The use of force

There are occasions when statements of the blindingly obvious are rather revealing, although not in the way that those making the statements intend. One doesn’t learn anything new about the specific matter being discussed – as it’s blindingly obvious, one knew it already – but one does learn something about the person making the statement, namely that it wasn’t so obvious to him or her. And that’s where it can get quite interesting.

Journalist Simon Saradzhyan has worked in Russia for 15 years, and is now part of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School, where he runs, and writes for, the website Russia Matters. In his latest article, he has a go at explaining in what conditions Russian president Vladimir Putin is willing to endorse the use of force. He writes:

In my view, at least two conditions need to be in place for Russia’s leadership to seriously consider this option. They can be broadly defined as follows: First, Putin has to see an acute threat to Russia’s vital national interests that he thinks cannot be neutralized by any means short of force. … The second condition for Russia to use military force against another country is that Moscow must have a reasonable hope that such actions would yield a net reduction in threats to Russia’s vital interests (“Condition 2”). This may not mean outright victory. But Russian leaders must be confident that the benefits of using force would outweigh the costs.

To prove this case, Saradzhyan refers to the deployment of Russian troops in Georgia in 2008, Ukraine in 2014, and Syria in 2015, and contrasts these with the non-use of force in cases such as Kyrgyzstan (2005 and 2010) and Armenia (2018). The first case (Georgia, 2008) is rather problematic because Putin wasn’t President of Russia at that time, and I’m not aware of any evidence that the decision to counter the Georgian attack on South Ossetia was not Dmitry Medvedev’s. But that’s by the by. What really interests me here is Saradzhyan’s two conditions. Reading them was another of those occasions when I felt a powerful urge to say, ‘Well, duh!’. Putin, we’re told, only uses force when vital interests are at stake and a cost-benefit analysis suggests that benefits will outweigh costs. Of course! What else would you expect? After all, what’s the alternative? To wage war when vital interests are not at stake and when you don’t expect to end up better off? That would be crazy. All Saradzhyan’s thesis tells us is that in his opinion Putin is a rational actor.

So why are these two amazingly obvious conditions such a revelation? Why does Saradzhyan think that they will tell anybody anything that a rational person should not already expect? I see two possible explanations.

First, the image of Putin as irrational and unpredictable is so deeply embedded that an analysis which describes him as something different is considered revelatory, penetrating, and insightful rather than merely prosaic.

Second, Saradzhyan and his intended audience don’t understand that his conditions are simply common sense and should apply to everybody everywhere. And the reason why they don’t understand this is because those conditions are not Western practice.

And that’s where this article’s statement of the blindingly obvious becomes quite interesting. For, viewed this way, what this article explains to us is not the conditions under which Putin uses force so much as the conditions under which the West does so – when vital interests aren’t at stake, and when we end up worse off afterwards. Judging by this article, we’ve now become so used to this that anything else apparently comes as a big surprise.

10 thoughts on “The use of force”

  1. “Putin, we’re told, only uses force when vital interests are at stake and a cost-benefit analysis suggests that benefits will outweigh costs. Of course! What else would you expect? After all, what’s the alternative? To wage war when vital interests are not at stake and when you don’t expect to end up better off? That would be…”

    … operation “Robust Maple Leaf Freedom” (RMLF), already (seriously?) discussed in da Web, its chief objective being the Canadian military invasion and annexation of the Saudi Arabia (as 11th province) for their diplomatic overreacting! Canadians vanquished Americans in the past – surely, nothing can stop them from winning now, seeing as Saudi Arabia is ranked one score below that of Canada in Global Firepower.

    This will be glorious endeavor – a veritable Good Fight. Would do wonders to Trudeau’s rating. And the little discussed in the Media fact of Canada being one of the biggest oil exporters will surely contribute nicely in the post war petro-market volatile situation.

    [Ignoring for a sec how the same country that made a $15+ billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia is only now speaks out against some of their usual “practices”. Btw – there was a crucifixion in KSA a couple of days ago. Why Madonna, Sting, Bono and Hilary Clinton are silent?]

    That’s why you were so silent lately, professor? They are putting you back into uniform, so that you’d run Top Secret black ops for “Them”, using as deniable assets patriotic Ukrainian warriors (cuz Ukraine and Canada are sister nations, after all) of the Berdichev Sich.

    I mean, if anything, the willingness to use force indiscriminately is a long established tradition in the countries, that constitute the heart and soul of the West. Or one can look at it from other perspective – why would some Mafia higher up resort to the violence at the perceived slight? Because of the unwritten rules and rather ephemeral, always changing state of one’s status. War for war’s sake is the only way to maintain it.

    What I find pointedly distasteful though, is when the common people, not the ruling elites, are overtaken by such jingoism, how the “let’s invade the shit of them in the name of Freedoom and Mockracy” is normalized in the “progressive” Western society. Verily, the abolition of the draft was detrimental for the “heart” of the West not just in seriously reducing the median intelligence level of the military force personnel…


  2. This is an interesting article as it does focus the mind on the rules other countries apply.
    My own country the UK is guilty of sticking its nose where it doesn’t belong.

    Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Ukraine.

    The outcome here has been increased terrorism in our cities and the demonisation of Muslims living in the UK leading to a revenge attack on a mosque and attacks on Muslims

    None of these wars were in our national interests but when America tells us to jump we jump!


    1. The British government of all flavours appears to believe that its vital national interest is to suck up as much as possible to the USA. I don’t know the reason why, but it appears desperate demeaning to a nation that has actually contributed a lot the world. I do not think that the Americans have much respect for this. The British government seem to behave with arrogance towards everybody else apart from America. I fear that UK policy may become belligerent after Brexit as Britain seeks to demonstrate relevance


  3. Heh. I was reading this post, and just before getting to the punchline I started thinking: but, Paul, you’re surprised that describing Russia’s actions as rational is perceived as a revelation, and yet you yourself often regard western actions as irrational.

    Turns out that wasn’t a contradiction, but actually the main point.

    But why can’t you imagine that the west is perfectly rational too?


  4. “To wage war when vital interests are not at stake and when you don’t expect to end up better off? That would be crazy.” – looks like Anglo-American foreign policy – Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria etc.

    The problem as I see i is that the Aglos feel that war is something we do to other people with limited consequences for us. The relatively few military casualties are concentrated in professional military families so don’t affect the general population too much. There is also a feeling that military action sends a message, the behaviour of a schoolyard bully used to mask a psychological weakness against people who cannot strike back. There is also a complete incapability that other nations have interests, values etc. and a feeling of pompous self righteousness which i don’t really see elsewhere.


    1. Yes Paul, this is straight out of Clausewitz. War is waged for political objectives, and the value of the objective puts the top limit on the price the government should be willing to pay for it. Basic War 101 stuff.

      “The problem as I see i is that the Aglos feel that war is something we do to other people with limited consequences for us.”

      Yes, the horrors of war are only for the Brown People whose countries the Anglosphere destroys, because deep salt water protects us from it.

      Our real strategic difficulty is that Russia has conventional intercontinental precision strike capabilities, so war with Russia will not be cost-free to the Anglosphere.

      And Anglosphere leaders deeply, furiously hate that Russia can deter them.


  5. Sounds like a good article on a blog I was not aware of until now. It is rather astounding, is it not, that we should identify an ordinary (but nonetheless valuable) piece of analysis as extraordinary? But, as you say, that is what has happened with the political discourse on Russia in the West today. I read a recent piece by a well-known Russian expert in the US that stated that no one in Washington (other than the current president it would seem) can conceive of doing business with Putin, so far beyond the Pale is the US elite’s view of the Russian leader. Those of us who argue that Russia is a state with its own understanding of its national interests and approaches informed by its history and its current circumstances (just like any other country) are viewed as nothing short of Putin apologists or appeasers.

    Once the Mueller charade in Washington is conclusively revealed to be what it appears to be, namely an effort by the US liberal elite to hobble the administration’s ability to conduct foreign policy, perhaps then a more professional approach to US diplomacy might hold sway. (Replacing Canada’s utterly incompetent foreign minister would also certainly help this country’s foreign policy interests.) Until then, we have to take account of the “extraordinary” articles such as the one you cited. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

    Liked by 1 person

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