A Third Note on the Shortcomings of the Transactional

In the New York Review of Books, Masha Gessen argues that realist transactionalism has now corrupted “all political life.”

Her essay extends some of the points that foreign policy observers like Martin Wolf and Ian Bremmer have made in passing lately about the shortcomings of a transactional approach to alliances (which I noted here and here), and urges “a shift from realist to moral reasoning.”

We don’t know what Trump will do; and “we cannot know,” Gessen writes,

whether a scorched-earth strategy or the strategy of compromise would more effectively mitigate Trumpism. But that does not mean that a choice—the right choice—is impossible. It only means that we are asking the wrong question.

The difficulty stems from the realist tradition in politics. In contrast to what is sometimes called idealism, the realist position holds that the political world is governed not by morality but by clear and calculable interests. Alliances and conflicts turn into transactions with predictable outcomes. The realist reasoning is applied most clearly and most often to international relations, but it has seeped into all political life, turning virtually every conversation into a discussion of possible outcomes.

Realism is predicated on predictability: it assumes that parties have clear interests and will act rationally to achieve them. This is rarely true anywhere, and it is patently untrue in the case of Trump. He ran a campaign unlike any in memory, has won an election unlike any in memory, and has so far appointed a cabinet unlike any in memory: racists, Islamophobes, and homophobes, many of whom have no experience relevant to their new jobs. Patterns of behavior characteristic of former presidents will not help predict Trump’s behavior. As for his own patterns, inconsistency and unreliability are among his chief characteristics….

We cannot know what political strategy, if any, can be effective in containing, rather than abetting, the threat that a Trump administration now poses to some of our most fundamental democratic principles. But we can know what is right. What separates Americans in 2016 from Europeans in the 1940s and 1950s is a little bit of historical time but a whole lot of historical knowledge….

Armed with that knowledge, or burdened with that legacy, we have a slight chance of making better choices. As Trump torpedoes into the presidency, we need to shift from realist to moral reasoning. That would mean, at minimum, thinking about the right thing to do, now and in the imaginable future. It is also a good idea to have a trusted friend capable of reminding you when you are about to lose your sense of right and wrong.

3 thoughts on “A Third Note on the Shortcomings of the Transactional

  1. David

    These are good points. And anytime an essay refers to learning from the lessons of Europe’s moral failure leading thru WWII it’s like a cudgel to compel agreement. However, Gessen’s assumption is that there are two players – unpredictable Trump, and those who want to oppose him effectively. However, there are multiple players. Those two, plus the voter/audience segments, even foreign allies and competitors. The opposition’s real audience is the voter segment. That was what the GOP was betting on in obstructing the Obama administration. Now, the problem with the voter segment is that it does not behave rationally, either, consistently voting against its own interests. My own not too thoughtful take is that the opposition’s goals are to (1) do whatever is possible to prevent harmful laws and regulatory changes, and (2) figure out how to get the voter segment to recognize its own interests. Both are hard, and may be in conflict with one another. For example, the Trump/GOP initiative to repeal Obamacare and erase Medicare. Harmful and must be opposed…. but perhaps losing these benefits they already have is the only way frustrated, not well educated white people struggling to get by may recognize their self interest.


    1. lvgaldieri Post author

      Great comment. I think your point about the multiple players involved here is very important, and something Gessen overlooks. I also think the opposition she sets up between the realist and the moral is a little too clean and stark. She never suggests that there are limits to the moral, and I’m afraid real political opposition is going to have to get its hands dirty. That said, her discussion of the transactional, and her association of it with political realism, is illuminating and resonates with stuff that’s preoccupied me lately.


  2. Pingback: Another Thought On Gessen’s Shift | lvgaldieri

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