Is irrationality a bad thing?

For the next three months, this blog will track my university course ‘Irrationality and Foreign Policy Decision Making’, with a post each week on the subject of that week’s class. The aim will be to analyze what makes politicians act in what seem to be irrational ways in their dealings with other countries.

Is irrationality a bad thing? That depends in part on how you define rationality. For the purpose of this post, I will limit myself to a definition which relates to process. A rational decision, according to this definition, is one reached on the basis of evidence rather than faith or emotion, and one for which the evidence has been weighed against several hypotheses to determine which best fits it. This is called ‘analytical reasoning’, and it is the sort of rational decision making which is taught in business schools and military academies – don’t prejudge the answer, collect as much evidence as possible, compare it objectively to several possible courses of action, analyze the costs and benefits of each course, and then pick the option which has the best cost-benefit ratio.

The reason for teaching businessmen and military officers to reason in this way is that it supposedly leads to the best results. It seems obvious that it should: after all, a better informed, properly reasoned plan of action should be better than a snap judgement. In his 1989 book Crucial Decisions: Leadership in Policymaking and Crisis Management Irving L. Janis argued that when political leaders use analytical decision making, they make better decisions. For instance, the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961 was a product of poor decision making processes in the American government, with President Kennedy failing to consult widely, consider alternatives, or analyze the likely outcome of his plan. By contrast, Kennedy succeeded in navigating the Cuban Missile Crisis precisely because he did use analytical reasoning.

Not everyone agrees with Janis, however. In class this week, we shall discuss Gary Klein’s 2011 book Streetlights and Shadows: Searching for the Keys to Adaptive Decision Making. Klein points out that experts rarely use analytical decision making. While data is important in making good decisions, the expert only needs a limited amount. Research suggests that anything beyond that actually undermines decision making. Horse racing experts, for instance, make better decisions about which horse will win a race if they have just four or five pieces of data about the horse and the race conditions than if they have many more. Also, good decision makers don’t actually consider lots of alternative courses of action. Generally, they consider only one or two. They follow not their reason but their ‘gut’, an instinct based on experience. The experienced fire fighter or pilot, facing a crisis, can act immediately and decisively, reasoning not analytically according to the model above but through analogy with his previous experience. Analytical reasoning, says Klein, has its place, but generally it isn’t the best way of doing things.

Is Janis or Klein right? It depends. The fire fighter encounters fires on a regular basis. He acquires enormous experience in a relatively predictable environment. He has numerous examples to compare to the one he is currently encountering. He also, quite probably, doesn’t have the time to engage in analytical decision making. Relying on his ‘gut’ may well be the best way to go.

That does not mean, however, that the same is true at the political level. Take, for instance, a finance minister tackling an economic recession: how many previous recessions has he experienced as finance minister? Given that these come around only once a decade or so, probably none. He doesn’t have the experience to rely on ‘gut’.  Moreover, economics is a lot more complex than fire: one recession is not necessarily at all like another.

Now, take things to the level of international affairs. Some more routine matters, such as international trade, may resemble each other sufficiently for a politician to gain real experience in them, but such matters tend to be extremely technical and not easily subject to instinct. Meanwhile, serious international crises are never the same twice. How much experience do Western politicians have which is relevant to dealing with the crisis in Ukraine? Not a lot – there haven’t been any cases similar to the Russian takeover of Crimea, and none of the current Western leaders were in power the last time there was a war in Europe (twenty years ago in the Balkans). Lacking experience of their own to refer to, politicians who fail to engage in analytical reasoning have to fall back on historical analogy. Modern Russia is thus the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union; Putin is Stalin or Hitler, etc. The problem is not only that these analogies are faulty, but that policies based upon them fail to take into account the actual circumstances of the present day. The result is policies which fail to achieve their stated aims.

In short, politics isn’t fire fighting, and politicians are not fire fighters. Politicians simply aren’t experts in the way that other professionals are, or at least their expertise is in politics and not in making decisions on specific issues. Their decision making instincts are not reliable in the way those of other professionals may be. I remain unconvinced, therefore, that relying on those instincts is better than relying on reason.


Cossacks: ‘Putin is our Emperor’

During the Russian Civil War, Atamanshchina bedevilled the anti-Bolshevik White Armies. The leaders – Atamans – of the Cossack forces which made up a large part of the White Armies often refused to take orders from the General Staff officers who notionally commanded them. Areas controlled by Cossack troops suffered numerous depredations, including pogroms. Atamanshchina came to symbolize all that was wrong about White rule, most notably its lack of central authority and its lawlessness.

In a recent post, I remarked that the future of the rebel republics in Ukraine depended upon their ability to centralize authority and build properly functioning states. The omens are not good. Atamanshchina appears to be alive and well today in the Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR), with much of the LPR under the control of Cossack forces who refuse to accept the authority of the republic’s government led by Igor Plotnitsky. News reports in December that the main Cossack leader, Ataman Nikolai Kozitsyn, had left the LPR and returned to Russia sparked speculation that he had been ordered out by someone powerful in Russia in an effort to strengthen Plotnitsky’s authority. Last week, though, Kozitsyn gave an interview claiming that he continues to command Cossack forces in the LPR, albeit from inside Russia. ‘Nobody has the right to deprive me of command’, Kozitsyn said.

In his interview Kozitsyn claimed that his troops control 80% of the LPR. He does not recognize the LPR, he said, ‘it is a utopia.’ Rather, he added, ‘We say that we are part of the Russian Empire. Today we recognize Putin as our Emperor.’ I wonder what Putin thinks of that.

Knocking down Lenin

‘Ленин живёт’ (‘Lenin lives’), the signs in the Soviet Union used to say. Lenin was ubiquitous. His picture looked out from posters and from the front of newspapers. Every town seemed to have a ‘Lenin street’, a ‘Lenin square’ and, of course, a Lenin statue. In the last decades of the Soviet Union, Lenin represented the good side of communist rule, as opposed to the bad side represented by Stalin. Introducing his glasnost’ and perestroika, Mikhail Gorbachev, claimed to be going back to the original values of Leninism, which he said had been distorted by later Soviet rulers. Lenin was beyond reproach.

In reality, Lenin was an ideological zealot who regarded most of his countrymen with contempt, and imposed his own vision upon them with extreme violence. ‘Comrades! The kulak uprising in your five districts must be crushed without pity,’ Lenin wrote to the Bolshevik party in Penza in the midst of the ‘Red Terror’, ‘You must make an example of these people. 1) Hang (I mean hang publicly, so that people see it) at least 100 kulaks, rich bastards, and known bloodsuckers. 2) Publish their names. 3) Seize all their grain. 4) Designate hostages in accordance with yesterday’s telegram. Do this so that for miles around people see it all, understand it, tremble, and tell themselves that we are killing the bloodthirsty kulaks, and that we will continue to do so.’ This was Lenin – a brutal despot, who brought ruin upon his country. Stalinism was not an aberration; it was a natural evolution of Leninism.

The revolution last year in Ukraine brought with it a spate of demolitions of Lenin statues. Many Ukrainians, especially those of a ‘pro-Western’ inclination, believe that Ukraine’s dismal economic and political progress since independence is a product of a ‘Soviet mentality’ which continues to exercise a powerful influence, particularly in the east of the country. Knocking down Lenin statues strikes a blow at this mentality, and clears the way for a new one.

Many other Ukrainians, however, accept the myth of the ‘good Lenin’, and view the Soviet Union as something not entirely bad. It defeated the Nazis in the ‘Great Patriotic War’; it provided jobs and security; it is a key part of who they are. Attacks on Lenin are attacks on them.

This week the former rebel stronghold of Slavyansk in the province of Donetsk made headlines again when a group of activists tried to demolish the local Lenin statue, but were blocked by a war veteran who stood in front of the monument to protect it. Ukrainian troops then told the would-be demolition team to disperse. Lenin was saved.

Saving Lenin in Slavayansk
Saving Lenin in Slavyansk

I cannot think of anything positive to say about Lenin, consider communism wrong in theory and disastrous in practice, and view the continuing Soviet mentality as something which Ukraine would be better off without. But I also understand that other people see things differently. Ukrainians do not have a unified comprehension of history. Some have no problem with statues of Stepan Bandera, but object strongly to those of Lenin; others the opposite. If they are to live peacefully together, they have to tolerate one another’s viewpoints, however mistaken these may be. My problem with the Lenin-smashers, therefore, is not that they dislike the Soviet Union, but that they are attempting to forcibly impose their view of history upon others when those others are not ready to accept it. Knocking down Lenin smacks of contempt of others’ most cherished beliefs.

To digress a little: as I have shown in my book Aiding Afghanistan, communist economists used to think that economic development was just a matter of capital accumulation. Provide Third World countries with capital, and their economies would grow, the theory went. After a while, the communists realized that this wasn’t the case: social and political institutions were the most important thing – successful investment was impossible if these institutions acted as barriers to growth. In Afghanistan, the communists then took this logic to mean that what was holding the country back was the existing institutions – the landlords, the mullahs, and all they stood for. They had to be smashed as a precondition for progress. So the communists went around smashing them. The result was counter-revolution. The communists’ analysis wasn’t wrong, but their solution was. The institutions were indeed a barrier to progress, but the people didn’t like seeing them destroyed and rose up in arms to stop this from happening. Attempting to force change produced war.

The Lenin demolition crews in Ukraine are somewhat similar, and symbolize the broader attitude which has produced war in that country. They may be right about the negative effects of Soviet nostalgia, but their efforts to do something about it cause more harm than good. If there is one thing worse than bad institutions it is people trying to smash them without having the agreement of others to do so. Much as I dislike Lenin, therefore, on the whole I tend to the view that, at least for now, he ought to be allowed to stay.

Friday object lesson #10: notebook

The university semester at the University of Ottawa starts on Monday, so this week’s Friday object is a notebook which I was given by the Contemporary Academy of the Humanities in Moscow in 2009. The Academy uses satellite communications to reach students throughout the Russian Federation. When I visited I saw a professor giving a lecture in a television studio in Moscow and a bunch of students watching him on a TV screen in their classroom in, I seem to remember, Perm. I will be back in the classroom myself on Tuesday.

2014-05-05 17.01.10

2014-05-05 17.01.31



Against Russia

By far the most popular blog post that I have so far written was Putin’s Philosopher, about Ivan Ilyin. Some readers asked for more on the same subject, so here is a translation of an essay he wrote in 1948 entitled ‘Against Russia’. My aim is not to endorse what Ilyin writes, merely to illustrate a mode of thinking which probably resonates strongly among some Russians today. The translation is mine.

Against Russia by Ivan Ilyin, 1948.

Wherever we Russian national émigrés are dispersed we should remember that other peoples do not know us and do not understand us, that they fear Russia, do not sympathize with it and are happy to seek it weakened it every way. Only little Serbia instinctively sympathized with Russia, but without knowing or understanding it; and only the United States is instinctively inclined to prefer a united national Russia as a safe counter-pole and as a loyal and solvent consumer of its goods.

In other countries and among other peoples, we are alone, misunderstood and unpopular. This is not a new phenomenon. It has its own history. M.V. Lomonosov and A.S. Pushkin were the first to understand Russia’s distinctiveness, its peculiarity from Europe, its ‘non-Europeanness’. F.M. Dostoevsky and N.Ia. Danilevsky were the first to understand that Europe doesn’t know us, doesn’t understand us, and doesn’t like us. Many years have passed since then and we have experienced and confirmed for ourselves that these great Russians were perspicacious and correct.

Continue reading Against Russia

Batman Thermidor

‘The revolution devours its children’, wrote the French journalist Jacques Mallet du Pan in 1793. Since the execution of Augustin Robespierre and 21 other revolutionary leaders the following year on 10 Thermidor (28 July) 1794, Thermidor has become a synonym for counter-revolutionary reaction, or as the Merriam Webster online dictionary puts it, ‘a moderate counterrevolutionary stage following an extremist stage of a revolution and usually characterized often through the medium of a dictatorship by an emphasis on the restoration of order, a relaxation of tensions, and some return to patterns of life held to be normal.’

Revolutions (as opposed to mere coups-d’état) tear apart the existing social and political fabric, creating chaos. There comes a point at which some of those who make up the new authority decide that restoring order is more important than pressing on with maximalist revolutionary objectives. Economic activity needs to resume, and the state needs to re-establish its monopoly over the use of violence. Also, revolutions are often led by the more extreme elements of the population. Their extremist demands alienate the mass of the population. At some stage, the new order, needing a broader base of popular support, has to curb its more radical elements. Thus, in the mid-1920s the Russian Communist Party purged the ‘Left Opposition’ led by Leon Trotsky, who spent the rest of his life equating Stalin with Thermidor. Similarly, on the Night of the Long Knives of 1934, Hitler eliminated the leaders of the socialist left of the Nazi Party as well as those of the party’s paramilitary force, the Sturmabteilung, thereby reassuring conservative Germans that his regime would provide law and order and not seek to disturb the social status quo. There are sound reasons why revolutions are so often followed by Thermidor.

Ukraine currently has a problem with ‘warlords’, local military leaders who pursue their own political agendas and often act in contravention of the law. This is the case both in the part of Ukraine under government control and in the rebel Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics (DPR & LPR). Adrian Karatnycky writes in The Washington Post that paramilitary groups, many with extreme political views, ‘threaten Ukraine’s rebuilding’. Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko ‘clearly wants this problem resolved but has been reluctant or unable to act. … Ukraine’s elected leaders can no longer sweep this emerging threat under the rug.’  Karatnycky seems to be suggesting that the government of Ukraine needs its own Thermidor.

The DPR and LPR, meanwhile, have been undergoing a slow moving Thermidor for several months. This began with the August 2014 resignation of the original Minister of Defence in Donetsk, Igor Strelkov, and continued through the elections of Aleksandr Zakharchenko and Igor Plotnitsky as heads of the two rebel republics in November, and on to the resignation of two more commanders, Igor Bezler and Ataman Koznitsky, in December. Now it has taken a violent turn with the death last week of Aleksandr Bednov, a.k.a. ‘Batman’, the leader of a rebel unit in the LPR.

According to official sources, special forces of the LPR killed Batman after he resisted arrest. The grounds for his arrest were that he was illegally holding and torturing prisoners, accusations which appear well founded. The civil war has destroyed the existing state structures in the rebel-held territories, and the DPR and LPR have been very slow in establishing new structures to replace them. In the meantime, they have become largely lawless regions in which local warlords operate with impunity. Banditry, looting, kidnapping, torture, and even murder have been commonplace, as some rebel leaders and their supporters admit.  Batman’s death can be seen as part of an effort to rein in the warlords and create a proper central authority.

One might imagine that this was something all the rebels would welcome – unity, after all, should make them stronger. But instead it is being denounced as betrayal. For some of the rebel leaders, the struggle was never about establishing micro-states in Donetsk and Lugansk. It was about waging war against the oligarchic order in Kiev. Their preference is to continue until final victory, which means eventually marching on Kiev and overthrowing the regime there. A notable example of this school of thought is Alexei Mozgovoi, commander of the Prizrak Battalion, who appears to have  a thoroughly socialist agenda allied to some strange ideas about direct ‘people’s democracy’. In his view, the leaders of the DPR and LPR, by seeking peace in order to allow normal life to recover, are guilty of Thermidor – betraying the core values of the revolution in order to cement their own power.

In 2014, war decided the fate of Ukraine. In 2015, it will most likely be the far more prosaic processes of state building which do so. Having determined that a military victory is impossible, Kiev is now pinning its hopes on turning its own territory into a zone of good government and prosperity while blockading the DPR and LPR so that they face economic and social collapse, thereby in the long term convincing the population of Eastern Ukraine to rejoin the rest of the country. Should the leaders of the DPR and LPR succeed in consolidating their republics, this strategy will fail. One suspects, therefore, that in Kiev they are cheering for the Batmans of Eastern Ukraine rather than for the Thermidorians.

Russia, the West, and the world

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