This is an important observation from Timothy Garton Ash the other day on Ukraine:
Russia’s strongman garners tacit support, and even some quiet plaudits, from some of the world’s most important emerging powers, starting with China and India.
What explains that?
What the west faces here is the uncoiling of two giant springs. One, which has been extensively commented upon, is the coiled spring of Mother Russia’s resentment at the way her empire has shrunk over the past 25 years – all the way back from the heart of Germany to the heart of Kievan Rus.
The other is the coiled spring of resentment at centuries of western colonial domination. This takes very different forms in different Brics countries and members of the G20. They certainly don’t all have China’s monolithic, relentless narrative of national humiliation since Britain’s opium wars. But one way or another, they do share a strong and prickly concern for their own sovereignty, a resistance to North Americans and Europeans telling them what is good for them, and a certain instinctive glee, or schadenfreude, at seeing Uncle Sam (not to mention little John Bull) being poked in the eye by that pugnacious Russian. Viva Putinismo!
This is a quite different matter than accusations Obama or the EU have lost credibility. Western elites often fail to grasp other powers take a very different view of events, regardless of our own current actions, and may work to counteract some of our preferred legal and political values. Oh sure, you might say, we know that, it’s obvious in principle …….except the evidence shows we frequently forget it.
For example, consider Merkel’s assertion that Putin has “lost his grip on reality.” It’s not that we misunderstand his view or perceptions or motivations, you see, he’s clearly just gone nuts. Loo-la. With tanks. Or has he? It’s particularly hard for many EU elites to understand, whose entire project for three generations has been to dilute or pool sovereignty.
There’s two lessons: 1) people actually find it extremely hard to see events from different viewpoints, all the more so when they have prior commitments, or confront evidence their own policy hasn’t worked, or when important values and taboos are at stake. There are countless examples of foreign policy crises worsened by miscommunication and wrong assumptions. It happens to the most brilliant statesmen and accomplished leaders. You have to take this into account in crises. Indeed, it’s no different from central bank officials trying to understand bond traders, and vice versa.
To take just a few pieces of evidence, fifty years of work in social psychology since Leon Festinger has shown people have remarkable ability to ignore information which is dissonant with their current view. Phillip Tetlock’s more recent work also shows the most prominent experts are most often hedgehog thinkers who know “one thing” and one perspective -and that the track record of most country experts and intelligence agencies (and markets) on foreign crises is woeful.
It’s not that alternative views are necessarily justified, or right, or moral: but ignoring their existence rarely helps. The most difficult thing to get right in crises is usually not the facts on the ground so much as the prior facts in your head.
2) The international system is just that: a system, with both balancing and amplifying feedback loops. But the human mind has a natural tendency to want to see things in a straightforward, linear way. I’ll come back to issues of system dynamics soon, as another major alternative to the simplistic ideas about decision-making that regularly lead people towards failure.