In his speech last Thursday to the Valdai Club, Vladimir Putin said the following:
The use of the threat of a nuclear missile attack from Iran as an excuse, as we know, has destroyed the fundamental basis of modern international security – the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. The United States has unilaterally seceded from the treaty. Incidentally, today we have resolved the Iranian issue and there is no threat from Iran and never has been, just as we said.
The thing that seemed to have led our American partners to build an anti-missile defence system is gone. It would be reasonable to expect work to develop the US anti-missile defence system to come to an end as well. What is actually happening? Nothing of the kind, or actually the opposite – everything continues.
Recently the United States conducted the first test of the anti-missile defence system in Europe. What does this mean? It means we were right when we argued with our American partners. They were simply trying yet again to mislead us and the whole world. To put it plainly, they were lying. It was not about the hypothetical Iranian threat, which never existed. It was about an attempt to destroy the strategic balance, to change the balance of forces in their favour not only to dominate, but to have the opportunity to dictate their will to all.
This isn’t the first time that Putin has denounced the proposed American missile shield in Europe, nor the first time that he has expressed his disbelief that the project is meant to protect Europe against Iran. See, for instance, this video in which he bursts out laughing when the idea is suggested to him.
I understand why Putin laughed, but he’s mistaken to conclude that the Americans ‘were lying’. I have said this before but, given Putin’s Valdai speech, I think it is necessary to explain why in more detail, as Putin’s error explains a lot about what has gone wrong in Russian-Western relations. At heart, the problem is probably that Putin is assuming a form of rationality which isn’t a good model of how Western states actually make decisions.
Putin appears to think that Western defence policy is a product of what is termed ‘threat-based planning.’ In this model, states determine what strategies they require to defend themselves, and what military structures and equipment they need to enact those strategies, based on what threats they face. This is a very rational way of going about business – after all, if a threat doesn’t exist, there is no point creating a strategy to counter it, let alone spending large sums of money building up military forces. For many years, the Russians have rejected the idea that Iran is building a nuclear weapon. I have agreed with them on this. After all, even the US National Intelligence Council declared in 2007 that, ‘We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.’ If you follow the logic of threat-based planning, then there is no need to build a missile shield to defend Europe against Iranian nuclear missiles. Those missiles don’t exist, and aren’t going to exist. That means that if you assume that the USA follows threat-based rationality, then the missile shield must be directed against an alternative missile threat, and since the only non-allied state capable of hitting Europe with nuclear weapons is Russia, then it makes sense that the shield must be designed with Russian in mind.
That is all completely logical, but it rests on a couple of false assumptions: first, that the Americans are rationally assessing threats; and second, that the missile shield is in reality designed to defend against a threat. Neither of these assumptions is true.
Threats are both objective – in the sense that either they exist or they don’t – and subjective – in the sense that what you feel threatens you may not reflect what actually does threaten you. Just because the Iranian nuclear threat does not exist, one should not assume that people do not believe that it exists. American policymakers often don’t assess threats very well, as seen by the hysteria about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Iran has for years been a bogeyman. The conviction that it is relentlessly hostile and extremely dangerous has become an established fact. Reality no longer has very much to do with it. Cognitive bias ensures that any evidence that the threat does not exist is simply ignored. The Iranian threat is a truth, which defeats any attempts to debunk it.
The threat, therefore, is a matter of belief. So too is missile defence. As I was once told, it is a ‘religion’. According to the established narrative, it was Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars program which brought down the Soviet Union. For the Republican right in particular, missile defence is thus unquestionably a ‘good thing’. In the past 20 years, the USA has spent tens of billions of dollars developing a national missile defence system for continental America, despite the fact that the system has never worked and even if it did work, could only shoot down a handful of missiles at a time, which would be insufficient to protect the USA against any power capable of actually threatening it. It is a gigantic waste of money. But that hasn’t stopped it.
The reason is not that national missile defence is directed against Russia – even its strongest proponents admit that the Russians could easily overwhelm it. Rather, the relentless progress of pointless policy is a product of the way a certain group among the American elites think, described by sociologist C. Wright Mills as ‘crackpot realism’. Crackpot realists are technocrats and incrementalists; they work logically from one step to another, but do so in a bubble which is somewhat detached from reality. The result is a bit like an Impressionist painting, but in reverse – up close it makes perfect sense, but from far away it doesn’t make sense at all. Psychologists differentiate between a ‘deliberative’ and an ‘instrumental’ mindset. With the former, people consider what to do and why; with the latter, they are only concerned with how to do it. Missile defence has long since moved beyond the deliberative stage; it’s purely a question of implementation. You don’t need to look for a threat to justify it; its justification isn’t important any more.
Furthermore, missile defence is a multi-billion dollar industry. This has led to the creation of powerful lobbies in the military industrial complex who have a strong interest in promoting it. Committees have been formed, policy papers have been written, contracts have been signed. At this point, the policy has a momentum of its own which carries it forward no matter what.
Western states have blundered spectacularly and repeatedly in recent years – invading Iraq, bombing Libya, supporting the overthrow of the Ukrainian government. Viewing all this, Putin, along with a lot of Russians, seems to be telling himself, ‘They can’t be that dumb. They must have some sinister motive.’ And that’s where he makes his big mistake. We are that dumb. If only Russians could understand that, they would realize that they don’t need to feel so threatened by us, and Russian-Western relations might become a whole lot better.