One of the most self-defeating concepts I’ve run into in the past 20 years is the idea that if somebody else is wrong about something, then one doesn’t have to pay any attention to their opinion. “Wrong” could mean either factually or morally/legally incorrect, or both. Regardless, the theory is that if I am right and you are wrong, then what you think shouldn’t affect my behaviour. I should do what I believe it is right to do regardless of your opinion. Wrongness can’t defeat rightness.
An example of this popped up this week in a post on Twitter by former Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt, a man well-known for his hawkish position vis-à-vis the Russian government. With reference to the current tensions between Russia and NATO , Bildt comments that
“I see that Russia complains that the West has a ‘lack of understanding’ of the Kremlin’s security demands. That’s entirely correct. Virtually everything they’ve said in the last few weeks about NATO or Ukraine suddenly becoming a threat to Russia is pure invention. Factually wrong.”
You get the logic, I’m sure. In Bildt’s eyes, it is a verifiable truth that NATO does not threaten Russia. Any claims to the contrary from Russia are “factually wrong”. Therefore, NATO should not make any concessions to Russia.
I’ve come across this sort of argument many times in different variations. Before the invasion of Iraq, for instance, I was told that one could not oppose the invasion on the grounds that it would incite terrorism, because “We can’t let the terrorists dictate our policy.” Terrorists are wrong, you see, whereas we are right. So their wrongheadedness is irrelevant.
This is, of course, a silly approach. It doesn’t matter whether other people’s beliefs are right or wrong; what matters is that they believe them and that this affects their behaviour. Maybe, just maybe – for the sake of argument – in invading Iraq you are, in some objective sense, liberating people from an evil dictator. But if the locals think that you are there to occupy them and grab their oil, and therefore take up arms against you, it doesn’t matter what the objective truth is. You’d be better off if you had taken the Iraqis’ incorrect opinion into account.
Likewise, maybe Russia is indeed “wrong” in its assessment of NATO, but that incorrect assessment is driving what it does, with serious consequences. Ignoring it because it’s wrong is simply stupid. Instead, you need to be thinking about why others think the way they do, wondering if it’s perhaps because you’ve done something that’s given them the wrong impression, and then doing something about it. Charging forward all guns blazing simply reinforces the incorrect assessment, causing a reaction that in the end hurts you.
In short, ignoring other people’s alleged wrongness harms one’s own interests as much as theirs.
All this assumes that the others actually are “wrong.” What if they’re not? Or what if, though wrong, there are good reasons for them to believe what they believe given the circumstances in which they find themselves? In short, what if the reason they misperceive you is because you’ve done and said things that lend themselves to misperception? In that case, ignoring the misperception is a huge mistake – instead, you need to address your own behaviour.
So is it “wrong” for Russia to believe that NATO threatens it? I can see in some abstract, objective way, you might say yes, in that I don’t believe that NATO has any intention of ever attacking Russia. Minus intention there is no threat.
However, from Russia’s own subjective position, things look differently. NATO’s claims that it is a purely defensive alliance ring hollow after its attacks on Yugoslavia and Libya. NATO has a proven track record of attacking weak states it doesn’t like. Russians might well conclude that maintaining a strong military is the only guarantee they have of not meeting the same fate.
Beyond that, the rhetoric coming out of the West, and particularly the United States, is extremely belligerent. NATO might have no intention of attacking Russia, but if you read the American press, as I’m sure the Russian government does, you might not be so sure.
Take, for instance, a piece published yesterday by Evelyn Farkas, who served as US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia under Barack Obama. Entitled “The US Must Prepare for War Against Russia Over Ukraine,” the article is, to say the least, a little frightening. Its basic logic is that in order to stop a Russia that is hell-bent on destroying the entire international order, America must threaten it with war, and if it doesn’t surrender, launch that war – for war now is better than war later.
But sadly I kid not.
Farkas argues that if America makes concessions to Russia over Ukraine, it “will spell the beginning of the end of the international order. … Any appeasement will only beget future land grabs not only from Putin, but also from China in Taiwan and elsewhere. … the rules-based international order will collapse.” She concludes:
“The only way to reassert the primacy of international law and sanctity of international borders, and contain Russia, may be to issue our own ultimatum. We must not only condemn Russia’s illegal occupations of Ukraine and Georgia, but we must demand a withdrawal from both countries by a certain date and organize coalition forces willing to take action to enforce it. … The horrible possibility exists that Americans, with our European allies, must use our military to roll back Russians – even at the risk of direct combat. But if we don’t now, Putin will force us to fight another day, likely to defend our Baltic or other East European allies.”
So, for the sake of Ukraine and Georgia, the United States should threaten Russia with World War Three, and if it doesn’t concede, should carry through with the threat.
Now imagine that you are sitting in Moscow reading this. What are you going to think? You might dismiss it as the mad rantings of some nobody on the internet, but this is a former Assistant Secretary of Defense – and a Democratic one, to boot. If this is what the supposedly moderate Democrats of the Obama era think like, what’s going on in the minds of the current bunch, let alone the Republicans? Reading this, you’re not necessarily going to assume that this is actual government policy, but you’re certainly going to have some doubts about the sanity of the US security establishment. Claims that you are “wrong” to think that NATO threatens you aren’t going to have much of an impact. Can you take the chance when senior ex-officials are saying this sort of thing?
Regardless of whether the Russian leadership is “wrong” or “right” to think as it does about NATO, its beliefs make sense from where it is standing, and those beliefs don’t come out of nowhere, but are to some degree a product of what the US and its NATO allies have done and said, and continue to do and say. Telling the Russians that they are “wrong” and therefore have to shut up and put up with it will achieve nothing other than convince them that they are indeed right.
Of course, we have the right to decide that annoying the Russians is a price we are willing to pay in order to pursue more valuable objectives. To date, that’s been our policy. In essence, Russia’s problem has been that we simply don’t care enough about it to feel that we need to take its concerns into consideration. Russia is now trying to convince us that we need to do so. I don’t see much sign that they’re succeeding.