Bryan Caplan  

You Don't Know the Best Way to Deal with Russia

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Foreign policy experts love making bold predictions.  The clearer their conclusions, the wiser they sound.  Unfortunately, as Philip Tetlock documents, their predictions about controversial topics are scarcely better than chance.  They're all style, no substance.  The Economist's recent editorial on Russia and NATO beautifully illustrates these pathologies. 

The overconfident recommendation:
[T]he West should forcefully reassert NATO's willingness to defend itself and make it clear that all members of the alliance share its complete protection... In particular, that means other NATO members sending at least a few troops, missiles and aircraft to the Baltics (or to neighbouring Poland), and making clear that bigger forces will follow if there is any continued aggression from Mr Putin.
The cursory recognition of countervailing considerations:
Why go that far? Plenty of people in the West would prefer to "wait and see". The Balts have the promise of protection, they point out, so there is only danger in provoking Mr Putin. Wishful thinkers say that having made his point in Crimea, he will probably stop while he is still ahead. Instead of ratcheting up tension, the West should provide "off-ramps" that steer Russia towards d├ętente. Other hard-nosed foreign-policy "realists" argue that Russia has legitimate interests in its near-abroad. It is madness, they say, to pick a fight when Russia and the West have other business to be getting on with--Syria's civil war, Iran's nuclear programme and China's growing power.
A litany of overconfident predictions:

In fact the opposite is true. The greatest provocation to Mr Putin is to fail to stand up to him, and the least costly time to resist him is now. Emboldened, Mr Putin could test NATO's resolve by changing the facts on the ground (grabbing a slice of Russian-speaking Latvia, say, or creating a corridor through Lithuania to Kaliningrad) and daring the alliance to risk nuclear war. More likely he would try destabilisation--the sabotage of Baltic railways; the killing of Russians by agents provocateurs; strikes, protests and anonymous economy-wide cyber-attacks. That would make life intolerable for the Balts, without necessarily eliciting a response from the West.

Either way, if the Balts begin to disintegrate, it would leave the West with a much less palatable choice than it has today: NATO would have to walk away from its main premise, that aggression against one is aggression on all, or it would have to respond--and to restore deterrence, NATO's response would have to be commensurately greater. That in turn would pose the immediate threat of escalation.

Better to take steps today, so that Mr Putin understands he has nothing to gain from stirring up trouble.
Notice: The Economist presents no empirics about past experiences with "standing up" versus "backing down."  If it bothered to do so, it would find many supportive examples - plus many unsupportive counterexamples.  World War II is the poster child for "standing up."  World War I is the poster child for "backing down."  The Korean War - standing up.  The Vietnam War - backing down.  Anyone who knows basic history can multiply such examples endlessly.  International relations is inherently complicated.  In hindsight, it's easy to explain how Serbian terrorism in 1914 led to North Korean Communist dictatorship in 2014.  But who in 1913 even hinted at this possibility?

This doesn't mean, of course, that empirical study of foreign policy is fruitless.  Maybe an exhaustive study would reveal that standing up works better 55% of the time, and backing down works better 45% of the time.  But unless you hide behind lame tautologies ("I favor smart standing up.  That never fails!"), you're unlikely to reach a stronger conclusion. 

You could object, "You can't galvanize resistance by saying there's a 55% chance you're right."  Fair enough.  But if that's all you can honestly claim, why are you so eager to galvanize resistance in the first place?  Why are you so hasty to claim opposing experts haven't a clue?  Maybe you should spend a few years publicly betting your opponents.  There's no better way to prove to the world - and yourself - that your forecasts are genuinely better than chance.

Look in the mirror.  You don't know the best way to deal with Russia.  "Taking steps today" could work precisely as The Economist hopes.  It could lead Putin to double down.  Crossing your fingers and waiting for things to blow over might be a disaster.  Then again, it might work.  Stranger things have happened.  If you scoff, I'm happy to bet.  But since you're claiming knowledge and I'm pleading ignorance, I want odds.

P.S. Not April Fools.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (20 to date)
Jeff writes:

Besides agreeing with you about the complexity of predicting the outcome in international affairs, I'd like to make two comments:

(1) Trying to make Ukraine or Georgia members of NATO is poking Russia in the eye, and why this is important to the USA or the West is wholly unclear to me.

(2) Does anyone seriously think that the USA (let alone the UK or France) would go to nuclear war for Latvia? If that was the choice, I think the USA would do what it did for Hungary in 1956. Also, anyone that thinks the USA can beat Russia in a ground war in Eastern Europe (specifically an ethnically Russian area bordering Russia) is seriously deluded.

Eli writes:

I like it.

If people shrugged and said, "I don't have a clue" more often the world would be a better place.

Rasputin writes:


1) It's important because Ukraine and Georgia are sovereign nations that have a right to their sovereignty and self-government. Russia projects as a national security imperative the total disregard for the sovereignty of its neighbors. This is unacceptable for anyone in the West who believes that an international system that values a democratic liberal trade order that isn't subject to the whims of imperialist superstates. No nation is too small or too far away for these concerns to be valid. Russia is treated as an entity that is Too Big to Fail. The approach to any such entity is to either continue to make special rules, or to forcefully downsize it to an entity that isn't too big to fail. Every other developed nation gave up its imperial holdings long ago. It's time for the Russian Empire to be disassembled into its constituent components. Some scoff at this notion and advocate a multipolar international system. For an example of a multipolar international system in practice, see World Wars I and II. There are plenty of complaints to be made of a US hegemony, but compared to any alternative they are more than bearable. More importantly, US hegemony is actually responsive to such complaints in ways that Russian or Chinese dream-hegemonies would never be. How this isn't clear to detractors is beyond comprehension.

2) Does anyone seriously think that Russia would go to nuclear war over its imperialistic ambitions? If so, then MAD is now meaningless, and the West had best seek alternative existential strategies for its own survival. The faster those much derided missile-defense platforms are available the better. The West is obviously never going to nuke any nation for any reason other than self-defense, so how such platforms can be considered anything but purely defensive in nature is ludicrous. In the mean time, if the West isn't willing to take MAD seriously, then it had best not bluff. The world then belongs to those who are both ambitious and insane. Maybe a world where Putin can intimidate everyone with impunity isn't a world living in; in which case, bring on the nukes. If there's one thing the Cold Warriors have repressed more than anything else, it's that the US for all its humanitarian principals has devoted a tremendous amount of resources over the past 50 years to ensure that more Americans would survive a nuclear exchange than Russians. If Putin wants to bring on the end of the world, so be it. Otherwise, we're going to live in a world with rules, and they are rules no written by the Kremlin.

Andrew_FL writes:


The approach to any such entity is to either continue to make special rules, or to forcefully downsize it to an entity that isn't too big to fail

You left out the third option: Don't consider any entity to be to big to fail.

Pedro H. Albuquerque writes:

Sensible thoughts.

Greg Heslop writes:

Very good post! I think a relevant question in thinking about whether to strengthen a country's military preparedness in general is what changes in policy might be expected in case of invasion. To me, it is not obvious that the answer should not be "no change in expectation", but this is of course a tricky question. Maybe some other empirical results could inform the question:

The evidence that one party pursues very different policy when it takes over is not so strong. Besley and Coate have a nice article here.

Also, in like fashion, there is some evidence that democracies and dictatorships choose similar public policies. There is a famous article by Mulligan et al here.

The two issues above are different from the one at hand, of course, but if policy is not strongly influenced by who is in power, nor by whether a country is a dictatorship or a democracy, it would be fitting if policy were also largely invariant to whether a foreign nation invades and takes over.

Incidentally, I blogged about this sort of issue recently, hopefully with more humility than The Economist.

Shane L writes:

American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan dwarf any aggression coming from Russia in recent years. One irritating thing about the constant comparison of every modern international disagreement with Chamberlain and Hitler is that it always assumes the United States plays the role of plucky Britain against aggressive Nazi Germany. In reality the US is often the aggressor, shifting from one war to the next.

All that said, the Russian government's behaviour seems reckless and obnoxious here too. The correct response? I don't know, though I'd like to see US and its allies at least indicate a respect for democracy and the rule of law by withholding support for Ukraine following the overthrow of its elected government, at least until they hold elections.

Theodore Roosevelt supposedly said the US government should "speak softly and carry a big stick". Today it shouts and rants and its stick is getting smaller, which seems unwise.

patrick k writes:

I don't think we can know anything until Putin's next move. Let's say it is tanks rolling through Ukraine storming Kiev. We are not going to war over the Ukraine and everyone knows that. However the EU, the US and other assorted allies represent over 50% of the world's GDP. If they stay united they can crush the Russian economy. If there's a war, that's the one that would be fought. As they say in Russia, leaders leave feet first and that's how Putin will be going. Despite the naysayers, and I'm no supporter, I think Obama, Merkel et al are handling it so far.

Jeff writes:
Also, anyone that thinks the USA can beat Russia in a ground war in Eastern Europe (specifically an ethnically Russian area bordering Russia) is seriously deluded.

Really? I'm no Stanley McChrystal or anything, but I'd guess that that statement is completely backwards. The idea that the withered husk of the Soviet Union could withstand a committed NATO campaign in Eastern Europe seems completely unrealistic. Not that I'd care to find out who is right, but I think Putin and Russia would really not care to find out.

DaveL writes:

If making Ukraine or Georgia NATO members would be "poking Russia in the eye," what was making Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania members? A swift kick to the groin, perhaps?

Once can bandy comparisons between this or that territory indefinitely. (If Crimea deserves "self-determination" don't other states on Russia's borders also deserve it, or is "self-determination" something only convenient Russian minorities get?)

My suspicion is that Putin is acting in accordance with the old Russian maxim that neighboring states are either enemies or vassals. Whether he wants more territory from Ukraine or not, he wants it to be a vassal.

John writes:

@ Rasputin

Let's not morally preen about sovereignty when we know for a fact (see Victoria Nuland's taped conversation and speeches) that Washington financially supported and instigated an overthrow of a democratically elected government in Ukraine.

Don't forget how Nuland was handing out cookies to the Molotov cocktail throwing demonstrators and McCain rushed himself over there to show solidarity with the protesters. How would Washington handle and Americans view the actions of Russian officials hanging out at Tea Party protests or Occupy movement rallies?

That is just the tip of iceberg of how Washington rhetorically supports sovereignty and self-determination and holds it in utter contempt in practice.

Ken writes:

What makes a country "stand up" or "back away"? It's a country's own perception of itself as a military force and it's perception of the other country's military force. When both countries think they can win a war, both will go to war to find out. And therefore stand up. Otherwise, one will back down.

MikeDC writes:

I would be quite willing to bet, but here the terms seem undefined. We need to act, but act smartly.

We don't know what Russia will do, but the real factor Bryan (and the Economist article) are overlooking is our commitment to our NATO allies.

Georgia and Ukraine were not in NATO, but the Baltic countries are. We can debate the wisdom of that, but it's a done deal at this point.

So what should be done is prudently reinforcing that alliance.

By prudently, I mean quietly, but also actually preparing militarily and diplomatically. It's not in anyone's interest to be as loud and aggressive as possible because NATO's actual willingness to honor its commitments is probably pretty low.

Thus, it has to walk a fine line. If NATO simply does nothing and leaves a member state defenseless, Russia can embarrass or destroy NATO by walking in and taking over. If NATO reacts overtly loudly, Russia could take any number of half-steps short of all-out war that would embarrass or destroy NATO.

If Russia believes it could (politically) destroy NATO it would probably do so. Basically, the potential issue is NATO's credibility.

Unfortunately, our diplomatic corps and political leadership doesn't inspire much confidence to walk this path correctly. If they did, they wouldn't be tested in the first place.

Jeff writes:

1) I am all for self-determination, I think it is more important than "democracy." Self-determination (by democratic vote/consensus) being real rule by the people.

2) I think it is very difficult for any power to hold onto an area whose population is unwilling (unless you kill or remove the entire population).

3) Despite finding it very difficult to predict any of Putin's future actions, I doubt any area would go as easily as Crimea did. Ukraine still supplies water and power to 70% of Crimea, virtually uninterrupted since the change of nationality. If Donetsk or eastern Latvia fell/left to Russia, I can't imagine the transition being anywhere near as smooth.

4) The EU and USA made it clear an independent Crimea would not be recognized by or able to trade with the rest of the world. For those Crimeans that didn't want to be ruled by Kiev (well over 75%) this left joining Russia as the only alternative. Also, it looks like the Kremlin is going to grant Crimea more autonomy than Kiev had. (This is a little off topic now).

5) @ John
Sadly, Washington's values of self-determination and democracy seem extremely malleable, and more rhetoric than policy.

6) The borders in Europe are poorly drawn, greater integration of the EU has made this less of problem in areas where the bordering countries are both members, but created larger divides when one of the bordering countries is an EU member and the other is not. The more similar the countries are and the more autonomy the regions within have, the less important it is what country a region is part of (maybe the Scotland referendum refutes this).

[Jeff from post 1]

MingoV writes:

Two former Soviet Socialist Republics fight over territory that was part of the USSR and that both SSRs claim should be theirs. Why should we care? Let all the former SSRs fight amongst themselves.

The 'why should we care' rule should have applied to Libya, Egypt, and Syria. It also should have applied to Afghanistan after we annihilated the Taliban groups that supported Osama bin Laden.

Max writes:

Bryan Caplan, I disagree that "World War II is the poster child for "standing up."" WWII was the end of a long period of appeasement - "backing down" - as a consequence of anti-war sentiment, empathy with Germany and some of history's most moronic treaties. I observe that there is a strong parallel between Russia's seizure of Crimea and the Anschluss Osterreichs.

That said, making confident predictions about politics is very rarely justified.

To various commenters:

There seems to be a sound reason to have Ukraine join NATO ASAP, that being that it is the quickest way to form a commitment to defend Ukraine. Put a hopelessly-outnumbered force of American troops in Ukraine and Putin now has a serious risk that an invasion will turn into a hot war with the USA, which does not respond well to having its soldiers killed. Failing to support a NATO member would destroy NATO's credibility, making the commitment more credible.

Given what has passed for democracy in Ukraine and the fact that they have had two revolutions in recent years, I think we can confidently say that the will of the people did not include being ruled by Yanukovych. He won the 2010 election by less than 4%, remember: it is hard to believe that the destruction of his regime is not supported by the majority of the people.

MikeDC writes:
There seems to be a sound reason to have Ukraine join NATO ASAP, that being that it is the quickest way to form a commitment to defend Ukraine.

Why would we want to form a commitment to defend Ukraine? As you say, it's an undemocratic country in the throes of consecutive revolutions. I'll add that it's also poor and doesn't seem to support any obvious strategic interest of the United States or the rest of NATO.

The answer is that we do not want to commit to defend this country. Simple as that.

Dick Gillette writes:

@ MikeDC
That train left the station in 1994, when we, U.K. and Russia all agreed to defend Ukraine.

Chamberlain didn't fare too well using the "why should we care" rule, did he? The why should we care rule might more aptly be called the "let's hide in the corner of the basement until somebody with some backbone takes care of this mess" rule. And equating Ukraine with Russia in this fight - really?

@John writing to Rasputin
Comparing the presence of John McCain in Kiev to Russians at a Tea Party or Occupy rally is a false comparison. Let's concede that America does stand for something good, and Putin's Russia, not so much. To equate the two is ridiculous.

MikeDC writes:

@ Dick Gillette,
No. Here are the terms of the 1994 agreement. It's clearly no sort of formal defense treaty.

So this is clearly a different situation than with the NATO countries. We're obligated to defend the latter. We were obligated only to complain to the UN in the former. Which we did.

Mico writes:

Is there any point at which you no longer think the consequences are so uncertain that resistance should not happen?

For instance, if a Russian soldier were about to shoot your young child, and you could stop him, would you stand aside on the basis that you can't fully predict the consequences of your action (maybe in reprisals the Russians will then wipe out your whole town!).

If there is not a point at which you would take action, why do you even think we should have police or law? There's no solid distinction between state violence and private violence. Your philosophy then seems to amount to nihilism.

If on the other hand you think we should stop crime on the basis that criminals are weak and most likely in that case the police will win with relatively minor possible reprisals, why be so opposed to moving missiles into Poland (not, you'll note, invading Russia) which is very unlikely to result in a war?

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