North Korea just tested a nuclear weapon. The test was successful. We know this because the explosion triggered a unique kind of earthquake and South Korea picked up the seismic waves.

Nicholas Kristof at the New York Times thinks the Obama administration and every American administration before it has failed to resolve this problem because they’ve had the wrong approach. “Isolating N Korea doesn’t help,” he wrote on Twitter. “China has a plausible strategy for N Korea: use investment, exchanges to encourage opening and reform.”

Sorry, Nick. While it’s true that isolation and sanctions haven’t normalized North Korea’s politics or behavior, China’s strategy hasn’t worked any better.

First of all, North Korea has isolated itself. Its people are as cut off from the rest of the world as the most remote tribes of Papua New Guinea. Even a country as walled off from the rest of us as Saudi Arabia is vastly more plugged in and integrated into the 21st century.

Second, China flat doesn’t care if North Korea opens up or reforms. The Chinese government is spectacularly uninterested in the internal characteristics of its allies as long as its own needs are met. Beijing’s rulers are no more sentimental about human welfare and rights—especially abroad—than the Algerian military that recently killed a bunch of hostages while taking out a terrorist cell at a natural gas plant in the Sahara.

Kristof assumes the Chinese government is at least marginally interested in opening and reforming Pyongyang because he, like plenty of Americans—myself included—wish to see reform in non-democratic countries aligned with the United States. He’s projecting our own psychology onto Beijing.

This is what Professor Richard Landes calls cognitive egocentrism. “The act of empathy,” Landes explains, “can often become an act of projecting onto another ‘what I would feel if I were in their shoes,’ rather than an attempt to understand how the person with whom one is empathizing has reacted to their situation, how they read and interpret events.”

People do this sort of thing all the time. We do it to our family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors. It’s hard not to. We also do it to foreign people, and they do it to us.

Look at the naïve early predictions about the Arab Spring. Cognitive egocentrism explains at least part of it. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood was routinely described in the Western press as a party of mainstream religious conservatives who deeply believed in democracy and free markets, as if they were Egypt’s version of the Republicans in the United States. Likewise, the kids in Tahrir Square were seen as Egypt’s Democrats. Both assumptions were outrageously wide of reality.

Middle Easterners do the same thing to us. I couldn’t begin to count the number of times I’ve heard the American government described in hysterically phantasmagoric terms that would make even Noam Chomsky blush. A Syrian friend of mine in the United States used to describe the British and American governments as snakes (his word), not because he’s inherently anti-American but because he was raised on propaganda by the house of Assad and because for the first thirty years of his life he suffered under a regime that really was like a snake. For him, suffering under a predatory snake-like government was a perfectly normal state of affairs. He had never known anything else and assumed people everywhere were no different. (I should add that he has been here long enough now that he no longer thinks of the American government in these terms. A few months ago he even said he misses George W. Bush, something I’d sooner expect Nancy Pelosi to say.)

Plenty of the Middle East’s ridiculous anti-American conspiracy theories are produced by this sort of thinking. The Middle East is a place where real conspiracies actually happen. Military coups, palace coups, secret police, assassinations by unknown shadowy figures, election fraud, and massive official disinformation are part of the everyday scenery. Because these things are tragically normal over there, people feel helpless and paranoid. They also assume these things are normal for everyone else, that the American government (along with every other government in the world) is just as venal and corrupt and self-serving and murderous as the governments of Bashar al-Assad, Saddam Hussein, and Moammar Qaddafi. These people are projecting their own experiences of the world onto us. They assume their experiences are universal. Until recently in human history, their experiences were practically universal.

Russians have done it to us, too. That’s why they were so afraid of NATO expansion.

Russia is a huge country with historically dangerous neighbors that could and did invade from just about every direction without any natural land barriers to stop them. That’s one of the reasons they became expansionist, why George F. Kennon, America’s ambassador to the Soviet Union, said, “Russia can have at its borders only enemies or vassals.” Russia was especially expansionist during the Soviet period. It sponsored insurgencies even in Africa.

So when the Warsaw Pact collapsed in Eastern Europe and one former Soviet vassal after another joined NATO, plenty of Russians assumed it meant exactly the same thing it would mean if former NATO members were absorbed into the Warsaw Pact. They thought the United States was coming for them. They felt the way Americans would feel if first West Germany, then France, and then Britain became Soviet vassals. It didn’t even occur to some Russians that Americans had no interest whatsoever in conquering Moscow. During the Soviet days, communist imperialists really did want to take over the world. Many assumed we did, as well. Cognitive egocentrism.

This is what Kristof is doing when he says China is engaging North Korea in order to encourage opening and reform. But that’s not what’s happening. That’s what America would do if we engaged North Korea, but Beijing isn’t Washington.

There’s not much we can do to prevent foreign people from projecting their psychology onto us, but we should at least resist doing to the same thing to them.

Postscript: The Kindle version of my new book, Where the West Ends, is currently on sale for just 7.99.




The Grand Universal Illusion

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