‘Better than super’

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov says that the peace talks in Minsk are progressing ‘better than super’. I am waiting until the talks conclude (which looks like being on Thursday) before publishing a longer post. Until then, if you want to hear my views, you can see me on CTV News channel at 6.30 pm ET tonight (Wednesday).

UPDATE: My interview is available online here.

Prospect theory and Crimea

In this week’s session of my class on ‘Irrationality and Foreign Policy Decision Making’, we shall be looking at the psychology of risk, in an effort to determine why people and governments worry so much about unlikely dangers (e.g. terrorism) and not so much about likely ones (e.g. car crashes). Among the things we shall look at is Prospect Theory, so in this post I will briefly describe the theory and then apply it to the case of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March last year.

A good way to understand Prospect Theory is to watch this BBC Horizon video:


The magician in the video gives some people £20 and offers them a chance to gamble. If they refuse, they keep the £20; if they agree to gamble, they have a 50% of winning an extra £30 and ending up with £50 and a 50% chance of losing the £20 and ending up with nothing. The magician frames the choices differently for another group. He gives them £50, but then takes away £30 and offers them a chance to gamble to get the £30 back. Again, the people can refuse, in which case they keep the £20 they have left, or they can gamble, in which case the odds, as before, are 50-50.

Mathematically, both scenarios are identical. The participants can either a) walk away with £20; or b) choose to gamble, in which case they have a 50% chance of ending up with $50 and 50% chance of ending up with zero. But most people in the first scenario refuse to gamble, whereas most people in the second one agree to. Why?

Prospect Theory says that the answer is that we do not think in absolute mathematical terms, but rather relative to some reference point. Our willingness to accept risk is dependent upon whether we consider ourselves in a gain or loss position compared to that point. Human beings are prone to ‘loss aversion’, and so if in a loss position will gamble to try and recoup their losses, but if in a gain position will not, because gambling could result in the loss of what they already have. In the first scenario people are in a gain position – they have gained £20. They are happy to cash in their profits, and reluctant to take a risk which could mean losing what they have. By contrast, those in the second scenario feel that they have lost £30, and so will take a risk in an effort to get it back.

Applied to international affairs, this would imply that states will be less likely to take risks in order to win something (power, prestige, territory, etc), and more likely to take risks in order to avoid losing it.

Many commentators have interpreted Russia’s annexation of Crimea as proof of Russia’s aggressive, imperialist instincts. The next step may be for Russia to expand further, both in eastern Ukraine and perhaps even in the Baltic states. Prospect Theory would suggest something different. Seizing Crimea was a gamble – Russia could not be certain that there would be no resistance, nor could it be sure what the reaction of the Western world and international financial markets would be. Moscow could not know what costs it would incur. Given this, it makes more sense under Prospect Theory if we consider Russian leaders not to have been trying to gain something but rather to have felt themselves to be in a position of loss, and so to be gambling in order to reduce their losses. The loss in question was the fall of a Ukrainian government which was favourably aligned with Russia and its replacement with one which was determined to move westwards and to seek EU and NATO membership. Russia, in a sense, had ‘lost’ Ukraine. It also very possibly feared losing its naval base at Sevastopol. Finding itself in this position, it took the gamble of seizing Crimea as a way of trying to cut its losses.

Prospect Theory, of course, only describes broad tendencies. While people are generally less risk averse when in a position of loss than in a position of gain, there are also people who will gamble in order to win something. Russia’s annexation of Crimea may be such a case. But it is more likely not to be. If not – and if Prospect Theory holds true – the annexation of Crimea does not necessarily suggest that Russia is intent on expanding still further, and negotiating a settlement in Ukraine will not encourage further aggression.

Russia’s Holy War?

Is Russia waging an ‘Orthodox jihad’ against the West? John Schindler, a former National Security Agency official and professor at the U.S. Naval War College, thinks so. The war in Ukraine, says Schindler, ‘bears more than a little resemblance to Holy War in a Russian and Orthodox variant.’ He attributes to Moscow, ‘a virulent ideology, and explosive amalgam of xenophobia, Chekism, and militant Orthodoxy which justifies the Kremlin’s actions and explains why the West must be opposed at all costs.’ In a second essay Schindler similarly remarks that, ‘The Kremlin now believes that they [sic] are at war with the United States, an Orthodox Holy War’.

In his blog for The American Conservative, Rod Dreher writes that he finds parts of Schindler’s thesis ‘perceptive’. It isn’t. It reflects a deep misunderstanding of Orthodox theology on the subject of war. Moreover, Schindler cites Ivan Ilyin (whose work I have discussed on this blog here and here) in support of his thesis, calling this ‘holy war’ an example of ‘Ilyinism’. Ilyin’s writings on the subject of violence cannot support that conclusion either.

Holy war has never achieved the same recognition in Orthodox theology as in that of Catholicism. Orthodox theologians have overwhelmingly tended toward the idea that war is sometimes ‘necessary’ as a lesser evil but can never be considered ‘just’. Father Alexander Webster thus notes that, in contrast to Catholicism, which developed a ‘just war theory’, Orthodoxy developed a ‘justifiable war ethic.’ In a study of mediaeval Church documents and Byzantine military manuals, Father Stanley Harakas concluded that, ‘The Eastern Orthodox Patristic tradition rarely praised war and, to my knowledge, never called it “just” or a moral good.’ A meeting of senior Orthodox theologians in Minsk in 1989 issued a statement proclaiming that:

The Orthodox Church unreservedly condemns war as an evil. Yet it also recognizes that in the defence of the innocent and the protection of one’s people from unjust attack, criminal activity, and the overthrowing of oppression, it is sometimes necessary, with reluctance, to resort to arms. In every case, such a decision must be taken with full consciousness of its tragic dimensions. Consequently, the Greek fathers of the Church have never developed a ‘just war theory’, preferring rather to speak of the blessings of and the preference for peace.

Similarly, in 2000 the Jubilee Council of Russian bishops phrased its views on war in terms solely of occasional necessity, saying: ‘While recognizing war as an evil, the Church does not prohibit her children from participating if at stake is the security of their neighbours and the restoration of trampled justice.  Then war is to be considered a necessary though undesirable means.’

Whereas the Catholic Church invented the concept of crusades to spread the faith by means of the sword, the Orthodox Church never endorsed a similar idea. Nor did it endorse the belief, supported by Catholicism in the Middle Ages, that death in a holy war leads to the salvation of the soul. In a recent examination of Orthodox writings on the ethics of war, Yuri Stoyanov notes that Byzantine rulers pushed for the acceptance of a holy war doctrine but met resistance from the Church. ‘This sanctification of warfare’, he writes, ‘did not find widespread acceptance among ecclesiastical elites or more generally within the Byzantine ideology of warfare.’ Instead, the Church generally preferred the teachings of St Basil the Great, who refused to recognize killing in war as ‘praiseworthy’ and recommended that those who kill in battle be denied communion for three years. The Eastern Church also differed from the Western one in that it did not permit priests or monks to bear arms. There was no Orthodox equivalent to the ‘warrior monks’ of the Templars, Hospitallers, or Teutonic Knights. Priests who fought in battle were defrocked.

Schindler’s attempt to argue that modern Russia is waging an ‘Orthodox jihad’ thus reveals an unfortunate ignorance of Orthodoxy.

As for Ivan Ilyin, I will examine his writings on the ethics of force in more detail in another post, but for now it is sufficient to point out that although Ilyin was very firm in arguing that it was necessary to wage war against evil, in line with Orthodox theology he made it very clear that it while ‘necessary’ it was not ‘just’. In his essay The Moral Contradiction of War, Ilyin argued that ‘every war without exception is a morally guilty act.’ He developed this theme further in his 1925 book On Resistance to Evil by Force, in which he stressed that the use of force cannot be considered ‘just’, merely ‘an unsinful (!) perpetration of injustice’. Writing to fellow émigré I. Demidov, he wrote, ‘All my research proves that the sword is not “holy” and not “just”.’

Schindler’s effort to enlist Ilyin as evidence of Russian holy war again displays a profound ignorance.

Nowadays, a blend of liberal democracy, free markets, and human rights has replaced Christianity as the ideology of choice in the West, but the belief that it is ‘just’ to wage war to spread this ideology remains strong. There is, however, no such thing as ‘Holy War in a Russian and Orthodox variant.’


Friday Object Lesson #14: Soviet Matrioshka

February will be matrioshka month. Somehow I have accumulated a lot of them over the years. From these, I have picked out a different type for each of the next four weeks. This Friday’s is a Soviet matrioshka bought in the 1980s. There are many things that you can do with a nesting doll, but the Soviets almost invariably stuck to the basic model. It’s pretty enough, but at the same time symptomatic of the limitations of the centrally planned economy.


The Merkel-Hollande Peace Plan

This Thursday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande flew to Kiev to promote a new peace plan for Ukraine. As I write, the details of the plan are not known, but it is believed that if enacted it would freeze the conflict along the current front lines. All parties would recognize the rebel-controlled areas as being part of Ukraine, but in practice they would retain their independent existence. This is the so-called ‘Transdnestr solution’.

Those calling for Western states to arm Ukraine have based their appeals on the theory that Russia is the primary obstacle to peace. The conflict will only end, they claim, when sufficient pressure is put on Russia to make it force the rebels to settle. I notice, though, that there have been two major peace initiatives in Ukraine. The first was in September last year, and came after the Ukrainian Army suffered a terrible defeat at Ilovaisk in August. The second is the one now being put forward by Merkel and Hollande, which comes as the Ukrainian Army struggles to avoid an even more catastrophic setback in the ‘Debaltsevo pocket’, where several thousand of its troops are at risk of encirclement.

In short, peace seems to come closer not when the pressure on the rebels increases, but when the Ukrainian government suffers reverses. The ramifications of that conclusion for the ‘arm the Ukrainians’ lobby need no elaboration.

UPDATE: I shall be interviewed on CTV at 2.15 ET on Friday (6 February) to talk about all this.

UPDATE2: 2.15 interview is cancelled. There is a possibility of a later time, but it is unconfirmed. I will update as appropriate.

UPDATE 3: Interview now rescheduled for 6.10 pm.

A Thoroughly Bad Idea

There is a strange belief that the best way to solve humanitarian crises caused by war is to hand out even more weapons. This week the United Nations warned that the upsurge in violence in Ukraine is proving ‘catastrophic’. In the United States, meanwhile, both the media and officials such as Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel have been ratcheting up the pressure on President Obama to send weapons to the Ukrainian Army. So far, Obama has resisted, but according to the Washington Post, he is facing a ‘rebellion’ within the Democratic Party. The BBC reports that the president ‘is rethinking his policy’.

A lack of weapons has never been the Ukrainian Army’s problem. It began operations against the rebels in the east of the country with a massive advantage in heavy weapons. Poor leadership and tactics meant, however, that it could not translate this advantage into battlefield success. Moreover, a thorough examination of the rebels’ weapons by experts of the Armaments Research Service in Australia concluded that most had been captured from the Ukrainian Army, which has been, one could say, very generous with its equipment. Giving the Ukrainians yet more weapons will not solve their leadership problems, nor improve the efficiency of their troops. As likely as not, some of the arms will eventually end up in rebel hands.

There is no reason to believe that supplying the Ukrainian Army will help it defeat the rebellion. What it will do is escalate the conflict. Russia has made it very clear that it will not allow the rebels to be defeated militarily, and so far it has provided the rebels with just enough equipment to prevent this from happening. Were the United States to send weapons to Ukraine, it is probable that Russia would retaliate in kind, stepping up supplies to the rebels. This would wipe out any advantage American armaments provided. The scale of violence would increase still further, without actually tipping the balance of power in favour of the Ukrainians.

The failure so far to end the war by negotiation has not been due to the intransigence of one side only. Any peace settlement will require substantial concessions not only by Russia and the rebels, but also by the Ukrainian government, concessions which as yet Kiev has shown no signs of being willing to make. Arming Ukraine will not encourage it to take a step in that direction. It is more likely to strengthen the hand of hawks within the Ukrainian government, who will feel that with the support of a superpower, they do not need to compromise. Peace will be less, rather than more, likely.

Fundamental Attribution Error

This week, my graduate students will be discussing the effects of cognitive biases on foreign policy decision making. Previously, I wrote about misperception. Today, I want to address a related cognitive bias – the Fundamental Attribution Error – which has a similarly negative effect on policy making.

The Fundamental Attribution Error describes our tendency to attribute our own practical and moral failures to external factors while attributing other people’s failures to their personal character. Conversely, we attribute our successes and good deeds to our own character, and others’ successes to some external factor. If we succeed, it is because we are skillful, and if we do good, it is because we are good people. If we do something wrong, it is because something outside our control, and which we could not have predicted, intervened to prevent our otherwise sensible and good plan from succeeding. By contrast, if others succeed, it is because they are lucky, and if they fail, it is because they are incompetent or evil.

For instance, once it became clear that the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq had gone disastrously wrong, its supporters did not acknowledge their aggressive instincts, bad judgment, or any other internal characteristic, but rather blamed external factors for their mistake: ‘Saddam lied about weapons of mass destruction, and so it was perfectly reasonable for us to be mistaken about them’; ‘Nobody could have known that those in charge of the operation would have been so incompetent’; ‘Iraq turned out to be in a much worse state than we could possibly have predicted’; and so on.

By contrast, when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, we attributed its actions to the evil character of Saddam Hussein. We dismissed as irrelevant external factors which might help to explain Saddam’s actions, such as misinterpreting American signals about what was permissible, or genuine grievances about Kuwait’s behaviour.

The Fundamental Attribution Error accentuates the misperceptions I wrote about in my earlier post. It also prevents people from reconsidering faulty policies. When a new Ukrainian government took over in February 2014, it believed that it would bring an era of prosperity to Ukraine. Instead, its seizure of power brought war. But the Fundamental Attribution Error meant that its members could not attribute the tragedy which struck their nation to their own errors. Rather, they had to attribute it to something external – Russia. Everything which went wrong was Russia’s (and particularly Putin’s) fault. That mode of thinking precluded any analysis of their own mistakes, and encouraged them to press on with the very policies which had produced war.

Unfortunately, liberal democracies which claim to pursue ‘values-based’ foreign policies may be especially liable to the Fundamental Attribution Error due to their high sense of their own righteousness. When their policies fail, and particularly when they fail in a manner which is costly in terms of human life, such democracies are confronted with severe cognitive dissonance because of the contrast between the negative consequences of their actions and their view of themselves as ‘good’. The Fundamental Attribution Error provides a way of eliminating this dissonance. During his 2000 presidential campaign, George W. Bush promised a ‘humble foreign policy’. He never delivered on that promise, but the idea remains a very sound one.