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Duck Soup Diplomacy - Any Similarities to Real Characters May be Intentional

This is the tale of two countries, bitter geopolitical rivals. All that I say below is true, depending on how you define the term.

Freedonia has a new president, Rufus T. Firefly. He starts his tenure amid serious questions regarding his ascension to the office and his legitimacy. This is because his appointment was largely backed by one person, Mrs. Teasdale, a rich widow who provides substantial economic support to the country. She has stated that she will continue to provide funds for a government led only by Firefly. His base seems pleased; at the ceremony honoring him, there is quite a good deal of celebration and a buoyant, patriotic song glorifying the country’s new leader.

From the start, there are some questions about Firefly’s background and commitment to the office. Sporting a cigar, he starts by proposing a bizarre set of laws, singing, “No one’s allowed to smoke, or tell a dirty joke, and whistling is forbidden.” He also suggests that, if a married woman takes a lover, she gets to choose her current husband or the new paramour; the one she rejects will be executed. Firefly’s supporters seem generally pleased with his ideas, as they echo his proposals in a loyal chorus.

At Firefly’s first cabinet meeting, he blithely plays a game of jacks and rejects every idea from his ministers. He reduces workers’ hours by cutting into their lunch time, refuses to consider taxes and tariffs, and forces his war secretary to resign. He does use the time to write a reminder that the plumbing needs to be fixed.

Firefly is also an unredeemed womanizer, repeatedly proposing marriage to the wealthy Mrs. Teasdale, while also romancing Vera Marcal, an attractive Latin singer. Blinded by Vera’s beauty, Firefly is unaware that she is serving as a foreign agent against his country.

Freedonia has had a long standing conflict with the nation of Sylvania. The villainous Sylvanian ambassador, Trentino, employs Chicolini (a peanut vendor) and his confederate Pinkie to spy on Firefly. When he meets these two outside his office, Firefly decides to hire them, making Chicolini his new secretary of war.

Firefly and Trentino wage an ongoing battle of insults. Firefly is particularly incensed when Trentino calls him an “upstart” and slaps him with a glove. War is declared, then averted when Mrs. Teasdale intervenes to make peace between the two men. But when Trentino again mentions the word “upstart”, all peace efforts are forsaken.

Intrigue then ensues. The very people Firefly trusts (Chicolini, Pinkie, and Vera) are in Mrs. Teasdale’s house trying to steal the Freedonian war plans. Caught red handed, Chicolini is put on trial, but Firefly defends him. Mrs. Teasdale announces that Trentino is about to arrive, offering one last time to make peace. Firefly is concerned that Trentino will refuse to shake his hand. In order to forestall such a snub, Firefly preemptively slaps Trentino in the face, thus ending all hopes of peaceful negotiation and plunging the two countries into a great war.

If you didn’t know any better, you would guess that this is just comedy. This could be played for laughs, with Groucho Marx portraying Firefly and his brothers Chico and Harpo appearing as Chicolini and Pinkie. The movie would have a nonsense name, something like “Duck Soup”. After all, the circumstances are too unreal to be believed: an ill-prepared, possibly illegitimate, lecherous president fails to take his job seriously and is unaware of disloyalty in his administration. To top it off, he engages in brinkmanship foreign policy. This couldn’t possibly happen in the real world, with so much information available to us, and after all we have learned through generations of historical experience.

If Freedonia were to hold an election, would would the citizens choose? Would they hold Firefly accountable for implementing incoherent policy, getting rid of core advisors, making nonsensical hiring decisions, and stirring up foreign aggression? Or would they enjoy the spectacle and the entertainment value Firefly brings?

It does not seem that Freedonia has a legislature. After all, if it did, the members would surely seek to check Firefly’s capricious behavior and dangerous foreign policy. No Congress or Parliament would readily cede its ability to act as a balance to a reckless executive.

The war that Firefly provoked is going bad for Freedonia. Nevertheless, Chicolini decides to join the Freedonian side because they serve better food. When Mrs. Teasdale’s house comes under enemy attack, she calls Firefly, and he leaves headquarters to join her, along with Chicolini and Pinkie. Calls go out for reinforcements, but it appears to be too late. When the Sylvanian soldiers storm Mrs. Teasdale’s house, Trentino is with them. Firefly and his comrades take the opportunity to trap Trentino and barrage him with fruit, and he has no choice but to surrender. Freedonia is victorious! Its national nightmare is over.

Hopefully, Freedonia has learned from this experience. What lessons can be drawn?

As long as you’re playing with fruit as your weapons, perhaps a nation can afford to be a little reckless. But once the military arsenal gets more powerful than that, it’s best to leave foreign policy to the professionals.

A leader should not go into important negotiations alone with no preparation; he should have experienced advisors on hand to cool any situation and avoid making it personal.

If a country is fortunate to have free elections and a legislative branch of government, the voters and Congress should keep a close eye on what the president is doing and hold him to account for his policy mishaps.

Finally, if national leaders risk engaging in war to pump up and satisfy their own egos, let them fight against each other. Leave the rest of us out of it. Just saying…

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