Tag Archives: Rationality

Selection and maintenance of the aim

Strategy, Clausewitz said, is about applying means to achieve ends. It follows that good strategy requires one first to select sensible and achievable ends, and second to ensure that one actually apply one’s resources in such a way as to advance towards those ends. This is what one might call ‘instrumental rationality’. Selecting objectives which don’t benefit you, or deliberately acting in a way which undermines your own objectives, is not instrumentally rational.

For good reason, therefore, the first ‘principle of war’ as taught to British and Canadian military officers is ‘selection and maintenance of the aim’. Pick a bad aim, or fail to maintain a good aim and instead get sidetracked into pursuing something else, and failure will almost certainly ensue.

This is pretty obvious stuff, but what is remarkable is how bad Western leaders are at putting it into practice.

Take, for instance, the so-called ‘War on Terror’. This began in 2001 with an invasion of Afghanistan designed to destroy Al-Qaeda. Having occupied Afghanistan, however, the Americans and their allies decided to shift focus to rebuilding the country, and so became involved in the longest war in American history, fighting an enemy (the Taleban) who don’t pose an obvious threat to the American homeland.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, in 2003, the UK and USA got further distracted and decided to invade Iraq, on the dubious grounds that there was a link between Iraq and Al-Qaeda and that Saddam Hussein might provide Al-Qaeda with weapons of mass destruction. Once Iraq had been defeated, the Anglo-American alliance found itself fighting yet another insurgency. This involved not just Iraq’s Sunni minority, but also its Shia majority, which received support from Iran. Attention therefore now shifted yet again, with Iran being seen as the enemy no. 1. Commentators began stirring up fears of the ‘Shia Crescent’, stretching from Iran through Iraq and into Syria. American security was now associated with defeating those who made up this crescent. This meant undermining Iran and toppling the Assad regime in Syria. In this way, a war on terror originally designed to fight Sunni terrorists morphed into a war against Shia states.

The Arab Spring in 2011 then added yet another objective – democratizing the Middle East. Now the aim became toppling dictatorial regimes wherever they might be, in order to give a boost to the wave of democracy allegedly sweeping the region. Thus, NATO bombed Libya to ensure the overthrow of Colonel Gaddhafi. This, of course, then enabled Al-Qaeda to spread its influence in north Africa, most notably in Mali.

In short, Western states, especially the USA and UK, have changed the aims of their policies in the ‘war on terror’ multiple times over the past 16 years. And they are changing them backwards and forwards as I write. One day, their focus is on toppling Assad in Syria; the next, it’s defeating ISIS; then it’s back to toppling Assad again. It is no wonder that the Brits and the Americans have made such a hash of things. They are incapable of keeping their eye on the ball. They have no strategy worthy of the name.

The problem derives from their inability to choose achievable objectives in the first place. As they fail to reach each objective, they feel obliged to change their target in an effort to avoid admitting defeat.

This fundamental lack of realism can be seen in the Anglo-American approach to Russia, which is based on the assumption that Russia can be coerced into changing its policies in Ukraine and Syria. Boris Johnson’s efforts this week to drum up support for additional sanctions against Russia are a case in point. Yet to date, the policy of coercion has achieved no success, and there is no reason to believe that it will be any more successful in the future. Russia just isn’t going to abandon Donbass or Assad. It’s not going to happen. Wishing it won’t make it so. Boris can demand regime change in Syria all he wants, but he’s not going to achieve it. Regardless of whether it is desirable, by selecting this goal, he is dooming himself to failure.

So why do Western states persist in selecting unachievable objectives, in putting so much stock in what they would desire as opposed to what they can actually do? The answer, I think, is that they seem to be unwilling to admit that the days of their hegemony are over and that they are not the bearers of universal moral truth. Despite all the overwhelming evidence that they are not able to mould the world to their wishes, they fear the consequences of admitting this more than they fear the consequences of trying and failing. That is because the costs of the latter are borne by their publics and by the people at the receiving end of their interventions, but the former are borne by the politicians in the form of a humiliating reduction in prestige. Unsurprisingly, the politicians choose to transfer the costs onto others, aided and abetted by the media and the military-industrial complex, which have similarly invested in current policies and wish to avoid the backlash which an admission of failure would involve.

Things will only get better when our leaders start selecting sensible aims. When they do so, they will find that they can actually maintain these aims, and so achieve success. But that will only happen when the illusions of military hegemony and moral superiority vanish. Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening any time soon, due to the psychological distress and political damage it would cause. Alas, therefore, I see no obvious way out of this mess for some time to come.

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.