A military official announces Barack Obama's arrival at the Nato Summit in Wales. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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.

Joe Raedle/Getty
Show Hide image

The proposed cuts to junior doctors’ pay will make medicine a profession for the privileged

Jeremy Hunt is an intelligent man with a first-class education. This makes his ill-fated proposed contract appear even more callous rather than ill-judged.

The emblem of the British Medical Association (BMA), the trade union for doctors in the UK, symbolises Asclepius, who was believed to be the founder of western medicine. Asclepius was killed by Zeus with a thunderbolt for resurrecting the dead. In the same way, the proposed government-led contracts to be imposed on doctors from August 2016 may well be the thunderbolt that kills British medical recruitment for a generation and that kills any chance of resurrecting an over-burdened National Health Service.

The BMA voted to ballot their junior doctor members for industrial action for the first time in 40 years against these contracts. What this government has achieved is no small feat. They have managed, in the last few weeks, to instil within a normally passive profession a kindled spirit of self-awareness and political mobilisation.

Jeremy Hunt is an intelligent man with a first-class education. This makes his ill-fated proposed contract appear even more callous rather than ill-judged. Attacking the medical profession has come to define his tenure as health secretary, including the misinformed reprisals on hospital consultants which were met not only with ridicule but initiated a breakdown in respect between government and the medical profession that may take years to reconcile. The government did not learn from this mistake and resighted their guns on the medical profession’s junior members.

“Junior doctor” can be a misleading term, as we are a spectrum of qualified doctors training to become hospital consultants or General Practioners. To become a consultant cardiac surgeon or consultant gastroenterologist does not happen overnight after graduating from medical school: such postgraduate training can take anywhere between 10 to 15 years. This spectrum of highly skilled professionals, therefore, forms the backbone of the medical service within the hospital and is at the forefront of delivering patient care from admission to discharge.

Central to the opposition to the current proposed contract outlined in the Review Body on Doctors' and Dentists' Remuneration is the removal of safeguards to prevent trusts physically overworking and financially exploiting these junior doctors. We believe that this is detrimental not only to our human rights in a civilised society but also detrimental to the care we provide to our patients in the short term and long-term.

David Cameron recently stated that “I think the right thing to do is to be paid the rate for the job”. This is an astute observation. While contract proponents are adamant that the new contract is “pay neutral”, it is anything but as they have tactfully redefined “sociable hours” as between 7am and 10pm Mondays to Saturdays resulting in hardest working speciality doctors seeing their already falling inflation-adjusted pay slashed by up to further 30 per cent while facing potentially unprotected longer working hours.

We acknowledge that we did not enter medicine for the pay perks. If we wanted to do that, we would have become bankers or MPs. Medicine is a vocation and we are prepared to sacrifice many aspects of our lives to provide the duty of care to our patients that they deserve. The joy we experience from saving a person’s life or improving the quality of their life and the sadness, frustration, and anger we feel when a patient dies is what drives us on, more than any pay cheque could.

However, overworked and unprotected doctors are, in the short-term, unsafe to patients. This is why the presidents of eleven of the Royal Colleges responsible for medical training and safeguarding standards of practice in patient care have publically stated their opposition to the contracts. It is, therefore, a mystery as to who exactly from the senior medical profession was directly involved the formation of the current proposals, raising serious questions with regard to its legitimacy. More damaging for the government’s defence are the latest revelations by a former Tory minister and doctor involved in the first negotiations between the BMA and government, Dan Poulter, implying that the original proposals with regard to safeguarding against unsafe hours were rejected by Mr Hunt.  

The long-term effects of the contract are equally disheartening. Already, hundreds of doctors have applied to the General Medical Council to work abroad where the market price for a highly trained medical profession is still dictated by reason. With medical school debts as great as £70,000, this new contract makes it difficult for intelligent youngsters from low-income backgrounds to pay back such debts on the modest starting salary (£11-12 per hour) and proposed cuts. Is medicine therefore reserved only for students from privileged backgrounds rather than the brightest? Furthermore, the contracts discourage women from taking time out to start a family. Female doctors form the majority of undergraduate medical students – we should be encouraging talented women to achieve their full potential to improve healthcare, not making them choose unfairly between work and family at such an early and critical stage of their career.

Postgraduate recruitment will therefore become an embarrassing problem, with many trusts already spending millions on hiring locum doctors. Most hospitals are not ready for Hunt’s radical reforms as the infrastructure to supply seven-day working weeks is simply not available. With a long-term recruitment problem, this would also be a toxic asset for potential private investors, should the health secretary venture down that path.

Jeremy Hunt has an opportunity to re-enter negotiations with the BMA to achieve a common goal of improving the efficiency and recruitment to the health service while protecting patient care. Although the decision for industrial action should never be taken lightly, as future leaders of clinical care in the UK, we will do everything in our power to defend against such thunderbolt attacks, by men playing god, the integrity and dignity of our profession and on the quality of care it delivers to our patients.