Self-Esteem and Bauxite
By Crispin Sartwell
Political and economic realism - the sort associated with figures such as Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, Adam Smith, and even Karl Marx - was once common wisdom. Realism of this sort holds that, whatever their grand rhetoric or lofty ideals, political leaders and nations operate fundamentally in pursuit of their own self-interest, to increase their wealth and power. Few analysts, looking at the American role in the world today, seem to take that approach. They think about politics not as occurring in a world of concrete economic or military realities, but in a realm of pure symbology, a world of signs, emblems, indications.
All Korea experts and pundits seem to agree, for example, that in meeting with Kim Jong-un, Donald Trump gave Kim what he really wanted: a chance to appear on equal terms with the President of the United States, a recognition of his legitimacy as a world leader. They treated the sheer fact of the meeting, or the way that American and North Korean flags were displayed behind the leaders with equal emphasis, as the sorts of things Kim was trying to achieve, as what he most deeply wanted.
If so, Kim was behaving irrationally by the standards of political realism. Self-esteem enhancement is not in itself a practical outcome in the real world. Feeling oneself to be the equal of the President of the United States would no doubt make some people feel good. It won’t in itself help your economy or keep you from getting invaded or overthrown. That kind of symbolic transaction isn’t, in itself, much of anything. It’s quite hard to tell, for example, whether his detente with Trump helps or hurts Kim domestically, with the North Korean military or with popular opinion, such as it is.
We seem to be operating with an anti-realist or irrealist theory of political motivation: world politics is conceived as a struggle over imagery, in particular as a psycho-drama in which people and nations are working out their low self-esteem. At the moment, competition over unnatural resources seem more explanatory than that over natural ones, and we seem to think of the self-image of political leaders or of nations as the immaterial material over which the world struggles. This resource, a kind of psychic energy, seems to be scarce, and you don’t extract it from the ground, but from other leaders. Certainly, self-esteem seems to be the basic commodity in which Trump traffics: he often seems to be concerned primarily to enhance his own at the expense of other people’s, or to enhance other people’s in order to get what he wants from them.
That, however, doesn’t mean that the stuff is real, or that devoting your foreign policy or your life to it is sensible. If Kim really thought that a sheer handshake with POTUS was in itself some sort of tangible advantage, he needs a little lesson in capitalism: that sort of legitimacy and $2.50 will get you a chai latte. Feeling really good about yourself as a nation doesn’t in itself feed anyone or even line the pockets of the leadership.
People were taken aback, for example, that Trump praised Kim repeatedly as strong, smart, trustworthy, talented and so on. One thing Trump has noticed, I think, is that dealing out praise (and for that matter ridicule) doesn’t directly cost you anything. Profligate spending on compliments and insults - which appear at the moment to be the currency of international affairs - doesn’t increase the deficit. That Trump lurches from criticism and threats to fulsome praise suggests something about the nature of symbolic resources: they don’t actually cost anything, so you might as well deal them out freely. If they do affect people’s behavior, or if you can achieve something concrete by their use, why shouldn’t you?
Of course, the only reason they do affect people’s behavior is because those people have decided to move with you into your symbolic realm and to worry with you about the distribution of imaginary resources. So, for example, Trump’s insults directed at Justin Trudeau are greeted as an international crisis rather than, for example, a spat between egos. And if Trudeau lets Peter Navarro’s “special place in hell” affect Canadian trade policy, he is surely behaving irrationally. It is a flimsy world order, and one that perhaps exists only in the imagination, that can be interrupted by a few scorching Tweets directed at the G7.
One lesson that Trump’s own self-esteem drama and very casual way of doling out praise and insults should teach us is that we should pull back and regard what he says as, in general, neither particularly harmful nor particularly helpful in the real world, and also as not very closely connected to it. As we try to figure out what is actually going on, we could all use a return to realism. To reach any understanding, we’re going to have to get a bit less confused as between resources like self-esteem and resources like bauxite.
Crispin Sartwell teaches philosophy at Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA. His most recent book is Entanglements: A System of Philosophy).