Dictators may dream of leading a homogeneous squad of obsequious officials marching in lockstep, but it is a safe assumption that all ruling coalitions are heterogeneous. This assumption is the key to assessing the intentions and goals of the regimes of foreign states.
A policymaker should never ask of foreign leaders, “What do they want?” Even if their minds could be read, only the dead have constant viewpoints; everyone else is endlessly reevaluating in response to the flow of new information. Of course, leaders want security, recognition, respect, power, money, glory, and security…don’t we all? All these motivations feed into the mix, and at any given moment, a prioritization presumably exists, but it will change before you can label it. Far more valuable are answers about how people rank their preferences and the direction and rate of change. If all that is true for each individual in a ruling coalition, how much more true will it be for the coalition as a whole and the various factions comprising the coalition?
The key clue to dealing with foreign regimes is recognition that all regimes are heterogeneous. Attitudes of individuals are heterogeneous…and evolving. At the next scale up, so are the political positions of factions, and at the highest scale, so inevitably must be the ruling coalition which these factions comprise. Since these coalitions are created in an atmosphere of negotiation and competition, the adopted positions at every scale will constantly be evolving as each actor seeks to maximize benefit. This complexity is the bane of outsiders trying to analyze the goals of a regime but equally a gold mine of opportunity for those asking the right questions.
The basic questions for policymakers listed below constitute a simple recipe for policymakers who need to assess the current and prospective future attitudes of other regimes:
- What factions make up the ruling coalition?
- What ares the main motivations of each faction?
- Are these motivations evolving?
- Are the rankings of these motivations evolving?
- Are the rankings evolving in a steady direction and rate?
- Are these motivations complementary or contradictory?
- Do contradictory motivations exist within any faction?
- How might appealing to any of these contradictory motivations influence these actors?
While this “recipe” may be simple, the “mental cake” that results will be as complex as any real cake slowly transforming itself in the hot oven. But fear not: cognitive tools to help make sense of this mish-mash of competing, evolving goals underlying any governmental policy position exist. Some are drawings, some computerized models…all serve to sharpen the thinking of an analyst or policymaker, and the critical first step is asking the right questions.