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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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.