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.

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Metro mayors can help Labour return to government

Labour champions in the new city regions can help their party at the national level too.

2017 will mark the inaugural elections of directly-elected metro mayors across England. In all cases, these mayor and cabinet combined authorities are situated in Labour heartlands, and as such Labour should look confidently at winning the whole slate.

Beyond the good press winning again will generate, these offices provide an avenue for Labour to showcase good governance, and imperatively, provide vocal opposition to the constraints of local government by Tory cuts.

The introduction of the Mayor of London in 2000 has provided a blueprint for how the media can provide a platform for media-friendly leadership. It has also demonstrated the ease that the office allows for attribution of successes to that individual and party – or misappropriated in context of Boris Bikes and to a lesser extent the London Olympics.

While without the same extent of the powers of the sui generis mayor of the capital, the prospect of additional metro-mayors provide an opportunity for replicating these successes while providing experience for Labour big-hitters to develop themselves in government. This opportunity hasn’t gone unnoticed, and after Sadiq Khan’s victory in London has shown that the role can grow beyond the limitations – perceived or otherwise - of the Corbyn shadow cabinet while strengthening team Labour’s credibility by actually being in power.

Shadow Health Secretary and former leadership candidate Andy Burnham’s announcement last week for Greater Manchester was the first big hitter to make his intention known. The rising star of Luciana Berger, another member of Labour’s health team, is known to be considering a run in the Liverpool City Region. Could we also see them joined by the juggernaut of Liam Byrne in the West Midlands, or next-generation Catherine McKinnell in the North East?

If we can get a pantheon of champions elected across these city regions, to what extent can this have an influence on national elections? These new metro areas represent around 11.5 million people, rising to over 20 million if you include Sadiq’s Greater London. While no doubt that is an impressive audience that our Labour pantheon are able to demonstrate leadership to, there are limitations. 80 of the 94 existing Westminster seats who are covered under the jurisdiction of the new metro-mayors are already Labour seats. While imperative to solidify our current base for any potential further electoral decline, in order to maximise the impact that this team can have on Labour’s resurgence there needs to be visibility beyond residents.

The impact of business is one example where such influence can be extended. Andy Burnham for example has outlined his case to make Greater Manchester the creative capital of the UK. According to the ONS about 150,000 people commute into Greater Manchester, which is two constituency’s worth of people that can be directly influenced by the Mayor of Greater Manchester.

Despite these calculations and similar ones that can be made in other city-regions, the real opportunity with selecting the right Labour candidates is the media impact these champion mayors can make on the national debate. This projects the influence from the relatively-safe Labour regions across the country. This is particularly important to press the blame of any tightening of belts in local fiscal policy on the national Tory government’s cuts. We need individuals who have characteristics of cabinet-level experience, inspiring leadership, high profile campaigning experience and tough talking opposition credentials to support the national party leadership put the Tory’s on the narrative back foot.

That is not to say there are not fine local council leaders and technocrats who’s experience and governance experience at vital to Labour producing local successes. But the media don’t really care who number two is, and these individuals are best serving the national agenda for the party if they support A-listers who can shine a bright spotlight on our successes and Tory mismanagement.

If Jeremy Corbyn and the party are able to topple the Conservatives come next election, then all the better that we have a diverse team playing their part both on the front bench and in the pantheon of metro-mayors. If despite our best efforts Jeremy’s leadership falls short, then we will have experienced leaders in waiting who have been able to afford some distance from the front-bench, untainted and able to take the party’s plan B forward.