I played for my high school chess team way back in the early 1970s, shortly before Bobby Fischer played his world championship match against Boris Spassky. We had a good team, one that could compete for the national high school championship. I was by no means among the best of the group. I enjoyed the chance to participate, and profited a great deal from our team’s strong leadership.
Our team’s captain was one of the best junior players in the country. Only a handful of people could go up against him without feeling from the first move that they knew the game’s outcome. He was fairly laconic about what makes a good chess player, but the few things he said stay with me still. One of them was, just find the best move on the board. That advice seems simple enough, but it has some context.
A certain type of player in chess tournaments would try to intimidate opponents with the way they moved the pieces. If not intimidate, they would aim to throw their opponents off their confidence, to create doubts about their ability win against someone who seemed so confident by comparison. Players of this type would move their pieces in a swaggering sort of way: snatch it off the board, sweep it over to its new square, then drop it down with an audible thunk as the felt hit the surface. The technique was the opposite of tentative. It said, “I’m good, I’m confident of victory, and I want you to know it.”
Our captain would have faced Fischer with the same calm, careful, thoughtful manner he brought to every game. Even a player of Fischer’s strength and intensity would not get inside his head. With practiced discipline, he would play the position on the board.
Often people who played that way weren’t bad players. I found they were better than average, but not that great. Our team captain’s approach was, just ignore that stuff. Play the position on the board. You can’t do any more than that. Bobby Fischer was famous for intimidation, if only because he was so intense at the board. I’m confident our captain would have faced Fischer with the same calm, careful, thoughtful manner he brought to every game. Even a player of Fischer’s strength and intensity would not get inside his head. With practiced discipline, he would play the position on the board.
Let’s apply some of these thoughts to U. S. foreign policy. President Trump’s operation behaves like the chess player who swaggers with his fingers and his wrist when he moves the pieces during a game. They talk like isolationists and act like bullies. They believe their own egotistical threats, without remembering that competence and strength speak for themselves. You do not need to remind people you are good at what you do, if you simply win. Call it the Tom Brady code of professional workmanship. People around the country may not like him, but they know he’s good.
Donald Trump wants people to like him, or at least some people. He seems to have no concept how weak the United States has become relative to its competitors. I know that’s a controversial statement, but as a presidential candidate he traveled the country saying he wanted to make the United States great again. People cheered that sentiment for a reason, a sentiment that makes sense only if we’re not great now. We used to be great. Whatever your estimate of our current state of greatness, let’s concentrate on our interactions with Russia, as we develop the chess playing comparison a little bit.
From all evidence, the United States operates without a plan. Foreign policy people talk as if they have plans, but these statements don’t seem to cohere or form a strategy. The plans operate more as talking points, not as elements in a program to advance U. S. interests.
Putin plays the position on the board. People who don’t know a lot about the game may ask a player, how many moves ahead can you see? They assume that good players win because they ‘see’ more. That shows a misconception of the game, as good players don’t try to look ahead all that many moves. They plan, they consider combinations of moves as a boxer throws a combination of punches, they recognize and understand patterns, but they reassess the position after every single pair of moves: their most recent move, and their opponent’s response. A chess game is especially interesting when both sides have strategically sound plans, executed without serious mistakes.
From all evidence, the United States operates without a plan. Foreign policy people talk as if they have plans – pivot toward Asia, inaugurate a new relationship with Iran, engage cautiously with China, back off from unwise wars – but when you look at their actions, these statements don’t seem to govern any kind of strategy at all. The plans operate more as talking points, not as elements in a strategy to advance U. S. interests.
This phenomenon of plan-less behavior is nowhere more apparent than in the developing world war. Most news sources don’t call it a world war, but the signs are all present: wide geographical dispersion of conflict with many nations involved, huge refugee flows, continuous fighting in several theaters, key strategic interests at stake, involvement of great powers, and of course, catastrophic destruction of people and property.
This phenomenon of plan-less behavior is nowhere more apparent than in the developing world war.
Putin plans to win this war, which means he plans to take advantage of it to strengthen his country’s position in the world order. Xi Jin Ping has similar goals, and develops plans consistent with them. The United States does not have a plan at all. It does not count to say you have one. It also does not count to say that a plan is impossible while the other side has the initiative – that you have to wait for the other side to make a mistake before you can execute a plan of your own. Every actor in international relations needs a strategy to guides its actions: however unstable, unbalanced, or disadvantageous the current power relationships on the board.
A genuine, present difficulty is that Putin and other opponents have the initiative in a war we started. As great powers will, we went into Iraq with the intention of an easy, quick victory, and ignited a war that grew and grew. Nearly fifteen years later, we watch the entire region disintegrate. No one in the United States wants to reenter the fight, regardless of the goals its leaders might devise. We express hope that Russia, Iran, Turkey, Israel, and other regional powers will act reasonably, but that is certainly not a plan or a strategy.
Meantime, Putin does act reasonably: he advances Russia’s interests at every opportunity, without overextending his country’s resources. He annexes Crimea and takes our country completely by surprise. His forces eat away at eastern Ukraine. He builds amicable relationships with former enemies Turkey and Israel. He places major military hardware in Syria, and our best response is to say, “We hope you’ll stop doing that.” Washington puts up amateurs who want to rely on their country’s past greatness to persuade adversaries to stop causing us problems.
Play the position on the board. Find the best move. If you lose the current game, you can set up the pieces and play again. Many players have won when they thought they might lose, if they just find the best move at each turn.
They can’t seem to grasp that we threw away our power, our integrity and our leadership when we opened the Iraqi conflict, and lied about the reasons for it. You might even say that no plan could succeed after a blunder that serious. I wrote a lot, some time ago, about how we could recover from our disastrous mistake in 2003. Now I’m not sure any plan, no matter how well developed, could succeed. Nevertheless, pessimism like that should not paralyze the United States, or reduce us to pleading with other powers, great and regional, to back off. Swaggerers who plead for respite and restraint from their opponents do not realize success in any respect.
Solid, plainly stated wisdom from our chess team captain holds as well for international conflict: play the position on the board. Find the best move. If you lose the current game, you can set up the pieces and play again. Many players have won when they thought they might lose, if they just find the best move at each turn. You cannot let difficult situations make you discouraged, reckless, or over-cautious. Counter your opponent’s initiatives; develop initiatives of your own. Never give up, until you have a clear outcome. These lessons apply to successful competition in chess, and to successful competition in war.