Category Archives: Crackpot theories

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.


Crackpot theory no. 8: ‘Influence’

Although an official announcement has not yet been made, it seems certain that the Canadian government has decided to send a battlegroup to Latvia as part of a NATO mission to ‘deter Russian aggression’. According to the CBC, ‘The deployment would be a “core” contribution, meaning that Canadians would fill the slot permanently until NATO dissolves that force … It would require the army to rotate one of its infantry battalions and a headquarters — perhaps as many as 500 troops — into the position once every six months.’

The idea of ‘Russian aggression’ is by now a given fact in security circles, and it is quite possible that the Canadian establishment really does believe that Russia poses a mortal threat to Canada’s security, and that defending Latvia is a vital national interest. But NATO’s European members have about two million people in their armed forces, plus thousands of tanks, aircraft, artillery pieces, and so on. 500 Canadian troops aren’t going to make a tangible difference to Latvia’s security. Canada’s leaders must be aware of this. So why are they sending troops there?

The answer lies in the peculiar notion the Canadian military industrial academic complex has that participating in such missions gives Canada ‘influence’ over its NATO allies, and in particular over the Americans. We are not actually going to Latvia because our presence will make any difference to Latvia, but because we think that being there will ingratiate us with the United States and so allow us to win some concessions from our friends on other issues which matter to us. Thus, Carleton University’s Stephen Saideman wrote in The Globe and Mail:

Canada would be seen as playing a similar, if not entirely equal, role to the big heavy hitters in the alliance. It would give Canada a much more visible role in Europe, which would give Canada more heft within NATO discussions. …  Second, Canada has been under much pressure over the years to spend more on its defence. Participating in this effort would quell those calls for a while. … Third, the members of the European Union have not yet ratified the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) with Canada. Helping out a number of European countries, both those who would be defended in the East and those who would be happy to have Canada take this role (Norway and Denmark at the very least), might be leveraged into more support for the deal.

So, let us test this theory that participating in NATO missions gives Canada tangible and worthwhile influence over its allies.

Influence consists of getting others to do things they would otherwise not have done. So, which of their policies have our friends changed in a manner favourable to Canada as a result of its other recent military actions? I can’t think of any. Perhaps Professor Saideman is correct and Canada has had ‘more heft in NATO discussions’, resulting in minor changes in this or that paragraph of some NATO document, but not in any noticeable way which has obviously affected the lives of the average Bob or Jo in Saskatoon. The good professor expresses the hope that Canada might benefit in trade negotiations, but there is no evidence of such linkage having worked in the past. Canada’s prominent role in the war in Afghanistan didn’t help it in any way convince the Americans to make concessions on matters such as soft wood lumber and the Keystone XL pipeline. Perhaps somebody out there can provide a concrete example of how participation in NATO missions has helped Canada change other countries’ minds in a way which has brought significant advantage, but unless they do, one has to conclude that ‘influence’ is a largely a myth.

Canada ‘punched above its weight’ in Afghanistan, but after it announced that its troops would leave that country we told that we had to participate in the war against Libya because otherwise we would have no ‘influence’ within the NATO alliance. In other words, any gratitude earned in Afghanistan had already been forgotten. Canada then played an important role in deposing Libya’s ruler Muammar Gaddafi; a Canadian general even led NATO’s operation. But whatever ‘influence’ that gained us apparently soon evaporated too, because very soon we were being berated for not spending enough on defence and we now have to rush into Latvia in order to restore our seemingly battered reputation as a good ally. So even if it is true that to some small extent Canada does gain influence over its allies by joining NATO missions, this influence is extraordinarily short-lived.

In any case, to need to influence somebody you have to want something different from them. If you agree with what they are doing, and don’t want to change it, influence is meaningless. And here we reach a fundamental problem with the influence theory. Most of the time, Canada doesn’t actually have a different vision of the world from that of the United States or its other NATO allies. Imagine, for instance, that we thought that NATO’s posture vis-à-vis Russia was incorrect. Perhaps, sending troops to Latvia might make our allies listen more to us when we insisted that the posture must change. But we don’t think that the posture is incorrect. We don’t want to change it. In such circumstances, ‘influence’ is useless. If anybody imagines that by sending troops to Latvia, Canada will substantially change our allies’ policies on this or any other matter of significance, they are surely deluding themselves.

Crackpot theory no. 7: hearts and minds

The great Prussian strategist Karl von Clausewitz remarked that, ‘Kind-hearted people might of course think there was some ingenious way to disarm or defeat an enemy without too much bloodshed, and might imagine this is the true goal of the art of war. Pleasant as it sounds, it is a fallacy that must be exposed: war is such a dangerous business that the mistakes which come from kindness are the very worst.’

For Clausewitz, the primary aim of war was the destruction of the enemy’s armed forces, and there was only one sure method of achieving this objective: combat. In recent years, however, Western military forces have attempted to do what Clausewitz warned against – defeat the enemy ‘without too much bloodshed’. Following the failure of initial counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq, counterinsurgency theorists convinced NATO leaders that the key to victory in Afghanistan  was a ‘whole of government’ approach. Military force would be combined with humanitarian aid and economic development projects, which would win the ‘hearts and minds’ of Aghans and persuade them to support the Afghan government and NATO rather than the Taliban. NATO would win not by killing people but by being nice to them.

How has this theory worked out in practice?

Not very well, is the answer.

John Sopko, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), is responsible for auditing the $113 billion which the United States has spent on reconstruction in Afghanistan. Citing SIGAR’s new quarterly report to the US Congress, the latest update sent out by his office contains a particularly eye-popping statement:

Since 2003, USAID has spent at least $2.3 billion on stability programs in Afghanistan. The findings of a USAID-contracted, third-party evaluation program on the impacts of its stabilization projects raise worrying questions. The MISTI [Measuring Impacts of Stabilization Initiatives] program reported, for example, that villages receiving USAID stability projects scored lower on stability—an aggregate measure of whether the projects strengthened perceptions of good governance and effective service delivery—than similar villages that received no such assistance. And some villages reportedly under Taliban control that received USAID stability projects subsequently showed greater pro-Taliban support.

Why was this? According to SIGAR’s quarterly report, USAID says that raised expectations are to blame. Aid projects tend to raise villagers’ hopes of an improved quality of life. When their expectations ae not fully met, they become embittered.

There may be something to this explanation, but I’m not sure that it is the whole story. After all, it begs the question of why the projects fail to meet expectations. I would not be surprised if that is because the projects are often ill-conceived, disrupt existing practices and power structures, and are driven by perceived short-term security needs rather than the real requirements of local inhabitants.

SIGAR’s quarterly report [pages 118-120] also points to another factor. Apparently, USAID’s ‘Stability in Key Areas’ (SIKA) programs have improved ‘community cohesion, resiliency, and perceptions of local leaders’, but ‘at the expense of government officials’. Years ago, I heard complaints that in its haste to win ‘hearts and minds’, NATO was bypassing Afghan government institutions and officials (often deemed corrupt and/or incompetent), with the result that the aid was doing nothing to solve the fundamental problem of central government legitimacy which lay at the heart of the insurgency. These complaints may have been right.

SIGAR’s report suggests that ‘hearts and minds’ stability projects don’t win hearts and minds, but actually make matters worse. If confirmed, this finding is a terrible blow to counterinsurgency theory. The belief that one can win wars by building schools and digging wells has apparently turned out not to be true.

Crackpot theory no. 6: Kenoticism

Today, my class on ‘Russia and the West’ will be examining Russian Orthodoxy. One of the subjects we will be discussing is the theological concept of kenoticism.

Kenoticism derives from the Greek word kenosis, which means ‘self-emptying’, and it demands that people empty themselves of their own will and subordinate themselves entirely to the will of God. The idea of kenoticism comes from St Paul’s letter to the Philippians 2.7-8, which says that Jesus ‘emptied himself by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.’

Kenoticism therefore implies obedience and subordination to a higher power, as well as a willingness to suffer. As the Orthodox theologian Alexander F.C. Webster puts it, the concept requires, ‘meekness, self-abasement, voluntary poverty, humility, obedience, non-resistance, acceptance of suffering, and death, in imitation of Christ.’

In Russian Orthodoxy, notable examples of kenoticism are the 11th century princes of Kiev Boris and Gleb, who chose not to resist their brother Svyatopolk the Accursed, but instead meekly awaited the assassins whom Svyatopolk had sent to kill them, and consequently suffered decidedly unpleasant deaths. The story of Boris and Gleb encapsulates both the principle of non-resistance to evil and the idea that suffering is holy. Boris and Gleb are saints not because of any holy acts, but because they suffered. The same is true of Tsar Nicholas II, who was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church not for any allegedly saintly deeds while ruling Russia but for the simple fact that he was killed. Through suffering, humans humble themselves and so come to resemble Christ, who suffered on the cross. Suffering is good for the soul.

I understand the idea that non-resistance to evil can be a better option than violent resistance. Are Syrians as a whole better off for the fact that some of them rose up to resist Assad? Clearly not. For the most part, they were better off when they submitted. But there can be virtue in non-violent resistance, as seen by examples such as Rosa Parks. The idea of complete non-resistance makes me rather uneasy.

More than that, though, what I don’t like about kenoticism is the implication that suffering is good for the soul. Is it actually true that those who suffer are holier than those who do not? On the one hand, I get the point that being too comfortable possibly distracts one’s mind from spiritual matters. One runs the risk of decadence. On the other hand, being very uncomfortable probably makes material matters even more important. Who has time to worry about God when they are hungry? Furthermore, there seems to be plenty of evidence that those who suffer aren’t automatically better people because of it. A large number of physically abusive men were themselves physically abused as children. Their childhood suffering didn’t bring them closer to Christ – quite the opposite.

And then, there is the whole issue of suffering, subordination, and the ‘Russian soul’. Kenoticism fits in with the centuries-old cliché (found as far back as in Herberstein’s writings in the sixteenth century) that Russians like to be bossed about and have a particular penchant and capacity for suffering. I don’t buy it. There is quite a history of Russian resistance to autocratic authority (e.g. Stenka Razin, Emelyan Pugachev, and the revolutions of 1905 and 1917). And while it is true that Russians have suffered a lot over the course of their history, that doesn’t mean that they have liked it, let alone that they have a peculiar ability to endure it. I am sure that if you asked Russians, ‘would you rather be free and comfortable or enslaved and suffering?’, pretty much all of them would prefer to be free and comfortable.

Dostoevsky wrote that, ‘the most basic, most rudimentary spiritual need of the Russian people is the need for suffering, ever-present and unquenchable, everywhere and in everything.’ I think not.


Crackpot theory #5: Flypaper theory

Ten years ago today I was in London, England, travelling by Underground to reach King’s Cross Station. At Euston, I and all the other passengers on my train were informed that the line was closed and that we would have to leave the station and proceed on foot. As Euston Road (which links Euston and King’s Cross) was blocked by police, I headed south on Upper Woburn Place. After a couple of minutes’ walking, just before reaching Tavistock Square, I spotted a little street heading east and turned into that. A few seconds later there was a big bang coming from pretty much where I would have been had I not turned. The cause was a bomb on a bus in Tavistock Square, which killed 13 people. Thirty-nine more Londoners died the same day from three other suicide bombings on London Underground trains.

I remember my reaction well – while standing around the nearby Cartwright Gardens, wondering what to do next, I cursed Britain’s then Prime Minister, Tony Blair. Two and a half years previously, when Britain was debating whether to invade Iraq, I had spoken on Channel 4 TV News and stated my opinion that a likely consequence of such an invasion would be increased terrorism. My prediction had come true.

The wars which the United Kingdom and its allies have waged in the Middle East and Central Asia in the past 15 years in the name of countering terrorism have had the opposite effect – they have led to more, not less terrorism. Fortunately for us, most of it has been in the countries we have attacked – Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya – and there has been very little in Western Europe or North America. But there has been some, and more than there would have been had we just left others alone.

The ‘flypaper theory’ is the idea that by waging war against terrorism overseas we can prevent terrorism at home. General Ricardo Sanchez, who commanded American troops in Iraq from June 2003 to June 2004, aptly summarized it thus: ‘This is what I would call a terrorist magnet, where America, being present here in Iraq, creates a target of opportunity … But this is exactly where we want to fight them. …This will prevent the American people from having to go through their attacks back in the United States.’

Variations of the flypaper theory continue to dominate official thinking about counter-terrorism, as seen by the prolonged NATO campaign in Afghanistan and the current American-led bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria. The reasoning seems to be that the best way of defending ourselves here is to aggressively seek terrorists over there and destroy them. Yet after 15 years of this strategy being put into action, at a cost of several trillion dollars and many tens of thousands of lives, there appear to be more terrorists in the Middle East than ever before.

The flypaper theory is fatally flawed. It relies on the assumption that there are a limited number of terrorists worldwide, so if you kill them in one place, you won’t be threatened by them somewhere else. That assumption is just plain wrong. The very act of killing one often creates another, or many others, sometimes more deadly than the first. It’s ‘Whack-A-Mole’ with a twist – the harder you whack, the more moles you get.

The ‘flies’ who are being drawn from Europe and North America to fight with ISIS in Iraq and Syria would for the most part probably be sitting at home minding their own business and not posing a threat to anybody if only Western governments were sitting at home and minding their own business too. Former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is said to have once asked, ‘Are we creating more terrorists than we are killing?’ A decade or so after he posed that question, the answer is clear.

Crackpot theory #4: Credibility is a vital interest

The fourth in my series on crackpot theories looks at the idea that nations must always be seen to be strong, lest they lose ‘credibility’ and thereby encourage others to attack them. This fits in with my class this week on ‘Irrationality and Foreign Policy Decision Making’, which will examine ideas of honour and how they affect international relations.

The notion that ‘credibility’ is a vital national interest is at the core of the arguments of many foreign policy hawks. As Will Tobey and Will Imboden put it in Foreign Policy a year ago:

The most urgent matter is to re-establish the American credibility so regrettably squandered over the past several years — in Afghanistan by simultaneously announcing a surge and a retreat, in Iran with unenforced and ever-moving red lines, and in Syria with incomprehensible vacillation that left Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a stronger position after American threats. Credibility is the coin of the realm in international politics. Allies and adversaries need to know again that America will defend its interests. When the president speaks of “consequences” and “costs” associated with violations of international law and failure to comply with arms control and nonproliferation agreements, the country cannot afford to have other nations doubt his resolve.

The language of credibility can be found again and again in justifications of wars. ‘U.S. Must Escalate Bombing In Bosnia to Boost Credibility,’ argued the Washington Post in 1994. ‘To walk away now would not only destroy NATO’s credibility but would also be a breach of faith with thousands of innocent civilians,’ British Prime Minister Tony Blair told the House of Commons in March 1999 in justification of NATO’s bombing campaign against Yugoslavia. ‘To back down now would be the worst possible result’, a senior British official told The Guardian before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, ‘We would have no credibility if Saddam Hussein was still in place.’ And so on.

Superficially, it seems logical that having a ‘credible’ reputation would protect one from aggression. There are, however, some serious problems with the theory:

  • However great one’s reputation, it can be destroyed by one moment of weakness, since credibility is only as good as the last time it was tested. It has to be continually defended. Consequently, one must be prepared to be forceful even over trivial matters. The result is disproportionate responses to minor crises, allied to an inability to distinguish between vital and non-vital interests. Credibility is supposed to keep one safe, but in the effort to avoid war, one runs the risk of being perpetually at war.
  • There is a lack of evidence that appearing weak does in fact invite attack in international relations. In essence the credibility theory is a variation of the old Domino Theory which justified America’s war in Vietnam. Yet, after the communists won the war in Vietnam, the dominoes did not fall. Indeed, far from becoming more aggressive, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War the Soviets reached out a hand to the West in the form of détente.
  • As Darryl Press has pointed out in his book Calculating Credibility, states do not base their judgements of other states’ likely actions based on those other states’ past behaviour, but rather on their assessment of  how important the issue in question is to others and what capabilities they have to do anything about it. The fact that you acted forcibly in one case will not convince others that you will do the same in another case in which a vital interest is not at stake and when you are in any case not capable of acting forcibly.
  • The credibility theory assumes that acting strongly will produce positive results. Often it doesn’t. One justification of the American invasion of Iraq was that American weakness elsewhere, such as in Somalia, had emboldened al Qaeda to attack the USA. The invasion of Iraq would restore America’s credibility. Instead, the insurgency which followed the invasion reinforced the image of American weakness.
  • If credibility is your objective, then in cases involving the use of force the objective is achieved the moment that force is first used. This means that there is little incentive thereafter to apply force in a manner designed to produce positive results. Wars fought for credibility are likely to be associated with poor strategy.
  • Using force over trivial matters may make others see you not as strong but as a bully. Rather than deterring enemies, the desire for credibility may create them.

In an interview last month, former British Defence Minister Liam Fox argued that the conflict in Ukraine ‘is about the credibility of NATO and the Western alliance. I think the defence of the Baltic, for example, begins in Ukraine.’ Consequently, says Fox, NATO needs to increase its military presence in Eastern Europe and also provide weapons to the Ukrainian Army. This is precisely the kind of thinking that has dragged Western states into unnecessary conflicts in places like Kosovo, Iraq, and Libya. It should be resisted.

Crackpot theory #3: Hybrid Warfare

Although it has been around for a few years, the expression ‘hybrid warfare’ really caught on in 2014. All and sundry are now repeating it to show that they are ‘in the know’ and understand that warfare is changing in important and mysterious ways.

The theory is that war has undergone a profound transformation. Whereas once it was just a matter of armies fighting armies, now it is a hybrid of military power and other forms of power. According to Captain Robert A. Newson of the US Navy, hybrid warfare can be defined as:

A combination of conventional, irregular, and asymmetric means, including the persistent manipulation of political and ideological conflict, and can include the combination of special operations and conventional military forces; intelligence agents; political provocateurs; media representatives; economic intimidation; cyber attacks; and proxies and surrogates, para-militaries, terrorists, and criminal elements.

And according to NATO:

A hybrid threat is one posed by any current or potential adversary, including state, non-state and terrorists, with the ability, whether demonstrated or likely, to simultaneously employ conventional and non conventional means adaptively, in pursuit of their objectives.

The NATO definition reveals an immediate problem with the idea of hybrid warfare: it is so vague as to be meaningless. But there are other problems with it too.

The theory that it represents something new is profoundly ahistorical. With the exception of the mention of cyber attacks, Newson’s definition above could apply to pretty much any war ever fought. War has rarely if ever been solely a matter of military force. ‘Political and ideological conflict’, ‘intelligence agents, ‘proxies and surrogates’, and ‘economic intimidation’ have accompanied war for centuries.

Even the claim that the non-conventional elements of war are becoming more important than traditional combat is hardly a new one. Martin van Creveld made this claim in his book The Transformation of War 25 years ago. William S. Lind has been making similar claims with his theory of ‘Fourth Generation Warfare’ for just as long. Before that, Cold War theories of guerrilla warfare, insurgency, and counter-insurgency similarly stressed that combat was just one facet of a wider socio-economic-political struggle. And even before that, Clausewitz spoke of war as consisting not just of armies, but also of governments and the people, while Sun Tzu spoke at length about secret agents and the importance of maintaining popular support.

The main example currently used by hybrid warfare theorists to illustrate their case – the war in Eastern Ukraine – in fact proves the opposite. The weapons of choice are rifles, machine-guns, tanks, armoured personnel carriers, artillery pieces, and multiple launch rocket systems. The war in Ukraine is not hybrid warfare – it is war, as traditionally understood.