Tag Archives: psychology of risk

The paradox of power and fear

Diplomat Magazine, which is produced here in Ottawa, has just published its latest edition, which includes several articles on the subject of Russia. One of these, on ‘Repairing Canada-Russia Relations’, is written by me. You can read it here. In addition, there are articles by the Royal Military College’s Pierre Jolicoeur and Carleton University’s Stephen Saideman. It’s the last of these, entitled ‘Trump and Putin: a troubling high stakes relationship’ which I want to talk about here.

Saideman’s article is in many respects a fairly typical piece of Russia scaremongering, although it seems a little out of date already following Donald Trump’s decision to bomb Syria, the regular denunciations of Russia by the US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, and the apparent lack of achievements from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Moscow. Writing before any of that happened, Saideman claims that:

Trump’s admiration of Putin … is revolutionary. This relationship raises doubts about the future of NATO. … Simply put, Trump’s relationship with Putin puts a great deal of the post-Second World War order at risk. Trump’s stances on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the European Union and Ukraine all present grave threats. The risks in the years ahead are mighty high.

‘The future of NATO is at stake’, Saideman continues, ‘the alliance truly is in danger.’ The Baltic States don’t know if NATO will come to their defence if attacked by Russia, and ‘If Putin were to trigger a crisis and the United States does not act as it has promised for 70 years, the alliance might well fall apart.’ One might wonder why Russia would suddenly attack Latvia, but Saideman warns that that is exactly the sort of thing that aggressive states do when they spot weakness: ‘One of the basic findings in the study of war is that wars occur when there is uncertainty about alliances.’ With Putin currently carrying out ‘an assault on the European Union’, the situation is rife with danger. Unless we stand firm, Saideman implies, NATO, the EU, and the entire international system will come crashing down.

Such doom-laden predictions are pretty common nowadays. But they are not very accurate. They assume that the Western world is some paper tiger, held together by only the tiniest thread, and that it requires only the slightest push from a weak outside power for it to disintegrate entirely. This is a rather bizarre description of the strongest and wealthiest countries in the world, which have maintained the same collective institutions for many decades in the face of threats far greater than modern Russia.

To give just a brief view of the relative power of NATO and Russia, here is a chart showing their comparative defence spending as a share of the global total:

global defence spending

As you can see, NATO has nothing to fear from Russia militarily. It also has nothing to fear economically. The wealth of the United States and Western Europe is far greater than that of Russia. Compared to the West, Russia is a minnow.

The question I want to ask, then, is why the Saidemans of the world are so scared of it.

The answer, I think, lies in the realm of the moral rather than the physical. Two psychological processes are at play. The first relates to matters of honour; the second to issues of psychological reassurance.

As far as the first is concerned, in his 2011 book Why Nations Fight, Richard Ned Lebow examined the causes of all the wars fought in the modern era and determined that the most common reason for war was what he termed ‘standing’ – in other words, wars were not primarily about material resources, territory, security, or so on, but rather about relative status. This certainly fits with my own findings, as laid out in my book Military Honour and the Conduct of War.  To a quite surprising extent, international relations is about questions of honour. What spurs politicians into action is concerns about status, prestige, credibility, and the various virtues on which they think that their honour depends – strength, resolve and the like.

This is especially true of powerful states and alliances. In the eyes of the doom-mongers, NATO has no will. It is morally weak. As such it risks losing status and credibility, and once it loses those, it will surely collapse.

A key to understanding this dynamic can be found in Desmond Morris’s 1969 classic The Human Zoo. In chapter 2 of this book, entitled ‘Status and Super Status’, Morris describes how alpha baboons have to behave if they want to maintain their dominant status. The problem these baboons face is that their number one position is always under threat. Their position is inherently unstable, and they can only go down. As a result, they have to be hypervigilant. Any threat must be stamped on with utmost violence to deter others. But not only actual threats – even the mere threat of a threat, the slightest hint of imagined rebellion, must be met with an aggressive reaction.

Paradoxically, therefore, the stronger one is, the more afraid one is too. The dominant baboon believes that his position rests upon his prestige and his credibility and so is perpetually on guard to threats to his honour. He cannot rest. He must always be afraid. And so he inevitably exaggerates the threats around him. The United States, and its NATO allies, may be compared with Morris’s dominant baboons. Their very dominance makes them paranoid. This is why Saideman and co. are so scared.

Studies of the psychology of risk point to a second factor. According to such studies, humans evolved to be afraid of the dangers which lurked in their natural habitat. They expect danger, and so when they can’t identify it, they get very twitchy. Their instincts tell them that there must a danger there somewhere, and the fact that they can’t spot it is a matter of deep concern. They don’t know what to do. Finding a threat is thus reassuring. For once the threat has been found, they can work out a plan for dealing with it. They have target for their action.

Again, therefore, we confront a paradox. Being strong makes one safe. But safety makes one paranoid. By contrast, having an enemy actually makes one feel better. And this is the West’s current problem. By historical standards, it is remarkably safe. It hasn’t fought any major internal wars for 70 years. Terrorism in the West is near an all-time low. NATO enjoys military and economic dominance. And yet, many can’t help feeling that it’s all about to come crashing down. And because they feel that way, they feel also a need to identify the threat which will cause the collapse, so that they can come up with a plan to do something about it.

And that, in brief, is why Russophobia is enjoying such a comeback. It gives the West an enemy. And by giving it an enemy, it also, strangely enough, gives it a sense of reassurance, allowing it to flex its muscles and so feel that its status is safe, at least for now.

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