Crackpot theory no. 9: Assume the worst

As I was typing my last blog post, an objection to it occurred to me. It goes something like this: ‘For sure, Russia at present has no intention of cutting underwater communications cables, but we believe that it has the capacity to do so, and so we must assume the worst and put in place defences against it, just in case.’

I call this the ‘assume the worst theory of international relations.’ Its underlying principle is ‘better safe than sorry.’

It’s a theory which is pretty commonly held, and used to justify defence budgets around the world. Vladimir Putin is a believer. On two occasions he has quoted Otto von Bismarck as saying that it is not intentions which matter but capabilities. British Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach’s statement about Russia’s anti-underwater cable capability can be seen as following the same logic.

Superficially, the assume the worst theory makes senses. After all, why not take measures for your safety? Isn’t it better to be safe than sorry? But measures always impose costs, and if the measures aren’t required then it isn’t a good idea to waste resources on them. Moreover, it just isn’t true that threat is a matter solely of capability, divorced from all intention. If any country in the world has the capacity to cut underwater cables, then it’s the Americans. But Mr Peach doesn’t cite America as a threat to British communications. This is because he’s confident that the Americans won’t ever use that capability against the United Kingdom. Behind the ‘assume the worst’ logic is another assumption, one made about the people and things you seek to protect yourself against. You don’t assume the worst about everybody and everything. It would be absurd to do so.

In any case, successful human relations rely on a degree of trust, in other words on not assuming the worst about others. Also, successful human endeavour always requires a degree of risk. Were we to apply to the assume the worst theory to everything we did we would find it impossible to do anything. As one writer put it, if cavemen had assumed the worst about fire, they’d have banned it, and we’d still be living in very cold caves.

But perhaps the biggest problem with the theory is that in reality assuming the worst doesn’t necessarily help prevent it. Indeed it can have the opposite effect. It is precisely by assuming the worst that people ensure that the worst comes about.

This year we are still in the midst of commemorations of the 100th anniversay of the First World War, a war which begun precisely because two major political leaders – Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany – followed the advice of their generals to assume the worst about the international situation.

As Christopher Clark has pointed out in his book The Sleepwalkers, European politicians were well aware prior to 1914 of the likely scenario which would produce a general European war. They knew that a war between Austria and Serbia could escalate into a war between Austria and Russia, and thus into a war between Germany and Russia and so also Germany and France. This scenario was quite commonly discussed, and it was the knowledge that this was how things could turn out which made sure that they did turn out that way.

When Austria issued an ultimatum against Serbia, Russian generals, being well acquainted with the scenario above, immediately began to assume the worst and to argue that the Russian state must take measures to defend itself in case the worst came about. As historian Bruce Menning has discovered, the Russian Army knew that in the event of war with Serbia, the Austrians would also secretly mobilize their forces along the border with Russia. Russia’s mobilization plans depended upon railways which ran close to the Austrian border. The generals, therefore argued that if Austria mobilized against Serbia, Russia must also mobilize against Austria, just in case. Russian ministers, meanwhile, were also aware of the potential war scenario. They therefore assumed that if Austria was preparing war against Serbia, it must also be preparing for the larger war which the scenario said would follow, and if that was the case, it must be because Germany was pushing Austria into war. The ministers assumed the worst about the way events would go and about German intentions. They therefore coaxed the Tsar into ordering a mobilization of the Russian army. At first this was to be just against Austria, but the generals insisted that – again, assuming the worst – it must also be against Germany.

At this point, the German generals told the Kaiser that while Russian mobilization didn’t necessarily mean Russia was going to attack, Germany couldn’t take that chance. Germany could only win a war against France and Russia if it struck first. If it let Russia mobilize without a response, then if the worst came to pass, Germany would be destroyed. It had to assume the worst and declare war.

Returning to the story about Britain, Russia, and the underwater cables, we can see how repeated stories about the potential Russian ‘threat’ push Western states into hostile rhetoric and actions, and so pretty much ensure that Russia does indeed end up being an enemy. One could say the same also about talk in Russia about the ‘Western threat’. Assuming the worst is often a very bad idea. Instead of thinking of what one should do if the worst comes about, it is better to think about how to prevent that happening in the first place, and that means ramping down the talk about threats, not ramping it up.

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6 thoughts on “Crackpot theory no. 9: Assume the worst”

  1. Okay, let me gift you with not-quite-analogous “Crackpot Theory 10. – Assume the best… for the Ukraine. Everytime, Everywhere, Constantly”.

    Re: Oleh “Смачна Кава” Ponomar’ from Toronto, Miroslav Gai from Kiev, Taras Berezovets (no longer in the Ukraine…), and basically any media source/public speech by the politician in the Ukraine.

    The essence: Everything that happens everywhere helps Ukraine. Literally – everything.

    – Brexit? Excellent! Now the EU will have to accept the Ukraine to fill the vacancy .

    – New “Common European Army” via PESCO (actually – not really)? Splendid – they already know that the Ukraine has the “strongest army in Europe” (c), so they will invite us soon to join the club.

    – Elon Musk did anything/failed to do anything? Good! Ukraine has soooo much potential, educated professionals, scientists and lithium deposits so he’s bound to invest into us, making the Ukraine world-famous, progressive and innovative!

    – “A Bad Moms Christmas” hit the theatres? Super-Plus-Good! Mila Kunis stars there, and Mila Kunis was born in Kharkiv which makes her Ukrainian and, therefore, the entire move is Ukrainian!

    There is no need to work or do something by yourself – the entire Universe in fighting for the Ukraine!

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  2. “One could say the same also about talk in Russia about the ‘Western threat’.”

    The problem is that Russia has a lot more reason to assume the worst from the West.
    Case in point, NATO.
    First, NATO expands despite earlier promises not to expand. Then, NATO wages a war against Yugoslavia, proving that NATO is definitely not a mere defense alliance and devaluing the authority of the UNSC and by extension Russia’s. Finally, they show that they are willing to exclude Russia, but support anti-Russian governments in the Ukraine and Georgia.

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  3. As of late, I’ve noticed the “assume the worst” theory (or at least a modded version of it) in books, particularly in Putin bios:

    Readers can also rest assured that whenever something negative happens in the Putin story, when there is ambiguity over whether Putin was involved or responsible, when each theory has equally scant evidence supporting it, Lourie will promote whichever one casts Putin in the worst light.

    – From the Putin: His Downfall and Russia’s Coming Crash review. The “happening” in question, if I recall correctly, was whether Putin was involved in an embezzlement scheme while working under Sobchak. Not having adequate sources/documentation, Lourie’s case rested almost entirely on the audience’s (supposed) belief in Putin’s inherent villainy. “If there’s a chance he could’ve done it, then he absolutely did it, because…come on, it’s Putin!”

    I don’t care how one feels about Putin or Russia – in this case, “assume the worst” is just terrible reasoning.

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  4. I think that “assume the worst” has some relevance to good planning, but only in a very limited way. Clearly, as the examples given in this post (and many other examples that could be mentioned) show, assuming the worst when planning for the deployment and use of forces can often become a self-fulfilling prophecy, so clearly it’s bad advice there. However, it can have a useful (limited) role in planning defense procurement, troop levels, etc. The military in general is a sort of insurance policy, so it’s important to work from a very full list of possible threats, however remote, when deciding on how comprehensive an “insurance policy” to invest in. However, this is only one side of the coin. The possible threats identified by this kind of capability-based analysis of potential rivals represents the “benefit” of the insurance policy, but this has to balanced against the “cost” of the lost opportunities represented by other uses the money could have been put to. However, this doesn’t negate the importance of planning for the worst case, at least as a first step. It just means this planning is only one part of the final decision in defense investment.

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  5. Isn’t this an equivalent of the so-called One Percent doctrine?

    I don’t see why this would deserve serious analysis: obviously it’s pure bullshit.

    When they want to justify some action by security concerns, no potential risk is too small.

    And when they want to ignore obvious harmful effects of some action, no risk it too great.

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  6. “Returning to the story about Britain, Russia, and the underwater cables, we can see how repeated stories about the potential Russian ‘threat’ push Western states into hostile rhetoric and actions, and so pretty much ensure that Russia does indeed end up being an enemy. One could say the same also about talk in Russia about the ‘Western threat’. ”

    But these threats are far from equal in magnitude & probability. NATO’s military spending is about 12x Russia’s, and a number of NATO countries have acquired quite a habit of conspiring to wage aggressive war, whereas Russia uses military force far more parsimoniously, effectively, and justifiably. (Repelling Georgian attacks in ‘08, keeping Sevastopol from getting the ‘Odessa Treatment’, and preventing Wahabi headchoppers from taking over Syria like they did Libya). Therefore, the Russian gvt has very good reasons for assuming the worst about NATO members intentions, while Sir Stewie is merely engaging in the standard Anglosphere practice of inflating the ‘Russia Threat’ to hilarious levels.

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