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.