Foreign policy, Yugoslavia, and bombing: Where is psychology?

By Garland Y. (Gary) DeNelsky, Ph.D
May 1, 1999 - Last updated: May 31, 2011

Where is psychology when crucial foreign policy decisions are made? Are the boundaries of psychology limited to the clinic, the university, the school, the hospital, and the business? Is the knowledge gained by thousands of educated and experienced clinicians and researchers of human behavior so esoteric and impractical that it is of little use to our foreign policy experts?

Looking at the recent governmental decisions made regarding Yugoslavia, it would appear that our leaders received no input whatever from experts in behavioral science or chose to ignore what input they did receive.
Although our intentions in Yugoslavia are laudable–to stop the suffering and bloodshed–the implementation of these intentions has unleashed a tragic chain of events.

Our leadership ignored options that remained before dropping bombs on military as well as other targets. It overlooked research and clinical experience that should guide the negotiating process. Here are some of these well-established psychological principles:

Principle 1: When negotiating between two parties, do not try to impose a policy by brute force. During mediation, unleashing callous force can quickly transform the mediator into a combatant. Ample research exists in the social psychological literature supporting this principle. Struggles between management and labor have repeatedly demonstrated that sheer force is not the solution. Police called in to cool domestic battles are trained to cool–not energize–the disputes. Our foreign policy, which was trying to get Milosevic and the Kosovo rebels to agree to a compromise to achieve peace, was seemingly based upon persuading the rebels to sign and then forcing Milosevic to do likewise under threat of bombing. This type of coercion was exactly opposite of President Clinton’s success in helping achieve substantial movement toward peace in the Middle East and Northern Ireland.

Principle 2: Threatening an individual with a paranoid personality disorder is not good practice. As nearly as can be sorted out from the many descriptions of Yugoslavian President Milosevic, his personality could probably be best characterized as a mix of paranoid and narcissistic features. Individuals with paranoid features feel threatened all the time, and their primary occupation is to guard against such threats, real or imagined. When they perceive they are threatened, they dig in their heels and become even more inflexible. Whoever told President Clinton that Milosevic responds only to force or the threat of force simply did not understand the nature of the beast. Milosevic did not respond to threats nor bombs.

Principle 3: The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. This principle has been so repeatedly established that it may achieve cliche status in psychology. But it is true remarkably often, and it applies to groups as well as individuals.

How have nations responded to bombing in the past? Did Germany’s bombing bring Britain to its feet? Did Japan’s devastating bombing of Pearl Harbor sicken our stomach for war? Did the U.S.’ endless bombing of Hanoi bring the Vietnamese to the peace table? And more recently, has Sadaam become more dove-like in response to our aerial assaults on his country? Perhaps the only time that bombing has ever brought a nation to the peace table was in 1945 following the two devastating atomic bombs dropped on Japan. And by that time the outcome of the war was no longer in doubt.

Whose prediction was it that bombing Yugoslavia’s military would cause Milosevic to become more reasonable and beg for peace? The predictable primary outcome of bombing is that it literally infuriates a nation and strengthens its resolve to resist its attackers. Our leaders must recognize that bombing is not a kind of high-tech video game in which our destruction of the opposition’s targets spells victory for our side.

Principle 4: When a group is facing an outside threat, it comes together and rallies behind its leader. This principle is based on classic social psychological research on in-group and out-group relationships. Whoever could have realistically envisioned that dropping bombs on Yugoslavia would make Milosevic less popular or more vulnerable to being overthrown and replaced by a more moderate leader? As nearly as can be determined, even those people in Yugoslavia who were not firm supporters of Milosevic have rallied behind him.

Principle 5: Violence begets violence. There is a substantial psychological literature that simply witnessing violence makes people more likely to engage in violent action. When our leaders decided to bomb, did they not consider the likely effects on those people we desire to protect? Did they not consider that unleashing the violence of bombing would make those opposed to the peace settlement even more actively violent? Horrors may well have been occurring before, but even our officials admit that they have multiplied many fold since NATO’s attacks were initiated.

Principle 6: People respond to their personal meanings of words with emotions that are powerful and compelling. This is a principle drawn from general semantics, a field closely related to psychology.

When Clinton and others labeled the events in Kosovo as “genocide,” powerful emotions were unleashed, and understandably so. Who can forget the millions rounded up and systematically exterminated earlier this century by cruel tyrants? That was genocide, “the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group” (Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary definition). We all have strong emotional reactions to that concept, as well we should.

Did the situation there really deserve the label of genocide? People from one ethnic and religious background (Serbs) were locked in bitter struggle with and doing horrible things to others (Kosovo people of Albanian heritage). This was a fight for the political destiny of Kosovo. A deeper look at the recent history of the region reveals that neither side has been innocent of outrageous actions.

If this indeed was “genocide,” the same label could be applied to the conflicts in northern Ireland and Israel. Yet in neither of these regions where outrageous behavior occurred was that label applied and then used to rationalize violence to impose a settlement. When President Clinton used the word “genocide,” people reacted with powerful emotions–and reduced scrutiny of his proposed actions to bomb whom he labeled as the party guilty of this genocide.

Principle 7: Complex problems frequently require complex solutions. This principle is readily drawn from laboratory experiments with animals. A laboratory rat, for example, will only press a lever so long when no food is forthcoming. That rat will eventually look for other response avenues (such as a different lever), rather than endlessly striking the initial lever harder and harder. Otherwise, a crude, maladaptive pattern referred to as “bulldozing” occurs. When the bombing of Yugoslavia did not work, avenues other that simply bombing more and bombing harder needed to be explored.

What should have been done to prevent this tragic chain of events? Persistent negotiations. Persistence is perhaps the most important quality of successful mediation. Reason, cajole, plead, argue, debate, reiterate, reframe. Irrevocable deadlines should be taboo. When mediating, neither individuals nor governments should threaten force when progress seems at a standstill, nor should they give up. An equally important characteristic of successful mediation is impartiality, something that may have been lacking when Ambassador Richard Holbrooke met Misolevic in an 11th hour emergency session in Belgrade. Both sides must regard the mediator as fair and evenhanded. Pleading with one side to sign a peace treaty while threatening the other with bombing if it rejects signing fails this test of impartiality. Yet, that is precisely what happened in Belgrade.

As this war becomes increasingly complex and bloody, thoughtful, flexible, non-violent responses become imperative. We must learn from this tragedy. In a world where 21st century technology can reduce civilization to rubble in hours, our leaders’ thinking must not remain hitched to 19th century power politics. Contemporary behavioral science knowledge supports more rational and accurate predictions of human behavior.
This knowledge needs to be applied before it is too late.

Garland Y. (Gary) DeNelsky, Ph.D., has been a staff psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic for 27 years. A longtime leader in the Ohio Psychological Assn., DeNelsky has held prominent positions in APA as a longtime member of Council, the Finance and Public Information Committees, and the Policy and Planning Board. Early in his career, he was a psychologist for the Central Intelligence Agency.

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