The need for strategic empathy

Among the books waiting to be read on my bookshelf is A Sense of the Enemy: The High-Stakes History of Reading Your Rival’s Mind, by Zachary Shore. This caught my attention because fifteen years ago Shore lived on the same corridor as me at St Antony’s College, Oxford, while we were both writing our doctoral theses. Also, the subject matter fits well into my forthcoming course on Irrationality and Foreign Policy Decision Making. The book is a study in decision making, and judging from what I have skimmed so far, it advances a fairly simple thesis: successful foreign policy depends upon what Shore calls ‘strategic empathy’, that is to say an ability to understand what motivates your enemy. This does not mean imagining what you would do if you were in your enemy’s place. Rather it means really understanding them, their desires, the constraints under which they operate, and so on.

I would take this further and say that strategic empathy is important not just when dealing with ‘enemies’ but in politics more generally, and that it is precisely the lack of such empathy which has pulled Russia-West relations into the mess which they are today.

The response of both Russia and Western states to the crisis in Ukraine has been to throw insults at one another and to resort to conspiracy theories. To many in the West, Russian behaviour in Ukraine is the product of a deliberate plan of imperial expansion; to many Russians, the civil war in Ukraine is the result of a long-term American strategy to destabilize and weaken any potential rivals. Within Ukraine, the current government views the war as solely the consequence of Russian aggression, whereas the rebels view themselves as victims of government barbarity. No matter who you are, somebody else is entirely to blame. No effort is made to understand, let alone empathize with the other side’s point of view.

Underlying all this is a sense on both sides of moral righteousness. The division of the world into good guys – us – and bad guys – them – discourages any effort to promote strategic empathy, for the latter comes to be regarded as appeasing evil. But strategic empathy does not require that one concede that the other side is right. Rather, through a better understanding of others’ actions, one increases one’s chances of pursuing successful policies.

So, for instance, the government which came to power in Ukraine in February 2014 arrogantly ignored the concerns of those protesting against it on the grounds that they were simply stooges of Moscow and did not represent genuine public opinion. The result was civil war. The government would have done better to understand that some of its citizens did reject it and needed reassurance.

Meanwhile, Western states failed to understand how important Ukraine is to Russia, and thus failed to understand how Russia was likely to react to the forcible overthrow of the Ukrainian government. Fixated on ‘Russian aggression’, Western leaders made no effort to understand the opinions of those fighting against Kiev. Consequently, Western leaders reinforced the inflexibility of the Ukrainian government, and so made a bad situation even worse.

Russian leaders have also made mistakes. The annexation of Crimea incited the governments in Kiev and the West to see the events in Eastern Ukraine as a repetition of those in Crimea, and so to view the protests against Kiev as being not an expression of legitimate opinion but rather a precursor to Russian invasion. Russian actions instilled fear and encouraged intransigence. Moscow does not seem to understand this.

If I have a blogging wish for 2015, then, it is for both Russia and the West to try harder to understand how the world looks from the other’s point of view. Moral certitude may be emotionally satisfying, but strategic empathy is far more likely to lead to peace.

The sanctions puzzle

VISA and Mastercard announced on Boxing Day that they will no longer provide services in Crimea, on the grounds that to do so would be in violation of the latest sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies in Canada and Europe. These include a prohibition on the importation of goods from Crimea, a ban on companies providing tourism services in Crimea, and the outlawing of investment in Crimea. Is this sanctions policy rational?

In January I will start teaching a course on ‘Irrationality and Foreign Policy Decision Making’. ‘Irrationality’ is somewhat hard to define, but one way of looking at it is in terms of ends and means. Actors who choose means which will help them achieve their intended ends may be considered rational. Actors who choose means which they know will not achieve those ends are irrational. So, what are Western nations’ objectives in imposing sanctions on Crimea and will the sanctions actually help them reach those objectives?

It could be that the aim of the sanctions is to coerce Russia into giving Crimea back to Ukraine. The problem with this objective is that it cannot be achieved. Russia will not surrender Crimea. If Western states believe otherwise, they are deluded. If they understand that they cannot force Russia to hand over Crimea, but are pursuing this objective anyway, then they are acting irrationally.

In any case, if the aim is to put pressure on Moscow, it seems strange to sanction Crimea. The effect of the sanctions will be to make life difficult for the inhabitants of the peninsula, but they won’t directly harm those in Moscow who make the political decisions. The means chosen do not match the apparent end.

A rational person might, therefore, conclude that pressuring or punishing Moscow is not the aim after all. Perhaps the objective is instead to punish the people of Crimea. But that makes little sense. In the first place, the sanctioning states do not gain any benefit from such punishment. Second, Western states have never blamed the people of Crimea for the annexation of the peninsula, and so punishing them would be odd.

Perhaps, then, the sanctions are not really meant to achieve anything as far as Russia is concerned. Rather their purpose is to satisfy domestic public opinion. The problem with that explanation is that the public in most Western states doesn’t seem very interested in Crimea. Outside of Canada there isn’t much of a Ukrainian lobby pushing for a harder line against Russia. It’s not obvious that there are domestic political interests which need to be appeased, and thus it does not appear that there is any political benefit in sanctioning Crimea.

Another possibility would be that the policy is a product of bureaucratic inertia. Following the annexation of Crimea, committees were formed, papers written, and processes started. Now they are ploughing their way forward regardless of whether what they are doing serves a meaningful purpose. And yet another possibility would be that Western political leaders don’t actually know what their objectives are, but are flailing around blindly in order to satisfy their own personal sense of moral outrage. The rationality in this case would be personal and emotional. If so, it is impossible to verify.

All in all, it’s hard to explain what is happening using a rational actor model of policy making. One has to look elsewhere for an explanation.

Glædelig Jul

What nationality is Santa Claus? The answer to that question depends on who owns the North Pole, which is currently a matter of considerable dispute. Every year the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) tracks Santa’s sleigh as it travels south into Canada from the Arctic. Yet NORAD never dispatches any jets to intercept this obvious breach of Canadian airspace. This presumably reflects the belief that the Pole is Canadian. Indeed, in December 2013 Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird told reporters that, ‘We have asked our officials and scientists to do additional and necessary work to ensure that a submission for the full extent of the continental shelf in the Arctic includes Canada’s claim to the North Pole.’

But Canada is not the only country claiming the Pole. In the past 12 months, journalists, politicians, and academics alike have leapt with zeal on the ‘Russian aggression in the Arctic’ bandwagon, referring often to a 2007 incident when Russian scientists planted a titanium Russian flag on the seabed beneath the North Pole . ‘Russia Is Trying To Bully Their Way Past Canada Into Arctic Sovereignty’, pronounced Vice News in January 2014.  ‘Russia’s aggressive gambit to seize territory in Europe has amplified the need for Canada to fortify its claims to potentially disputed territory in the Arctic’, said Professor Aurel Braun of the University of Toronto in September. ‘Since Mr. Putin returned as President of Russia in 2012, but particularly in the past year, Russian claims to the Arctic have multiplied’, he added.

In fact, claims to Arctic waters are being determined by a well-established legal procedure, in which countries present scientific evidence to the commission established under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Making claims under this procedure is not evidence of any form of aggression. Furthermore, Russia has entirely followed this procedure. The Canadian government, by contrast, hasn’t, as shown by Baird’s statement staking a claim to the North Pole despite a total lack of evidence that the Canadian continental shelf extends that far. As James Manicom, a research fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, put it: ‘I don’t think the prime minister, and the Prime Minister’s Office, are literate in deep-sea geology. So if they decided it was important to claim the seabed underneath the North Pole, then they have interfered with an otherwise pretty clear scientific process.’

In any case, Russia isn’t the competitor that Canada really has to worry about. In early December this year, the Danish government submitted scientific data to the UN in support of a claim to the North Pole, on the grounds that the Lomonosov Ridge under the Arctic Ocean is an extension of Greenland’s continental shelf. Experts suggest that the Danish claim is much more credible than those of Russia and Canada. ‘Preliminary work has shown … that Denmark would actually have the strongest claim to encompass the North Pole within its region,’ Ron McNab, formerly of the Canadian Polar Commission, told CBC News.

Santa, it appears, is probably Danish. Ho, ho, ho!

Putin’s philosopher

In his speech to the Russian parliament on 4 December, Vladimir Putin quoted philosopher Ivan Ilyin, who died 60 years ago today. Putin supervised the repatriation and reburial of Ilyin’s body in 2005, and has laid flowers on Ilyin’s grave. He has quoted him several times before. Ilyin’s Our Tasks (Nashi Zadachi) was one of three books distributed by the Kremlin as recommended reading to regional governors and senior members of the United Russia party in early 2014. And on December 22nd of this year, members of the Duma, Federation Council, and Presidential Administration will meet in Moscow for a round-table discussion of his work. If Putin has a favourite philosopher, Ilyin seems to be the man. So who was he and what did he believe in?

Mikhail Nesterov, The Thinker: A Portrait of Ivan Ilyin, 1922
Mikhail Nesterov, The Thinker: A Portrait of Ivan Ilyin, 1922

Born in 1883, Ilyin studied law at Moscow State University and completed his thesis The philosophy of Hegel as a doctrine of the concreteness of God and humanity in 1916. Resolutely anti-communist, he was expelled from Soviet Russia in 1922 along with some 200 other intellectuals on the infamous ‘philosophers’ steamboat’. He then took up residence in Berlin, where he made contact with members of the exiled White army of General P.N. Wrangel, who nicknamed him Belyi (White) on account of the pure belizna (whiteness) of his opinions. Ilyin became the unofficial ideologist of the White Army in exile, and much of his work thereafter was as much political as it was philosophical, and was aimed at a wider audience than other philosophers.

Ilyin’s work covered a large variety of subjects, including the philosophy of Hegel, law, politics, the ethics of violence, the nature of the Russian nation, and the tasks incumbent on Russian émigrés. He was in many respects a religious philosopher, in that he regarded spiritual matters as more important than material ones. He believed that the Russian revolution was a product of the spiritual failings of the Russian people. Russia’s resurrection depended on the revival of the correct spirit, including a love of God, a love of Russia, respect for the law, a sense of duty and honour, and devotion to the state and the common weal rather than personal or party interests. It is difficult to reduce the writings of such a complex thinker to a few lines, but three themes stand out: gosudarstvennost’ (statehood); pravosoznanie (legal consciousness); and natsionalizm (nationalism).

  • Gosudarstvennost’. Ilyin was a firm believer in a strong state. Gosudarstvennost’ can be viewed in purely descriptive terms as meaning the system of government, but it is also a value-laden term. It implies a belief that the interests of the state should come first. In this sense it can be contrasted with obshchestvennost’, which is often translated as ‘public opinion’ but more accurately describes the liberal stratum of Russian society and its beliefs, and it can be contrasted also with partiinost’, the ideology of the Communist Party, which placed the interests of the party first. Ilyin believed that to view the state as a balance of competing material interests was profoundly mistaken. The state should work for the general good. To this end, it must be strong. In Russia, a weak state would result in anarchy. ‘Russian state power will be strong, or it won’t exist at all’, he wrote. Ilyin rejected federalism and demanded a unitary state, ‘dictatorial in the scope of its powers.’ He favoured autocracy, but one filled with ‘creative spirit … a dictatorial-aristocratic-democracy.’ The state should be absolute in those areas in which it had competence. But it should not have competence over everything. ‘At the head of the state must stand a single will,’ he wrote, ‘It cannot and should not regulate everything. The totalitarian state is godless.’ The state had to be bound by law and accountable to the people.
  • Pravosoznanie: A lawyer by training, Ilyin was a firm believer in the importance of law. One of Imperial Russia’s greatest failings was its undeveloped ‘legal consciousness’, that is to say its people’s sense of what was right and wrong and whether they should obey the law. One of the most important tasks of the autocratic state would be to develop the people’s legal consciousness until eventually it reached a level at which the people would become capable of self-government. Until then, however, attempts to impose liberal democratic forms of government would be disastrous. Thus, in The essence of legal consciousness, Ilyin wrote ‘The political structure and legal consciousness form a living, inseparable unity insofar as not a single reform is possible until a definite improvement in legal consciousness takes place, and any reform that is disproportionate to the state of popular legal consciousness will turn out to be absurd and ruinous for the state. The single true path to any reform is a gradual education in legal consciousness … in its idea the state can be reduced to self-government of the people. However, the sole and objective end of the state is so high and requires from the citizenry such mature legal consciousness that historically the people turn out to be incapable of self government. … Political philosophy must uncover the root of this divergence; state power must find the path to healing it.’
  • Natsionalizm: Ilyin was a nationalist. Love of country was a central part of his philosophy. Russians he felt, should put Russian interests first. This contrasted with the internationalist philosophy of the communists. Furthermore, every nation, Ilyin said, should develop in its own way. Thus the West had no right to tell Russians how to run their own country; conditions in Russia weren’t the same as in the West. ‘Western Europe, which doesn’t know Russia, has not the slightest basis for imposing any political forms whatsoever on us,’ Ilyin declared. At the same time, Ilyin’s vision of Russia was as a multi-national empire. He did not believe that every small nation had a right to self-determination. Ukrainian independence was anathema to him. But, precisely because Russia was a multi-national country, and precisely because each nation should develop in its own way, Russians should not seek to assimilate the minorities within the country but leave them to develop their own culture.

Although Ilyin initially hoped that the Nazis would prove to be allies for the Russian exiles against the Soviet regime, he was soon disabused on this notion and fell foul of the Nazi authorities after refusing orders to include anti-Semitic propaganda in his lectures at the Russian Institute in Berlin. In 1938 he fled Germany for Switzerland, where he lived the rest of his life, dying there in December 1954.

Friday object lesson #7: Commemorative coin

December 22nd will be the 60th anniversary of the death of philosopher Ivan Ilyin. I will post more about him on that date. In the meantime, this week’s object is a commemorative coin I received when I attended Ilyin’s reburial at the Donskoi Monastery in Moscow in 2005. I wrote an account of the event for The Spectator, which you can read here.

Ilyin medal

The moral equality of combatants

We do not accord a policeman and a criminal equal status: the criminal is committing an injustice, and so forfeits his right not to be handled forcibly by the policeman; the policeman on the other hand has done nothing to forfeit his right not to be attacked. Their rights are not equal.

In contrast, one of the bedrocks of the laws of war is the principle of the moral equality of combatants. Assuming that one can objectively decide that a given war has a ‘just’ and an ‘unjust’ side, those fighting on the ‘just’ side are still bound by the same rules as those on the ‘unjust’ side. Unjust soldiers are entitled to shoot at the just ones, and they have the same protection under the laws of war. Just and unjust warriors are morally equal, and should treat each other as such.

Not everybody thinks that this is how things should be. The moral equality of combatants is one of the most hotly disputed issues in contemporary just war theory. Some philosophers, basing their arguments on individual human rights, now claim that a person waging an unjust war forfeits his right to life, while a person waging a just one does not. They are not morally equal.

Into this debate have stepped two officers in the war in Ukraine: a Captain Kupol of the Ukrainian Army, and Arseny Pavlov, aka ‘Motorola’, the commander of the Sparta battalion of the rebel Donetsk People’s Republic. For months Motorola’s unit has been attempting to drive the Ukrainians out of Donetsk airport. His men occupy the old terminal, while Kupol’s occupy the new one. In an unusual development, Motorola this week permitted the Ukrainians to rotate their troops in the new terminal – taking out 48 tired soldiers and bringing in 51 new ones – on condition that they did not bring any heavy weapons in. The rebels inspected the incoming Ukrainians before letting them pass. While the inspection was taking place, Motorola and Kupol met and shook hands.

The two thereby recognized each other as moral equals. This caused a fierce backlash. Nowadays, many people consider that war can only be justified if the enemy is evil, and one shouldn’t shake hands with evil. Sixty soldiers of the 63rd Brigade of the Ukrainian Army have signed a petition demanding that Kupol be punished. Meanwhile, rebel supporters have criticized Motorola. How could he shake the hands of a representative of the army which shelled the city of Donetsk and killed innocent civilians?

This criticism induced Motorola’s friend ‘Givi’ (Mikhail Tolstykh), who commands the rebel ‘Somali battalion’, to speak out in defence of his colleague. ‘Ukropy [Ukrainians] were the first to reach out for a handshake’, he told Life News, ‘and you know we all stick to the concept that we respect our enemy. Even if they’re shitty they are our enemy and they ought to be respected.’

Givi has a good point. The rights-based approach to ethics which underpins arguments against the moral equality of combatants is all well and good in theory, but it doesn’t work in practice. Everybody thinks that their cause is just, so if you say that the just side is morally superior to the unjust side and so is not subject to the same rules, you in effect release everybody from the rules.

It is probably better, therefore, not to approach the ethics of war from the foundation of human rights, and instead to think in terms of an ethic of honour. Being engaged in a violent profession, soldiers need to feel that what they do is honourable. As Shannon French has shown in her book The Code of the Warrior, this is necessary for their psychological health. But if soldiering is an honourable profession, then an opponent is honourable too and should be respected. Through this mutual recognition, some degree of restraint can operate on soldiers’ behaviour in war. In sum, the fact that you try to kill your enemy does not mean that you shouldn’t treat him with respect when the opportunity arises.

Crackpot theory #3: Hybrid Warfare

Although it has been around for a few years, the expression ‘hybrid warfare’ really caught on in 2014. All and sundry are now repeating it to show that they are ‘in the know’ and understand that warfare is changing in important and mysterious ways.

The theory is that war has undergone a profound transformation. Whereas once it was just a matter of armies fighting armies, now it is a hybrid of military power and other forms of power. According to Captain Robert A. Newson of the US Navy, hybrid warfare can be defined as:

A combination of conventional, irregular, and asymmetric means, including the persistent manipulation of political and ideological conflict, and can include the combination of special operations and conventional military forces; intelligence agents; political provocateurs; media representatives; economic intimidation; cyber attacks; and proxies and surrogates, para-militaries, terrorists, and criminal elements.

And according to NATO:

A hybrid threat is one posed by any current or potential adversary, including state, non-state and terrorists, with the ability, whether demonstrated or likely, to simultaneously employ conventional and non conventional means adaptively, in pursuit of their objectives.

The NATO definition reveals an immediate problem with the idea of hybrid warfare: it is so vague as to be meaningless. But there are other problems with it too.

The theory that it represents something new is profoundly ahistorical. With the exception of the mention of cyber attacks, Newson’s definition above could apply to pretty much any war ever fought. War has rarely if ever been solely a matter of military force. ‘Political and ideological conflict’, ‘intelligence agents, ‘proxies and surrogates’, and ‘economic intimidation’ have accompanied war for centuries.

Even the claim that the non-conventional elements of war are becoming more important than traditional combat is hardly a new one. Martin van Creveld made this claim in his book The Transformation of War 25 years ago. William S. Lind has been making similar claims with his theory of ‘Fourth Generation Warfare’ for just as long. Before that, Cold War theories of guerrilla warfare, insurgency, and counter-insurgency similarly stressed that combat was just one facet of a wider socio-economic-political struggle. And even before that, Clausewitz spoke of war as consisting not just of armies, but also of governments and the people, while Sun Tzu spoke at length about secret agents and the importance of maintaining popular support.

The main example currently used by hybrid warfare theorists to illustrate their case – the war in Eastern Ukraine – in fact proves the opposite. The weapons of choice are rifles, machine-guns, tanks, armoured personnel carriers, artillery pieces, and multiple launch rocket systems. The war in Ukraine is not hybrid warfare – it is war, as traditionally understood.

Russia’s search for stability

The video of my talk to the Canadian International Council is now online here.

For those of you who don’t want to sit through the entire talk, below is a brief summary:

  • Whereas the West views the war in eastern Ukraine as a product of a deliberate destabilization effort by Russia, many Russians view things the other way around: it is the West which is doing the destabilizing. Western policy in Ukraine fits into a pattern of Western behaviour in which the United States and its allies create chaos in other countries: Iraq, Syria, Libya, and so on.
  • Having seen the consequences of their own revolution, and having lived through the chaos which followed the collapse of communism, Russians value stability. This is true of Vladimir Putin, who as a conservative naturally prefers order to disorder. I therefore agree with Nicolai Petro who wrote in the National Interest that ‘I do not believe that Russia’s strategy aims at destabilizing Ukraine. … What it wants, I believe, is a stable Ukraine that will be able to repay the 30 billion U.S. dollars it currently owes Russia in private, corporate and government debt. But it disagrees strongly with the West about how stability can be achieved.’
  • The Russian government would prefer that the Donbass region remain in Ukraine, but it also believes that this can only be achieved, and stability restored, if Kiev makes significant concessions, including local political autonomy and guarantees of some official status for the Russian language.
  • The purpose of Russian support for the rebels in Donbass has therefore been to force Kiev to the negotiating table, and to induce it to make these concessions, so as to bring the war to an end.
  • This strategy has not succeeded, as Kiev remains opposed to compromise. Russia is therefore having to adjust its policy, but what direction it will take in the future remains to be seen.

Friday object lesson #6: toy

For this week’s object lesson, a nod to what the Russian Universe blog calls ‘klyukvification’, defined as: ‘a process of creating a stereotypical narrative using Russian cultural objects and concepts in a certain manner’, for instance ‘bears playing balalaikas in the winter streets of a ‘typical’ Russian city.’ This includes what Russian Universe calls ‘native klyukva which is made by Russian creators (and/or with a Western partnership) for the Western market to monetize existing Russian stereotypes.’ Here, therefore, is a dancing bear merry-go-round toy which I picked up at the Izmailovo flea market.