Today I revive my crackpot theory series to look at the odd idea that when making policies we shouldn’t take into account the possibility that others might misunderstand what we’re doing. Given that the importance of misperception is well understood in international relations theory, it’s odd that anyone should support this idea. But all too often they do.
For instance, in my last post I criticized Mark Galeotti’s suggestion that Western diplomats join the anti-government protests in Russia. It seems that Galeotti didn’t appreciate my criticism, to the extent that he wrote a full-length response for Johnson’s Russia List. I’m not interested in getting into a big long debate on the issue, but something he said in his response is crucial for understanding what’s wrong about so much Western strategic thinking (or rather lack of strategic thinking) in recent times.
In my post, I pointed out that Western support for protests in Russia would likely play into the Kremlin’s hands by reinforcing the perception that the protests were being orchestrated by the West. In response to this, Galeotti said the following:
To allow fear of how they might be misinterpreted to define our actions would seem as pointless as it is supine.
Nothing could be more totally and absolutely wrong.
I’ve said this before, again and again, but I’m going to have to explain it one more time.
Rational policy making involves choosing a policy objective which in some way benefits you. Good strategy involves using means which help you achieve that objective. Means which don’t serve the objective, or even undermine it, are not compatible with good strategy.
So what affects whether the chosen means help achieve the objective? There are many factors which affect the outcome, but one is how other actors respond. As I explained in a recent post, relationships, including international ones, are an ‘interaction’ (to use Clausewitz’s word). You do something; somebody else responds. The way they respond helps determine the result. Given that the way they respond depends on how they perceive what you are doing, how others are likely to perceive your actions is therefore a critical factor to take into consideration when designing a strategy. If other actors will perceive your chosen policy in a way that induces a response that helps the policy fulfil the chosen objective, then your strategy is sound. If, however, they perceive it in a way that induces a response which makes it impossible for you to fulfil your objective, then your strategy is a bad one, and you ought to change it.
Notice that in this calculation it doesn’t matter whether the other party responds in a way which is rational, moral, or correct in any other way. Their response can be irrational, immoral, and utterly mistaken in every way – but you still have to take it into account, because it is what it is, and you have to deal with the world as it is, not as you would like it to be.
This makes people a little uncomfortable, for it means that they have to surrender some degree of control, and to allow others to have an influence on what they do. When they regard those others as immoral or mistaken, this is a particularly difficult thing to do from a psychological perspective. Why should I be prevented from doing what is right because some slimeball misunderstands the situation and is going to respond in way that thwarts me? That isn’t right. I can’t allow that.
So goes the logic. But it’s wrong. It’s not a matter of you allowing it, or not allowing it. It is the reality. You have to take into account, or your strategy will fail.
This isn’t rocket science. It’s Strategy 101. But for some reason, too many people don’t seem to understand it, and I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard people use the logic above to propose policies which are best doomed to failure and at worst likely to be deeply counterproductive.
Some 20 years ago, for instance, at the start of the Global War on Terror, myself and others argued that the military strategy that the United States and United Kingdom were adopting to fight terrorism would be counterproductive because it would annoy a lot of people, radicalize some of them, and increase not decrease terrorism.
Against this, people responded that we couldn’t allow terrorists to dictate what we did. What we were doing was right. They were wrong, they were evil, they shouldn’t have a say in our policy.
Dumb, dumb, dumb.
The aim of an anti-terrorism policy is not to do what is ‘right’. It’s to reduce terrorism. An anti-terrorism policy which reduces terrorism is a good one; an anti-terrorism policy which increases terrorism is not. It’s that simple. If your chosen anti-terrorism policy will radicalize people into becoming terrorists, it’s therefore a bad policy. So you shouldn’t do things which will radicalize them. Does that mean allowing potential terrorists in some way to dictate what you do? For sure. Does that matter? No. You judge a strategy not by its inputs, but by its outputs, in other words by results. Who is providing inputs into the policy is neither here nor there. What matters is the output, i.e. whether it achieves the relevant objective.
Regrettably, this doesn’t seem to be how those responsible for our security think. Going forward in time, in recent years I’ve repeatedly heard senior NATO officers and officials, as well as NATO advocates, make an argument along these lines:
NATO is a defensive organization. We have no plans to attack Russia. We pose no threat to Russia. Russia should not therefore be alarmed by the deployment of NATO troops in Eastern Europe, and any response it undertakes, such as increasing its own troop deployments, are unjustified. Therefore, since these responses would be unjustified, we don’t need to take them into consideration when deciding our own policy.
Dumb, dumb, and dumberer.
Let’s grant that the NATO guys are right. NATO is entirely defensive, it poses no threat to Russia, and so Russian responses are unjustified. Does that mean that NATO is right to ignore those responses? No, no, and three times no.
Why? The answer is obvious. The point of NATO, and so the point of any NATO strategy, is [or at least should be] to enhance the security of NATO members. If NATO policy makes members less secure by provoking a response from Russia which potentially harms those members, then that policy is mistaken. The fact that the Russian response is based on misperception is neither here nor there. That misperception is a reality that we cannot wish away, anymore than we can wish away the physical response which results from the misperception.
In short, if your policy is likely to be misperceived in ways that are harmful to you, then in objective terms your policy is harmful to you too. You should therefore change it.
Allowing the potential for misperception to define one’s actions would be ‘pointless’ and ‘supine’, says Galeotti. I fear that I’m sounding like a stuck record, but the ‘point’ is to achieve the objective. It is only by allowing for the potential for misperception that the objective can be achieved. Doing so is, therefore, the very opposite of pointless.
Why don’t people get this? I think that the answer is connected to what I said before. They feel that it deprives them, the good guys, of control, and passes control to the others, the bad guys. Galeotti rather gives it away when he complains that taking the potential for misperception into account is ‘supine’. But it’s irrelevant whether a policy is supine or not. International politics isn’t [or shouldn’t be] a test of manly vigour. Give me a policy which is ‘supine’ but gets the job done, or at least doesn’t do any harm, or a policy which is upright and active, but which is harmful, and I tell you that I’ll choose supine every day of the week. And so should everyone else.