The United States has had a thin record of accomplishments in Northeast Asia for most of the last 100-plus years. Many failures in U.S. foreign policy in that area originate from not knowing the background of the countries involved and not understanding their contemporary interests and needs. It is as though American knowledge and expertise began anew each time there has been an issue. Yet, it did not have to be that way then – and it does not have to be that way now.
AN ‘AHA’ MOMENT
The single-most telling factor contributing to the failure of U.S. foreign policy in Asia is ignorance. That ignorance lingers in the lack of understanding of how historical events continue to influence the region to this day. Moreover, common sense seems to be lacking. As but one example, the U.S. persists in stating, as recently as mid-March, that its top priority regarding North Korea is denuclearization. But when contemplating world events through the eyes of Pyongyang one has to ask, “Why would North Korea ever give up its nuclear weapons and ICBM programs?”
Simply put, there is no motivation for the North to cease – and every reason to continue – developing its nuclear weapons and missiles
The answer is clear to anyone who has paid even a smidgen of attention to world affairs. Consider what happened to Muammar Gaddafi of Libya not long after he disavowed his county’s nuclear program. The UN – seen by some as an arm of the U.S. – supported rebels that destroyed his regime. Pyongyang also knows what happened to Saddam Hussein because Iraq did not have nukes. Simply put, there is no motivation for the North to cease – and every reason to continue – developing its nuclear weapons and missiles. Only when we realize this can we begin to make progress.
A NEW FORM OF INTELLIGENCE
Let’s look at the problem of developing a realistic and viable foreign policy regarding Northeast Asia by using a metaphor – the game of Go. This game of territorial strategy’s astonishing intricacy is belied by its ostensibly simple rules. Yet, despite the complexities of Go, computer programmers have been able to create an artificial intelligence (AI) application that recently beat Lee Se-dol, one of the very best players in the world – three times in a row. AI was able to do this in part by analyzing each move in the context of previous moves and then accurately predict what would happen next in order to effectively counter it.
One might argue that Go is an exercise in pure logic and involves only discrete points in a defined territory. That is true, but that is ignoring the clue. Allow me to approach the subject from a different perspective. It was five years ago that a question answering (QA) AI application defeated two top champion humans in the American TV quiz show Jeopardy. “Ha! Just a quirky game show,” you might scoff. Again true, but that is yet again missing the clue. That QA program needed to understand words. Further, the program had to work with not just words, but their meanings in contexts such as irony, puns, sarcasm, as well as double-entendre, and then produce a complete thought in response to the input. Now that is quite an accomplishment, no matter how one looks at it.
My argument is that U.S. Asian foreign policy requirements are no more complex – and certainly no less important – than the games of Go or Jeopardy. But the difficulty is that no one seems to understand the rules of engagement, has made the effort to categorize the known facts that lie behind the issues, has identified the commonly held assumptions, has taken the time to define the universe of potential actions, and then has determined all of the possible reactions along with the likelihood of those reactions. It is a task that admittedly is not trivial – but then neither are the consequences.
The problem is that our current approach (the machinations of a politicized U.S. State Department) for assembling facts on, identifying assumptions about, and predicting courses of action by many foreign countries – particularly in non-Western areas such as Northeast Asia – isn’t working. What is needed is not life-support for that moribund methodology, but a decision support system (DSS). I will briefly discuss that in general terms shortly.
RESPONDING TO UNCONVENTIONAL THINKING
First, however, I want to return to the analogous game of Go. After three loses in a row, the human grandmaster resorted to highly unorthodox moves in order to beat his AI opponent in the fourth match. Perhaps unexpectedly to some observers, the computer program “learned” from its loss and came back to beat the human once again in the fifth and final match.
Do you see the parallel here? If AI/QA can do this for Go and Jeopardy, it can do something similar for foreign policy. Kim Jong Un uses unconventional tactics and provocations to defeat the West and its allies, and he has been doing this for years – decades if his father and grandfather are included in the reckoning. Make the connection here with me and put the logic of the Go AI program with the meaningful comprehension of the Jeopardy QA program. The result would be an accomplishment worthy of a Nobel Prize.
By now, there are a sufficient number of examples – and we have adequate experience from having dealt with them – to develop a universe of plausible actions/reactions Pyongyang could take. This admittedly would require the U.S. to look at things from a different perspective, something usually not the strong suit of its politically appointed foreign policy doyens.
Getting back to that decision support system, let us start with the understanding that a DSS is not a computer program that makes decisions humans are expected to unquestioningly follow. What a DSS offers is a collection of known facts, assumptions that are clearly identified as such, and potential courses of action that have been arranged such that they can be used to analyze and respond effectively to current events. If one adds in attributes of Game Theory, the probabilities of reactions to potential courses of action are calculated. Most leaders already employ a DSS in the form of an advisory council, brain trust, or cabinet that offers facts along with certain assumptions plus recommended courses of action with their pros and cons to the decider-in-chief. The decision-maker then evaluates this input to make a well-informed choice.
THE NEXT FOREIGN POLICY PROJECT
Unfortunately, it seems that the U.S. Department of State is not taking advantage of these capabilities, else why all the American blundering about on foreign policy?
There is no doubt that at various locations in and around Washington there exists sufficient raw computing power and there are plentiful minds capable of developing wonderful AI and QA programs. Currently, however, the apparent consumer of those resources is the U.S. Department of Defense – and probably NASA and NOAA as well – for that is how their complex and realistic analyses or simulations are generated. Unfortunately, it seems that the U.S. Department of State is not taking advantage of these capabilities, else why all the American blundering about on foreign policy?
I leave the technicalities of developing an AI/QA program on foreign policy to the relevant qualified people. But realize that this most assuredly is not a technical issue. Rather, it is a human one of historical and sociological constructs. There is an old saying in the computer world: Garbage in yields garbage out. In order for a computer program to be of value in developing foreign policy, we must first understand foreign countries far better than we currently do.
This surfaces the underlying question of, “Where are those who have expertise regarding the countries of concern, and why aren’t we using them?” I am not talking about people whose primary skills seem to be diplomacy or politics. I refer to experts in the fields of conflict resolution and war, cultural and political systems, economics and development, history and philosophy, and the like – as experienced and perceived by other nations or significant geopolitical groups. To state it bluntly, the very last thing we need is another group of politicians.
With its vast resources, the U.S. government is the obvious choice to endow this herculean task. If it can’t or won’t do it – as IBM did for Jeopardy and Google did for Go – then perhaps an academic group or think tank could undertake the endeavor. Foreign policy is a serious business. Doesn’t the real world deserve at least as much as a game or a television show? Despite being perceived as a hermetic totalitarian state, even North Korea is far more understandable if only we apply ourselves.
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Featured Image: 8:36pm Match 3 of AlphaGo vs Lee Sedol. The confidence of the human commentary is fascinating. by Buster Benson on 2016-03-11 21:55:56