Tag Archives: Misperception

The Russian Hydra

If you want to understand international affairs but only have time to read one academic article, the one I’d recommend would be Robert Jervis’ “Hypotheses on Misperception,” published in World Politics in 1968. It contains 14 hypotheses about how states misperceive one another, creating many of the problems which endanger international security. None of it is exactly rocket science, but it’s the kind of obvious truth that needs to be said, and then repeated over and over again, because people seem to be unable to take it in.

I give the article to students in my defence policy course so we can discuss things such as “Hypothesis 8 is that there is an overall tendency for decision-makers to see other states as more hostile than they are,” and “Hypothesis 9 states that actors tend to see the behavior of others as more centralized, disciplined, and coordinated than it is.” Obvious stuff, as I said, but it comes in useful when we move on to discuss other matters such as this week’s class topic, which was hybrid warfare.

Long-term readers of this blog will know that I’m not a fan of the concept of hybrid warfare, but as it’s something students of defence policy will hear a lot about I kind of have to discuss it, for which purpose I googled around looking for suitable diagrams to use to explain the idea. In the process, I came across this one that accompanied an interview a couple of years ago with a guy called Mark Voyger who was at one time a special advisor to Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, the former Commanding General of US Army Europe.

Continue reading The Russian Hydra

Crackpot Theory No. 10: We shouldn’t let how Bad guys think affect our actions

Today I revive my crackpot theory series to look at the odd idea that when making policies we shouldn’t take into account the possibility that others might misunderstand what we’re doing. Given that the importance of misperception is well understood in international relations theory, it’s odd that anyone should support this idea. But all too often they do.

For instance, in my last post I criticized Mark Galeotti’s suggestion that Western diplomats join the anti-government protests in Russia. It seems that Galeotti didn’t appreciate my criticism, to the extent that he wrote a full-length response for Johnson’s Russia List. I’m not interested in getting into a big long debate on the issue, but something he said in his response is crucial for understanding what’s wrong about so much Western strategic thinking (or rather lack of strategic thinking) in recent times.

In my post, I pointed out that Western support for protests in Russia would likely play into the Kremlin’s hands by reinforcing the perception that the protests were being orchestrated by the West. In response to this, Galeotti said the following:

To allow fear of how they might be misinterpreted to define our actions would seem as pointless as it is supine.

Nothing could be more totally and absolutely wrong.

I’ve said this before, again and again, but I’m going to have to explain it one more time.

Rational policy making involves choosing a policy objective which in some way benefits you. Good strategy involves using means which help you achieve that objective. Means which don’t serve the objective, or even undermine it, are not compatible with good strategy.

So what affects whether the chosen means help achieve the objective? There are many factors which affect the outcome, but one is how other actors respond. As I explained in a recent post, relationships, including international ones, are an ‘interaction’ (to use Clausewitz’s word). You do something; somebody else responds. The way they respond helps determine the result. Given that the way they respond depends on how they perceive what you are doing, how others are likely to perceive your actions is therefore a critical factor to take into consideration when designing a strategy. If other actors will perceive your chosen policy in a way that induces a response that helps the policy fulfil the chosen objective, then your strategy is sound. If, however, they perceive it in a way that induces a response which makes it impossible for you to fulfil your objective, then your strategy is a bad one, and you ought to change it.

Notice that in this calculation it doesn’t matter whether the other party responds in a way which is rational, moral, or correct in any other way. Their response can be irrational, immoral, and utterly mistaken in every way – but you still have to take it into account, because it is what it is, and you have to deal with the world as it is, not as you would like it to be.

This makes people a little uncomfortable, for it means that they have to surrender some degree of control, and to allow others to have an influence on what they do. When they regard those others as immoral or mistaken, this is a particularly difficult thing to do from a psychological perspective. Why should I be prevented from doing what is right because some slimeball misunderstands the situation and is going to respond in way that thwarts me? That isn’t right. I can’t allow that.

So goes the logic. But it’s wrong. It’s not a matter of you allowing it, or not allowing it. It is the reality. You have to take into account, or your strategy will fail.

This isn’t rocket science. It’s Strategy 101. But for some reason, too many people don’t seem to understand it, and I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard people use the logic above to propose policies which are best doomed to failure and at worst likely to be deeply counterproductive.

Some 20 years ago, for instance, at the start of the Global War on Terror, myself and others argued that the military strategy that the United States and United Kingdom were adopting to fight terrorism would be counterproductive because it would annoy a lot of people, radicalize some of them, and increase not decrease terrorism.

Against this, people responded that we couldn’t allow terrorists to dictate what we did. What we were doing was right. They were wrong, they were evil, they shouldn’t have a say in our policy.

Dumb, dumb, dumb.

The aim of an anti-terrorism policy is not to do what is ‘right’. It’s to reduce terrorism. An anti-terrorism policy which reduces terrorism is a good one; an anti-terrorism policy which increases terrorism is not. It’s that simple. If your chosen anti-terrorism policy will radicalize people into becoming terrorists, it’s therefore a bad policy. So you shouldn’t do things which will radicalize them. Does that mean allowing potential terrorists in some way to dictate what you do? For sure. Does that matter? No. You judge a strategy not by its inputs, but by its outputs, in other words by results. Who is providing inputs into the policy is neither here nor there. What matters is the output, i.e. whether it achieves the relevant objective.

Regrettably, this doesn’t seem to be how those responsible for our security think. Going forward in time, in recent years I’ve repeatedly heard senior NATO officers and officials, as well as NATO advocates, make an argument along these lines:

NATO is a defensive organization. We have no plans to attack Russia. We pose no threat to Russia. Russia should not therefore be alarmed by the deployment of NATO troops in Eastern Europe, and any response it undertakes, such as increasing its own troop deployments, are unjustified. Therefore, since these responses would be unjustified, we don’t need to take them into consideration when deciding our own policy.

Dumb, dumb, and dumberer.

Let’s grant that the NATO guys are right. NATO is entirely defensive, it poses no threat to Russia, and so Russian responses are unjustified. Does that mean that NATO is right to ignore those responses? No, no, and three times no.

Why? The answer is obvious. The point of NATO, and so the point of any NATO strategy, is [or at least should be] to enhance the security of NATO members. If NATO policy makes members less secure by provoking a response from Russia which potentially harms those members, then that policy is mistaken. The fact that the Russian response is based on misperception is neither here nor there. That misperception is a reality that we cannot wish away, anymore than we can wish away the physical response which results from the misperception.

In short, if your policy is likely to be misperceived in ways that are harmful to you, then in objective terms your policy is harmful to you too. You should therefore change it.

Allowing the potential for misperception to define one’s actions would be ‘pointless’ and ‘supine’, says Galeotti. I fear that I’m sounding like a stuck record, but the ‘point’ is to achieve the objective. It is only by allowing for the potential for misperception that the objective can be achieved. Doing so is, therefore, the very opposite of pointless.

Why don’t people get this? I think that the answer is connected to what I said before. They feel that it deprives them, the good guys, of control, and passes control to the others, the bad guys. Galeotti rather gives it away when he complains that taking the potential for misperception into account is ‘supine’. But it’s irrelevant whether a policy is supine or not. International politics isn’t [or shouldn’t be] a test of manly vigour. Give me a policy which is ‘supine’ but gets the job done, or at least doesn’t do any harm, or a policy which is upright and active, but which is harmful, and I tell you that I’ll choose supine every day of the week. And so should everyone else.

Mutual disbelief

A few months ago, the Joint Investigation Team which is examining the 2014 shooting down of Flight MH17 asked Russia to provide evidence about the origins of the anti-aircraft missile used in the attack. Today the Russian Ministry of Defence did just that, producing documents showing that the missile in question (identified by the serial numbers on the missile fragments) had been produced in Soviet Russia and then transferred to an air defence unit in Ukraine in 1986. The implication was that the missile was Ukrainian, and that therefore Ukraine, not Russia or the rebels of the Donetsk People’s Republic, must have been responsible for downing MH17 (assuming that the rebels didn’t capture the missile from the Ukrainian Army, which can’t actually be ruled out).

The immediate reaction of Western journalists was to scoff at the Russians’ claim. For instance, The Daily Telegraph’s Alec Luhn wrote on Twitter, ‘In short, Russia has cited its own documents to claim the missile that downed MH17 was delivered to Ukraine in 1986 and never left.’ Quite where Russia would have gotten documents on the matter other than from Russia is a question Luhn ignores, but his insinuation is clear: Russian documents can’t be trusted, and so this story isn’t worth further investigation. The Financial Times’s Max Seddon was equally dismissive. ‘How convenient for them to have discovered this now, four years after the fact,’ he wrote on Twitter (where the top of his feed continues to show a Tweet saying that ‘Russia’s team is so bad fans are worried they won’t make it out of the World Cup group stage’!). And the Kyiv Post’s Christopher Miller showed a picture of a giggling journalist, and remarked ‘The face of the person in the crowd at the Russian MOD briefing on MH17 tells you all you need to know about the latest desperate attempt to deflect blame for the disaster.’

Western journalists’ rapid dismissal of the Russian documents contrasts with their equally rapid acceptance of documents purporting to be the passport applications of Salisbury poisoning suspects Aleksandr Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov. I have absolutely no idea whether any of these documents are genuine. For all I know, all or none or some of them might be. What concerns me here is what the journalists’ reactions tell us about their biases, namely that as a matter of course they don’t trust anything coming out of the mouth of Russian officials.

My observations of the Russian media show me that the same is true of Russians, albeit the other way round, i.e. they display an almost total distrust of anything said by Westerners. RT editor Margarita Simonyan, who carried out a recent interview with the Salisbury suspects, expressed the sentiment very clearly on the political talk show 60 Minutes the other day. She didn’t have an opinion as to whether Petrov and Boshirov were telling the truth, she said, but what she did know was that Western intelligence agencies had lied about Iraqi WMD and had published a document which named her 27 times as leading an effort to undermine American democracy, something which was completely untrue. Why she should believe anything the West said, she asked? Reading the Russian press, and watching other TV shows, I get the impression that this attitude is fairly widespread.

There are some good reasons for Westerners not to trust the statements of the Russian government (which has, to say the least, been less than transparent and truthful regarding its involvement in the war in Donbass), as well as for Russians not to trust what’s said in the West (where both politicians and journalists have peddled all sorts of nonsense on matters such as Iraqi WMD, Colonel Gaddhafi giving his troops Viagra in order to commit rape, Russian atrocities in Syria (while ignoring the destruction caused by American bombing), and so on). Western commentary on Russia is often so far removed from reality as to appear deranged. The same, sadly, is often true of Russia commentary on the West. My point, therefore, is not to say that one side or other is right or wrong. Rather, it is that we seem to have reached a situation in Russian-Western relations of almost complete mutual disbelief. The perception that the other side is engaging in propaganda and ‘information war’ leads people to instinctively dismiss what it is saying, even when it is well-grounded in fact. That in turn leads them to adopt extreme positions, thereby rendering themselves even less credible in the eyes of the other side. The result is a vicious circle of escalating distrust.

Is there any way out of this mess? As I’ve said before, I’m not optimistic.

Strategy or improvisation? Predictability or unpredictability?

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.

Continue reading Strategy or improvisation? Predictability or unpredictability?

Artificial conflict

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.

Misperception in Russia-West Relations

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Misperception of yourself – people and states tend to view themselves as benign, and also to over-estimate their own capabilities.
  3. 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.