Crackpot Theory No. 10: We shouldn’t let how Bad guys think affect our actions

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.

21 thoughts on “Crackpot Theory No. 10: We shouldn’t let how Bad guys think affect our actions”

    1. JRL court appointed Russia friendly establishment censorship. Galeotti has gotten it wrong for quite some time. When he says something less wrong or agreeable (not not really earth shattering), he’ll get built up as some kind of enlightened source.

      An example of Galeotti’s un-academic approach:

      Versus what was actually said of him:

      https://www.eurasiareview.com/13012015-enigmatic-russia-detractors-analysis/

      https://www.counterpunch.org/2015/01/09/deconstructing-establishment-kremlinology/

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      1. JRL court appointed Russia friendly establishment censorship. Galeotti has gotten it wrong for quite some time. When he says something less wrong or agreeable (not not really earth shattering), he’ll get built up as some kind of enlightened source.

        How can I induce you to drop that meme? This might allow you to realize that in this case JRL gave him a perfect chance to make a fool of himself.

        Down to the rhetorical question at the end? What do you think, how would Dr. Galeotti define “Kremlin troll” and how “RT columnists”? How the difference, which do you think is worse?

        But perhaps, like so many RT columnists, in whose ranks he seems increasingly to feature, he knows the hearts and minds of Western critics of the current Russian government better than they themselves?

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      2. The bottom line is that Galeotti way over-hyped from what he’s actually worth in terms of analytical insight. RT has had hm on several times, despite his dissing that venue.

        If anything, I made a bigger fool out of him. At TWITter, he falsely says that I used certain words to describe him, in addition to going ad hominem – much different from my Eurasia Review-Counterpunch take of him.

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  1. You are, of course, entirely correct.

    But Galeotti and others in think-tank crowd do not interact with Russia when they make these proposals. They interact with American establishement, which rewards these articles with good money. And American establishement is, I am of firm opinion, more intersted in having Russia (or Iran, or “terrorism”, or anything else in the villain-of-the week lottery drum) as an enemy. It’s very useful. Iraq war did not happen because Bush and Blair were poorly advised; they *ordered* to be advised that way themselves and shut the opposing voices down. So the articles find a welcoming audience, and the cycle continues.

    They make objectives that benefit them, and choose policies that further those objectives, just like you write here. Evidently they are successful, and get richer and more powerful by the day, even, nay, *especially* during the pandemic. It’s just that actual diplomacy is neither among those objectives, nor means.

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    1. Exactly right, Aule! I would add that the true motives of the NATO warmongers are to make tons of money for the Military-Industrial Establishment. And for that, they need more enemies, and more wars. They don’t care about diplomacy or making the world safer, quite the opposite!

      The most unbearable and maddening part of this being, their mealy-mouth hypocrisy and pretending like THEY are the good guys, instead of just admitting frankly that, yes ma’am, they are a bunch of ruthless and sociopathic war criminals.

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  2. What a noble attempt of trying to reason with the people no longer/ever capable of reason, Professor! It’s like trying to inject rationality and, yes, strategic acumen to the modern incarnation of Peter Batholomew:

    “The success at Antioch was too much for Peter Bartholomew’s skeptics. Peter’s visions were far too convenient and too martial, and he was openly accused of lying. Challenged, Peter offered to undergo ordeal by fire to prove that he was divinely guided. Being in Biblical lands, they chose a Biblical ordeal: Peter would pass through a fiery furnace and would be protected by an angel of God. The crusaders constructed a path between walls of flame; Peter would walk down the path between the flames. He did so, and was horribly burned. He died after suffering in agony for twelve days on 20 April 1099.[48] There was no more said about the Holy Lance, although one faction continued to hold that Peter was genuine and that this was indeed the true Lance.”

    “On 8 April 1099, Peter went through an ordeal by fire by his own choice in an attempt to prove himself. It is very likely that he was severely burned in the process, although he claimed he was uninjured because Christ had appeared to him in the fire and that he had been hurt afterwards when a crowd rushed to him and was rescued by Raymond Pilet d’Alès. He died on 20 April.”

    I mean – c’mon! We are talking about jump-up sci-fi and fantasy fiction writer M. Galeotti, still pining for the late 80s – early 90s period. Seeing as the present era is less… merciful… for zhe and the likes of zher, the desire to re-live a fantasy of one’s choosing is understandable. It’s perfectly in-sync with the liberal idea of struggling against tyranny, presuppositions and limitations on oneself. After denouncing all the tyranny of the “human made constructs” ™ the next logical step is to denounce the tyranny of the reality itself.

    Tl;dr. Admirable attempt at having a meaningful dialog with the people, Professor, who’d respond to anything running against their ideology with the clear, loud and resolute “DEUS VULT!”.

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    1. M. Galeotti, still pining for the late 80s – early 90s period. Seeing as the present era is less… merciful… for zhe and the likes of zher, the desire to re-live a fantasy of one’s choosing is understandable. It’s perfectly in-sync with the liberal idea of struggling against tyranny, presuppositions and limitations on oneself …

      You feel he wishes away both Jelzin and Putin and go back to the early Jelzin era, return to the Gorbachev era? …

      Maybe not quite. At least he seems to beg to differ with Navalny on some of his sanctions choices.

      Kleptocrats: It is certainly not the case that every rich Russia is rich because Putin made him rich, or stays rich because he is an eager Putin crony, ally or agent. Nonetheless, Navalny has targeted Abramovich and Usmanov – perhaps as well known in the UK as anything else for owning Chelsea and, until 2018, having a major stake in Arsenal – as two symbolic leaders of the pack. I’m surprised, to be honest, that such even closer figures as Rosneft’s Gor Sechin aren’t here, but then again it may be that to Navalny – not without reason – the Sechins of this world are really nothing but Putin’s proxies, whereas Abramovich and Usmanov choose to collaborate with the Kremlin. Honestly I was wondering whether Shuvalov should go in the previous category or this one, but I suspect he really fits here, as someone who chose his path. It’s hard to tell for certain, but I presume the message is: if you deliberately choose to dine with the devil, you can expect to be exorcised.

      What’s Navalny’s sanctions strategy?
      https://inmoscowsshadows.wordpress.com/2021/01/19/whats-navalnys-sanctions-strategy/

      Two names seem to sound familiar Sechin and Kostin. Steele Dossier? I am stunned admittedly, Navalny can dictate to the West whom to sanction. Or at least suggest it? Hmm, maybe Browder did too.

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  3. Couldn’t agree more with Aule and Yalensis.

    Paul, God bless his soul, just seems to be too nice to reverse-apply his absolutely correct argument. If he did, he’d discover that people who claim their objective is A, but consistently act as if their objective is B, most likely lie about their objective!

    Of course, people routinely lie to themselves, too. This is actually paramount to protecting one’s identity. Psychologically, it’s very hard for most people to admit even to themselves that they want something “bad”. So they invent false explanations for their action! Humans are spectacularly great at this!

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  4. As people here already noted – the entire mess only makes sense if the goal is not nebulous ‘promotion of democracy and liberalism in Russia’ but actually provoking the response from Russian authorities that can be painted afterwards as ‘Do you see? They are evil as we told you beforehand’.
    And it its entire purpose of whole machination. Western establishment do not care about Russian opposition, they are pawns willing and unwilling to be traded for domestic political gains.

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    1. Btw, painting Russia evil is not really a goal. It’s a means. The real goal is to stay in business.

      In order for Mark Galeotti to stay in business, there needs to be a story of the “evil Russian regime”, to be bravely fought with many incendiary words and Twitter posturing.

      In order for NATO to stay in business, there needs to be an “evil Russia” to protect the West from.

      In order for Western politicians to stay in business, there needs to be a continuous stream of events, real or virtual, stimulating public interest towards them, and few things work as well as the good old threat inflation. Russia, being large, poorly understood, with weak economic ties to the West, and boasting an established “dark” image, is just perfect!

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      1. Galeotti tries to nevertheless have some appeal to the other view which he otherwise doesn’t favor. This tact comes across as an attempt to have a broader base.

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  5. Who cares what Americans think any more, really? They’re finished. Economically, socially, infrastructurally, morally and militarily. That’s not to say that the scorpion on the way down doesn’t still have a sting but in reality both Russia and China are managing Americas decline behind the scenes so that it will cause them the least damage possible (for them). The absolute majority of US analysts (especially think tankers) don’t know their A hole from their elbow. Qualified for nothing, the dead beats wash up on the shores of the swamp in Washington and get paid 100K per year writing stories about things the US Washington bubble want to hear … anything but the truth. I understand the worry of the current ‘cold war’ going kinetic but trust me, it will not on purpose do so, there are still a few cool heads in the US military that know any war with Russia is unwinable and that it is probable that in conventional terms it would end quickly, overwhelmingly and humiliatingly for the US, in a way that it is impossible for it to be spun by the supine press as anything but complete defeat. You can’t talk sense to these people, so why waste your time and breath (unless you have to earn a living at it!) The military in particular is the greatest irony, they are going to spend themselves into oblivion trying to catch up with the Russians when they simply don’t have the capacity nor the capability in terms of brains to get close. America sold itself to the lowest bidder 40 years ago and now regret may be overwhelming but the ability to change it substantially is no longer possible. The USA will not make its tri-centennial in any recognisable form, with or without war.

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    1. Hi, Gerald, I like your comment, but I don’t get what you mean here:
      “America sold itself to the lowest bidder 40 years ago”, that would be around 1980, what are you alluding to? Thanks.

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      1. Yup. Reagan let US plutocrats out of the box FDR put them in, and they once again own the place, like they did throughout the 1920s.

        You’ll note that their governance in the 1920s caused the Crash, the Great Depression, brought Adolf to power, & paved the way for the 2nd World War…

        https://www.nber.org/papers/w24106

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      2. Yeah. Reagan also started his administration crushing the American trade union movement (the Air Traffic Controllers strike), thus also further unleashing the unfettered power of the oligarchs and big corporations.

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