This week in my class on ‘Irrationality and Foreign Policy Decision Making’, we shall be examining the topic of misperception, on the grounds that it is the cause of many seemingly irrational decisions. We will look at:
- Misperceptions of others – this can take many forms, but states are particularly prone to misperceiving other states’ intentions, for instance seeing aggressive intent where none is present.
- Misperception of yourself – people and states tend to view themselves as benign, and also to over-estimate their own capabilities.
- Misperception of how other people perceive you – because you consider yourself to be benign, you may have great difficulty in believing that other people could view you and your actions differently.
It is worth noting that all three sorts of misperception are connected. You believe that what you are doing is a good thing, done for good reasons, even though in reality you may be doing harm (type #2 above). You believe that everybody else must understand that your motives are good (type #3). So, if they are doing things you don’t like, it is not because they are reacting to your actions, but because they are malevolent (type #1).
Let us see how this plays out in reality:
The West perceives a threat from Iran, and believes that Iran is building nuclear weapons and missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. This is the first misperception. Iran isn’t building such weapons and certainly doesn’t have the means, let alone the intention, of nuking Europe. But the West has become paranoid about Iran, so the West believes that it is and does. The West, therefore also believes that it must do something to defend itself from this threat, which means building a missile defence shield in Europe.
The Russians look at this, and are perplexed. They know that the Iranian nuclear missile threat doesn’t exist, so they don’t believe the West when it says that the missile defence shield is to guard against Iran. But at this point, the Russians add a mistake of their own. They assume that Western leaders are rational actors, who wouldn’t be spending billions of dollars building a shield against a threat which doesn’t exist. Therefore, they conclude that the shield must be directed against Russia. This is the second misperception, and it leads to the Russians getting angry with the West.
The West then gets angry too. It knows that its intentions are defensive. It therefore believes that the Russians must know that too. This is the third misperception. The result is that the West doesn’t take seriously the Russian complaints. Relations between the two sides deteriorate still further.
We can see the same dynamic at work in other examples. NATO views itself as a ‘force for good’, and cannot see that on occasion it has acted aggressively (e.g. in Kosovo and Libya). It misperceives itself. Russia then misperceives NATO, fearing that NATO’s actions in those places could be indicative of aggressive intent against Russia. In reality, NATO has no intention of attacking Russia, but Russians are not so sure of that. Then NATO can’t understand how Russia feels. If Russia is against NATO expansion, that can’t be because of genuine fears about NATO, so it must be because of Russia’s own imperialist agenda in the countries of the former Soviet Union.
Russia, meanwhile, perceives the annexation of Crimea as righting a historical wrong. It knows that it has no desire to annex parts of the Baltic States, so why should they worry? If NATO sends more troops to the Baltics, that must be part of NATO’s plans to undermine Russia, not a product of anything Russia has done.
In these situations there is no real, underlying reason for those involved to be at loggerheads. It is hard to know how to overcome this problem, but the solution perhaps lies in understanding it for what it is: a problem of misperception, not one of deeply incompatible interests.