In The Rise of China vs. the Logic of Strategy, published last year, Edward Luttwak introduced the concept of “great state autism,” a collective national lack of situational awareness that reduces a country’s ability to perceive international realities with clarity. While the U.S. and Russia each suffer from obvious cases of the condition, Luttwak labels China’s autism an “especially virulent” strain, due to its ancient development in relative isolation and its sheer size, among other factors. Luttwak sees the affliction when, say, China flexes its military muscle in the face of a neighbor one day and then is surprised by the rebuff of a trade delegation to that same neighbor the next.
“In all great states,” writes Luttwak, “there is so much internal activity that leaders and opinion-makers cannot focus seriously on foreign affairs as well, except in particular times of crisis.”
They do not have the constant situational awareness of the world around them that is natural in small countries of equal advancement. After all, individual sensory and cranial capacities are much the same in smoothly operating states of a few million people, and in megastates such as the Russian Federation, the United States, India, and China, whose leaders face internal urgencies if not emergencies each day somewhere or other, in addition to their ordinary decision-making sessions and ceremonial obligations.
The result is not mere inattention. On the contrary, it is not only possible but common for great-state leaders and even entire ruling elites to make much of foreign affairs if only as welcome diversion from the harder choices of domestic politics, in which almost any decision that pleases some must displease others—and not mere foreigners whose political support will not be missed.
Great-state autism is worse than inattention because in the absence of the serious and earnest study that domestic urgencies make impossible, decision-makers cannot absorb in-depth information with all its complexities and subtleties, even if it is offered to them (which is unlikely: when intelligence officers adhere to the rule that their highest duty is to tell top leaders what they do not want to hear, their careers suffer). Instead, decisions on foreign affairs are almost always made on the basis of highly simplified, schematic representations of unmanageably complex realities, which are thereby distorted to fit within internally generated categories, expectations, and perspectives.
Now, in the recently-published Israel Has Moved, Diana Pinto describes Israel as suffering from its own case of autism, despite being a nation of far less territory than Luttwak’s Russia, China, India, or the United States. Pinto’s book is an unsettling take on Israel’s decades-long drift away from the European shadow in which it was founded and towards a new insularity. On the one hand are the country’s world-leading science and technology sectors, on the other its less successful international relationships.
Super-Israel at the technological heart of the new world economy suddenly becomes Israel the autistic with Asperger syndrome, the bipolar, the schizophrenic, the paranoiac, the psychotic, and even the psycho-rigid: in other words, an entity that denies the very principle of reality. These are very powerful, even terrifying, metaphors. They are not mine. Israelis from all camps—whether ultraorthodox or extremely secular, young or old, and coming from the most diverse cultural origins—used them freely before me as so many self-evident truths.
She writes of Israeli autism:
This condition, which occurs among the young (and Israel is both very young as a state and very old as a people), who are often quite brilliant in certain fields, defines those who cannot think of themselves as living in a world populated by others. They do not register the gaze or the emotions of others and are therefore unable to communicate or interact with them, because they do not grasp or understand what might motivate them… As with autistic people who feel threatened, Israel can reply to the aggressions of others (in its case most often real and not imagined) only by an excessively forceful and uncontrolled reaction, of which it often becomes its own victim.
Interestingly, while Luttwak makes no mention of Israel in his discussion of great state autism, Pinto cites China as the only other civilization whose “self-centeredness” resembles that of the Jews. Also striking are the contrasting conditions of each affliction’s incubation: Luttwak points to China’s ancient history of isolation from other states, whereas Israel’s defining characteristic is its keystoning of the lands along the Mediterranean Sea. In either case, the label seems a useful lens through which to observe these two major factors in the pursuit of geopolitical stability.