If I had to recommend a single article for foreign policy decision makers to read, it would be Robert Jervis’s 1968 essay ‘Hypotheses on Misperception.’ As I’ve written before, many of the tensions between states derive from misperceptions. People misperceive others; misperceive themselves; and misperceive how they are seen by others. In his article, Jervis hypothesizes 14 misperceptions which are commonly encountered in international politics. Hypothesis number 9 is the following: ‘actors tend to see the behavior of others as more centralized, disciplined, and coordinated than it is.’ Jervis adds that, ‘Further, actors see others as more internally united than they in fact are and generally overestimate the degree to which others are following a coherent policy.’ In my opinion, this is absolutely correct, and we can see a lot of this going on in contemporary analyses of Russia.
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter with a half-million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. . . . This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron. (Dwight D. Eisenhower)
Having been an officer in the armies of two countries, I am perhaps not a natural peacenik. But as I get older, I find myself agreeing more and more with General Smedley Butler, who capped an illustrious military career (twice winning the Medal of Honor) by exclaiming ‘War is a racket.’
I am not a fan of defence spending, military posturing, and military interventions. Most of it is completely unnecessary. In my mind, the most important work on international relations (IR) ever written is Robert Jervis’ article ‘Hypotheses on Misperception’, which was later expanded into a book. Jervis explains how international conflict is often not the result of aggression by one party or the other but of misperception. States see themselves as more benign than they are, and cannot see why other states might regard them as hostile. They therefore perceive those other states as more threatening than they are, and take measures in response, which in turn are seen as threatening by others, encouraging them to take further measures, and so on. IR scholars call this the ‘security dilemma’, and it’s very much IR 101 – something students learn right at the start of their studies. Yet somehow those responsible for security policy rarely seem to grasp it.
At the conference I attended in Copenhagen on Monday, Danish historian Bent Jensen gave an excellent speech in which he described current Russian-Western tensions as ‘artificial’. NATO isn’t going to attack Russia, and Russia isn’t going to attack NATO. In fact, Russia and NATO have common interests in a stable international order, combatting terrorism, and the like. The commonalities of our interests are much greater than the differences. There’s no need for either side to be building up its military forces. Yet the two sides have gotten themselves into a cycle of misperception of potential aggression, which is encouraging further misperception in an increasing spiral.
I agree entirely with Jensen, which is why I find Vladimir Putin’s glorification of Russia’s military prowess in his address to the Federal Assembly on Thursday so regrettable. As Jervis points out, one significant problem in international relations is that the messages that state leaders think they are sending are often misperceived. The sender thinks he’s saying one thing, but the receiver hears something completely different. In his speech, Putin described a series of weapons Russia has developed in response to America’s deployment of anti-ballistic missile systems. A significant percentage of his speech (nearly 50%) was devoted to this matter. Outlining Russia’s advanced strategic weapons capabilities, Putin said:
We are not threatening anyone, not going to attack anyone or take away anything from anyone with the threat of weapons. We do not need anything. Just the opposite. … to those who in the past 15 years have tried to accelerate an arms race and seek unilateral advantage against Russia … I will say this: everything you have tried to prevent through such a policy has already happened. No one has managed to restrain Russia.
From this, it’s clear to me what message Putin thinks he’s sending: Russia’s actions are defensive, prompted by previous actions of the United States; the purpose is to deter attack, not to attack anybody; and the USA should stop trying to push Russia around.
Unfortunately, I very much doubt that that is the message that will be received. However much Putin says that Russia is not threatening anybody, his statements will be interpreted as threatening. For instance, National Public Radio in the United States cites the RAND Corporation’s Edward Geist, and says, ‘Geist says he expects Russia’s provocations to continue. “They’re sending us a message that they are not OK with our U.S. missile defense posture,” he says. That message? “They’re willing to go full Strangelove on us,” Geist says.’
Putin himself has twice quoted Otto von Bismarck as saying that one should not pay any attention to intentions, only to capabilities. Military planners in the United States will no doubt take the same line, point to Russia’s new capabilities, and demand even more funds to develop even more advanced weapons themselves in response. Rather than persuading America to back off, Putin’s speech is likely to confirm American suspicions that Russia is a rising threat and so to only strengthen the hand of the hawks in Washington. Russia is unlikely to benefit.
Elsewhere in his speech, Putin remarked that, ‘The main threat and our main enemy is the fact that we are falling behind.’ For the past 10 years, the Russian economy has stagnated, enduring two recessions. As Putin said, ‘Today, 20 million Russian nationals live in poverty.’ He also noted that Russian life expectancy, while improving, ‘is not just low, it is a tragedy.’ It’s hard to see how grandiose defence projects contribute to improving these problems. Putin remarked that health spending should increase from 4 to 5% of GDP. The global average is about 10%. Boasting of nuclear-powered cruise missiles while neglecting basic services in such a manner strikes me as indicative of a distorted set of priorities.
A couple of weeks ago, a student asked me what I thought of the Trump administration’s decision to massively increase defence spending. I replied that I didn’t normally consider it my job to foist my opinions on my students but, as I’d been asked, I thought it was ‘insane’. A few years ago, I wrote a book chapter calling for cuts of around 40% in British defence spending, and to be honest I was being deliberately restrained so as not to seem too extreme. I say all this just to make it clear that I’m not picking on Russia in this regard. Putin’s speech is part of a larger problem. But that doesn’t make it any better. Back in the 1990s, we looked forward to enjoying a ‘peace dividend’. Now, the world seems to be going in the opposite direction. It is deeply saddening. It is also entirely unnecessary.
This week in my class on ‘Irrationality and Foreign Policy Decision Making’, we shall be examining the topic of misperception, on the grounds that it is the cause of many seemingly irrational decisions. We will look at:
- Misperceptions of others – this can take many forms, but states are particularly prone to misperceiving other states’ intentions, for instance seeing aggressive intent where none is present.
- Misperception of yourself – people and states tend to view themselves as benign, and also to over-estimate their own capabilities.
- Misperception of how other people perceive you – because you consider yourself to be benign, you may have great difficulty in believing that other people could view you and your actions differently.
It is worth noting that all three sorts of misperception are connected. You believe that what you are doing is a good thing, done for good reasons, even though in reality you may be doing harm (type #2 above). You believe that everybody else must understand that your motives are good (type #3). So, if they are doing things you don’t like, it is not because they are reacting to your actions, but because they are malevolent (type #1).
Let us see how this plays out in reality:
The West perceives a threat from Iran, and believes that Iran is building nuclear weapons and missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. This is the first misperception. Iran isn’t building such weapons and certainly doesn’t have the means, let alone the intention, of nuking Europe. But the West has become paranoid about Iran, so the West believes that it is and does. The West, therefore also believes that it must do something to defend itself from this threat, which means building a missile defence shield in Europe.
The Russians look at this, and are perplexed. They know that the Iranian nuclear missile threat doesn’t exist, so they don’t believe the West when it says that the missile defence shield is to guard against Iran. But at this point, the Russians add a mistake of their own. They assume that Western leaders are rational actors, who wouldn’t be spending billions of dollars building a shield against a threat which doesn’t exist. Therefore, they conclude that the shield must be directed against Russia. This is the second misperception, and it leads to the Russians getting angry with the West.
The West then gets angry too. It knows that its intentions are defensive. It therefore believes that the Russians must know that too. This is the third misperception. The result is that the West doesn’t take seriously the Russian complaints. Relations between the two sides deteriorate still further.
We can see the same dynamic at work in other examples. NATO views itself as a ‘force for good’, and cannot see that on occasion it has acted aggressively (e.g. in Kosovo and Libya). It misperceives itself. Russia then misperceives NATO, fearing that NATO’s actions in those places could be indicative of aggressive intent against Russia. In reality, NATO has no intention of attacking Russia, but Russians are not so sure of that. Then NATO can’t understand how Russia feels. If Russia is against NATO expansion, that can’t be because of genuine fears about NATO, so it must be because of Russia’s own imperialist agenda in the countries of the former Soviet Union.
Russia, meanwhile, perceives the annexation of Crimea as righting a historical wrong. It knows that it has no desire to annex parts of the Baltic States, so why should they worry? If NATO sends more troops to the Baltics, that must be part of NATO’s plans to undermine Russia, not a product of anything Russia has done.
In these situations there is no real, underlying reason for those involved to be at loggerheads. It is hard to know how to overcome this problem, but the solution perhaps lies in understanding it for what it is: a problem of misperception, not one of deeply incompatible interests.