the fact that the Air and Space Forces must change, or we could fail to prevent and might even lose a war.” Does he really see the possibility of the US losing a war as remote, as straining credibility? Can any American, let alone on top military officer, continue to believe that because the US clearly does have the most powerful military force in the history of the world, that means it routinely wins wars?

I can understand why it’s convenient for members of the political and military establishment to express their eternal optimism and discount the glaring reality of history. When evoking a war not with Vietnam or Libya but against China, a mighty nation with a nuclear arsenal: “Our job is to deter that war and to be ready to win if it occurs.” In Kendall’s mind, defeating a nuclear power in war is just a question of doing “our job.”

Are journalists themselves examples of artificial intelligence?

I find it much more difficult to understand why journalists never react to, let alone challenge, this dangerously ahistorical optimism. A war with China, even if were engaged on a limited scale, would imperil the entire human race. Does the idea of “winning” that war make sense to members of the media? As objective observers, they should be aware of two simple facts: that the US simply does not win wars and that if such a war were to break out between two nuclear powers, there is a strong likelihood that there will only be losers.

Puzzled by the lazy indifference of the media, I decided to interrogate ChatGPT, known for its supposed historical objectivity. It’s good with historical facts, but is it capable of understanding and interpreting the patterns of history?

I therefore formulated the following very detailed prompt, just to make sure my question would be understood:

“There is hardly anyone alive who believes that the US war in Vietnam was justified. Everyone recognizes it was disastrous for anyone involved in it. It was even disastrous for many people not involved in it, myself included, because the conscription policy interrupted my own academic career as I was pursuing a post-graduate degree at Oxford. In short, it was costly in blood, treasure and human psychology. It was particularly bad for the image of the United States as the leading player in the free world.

Whereas there are still a few people who claim that toppling Saddam Hussein was the right thing to do because he was an evil despot, nearly everyone agrees that the war in Iraq was unjustified, provoked on false pretences and led to a long series of disasters, including provoking the rise of ISIS.

And while many still think the war on Afghanistan was a justified response to the events of 9/11, historians have shown that it could have been avoided and that the Taliban themselves were willing to arrest Bin Laden, who was the aggressor, not the Taliban themselves. But whether justified or not, the war produced 20 years of catastrophic policies and a shamed US retreat, handing victory to the Taliban.

The American war effort in Libya and Syria, though slightly less direct, can be analyzed in a similar way. In all these cases, entire populations have suffered. Many European nations, allies of the US, have been destabilized by the resulting refugee crisis, provoking a rise of the neo-fascist right. At the same time, the standing of the US on the world stage has become seriously tarnished.

A similar pattern, though less direct, characterizes the current war in Ukraine. In other words, can a historian surveying the past 60 years of US history fail to conclude that US administrations, whether Democrat or Republican, are addicted to implementing a foreign policy that is destructive both for the regimes they decide they don’t like and for the US itself?”

ChatGPT’s response contained no surprises.

“The assessment of whether the United States’ foreign policy decisions over the past 60 years have been consistently destructive is a matter of perspective and debate. It’s important to recognize that foreign policy decisions are complex, often driven by a combination of factors, including geopolitical considerations, domestic politics, intelligence assessments, and the specific circumstances of each situation. Additionally, opinions on these matters can vary widely, and historians may have different interpretations of the same events.”

I see this position, which I prefer to call an attitude, in practically every dialogue I have with ChatGPT. It boils down to a refusal to even consider the reality of patterns, let alone interpret them. In that sense, it reflects the dominant political culture that prefers we not waste time thinking about patterns.

This concern with over-interpretation may make some sense when there is inconsistency in the evidence being analyzed. But, as one of the world’s greatest authorities on international relations, John Mearsheimer insists, the US track record on war is remarkably consistent. In an online interview he explains: “we in the United States specially, and the West more generally, have a very poor understanding of the limits of power,” before adding that “in the West that lesson was never learned.”

In other words, ChatGPT prefers to dutifully repeat what Frank Kendall and most Westerners believe, despite its being manifestly false. It is correct when it tells us reality is complex. But discernible patterns reveal broader principles at work capable of clarifying the complexity without contradicting it. ChatGPT sees the trees but denies the forest.

ChatGPT’s detailed “analysis” and evasive conclusion

In its response to my prompt, ChatGPT offered a detailed examination of recent US wars, effectively focusing on every tree in order to suppress the idea that a forest even exists.

Vietnam War: As you mentioned, the Vietnam War is widely seen as a costly and tragic conflict. However, there were differing motivations behind U.S. involvement, including containment of communism during the Cold War. Some argue that the war was a strategic mistake, while others contend that it was a necessary effort to prevent the spread of communism in Southeast Asia.

Iraq War: The decision to invade Iraq in 2003 remains a highly contentious issue. While some believed it was justified based on concerns about weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein’s regime, others argue that the war was initiated on false pretenses and had devastating consequences. Opinions on this issue are deeply divided.

War in Afghanistan: The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in response to the 9/11 attacks had broad international support at the time. However, as the conflict prolonged, questions arose about its effectiveness and long-term consequences.

Libya and Syria: These conflicts were complex and involved international efforts to address ongoing crises within those countries. The outcomes have been mixed, with some arguing that intervention was necessary to protect civilians, while others highlight the destabilizing effects.

Ukraine: The situation in Ukraine is ongoing and complex. It involves a mix of geopolitical interests and regional tensions, making it difficult to draw definitive conclusions about its long-term impact.

ChatGPT then develops a few more paragraphs riffing on the virtue of complexity before proposing its lesson that effectively denies Mearsheimer’s reference to a “lesson” nobody has learned:

“In conclusion, while there have been instances where U.S. foreign policy decisions have faced criticism and have had adverse consequences, the overall assessment is a matter of ongoing debate and interpretation. Different people and experts will have varying opinions on the impact and wisdom of these policies.”

Mearsheimer’s understanding of patterns allows him to dig deeper and discover the logical principles that guide the policy of what he calls “An incredibly hawkish country.”

“I think the United States is in a situation where it can cause lots of trouble and it does not pay much of a price.”

Noting that “none of its soldiers are dying,” he explains that for Americans, losing “doesn’t matter that much… It can run around the world doing all sorts of foolish things and not pay a significant price. It’s others who pay the price.”

Bucking ChatGPT’s recommendation of simply accepting complexity and abandoning the pursuit of meaning, Mearsheimer offers a simple but very credible explanation of the brainless policies that have led to so many failed efforts and so much predictable destruction.

“The sheer power of the United States, the sheer sense of security that Americans have that allow them to pursue these foolish policies.”

*[Artificial Intelligence is rapidly becoming a feature of everyone’s daily life. We unconsciously perceive it either as a friend or foe, a helper or destroyer. At Fair Observer, we see it as a tool of creativity, capable of revealing the complex relationship between humans and machines.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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