Maybe you have been watching western policy towards Ukraine over the last year or so in stunned disbelief, and you have asked yourself from time to time questions like: They can see it’s not working, why do they carry on like that? Why don’t they accept the obvious? Why don’t they at least try something different? You will not have been alone. So it’s hardly surprising that the Internet, in search of any old explanation, abounds with conspiracy theories of Europeans blackmailed by Washington or whatever. In fact, what we’re seeing here happens in a lot of political crises. I call it the Inertia Theory of Politics, and it often encourages states and alliances to keep doing stupid things, because they can’t agree collectively on something less stupid instead.
You would have thought that by now that western political leaderships would have begun to have just a few, tiny, doubts, about the utility of their confrontational policy towards Russia, especially since the latter’s intervention in Ukraine. There are complicating factors, of course: for the European ruling class, as I have explained, this is a Holy War against the anti-Europe to the East. For many smaller nations, with few or no independent sources of information and little influence, there’s little alternative to going along with what larger states want. Likewise, some states are mainly driven by historic anti-Slav racialism. (I don’t pretend to understand quite what’s going on in Washington.) But you would still have thought doubts were creeping in by now: after all, the Europeans did eventually discontinue the Crusades when it became clear that the Holy Land would never be liberated from the Arab invaders.
But as I’ve suggested, this pattern is very common in international crises, and I’ll give a few past examples in a moment. The Inertia Theory of Politics states that political institutions and groupings will always continue with their existing policies unless sufficient counter-force is brought to bear to make them change. Think of a policy as an object moving in free space. It will continue on its way until some other force affects it. The faster the velocity and the greater the mass, the more force has to be brought to bear to do that. Importantly, this implies that the actual content of the policy, whether it is sensible, well-founded or even practicable, is not important. What counts is the accumulated inertia of the policy: how much support it has, how long it has been in force and how determined that support is. In the case of Ukraine (and it’s not unique) the forces that have been acting on the policy have actually increased its mass and velocity in the same direction. (This has a relationship to the theories of Jacques Ellul, whom I’ve discussed before, and who argued that what he called technique consists of processes which we think we develop because they are useful to us, but wind up controlling us in the end.)
Why is this? Well, politics is essentially about compromises and shared interests. Whenever more than one nation is involved, a compromise of some sort is required, because, by definition, the objectives and situations of two countries can never be identical. As you increase the number of countries arithmetically, you increase the relations between them geometrically. This means that any collective policy is a bit like an iceberg: you see the public part, which is the consensus, often painfully arrived at, but you don’t see the much larger private mass of reservations, bad-tempered accommodations, sordid back-room deals, exceptions and special treatment demanded, concealed resistance, and lots of other things. It’s quite normal for a consensus to be complex and fragile, and that’s OK so long as everyone is going in the same direction. But what happens when you find yourself in a position where you need to change something?
Think of a classic example: NATO at the end of the Cold War. NATO’s entire public justification had been the Soviet Threat, which had just disappeared. So it was time to close up shop, then? Well, as I’ve pointed out before, there were various unspoken but important advantages in NATO for a whole range of countries, and correspondingly there were real concerns about what might happen within Western Europe if it suddenly vanished. But in any event, NATO couldn’t suddenly vanish, because its members had signed, individually and as a bloc, the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty, which effectively required NATO to administer half of it. Very well, then, but what about the future? Well, there were two basic problems. One was the hysterical pace of events at the time and the sheer proliferation of problems. As well as the end of the Cold War itself, the end of the Warsaw Pact and the fall of the Soviet Union, the Unification of Germany and the small problem of what to do with Soviet nuclear weapons outside the new Russia, there were trivia like the First Gulf War and its aftermath, and (for the Europeans) the Maastricht Political and Monetary Union Treaties, as well as the usual host of transient problems which claimed the attentions of western governments twenty-five hours a day. Even clearing some space in the minds of governments to begin thinking about the future of NATO would have been a herculean effort.
The second problem was that there were no alternatives. Or rather, there were an almost infinite number, with no way of judging between them. Closing NATO meant more than selling off an office building in Brussels. There was an entire military and political infrastructure with institutions all over the place, a legal regime under which foreign forces were stationed in Germany and a command system that included, for example, subordination of all German forces to direct NATO (and thus US) command: not everybody in Europe was happy about re-nationalising defence. Just dealing with that would have been an administrative and political nightmare consuming years of effort. And what would replace it? There were calls at the time for NATO to be replaced by the newly rebranded OSCE, but that would have been the equivalent of replacing your family car with a microlight aircraft. I never spoke to anyone who had the remotest idea how the OSCE option might work in practice.
It wasn’t just the inherent complexity of the problem, and the inertia of the past, and not only the sheer mass and complexity of other issues either, that eventually killed the idea: it was that nobody could actually articulate what the alternative was and how it was supposed to work, and there was zero chance of getting collective agreement to an alternative even if it was identified. So, whilst NATO did undergo enormous internal changes over time, it continued to exist because of a lack of any agreed alternative.
This applies to policies and ideas as well as institutions. If you were to make a list of really, really, bad and failed policies adopted to bring pressure on states, then economic sanctions would be close to the top of anyone’s list. This has been so pretty much since the beginning. Of course naval blockades had been part of war for a long time, but what was new was the idea, first promulgated at the 1919 Versailles negotiations, that sanctions could be a substitute for war, a way of putting pressure on states without the use of force. In effect, in true Liberal fashion, it took coercion out of the hands of the military, and put it into the hands of lawyers and commercial experts operating from detailed rules.
It’s hard to think of a case where sanctions can be said to have “worked” in the sense their originators intended. In most cases (South Africa under apartheid is a good example) what they actually did was simply to incite governments and the private sector to find creative alternatives for anything strategic, while inflicting hardship on ordinary people. A decade later, sanctions against the Former Yugoslavia destroyed the Serbian economy, and handed over effective control of the country to organised crime. Clever, that. (Indeed, one of the inevitable consequences of sanctions of any kind is that those with money and connections will be largely unaffected while ordinary people suffer.)
And yet, sanctions are still used today probably more than at any time in history. Why? Well, it all depends on your definition of “success.” Governments, and even more groups of states, seldom have the luxury of sitting out problems. The media and the NGO-Industrial Complex are well aware that their incessant demands to “do something” will be well received by the public, as well as conferring moral superiority on those who do the demanding. So whenever a crisis happens in the world, a group of weary national representatives will be assembled to produce proposals to “do something.” I exaggerate only slightly when I say that the discussion often goes as follows:
We must do something.
This is something.
OK, let’s do it.
After which, the group of states, international organisation or whatever, can declare success on the basis that it has done something, and not “stood by” idly as terrible things may or may not be happening. This may sound cynical, but it’s actually not. The reality is that outside actors have a lot less ability to positively influence crises than is popularly believed, but that there are many powerful forces in politics and the media who have a strong interest in pretending the opposite. Thus, it’s actually politically better to do something pointless and even counter-productive than to do nothing at all. It’s not simply that if all you have is a hammer every problem looks like a nail. It’s rather that if all you have is a book on how to cure problems by hammering nails in, and no-one will allow you to try any other method of problem-solving, then all of your initiatives will have to involve hammers, and working groups will be beavering away designing better hammers and more effective hammering techniques.
Moreover, there’s an obvious advantage, especially in crises, in doing something you have done before, and know how to do. There may not be the time, there certainly won’t be much inclination, to look for new and innovative reactions to crises. Decisions need to be made and announced quickly, and implemented as soon as possible. They also have to be widely understood and widely acceptable. And finally, by a well-known piece of psychological auto-suggestion, we assume that things that we know how to do will necessarily be effective, and that if they don’t seem to be working well, give them time, and if they’re still not working, then we just need to try harder. A frank admission that sanctions had not worked in Ukraine, for example, would not just mean that a particular policy had failed, it would entail an admission that the West had no effective economic levers over Russia. Similarly, an admission that western arms deliveries to Ukraine had served only to prolong the war, but could not win it, would entail an admission that a whole series of policy decisions over several years were wrong and misguided, and that there is nothing the West can do but delay the inevitable.
Admissions like this, which would impact very large numbers of people in many governments, are extracted about as easily as teeth are, and with about as much enthusiasm. And then they leave one fundamental question: what do we do now instead? The inertia I have described earlier, which increases as the crisis goes on, with fierce public statements (“We will never …” “Under no circumstances…” “We will always…”) that somehow have to be dropped into a memory hole, means that the time is never really right for a fundamental re-evaluation of the situation. After all, things might not be as bad as they seem, and who knows what might happen tomorrow, or next week? So we’ll continue the present policy at the next meeting, and the one after that, and the one after that, while keeping our fingers crossed and whistling in the dark.
Because what’s the alternative? With something like thirty different governments involved, what are the chances of quickly agreeing an effective alternative strategy? They are so close to zero as not to be worth measuring. Now, if, for example, the US were to come up with a sensible new strategy which it discussed informally with close allies first, and with the EU and NATO, and then presented at some international conference, there is a reasonable chance that western policy could move off in a new and more reasonable direction. But that kind of thing doesn’t happen any more, not least because Washington is hopelessly divided on the issue and many of the decision-makers seem to be living in a parallel universe. Given the massive disparity of interests and views between states, and the total lack of alternative solutions, we are likely to see a rather nasty car-crash before the end of the year. A more enlightened and less excitable group of states would be working on contingency plans now, but I see no sign of that. The best that the West can hope for is that all nations will agree to an enormous PR operation designed to convince western publics that defeat is in fact a victory if you change the criteria for victory. But whether that will be acceptable to, say, the Polish nationalists is another question.
Like sanctions, another good-old standby is air power. Since the beginning of military aviation, it’s been clear that there are advantages in being able to strike an opponent who can’t hit back. Although the early popular literature on the subject was shrill and apocalyptic in tone, the actual experience of using air power in the Second World War was, at a minimum, disappointing. The fact remained, though, that it had political advantages, notably in that it was not necessary to risk the lives of your own personnel. Moreover, the mythology of the modern use of air power (in Iraq in 1990-91 for example) was sufficiently strong that many in the West believed that the mere threat of the use of western air power would be sufficient to resolve crises.
Thus, when western powers were desperate to bring about the fall of Slobodan Milosevic in the late 1990s, seeing him as the main obstacle to the establishment of a regime of peace and security in the Balkans, threats of military action were explored as a way of humiliating his government, and ensuring that he lost the Presidential Elections in 2000. A small but nasty insurgency had broken out in Kosovo after 1996, and NATO developed the idea of threatening Serbia with military action unless that province was handed over to international (in practice western) control. However, since the use of ground troops would entail casualties, and was thus unthinkable, the only possible military threat was the use of air power. It was generally assumed that the threat alone of bombing would be enough to force the Serbian government to climb down, hand over Kosovo, and so deliver control of the country to “pro-western moderates” in the next elections. The more sceptical, minority, view was that a couple of days of symbolic bombardment might be necessary. To the surprise and consternation of the NATO authorities, an entire air war actually started, and lasted for three months. It was very largely ineffective, not least because of targeting restrictions: aircraft only flew at night, to avoid casualties, and could not bomb through cloud because they could not be sure of their targets. If you’ve been in that part of the world you know what the weather is like in the Spring, and on many occasions the aircraft returned without having launched their weapons.
What nobody had realised was that Yugoslavia had spent forty years preparing and exercising for an air-land invasion by the Soviet Union, and had made extensive preparations to survive it. The vast majority of the targets hit by NATO were decoys, and it turned out that, for example, there was an entire military air base hidden under Pristina Airport of which NATO had been unaware. Serb forces eventually withdrew in good order after Russia came to NATO’s rescue, by putting political pressure on the Serb government to give way. Had that not happened, NATO would have had to seriously contemplate a land invasion, which would probably have destroyed what remained of the fragile solidarity within NATO itself.
So it might be thought that after that discouraging experience, the idea of using air power alone to resolve crises would have become less attractive. But no, because air power continued to have the advantage of being essentially casualty-free from the point of view of the West, because it was something we knew how to do, and because the West generally enjoyed total air dominance, it became enshrined as policy. Yet Libya in 2011 and Syria subsequently, showed that air power on its own could not actually achieve very much: when the Russians intervened decisively in Syria, it was by using tactical air power in support of ground forces. So it was unsurprising, if disappointing, that as soon as the conflict in Ukraine broke out, the usual voices were calling for that magical construction a No-Fly Zone, unaware that there was one already, and that it was being enforced by the Russians, not with aircraft but with missiles. Indeed, one of the many consequences of the Ukraine crisis has been the dawning realisation that not just the use of air power, but all of the tried and traditional (if ineffective) methods of intervention favoured by the West don’t actually work against a powerful opponent who’s prepared to hit you back.
It’s hard to explain why these failures have not yet led to policy changes without delving into a bit more political psychology. One major component is the Sunk Costs fallacy: the same fallacy that means you stay in a cinema and watch the end of a film you are disappointed in, because you’ve already paid for the ticket. Briefly, in politics, the longer a policy has been in effect, then, irrespective of its success or failure, the more psychologically difficult it is for those who originated it to accept that it has failed or needs changing, because their individual and collective egos are tied up in it. So in the case of Russia, the ego, self-esteem and sense of moral entitlement of western political elites require that the sanctions and arms deliveries be continued, irrespective of their practical consequences. It’s already clear that, at the end of this gruesome episode, no politician is going to say “we were wrong.” Some clever people will be sent off to draft a statement along the lines of “whilst sanctions were not ultimately as successful as originally hoped in certain areas, they helped to bring an end to the war earlier and on more acceptable terms than would otherwise have been the case, and provided a concrete demonstration of the willingness of western nations to stand up to aggression” or something like that.
A second is the institutional refusal to learn from experience, because experience might teach the wrong lessons. This is pervasive across the whole field of western crisis-response mechanisms and is, of course, a feature of Liberalism, whose ideas cannot fail, they can only be failed. This doesn’t mean that institutions like the UN and the EU have no “lessons learned” capability (though these days the more modest “lessons identified” is the term generally used.) But the weight of political inertia, the egoic investment and the inherently self-satisfied nature of Liberal thinking ensure that these “lessons” are, in the end, highly technical and procedural. So for example it is almost universal for “lessons identified” reports to identify the need for “better coordination” among international actors, which just as universally never actually happens. The whole apparatus of western post-conflict interventions (peacekeeping forces, inclusive national dialogues, early elections, disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration, reform of the security sector, combining different forces into a new national army, criminal courts, truth and reconciliation commissions, and many others) is a hotchpotch of different and often conflicting ideas originating from different donor communities, linked only by a vaguely Liberal understanding of questions of war and peace. There is active resistance to any kind of independent evaluation of the success of such ideas, in case you get the wrong answer.
And after drafting that paragraph, I noticed from my RSS feed that another hastily-organised, western-sponsored scheme to reform the security sector had broken down and led to renewed violence, this time in Sudan, where a rushed and ill-advised effort to merge the Army with an opposition paramilitary group has led to renewed conflict. This kind of initiative has been going on for thirty years now, and only ever works (as it did in South Africa) where special conditions apply. It’s not just that some people can’t learn, it’s that they are actively resistant to learning.
Or take elections. Liberal political theory sees elections as a form of competition between professional teams to present the best formula for running the country, after which one will be awarded an exclusive contract. Thus, whatever the question may be, elections are the answer, since at that point the international community can hand over the problem to locals who will have the legitimacy that elections automatically confer, and go home. The fact that elections after conflict are usually divisive, that they may lay bare and exacerbate the tensions that caused the conflict in the first place, and that they are usually fought on local, ethnic and cultural divides, are things that the Liberal concept of politics cannot accommodate, and which therefore do not exist. Problems caused by elections are thus dismissed as the result of “spoilers” and “troublemakers” who will not accept the democratically expressed will of the people. It seems incomprehensible, for example, that after thirty years the West is still trying to achieve peace in Bosnia through elections. The western fantasy of a unitary “multi-ethnic” state with “multi-ethnic” political parties run by western-style politicians arguably had a lot to do with unleashing the conflict in the first place, and has been the impossible dream to which many things have had to be sacrificed ever since. The labyrinthine complexity of the political system that emerged from the Bosnian war, with its many different hierarchies of voting, could be said to be a test to destruction of the belief that elections promote stability: in all of human history, never have so few been required to vote so much, so many times, for so little result. The problem was that the voters kept giving the wrong answer, so it was necessary to make them vote again. As much as anything else, this resulted from the lack of obvious political alternatives: it is apparently true that when a high official from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe was asked why his organisation was incessantly organising elections in Bosnia, he replied “well, it’s what we know how to do.”
Or finally take peacekeeping: or “peace support operations” or “peace operations” or even “peace enforcement” depending on who you talk to. This comes ultimately from the belief that the mere fact of sending a military force into a conflict area will stabilise the situation. In practice, the force either becomes a hostage, or simply freezes the conflict, and allows it to continue for longer than would otherwise have been the case. Narrowly-focused missions with precise mandates (as with UNTAG in Namibia) can work, but the tendency to have massive expectations and ambitious mandates together with inadequate resources, means that most of them fail, often badly, sometimes becoming part of the problem. The classic was, of course, UNPROFOR in Bosnia, where shrill demands to “do something”, burgeoning humanitarian militarism, and a total ignorance of the basics of the problem, led to the deployment of a force incapable of fulfilling an ambitious, ambiguous and ever-changing mandate. Most importantly the Force was overmatched by the local combatants: even at its notional maximum of 20,000 personnel, only perhaps ten per cent of the Force could be used on operations, and most nations refused to allow their troops to get into combat or be put in danger. At least in the case of peacekeeping, there was a serious attempt to learn lessons, in the shape of the Brahimi report, and it’s a shame that that report didn’t have more practical influence. “Peace” missions continue to proliferate around the world today .
It may be that one of the many unexpected byproducts of the Ukraine shambles will be the brutal realisation that the whole western way of thinking about problems of peace and security, driven as it is by a priori Liberal assumptions, is not only completely irrelevant to Ukraine, but stands no chance of being allowed to play a role anyway. The “toolbox” for conflict resolution that the West likes to talk about, of which I gave some examples above, and the three-volume constantly updated manual on hammering techniques, will simply not be featured. Even now, there is a curious, naive, supposition in some quarters that the end of the fighting in Ukraine will lead to the standard menu of western measures being deployed. There will be a peace conference to which the US and Europe, NATO and the EU will invite themselves, there will be a UN Special Representative to chair the conference, there will be arrangements for troop withdrawals, demobilisation of the militias of the Russian separatists, confidence building measures trials and truth commissions, a UN Mission in the country to promote this and that, the OECD will organise free and fair elections, an international force under the UN or the EU will retrain the Ukrainian Armed Forces …. And why, pray, should the Russians agree to any of that?
The combination of political inertia and an unquestioned set of normative a priori assumptions about peace and conflict, between them explain why the West appears to be hurtling forward on a suicidal trajectory that shows no signs of stopping, or even slowing down, in spite of the fact that disaster is clearly visible up ahead. If you are the Foreign Minister of a medium-sized country, then you probably hear ten times a day that “sanctions are working,” you read that “sanctions are working” in the media, and your own briefing notes tell you to reassure others that “sanctions are working,” and after a while you come to accept that sanctions are working. If they are not working, if the whole western approach to Ukraine seems to be falling apart, then an existential hole would be opening under your feet. Besides, what could you possible say ? What other options are even possible?
In the end, many political collapses are intellectual rather than practical and institutional in origin. The French and Russian revolutions happened ultimately because the traditional power structures were intellectually incapable of imagining some modification of the political system and some compromise with its challengers. The accumulated political inertia of hundreds of years of absolute monarchy was such that the systems were effectively paralysed as disaster loomed in from of them. Something similar looks to have happened when the Soviet Union itself collapsed in 1991: the possibility of reform was there, but those in charge did not understand how to manage a political transition outside the very narrow intellectual framework that political inertia had left them, and the result, when it came, was brutal and violent.
I don’t think we’re headed for something as bad as that in the West today. But the Liberal train, which famously has no brakes and no reverse gear, and which has accumulated unprecedented political inertia over the last generation, is about to smash into the barriers, and the result, I suspect, will be a kind of mass political nervous breakdown on the part of the governing class. And as they scramble dazedly out of the wreckage, they will start to recognise one simple, sickening truth. The Russians have a bloody great big hammer.
Did I miss the part about not changing course because it has been ever so profitable for some parties?
This is a very thoughtful piece that seems to link political incentives with individual psychology to explain the current failure of western policies.
The inertia that you talk about has some similarity to the corporate world, that I am more familiar with. Companies of all sizes have an amazing inability to change how they operate too. The tendency is always to keep doing the same things. This is great when conditions are conducive to the recipe that made them successful in the first place. All companies, even successful ones, make multitudes of mistakes and when you work with them you typically wonder just why they are successful! Usually, they happen to have an environment that is favourable and can get away with a large amount of incompetence. But this breaks down if the environment changes. They then generally struggle to adapt for similar reasons to the ones you give. But they always claim that they can change and often even understand that they need to intellectually. It is just that change is so painful. Even with a top down CEO who gets it.
I think the west is in a similar situation. For the past thirty years the US specifically has had her unipolar moment and more broadly the wider west has dominated for the past three centuries or so. We could get away with bad decisions during the unipolar moment because ultimately it did not matter. There were very few real threats and foreign policy aggression (which is what it really was) was directed at countries that had no ability to fight back. Everyone else felt cowed, perhaps got resentful too but could not do anything about it. The rise of China and the post 90s recovery of Russia post have changed all this. There is now a price to pay for pursuing policies and using hammers that do not work. A different environment. But, as you say and as happens in corporations the inertia is very high and recognition of that new reality is very difficult. So we will stumble on. Until we hit the buffers. I think the change when it comes will be very painful indeed. But it will.