A military official announces Barack Obama's arrival at the Nato Summit in Wales. Photo: Getty
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With his foreign policy, Barack Obama is trying to win by playing a loser’s game

If you’re playing a loser’s game, strategy is unnecessary. You avoid errors, but in dangerous times risk being buffeted by events.

At a press conference earlier this year President Obama was asked to define the “Obama doctrine”. After initially scoffing at the idea, he told reporters that insofar as he has a theory of foreign policy, it is about “avoiding errors”. To explain, the president adopted a baseball metaphor: “You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run. But we steadily advance the interests of the American people and our partnership with folks around the world.” In private, Obama is said to express this philosophy even more succinctly: “Don’t do stupid stuff.” (“Stuff” is the polite version.)

Another of way putting this is that Obama conceives of foreign policy as a loser’s game. In 1975, an investment analyst called Charles Ellis published an article called “Winning the Loser’s Game” which he later turned into a best-selling book, regarded as a classic of its field. Ellis also used sport as an analogy. He cited a study which found that in professional tennis, 80 per cent of points are won through superior stroke play, while in amateur tennis, 80 per cent of points are lost, due to errors.

Amateurs and professionals, said Ellis, are playing two different games. Professional tennis is a winner’s game, in which it pays to take the initiative. Bold and aggressive tactics are the path to victory. The professional player thinks carefully about strategy and executes it ruthlessly. Amateur tennis is a loser’s game: the way to win is simply to be the player who makes the fewest errors. In golf too, the winner of an amateur tournament is usually one who eschews risky strokes and avoids penalties, letting the losers defeat themselves. The most common mistake made by amateurs is to play as if they are in a winner’s game.

Ellis used this distinction to turn the whole notion of investing expertise on its head. Investing, he argued, is a loser’s game for professionals and amateurs alike: the way to win, whoever you are, is to make the fewest errors.

Professional investors, including most fund managers, seem to be playing a winner’s game, in which the rewards go to the most skillful and smartest players – it is almost irresistible to believe that a successful investment manager is like a brilliant tennis player, outsmarting his peers and thus outperforming the market. But our faith in the superior performance of professional investors is, said Ellis, misplaced. The evidence suggests that most “investment managers aren’t beating the market; the market is beating them.”

This is as true now as when Ellis wrote his book. A new study of US investment funds, published in Financial Analysts Journal, concludes that while fund managers who did poorly in their first few years tended to lose their jobs, the ones who stayed in place for the long term weren’t consistently out-performing the market, but merely avoiding periods where they did particularly badly. The key to success in the mutual fund industry is to avoid underperformance, rather than achieve superior performance – much as it is in an amateur golf tournament.

President Obama takes a very cautious approach to the exercise of diplomatic and military power, and like his British counterpart David Cameron, he does so partly in reaction to the stance taken by a controversial predecessor. Bush and Blair approached foreign policy as if it were a winner’s game: they played aggressively, took risky shots and held to a theory of the game.

For Blair, it was an approach that reaped dividends in Sierra Leone and Kosovo, and in the wake of 9/11 Bush was widely acclaimed for his decisive action in Afghanistan. But in Iraq, the risk taken by both leaders on behalf of their countries appeared to backfire disastrously. The game changed.

Obama has caught the mood of the times by being far more conservative in his willingness to exercise America’s military power. But his first year in office, even he appeared to think of foreign policy as a winner’s game, albeit in a very different way from Bush. He aimed to fundamentally change the relationship between America and the countries of the Middle East. His Nobel speech reverberates with a desire to change the world.

But events shrunk his aspirations. In his second term, Obama has sought to win by playing a loser’s game. With the exception of very limited interventions in Libya, and now Iraq, he has eschewed the use of military power as a tool to shape the world. His determination to avoid making errors even led to him to allow President Assad to cross America’s “red line” by using chemical weapons, and get away with it.

President Obama’s startling admission last week that he did not have a strategy to deal with ISIS was not an accident. His strategy is to not have a strategy (he recently said that foreign policy is not “a chess game”). If you’re playing in a loser’s game, strategy is unnecessary. You take each move as it comes, avoid errors, and eke out incremental victories where you can. You play safe.

Here the analogy between investing and foreign policy breaks down in an instructive way. In investing, given a relatively stable economic environment, there are always low or no-risk choices: bonds, or cash, or firms that promise slow but steady growth.

But in foreign policy, even when you are the most powerful country in the world, there are no safe options. When the world is as volatile as it is now, each seemingly low-risk policy comes with a high risk attached. By deciding not to intervene in Syria, Obama may have allowed its civil war to spread to Iraq. By not confronting Russia more directly over the Crimea, he may have given it the confidence to seize Kiev.

This is the problem with playing the loser’s game in dangerous times. Attempting to play safe shots in a risky environment, you put yourself at the mercy of less cautious actors like Vladimir Putin or ISIS who play the game as if they are winners and occasionally bring off audacious victories.

Buffeted by events, and with no organising principles to guide your responses, you find your power leaching away even as you try to conserve it. Playing the loser’s game, you become the loser.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

GARY WATERS
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In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt