The paradox of power and fear

Diplomat Magazine, which is produced here in Ottawa, has just published its latest edition, which includes several articles on the subject of Russia. One of these, on ‘Repairing Canada-Russia Relations’, is written by me. You can read it here. In addition, there are articles by the Royal Military College’s Pierre Jolicoeur and Carleton University’s Stephen Saideman. It’s the last of these, entitled ‘Trump and Putin: a troubling high stakes relationship’ which I want to talk about here.

Saideman’s article is in many respects a fairly typical piece of Russia scaremongering, although it seems a little out of date already following Donald Trump’s decision to bomb Syria, the regular denunciations of Russia by the US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, and the apparent lack of achievements from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Moscow. Writing before any of that happened, Saideman claims that:

Trump’s admiration of Putin … is revolutionary. This relationship raises doubts about the future of NATO. … Simply put, Trump’s relationship with Putin puts a great deal of the post-Second World War order at risk. Trump’s stances on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the European Union and Ukraine all present grave threats. The risks in the years ahead are mighty high.

‘The future of NATO is at stake’, Saideman continues, ‘the alliance truly is in danger.’ The Baltic States don’t know if NATO will come to their defence if attacked by Russia, and ‘If Putin were to trigger a crisis and the United States does not act as it has promised for 70 years, the alliance might well fall apart.’ One might wonder why Russia would suddenly attack Latvia, but Saideman warns that that is exactly the sort of thing that aggressive states do when they spot weakness: ‘One of the basic findings in the study of war is that wars occur when there is uncertainty about alliances.’ With Putin currently carrying out ‘an assault on the European Union’, the situation is rife with danger. Unless we stand firm, Saideman implies, NATO, the EU, and the entire international system will come crashing down.

Such doom-laden predictions are pretty common nowadays. But they are not very accurate. They assume that the Western world is some paper tiger, held together by only the tiniest thread, and that it requires only the slightest push from a weak outside power for it to disintegrate entirely. This is a rather bizarre description of the strongest and wealthiest countries in the world, which have maintained the same collective institutions for many decades in the face of threats far greater than modern Russia.

To give just a brief view of the relative power of NATO and Russia, here is a chart showing their comparative defence spending as a share of the global total:

global defence spending

As you can see, NATO has nothing to fear from Russia militarily. It also has nothing to fear economically. The wealth of the United States and Western Europe is far greater than that of Russia. Compared to the West, Russia is a minnow.

The question I want to ask, then, is why the Saidemans of the world are so scared of it.

The answer, I think, lies in the realm of the moral rather than the physical. Two psychological processes are at play. The first relates to matters of honour; the second to issues of psychological reassurance.

As far as the first is concerned, in his 2011 book Why Nations Fight, Richard Ned Lebow examined the causes of all the wars fought in the modern era and determined that the most common reason for war was what he termed ‘standing’ – in other words, wars were not primarily about material resources, territory, security, or so on, but rather about relative status. This certainly fits with my own findings, as laid out in my book Military Honour and the Conduct of War.  To a quite surprising extent, international relations is about questions of honour. What spurs politicians into action is concerns about status, prestige, credibility, and the various virtues on which they think that their honour depends – strength, resolve and the like.

This is especially true of powerful states and alliances. In the eyes of the doom-mongers, NATO has no will. It is morally weak. As such it risks losing status and credibility, and once it loses those, it will surely collapse.

A key to understanding this dynamic can be found in Desmond Morris’s 1969 classic The Human Zoo. In chapter 2 of this book, entitled ‘Status and Super Status’, Morris describes how alpha baboons have to behave if they want to maintain their dominant status. The problem these baboons face is that their number one position is always under threat. Their position is inherently unstable, and they can only go down. As a result, they have to be hypervigilant. Any threat must be stamped on with utmost violence to deter others. But not only actual threats – even the mere threat of a threat, the slightest hint of imagined rebellion, must be met with an aggressive reaction.

Paradoxically, therefore, the stronger one is, the more afraid one is too. The dominant baboon believes that his position rests upon his prestige and his credibility and so is perpetually on guard to threats to his honour. He cannot rest. He must always be afraid. And so he inevitably exaggerates the threats around him. The United States, and its NATO allies, may be compared with Morris’s dominant baboons. Their very dominance makes them paranoid. This is why Saideman and co. are so scared.

Studies of the psychology of risk point to a second factor. According to such studies, humans evolved to be afraid of the dangers which lurked in their natural habitat. They expect danger, and so when they can’t identify it, they get very twitchy. Their instincts tell them that there must a danger there somewhere, and the fact that they can’t spot it is a matter of deep concern. They don’t know what to do. Finding a threat is thus reassuring. For once the threat has been found, they can work out a plan for dealing with it. They have target for their action.

Again, therefore, we confront a paradox. Being strong makes one safe. But safety makes one paranoid. By contrast, having an enemy actually makes one feel better. And this is the West’s current problem. By historical standards, it is remarkably safe. It hasn’t fought any major internal wars for 70 years. Terrorism in the West is near an all-time low. NATO enjoys military and economic dominance. And yet, many can’t help feeling that it’s all about to come crashing down. And because they feel that way, they feel also a need to identify the threat which will cause the collapse, so that they can come up with a plan to do something about it.

And that, in brief, is why Russophobia is enjoying such a comeback. It gives the West an enemy. And by giving it an enemy, it also, strangely enough, gives it a sense of reassurance, allowing it to flex its muscles and so feel that its status is safe, at least for now.

8 thoughts on “The paradox of power and fear”

  1. Professor, concerning your own article in the Diplomat. You list a litany of the “dastard deeds” of the USSR – but why do you omit the fact, that the Canadian troops partiticapted in the military intervention into Russia?

    “Canada lacks a strong business lobby favouring good relations with Russia. Canadian governments can pontificate about the evils of Russia without risking a political backlash or serious damage to the economy. Russia thus provides a suitable target for politicians wanting to show how tough they are.”


    Professor! Is this your own, politically-correct way of admitting, that Canada is a bourgeois democracy?!

    Also, you, understandably, could not possibly write it in the Canadian paper, that all such turns in relations vis-a-vis Russia were conditioned upon external factors and actors forcing Canada to do so. In short – that Canada has pretty little say in its “independent” foreign policy, Instead you mince words:

    “Third, Canada’s desire to be a good ally has led it to unquestioningly follow the lead of other NATO members. Instead of questioning the wisdom of measures such as NATO expansion, European missile defence and the deployment of additional NATO troops in Eastern Europe, Canada has gone along enthusiastically, forgetting that alliances are meant to serve our interests, not to be ends in themselves.”

    “Russians’ expectations are fairly modest. While they would like to see an end to sanctions, they are realistic enough not to expect this in the short term.”

    May I see a source for this claim? It’s used by EVERYONE in the Western punditry, that “Russians are really-really want to end sactions – they are desperate to end them!” and then build the narrative further either to the “Sanctions are working!” nonsense, or “That’s why they elected Trump and want to elect Euro-sceptics!” conspiracy theories.

    Meanwhile in Russia – the attitude towards existing sanctions is positive. In fact, there was an improvemnet through the years and now more people support the existence of sanctions regime that Russia should not strive to make them lifted (57% in 2015 and 73% now in 2017).

    As for the baboon comparison – suddenly, good ol’ Desmond Morris opened up for me from the unexpected angle! 🙂


  2. Yeah, anthropomorphizing — and especially baboonomorphizing — institutional behavior is hard to resist these days.

    May I recommend The Paranoid Style again?

    The enemy is clearly delineated: he is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman—sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving. Unlike the rest of us, the enemy is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history, himself a victim of his past, his desires, his limitations. He wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history, or tries to deflect the normal course of history in an evil way. […]
    It is hard to resist the conclusion that this enemy is on many counts the projection of the self; both the ideal and the unacceptable aspects of the self are attributed to him.


  3. Russian military is much, much stronger than its nominal military spending would indicate, especially after the devaluation. The exchange rate is pretty much meaningless for the military. And even before the devaluation, the “real” spending was much higher than the official spending in dollars.

    It’s dumb to compare western militaries to non-western militaries with large-scale military industries on their own (Russia and China). Why are people not using purchasing power parity military spending when it comes to those two countries. I don’t get it…

    Then there’s the geography: close to its own borders, Russia enjoys considerable advantages, major NATO powers are far away.

    (I don’t necessarily disagree with your main point, and I’m sure that Russia won’t be invading Latvia anytime soon, just saying…)


  4. Curiously, I was thinking along similar lines last week and scribbled down the following:

    Two things characterize the American state: arrogance and paranoia.

    The first says: America is the greatest country in the world; we are exceptional — the wealthiest, the most powerful — and our manifest destiny is to rule the planet. We are the indispensable nation, the last, best hope of humankind. We are above international law and therefore reserve the right to interfere in the wars and politics of lesser nations — in the name of liberal democratic principles, of course.

    The second of the two characteristics says: Those states which we cannot count among our allies, together with several kinds of non-state actors, are ipso facto our enemies, our rivals — rivals who are envious of our many advantages and resentful of our freedoms. Unless we maintain a military machine larger and more expensive than all other militaries on the planet combined — a machine featuring the latest war toys and artillery (conventional and nuclear) and including roughly a thousand US military bases hosted by our allies around the world — those rivals will take our advantages and our freedoms from us.

    (But I do like the analogy of the baboons, since men in high places do resemble them so much. Thanks!)

    Liked by 1 person

  5. As for the now traditional military budget phallometry – if the money invested were the only measure, then the Saudi Arabia’s excuse of the military would indeed be stronK. So stronK, that they’d steamroll the entire Middle East with not effort. Instead they just don’t make no effort and can’t even deal with Houthis.

    Plus – from here:

    “The Western analytical and expert community failed utterly in assessing Russia’s both economic and, as a consequence, military potential. The problem here is not with Russia, which offers unprecedented access to all kinds of foreigners, from businessmen and tourists to political and intelligence (overt and covert) professionals. The problem is with Western view of Russia which as late as three years ago was completely triumphalist and detached from Russia’s economic realities. That is the reality not defined by meaningless Wall Street economic indices.

    It took a complete and embarrassing failure of the West’s economic sanctions on Russia to recognize that the actual size of Russia’s economy is about that of Germany, if not larger, and that Russia was defining herself in terms of enclosed technological cycles, localization and manufacturing long before she was forced to engage in the war in Georgia in 2008. Very few people realistically care about Russia’s Stock Market, the financial markets of Germany are on the order of magnitude larger, but Germany cannot design and build from scratch a state of the art fighter jet, Russia can. Germany doesn’t have a space industry, Russia does. The same argumentation goes for Russia’s microelectronics industry and her military-industrial complex which dwarfs that of any “economic” competitor Western “economists” always try to compare Russia to, with the exception of US and China, and then on bulk, not quality, only. Third or Second World economies do not produce such weapons as Borey-class strategic missile submarines or SU-35 fighter jets, they also do not build space-stations and operate the only global alternative to US GPS, GLONASS system.

    Whether this lesson will be learned by the combined West is yet to be seen. So far, the learning process has been slow for US crowd which cheered on US deindustrialization and invented a fairy tale concept of post-industrial, that is non-productive, virtual economy.

    The Russian economy is not without problems, far from it—it still tries to break with the “heritage” of robbery and deformities of 1990s and still tries to find its way on a path different from destructive ideology of Russia’s “young reformers” who still dominate policy formulation, be it from the positions of power or through such institutions as notorious High School of Economics.

    Yet, it seems this economy which was “left in tatters” or was an economy of a “gas station masquerading as a country”, is the only other economy in the world which can produce and does produce the whole spectrum of weapons ranging from small arms to state-of-the-art complex weapon and signal processing systems. No other nation with the exception of the US and Russia, not even China, can produce and procure a cutting edge military technology which has capabilities beyond the reach of everyone else.”


  6. I’m usually in furious agreement with your posts. Not this time.

    Kimppis and Lyttenburgh have covered the first of my disagreements, namely your contention that “NATO has nothing to fear from Russia militarily” and that economically it’s also “a minnow”.

    Your explanations of why the West, despite its wealth and strength, seems so fearful didn’t ring true either. This quote from your recent piece “Selection and Maintenance of the Aim” to my mind gets much closer to answering that question:

    “The answer, I think, is that they seem to be unwilling to admit that the days of their hegemony are over and that they are not the bearers of universal moral truth. Despite all the overwhelming evidence that they are not able to mould the world to their wishes, they fear the consequences of admitting this more than they fear the consequences of trying and failing.”

    The post 9/11 years haven’t been kind to the US. The failures you highlight in the piece I just quoted from aren’t often outwardly acknowledged but I’m pretty sure the general feeling of unease they generate is deeply and widely felt. Indeed, I’d be very surprised if Americans feel particularly safe nowadays. Besides, I’m not even sure the underlying contention (that the absence of an obvious threat is inherently distressing) holds in this context. Were Americans particularly twitchy in the 90s? I don’t think so. Sure, some politicians and ideologues together with parts of the MIC were keen to find a new enemy but that’s for entirely different reasons.

    As for the Morris analogy, I don’t see it. The alpha baboon is justifiably paranoid; he truly is constantly exposed, but only because he can’t achieve the sort of real world dominance that the US held, for example, post the Soviet collapse. US paranoia is born of its obsession with projecting and constantly demonstrating that supremacy. There was no objective need to do that; a more cooperative, primus inter pares approach would likely have left the US comfortably (if subtly) on top into the indefinite future.

    It seems more true to say that by repeatedly betraying the “universal moral truth(s)” it had long proclaimed, the US profoundly corrupted itself and is now dealing with the moral and practical consequences.


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