Caught Endlessly in our Patterns of Repeated Mistakes (No, we do not learn from history)

Conflicts Forum's Weekly Comment, 14 Nov 2014

Veteran American foreign policy commentator, William Polk who, in earlier times, was a member of the three-man Crisis Management Team, during President Kennedy’s Cuban Missile standoff with Khrushchev, warns us starkly that we are heading towards another such perilous (even apocalyptic) moment of ratchetting tensions - up to real war.  And he says that the very dynamics propelling us towards today’s conflict, are precisely as before (during the Cuban Crisis):  The inability to perceive how the ‘other’ may in turn perceive us, the refusal to acknowledge the ‘other’s ‘truth’, and ‘his’ account of history – or even to acknowledge that their might be another ‘truth’ out there, other than our own.

In short, we assume as a matter of course, that Russian people think and perceive in the same way as we do – but that they (must be) thinking incorrectly – otherwise why would they not understand and perceive things as we see them (i.e. rationally)?  And if they take action that is contrary to how we believe they should behave – it is not that they ‘see’ things differently; it is because they are belligerent.

What was so striking about Polk’s account of ‘lessons not learned’ is that a very senior former Russian official had just told us the very same thing (how we seem to be repeating the same dangerous pattern that led to the Cuban Missile Crisis).

WIlliam Polk writes:

“Months before the [1962] Crisis was upon us, I made a tour of Turkey.  There I visited an US Air Force base where 12 fighter-bombers were on "ready alert."   Of those two were always on "hair trigger alert," with engines running and with the pilots sitting in the cockpits.  Poised for take off, each was armed with a one-megaton bomb and programmed for a target in the Soviet Union.  Nearby, on the Black Sea at Samsun, I watched on radar planes from an RAF squadron probing Soviet air defences in the Crimea.  And elsewhere in Anatolia, in supposedly secret locations, a group of American "Jupiter" missiles was aimed, armed and ready to be fired. 

 “Were these weapons defensive or offensive?  That is, were they a threat to the Soviet Union; or a defence of the "Free World”? My colleagues in the American government thought they were defensive.  They were part of our "deterrent."  We had put them there to protect ourselves, not to threaten the Russians. 

The Russians thought otherwise.  So, in response, they decided to station some of their missiles in Cuba.  Their strategists believed that in balancing ours on their frontier, theirs on our frontier also were defensive. We thought otherwise.  We regarded their move as unquestionably offensive and nearly went to war to get them to remove their missiles. 

At a "few minutes to midnight," we both came to our senses:  we stood down our Jupiters and the Russians removed their weapons from Cuba.

The first lesson to be learned in this near catastrophe was to try to understand the opponent's point of view. As I pointed out in the months before the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Russians had a point:  the missiles we had in Turkey were obsolescent.  They were to be propelled by liquid fuel. That form of fuel required several minutes to be ignited.  If they were to be used, they had to take off before Soviet missiles or aircraft could destroy them on the ground.  That, in turn, meant that they could only be "first strike" weapons.  By definition, a first strike is ‘offensive’.  

I urged that we get them out of Turkey.  We did not do so.  Our military considered them an integral part of our strategic defense.  We left them there until the Russians put their missiles into Cuba.  Then, we took them out.  We got rid of ours only when they got rid of theirs.  So, in a sense, the Missile Crisis was tit-for-tat.  I thought that was a very foolish way to endanger the world!” 

That was then – and this is now:  What is the US and the EU perception of what it is trying to do in Ukraine?  It is trying to “create a western-oriented and western-integrated, prosperous, territorially integral, secure and democratic Ukraine”.

Many Europeans see this aim as - simply - the reflection of the obvious ‘civilisational’ gravitational pull of the EU. The Russians think otherwise. They know well the deep schisms in Ukraine, and its ancient hatreds.  They think the West is using these old animosities to create an offensive platform by which to weaken Russia.  So the Russian leadership reacts by securing the historic warm water-base of the Russian navy, and pushing-back hard against a (now) hostile Kiev in the Donbas. So the question repeats itself: Was the Russian reaction in Ukraine offensive or defensive?

Russia sees their moves to be defensive (indeed defensive in an existential way).  The West thinks otherwise.  It perceives Russia’s moves to threaten the entire post-war European order - no less.  So the West has positioned its ‘missiles’ on Russia’s frontier. But in this new warfare they are not literal bombers, as William Polk observed in Turkey waiting on the tarmac with their engines running; they are the US Treasury’s ‘bombers’ carrying their financial neutron bombs: sanctions designed to damage Russia’s future revenue from hydrocarbons.  The West perceives this to be deterrence and a ‘correctional’ act, which will bring Russia’s to repent its earlier ‘bad behavior’.  Russians see this differently: It is war. War against President Putin - and against Russia itself.

Russia responds – in its perception – defensively, to create a parallel financial and trading system with China.  The West thinks otherwise.  The oil price collapses by almost a third.  The West sees this as simply a technical reaction to market conditions.  Russians, remembering how Saudi Arabia contrived to crash the price of oil in 1986, and so caused the Soviet Union to implode financially, think otherwise.  They recall the past and now know that they have entered an escalatory tunnel that may lead to war. It might be either hot war, or the new ‘war’ run by the US Treasury.

So what were the lessons from the Cuban Missile Crisis that might guide us at this time, when Kiev has held its elections, and the Donbas, its counter-elections; and as Kiev stands up its re-equipped armed forces, and Donbas its re-supplied and reinforced militias?

The first lesson that William Polk draws is that – contrary to the conventional narrative – America did not stare down Khrushchev through a display of unyielding resolute force – but rather America very quietly removed its Jupiter missiles from Turkey, and the USSR did the same from Cuba. It was not – contrary to folklore - a case of the Soviet Union backing down under pressure. In fact, in the aftermath of the crisis, when the events were war-gamed again to draw out the lessons, the American officials came to understand that - had Kennedy continued to escalate (instead of de-escalating) - America and Russia would have been at war – devastating nuclear war.

Why?  Because the ‘gaming’ proved the theory of deterrence was grounded in anthropomorphic assumptions that were flawed.  A state does not think as if it were an individual: it is a community with a diverse history woven from threads that reflect a variety of communal mores.  It does not necessarily act as an individual might, especially if that ‘individual’ is understood as a utility-maximising, risk-averse ‘rationalist’. Instead Polk’s colleagues concluded, they were dealing with ruling leaderships.  And these leaderships, for a whole variety of psychological and competitive factors, might simply conclude that they could not afford ‘to be the one who blinks first’ – irrespective of the risks.

The bottom line to this is the danger of (falsely) assuming that, since we all share the basic human sense-organs, we should all perceive in a similar way.  But ‘reality’ is far too slippery for that.  What to one seems an evident reading of a situation, and rational and defensive acts – can slide – in the perception of the ‘other’ - to being its polar opposite: pure aggression.  William Polk’s basic theme is that we all should be aware how easily ‘defensive’ elides into ‘aggressive’ in our foreign policies.

Not that this sound advice seems likely to find very receptive ears in Washington at this moment. In an article in the Financial Times, the editor of The National Interest notes that Republican leaders, in the wake of their mid-term sweeping victories, seem now to positively exult in their supposed vindication.  The neocons pressed President Obama hard on his alleged foreign policy weakness throughout the campaign, and now take their ‘sweeping victories’ as legitimizing their unrepented hawkishness. Of course Obama has the remainder of his term, and may use it to try to pull-back – but there is no doubt that if he does so, he swill be swimming against strong currents.

In the West, the Republican narrative of foreign policy failure owing to Presidential weakness will be perceived as ‘just politics’ and as reflecting electoral ‘swings and roundabouts’. The Russians and much of the Middle East however already are thinking otherwise (see here for Raghada Dragham’s Al-Arabiya piece about what Republicans say now). They perceive that whomsoever will be the next President (and possibly even this President – under fresh domestic pressures) will be more aggressive towards Russia, towards Iran and towards the Syrian government.  They will not perceive the election outcome as ‘just politics’, but the promise of escalation.

Can escalation be avoided? Can America’s ‘Jupiter missiles’ and ‘Russia’s Cuban missiles’ be withdrawn? Is there a solution as ‘simple’ as that?  Well, what exactly do Russia’s ‘defensive missiles’ stand for?  This is fairly clear: Ukrainian non-alignment; non-exclusionary, or beggar-my-neighbour geo-economic arrangements; decentralization of authority from Kiev to the regions; the reinstatement of the Russian as an official language and an end to the subsidy of the Ukrainian consumption of Russian gas.

As for Europe, non-alignment per se has never been perceived as somehow un-European.  Europe could simply withdraw its ‘EU and NATO alignment missiles’ in return for Russia withdrawing its counter-Kiev ‘militia militarisation missiles’.  This should not tax any competent diplomat, were the issue simply all about Ukraine.  Unfortunately, it is not (and never was).

America’s ‘war’ with Russia is as much about America’s self-perception of its own decline, as it is about Ukraine -- and that represents a far deeper psychological problem, which is why tensions with Russia are set to escalate.  America’s conflict with Russia will aggravate – unless some American leader can manage these collective symptoms of anxiety, which – at the human individual level too - relate to our sense of how we are perceived by others. These anxieties, both individual and collective, psychologists tell us, are so often unconsciously made manifest through aggressive language or behaviour (which perhaps is what emerged during the mid-terms).

Unfortunately, managing America’s perception of itself has not been Obama’s strong card. It is true that he has tried to change America’s physical ‘footprint’ in the world, to reflect a changing world (and had some success in achieving this). But he has also embraced rhetoric that hyped American exceptionalism and indispensability.  In short, he has tried to address the practical aspect of change, but at the same time, he has not just neglected, but actually strengthened the resistance to the required psychological change (by use of such language).  Of course any real adjustment to the national role requires both psychological preparation, as well as its practical implementation.