The Western response to Russian invasion falls hard and fast. The actions of the E.U., the Anglosphere nations, and Japan are both extraordinary and consequential: multiple NATO states have openly declared their intent to arm Ukrainian forces with conventional ammunition, precision munitions, and even military aircraft. European airspace is closed to all Russian planes. Western capitals have not only announced sanctions on Kremlin oligarchs, but also restrictions on Russia’s central bank. Russian institutions are being removed from the SWIFT system. The Norwegians— in a maneuver sure to be copied—have dumped all Russian assets in their sovereign wealth fund. Olaf Scholz repudiated the last decade of German defense and energy policy with one speech. And now there is talk of bringing Sweden and Finland into NATO.
None of these actions are as audacious as the Russian invasion which precipitated them. They are a natural, proportional, and even predictable response to Putin’s decision to settle the question of Ukrainian nationhood through the force of arms. Yet it is precisely the naturalness of our policy that we should be wary of. A righteous reaction may be a dangerous one. The imperatives of action disguise an ugly truth: in the field of power politics it is outcomes, not intentions, that matter most. Failure to slow down and examine the assumptions and motivations behind our choices may lead to decisions that feel right in the moment, but fail to safeguard our interests, secure our values, or reduce the human toll of war in the long run.
When confronted with a new geopolitical crisis my thoughts often turn to Michael Mazarr’s 2019 book, Leap of Faith: Hubris, Negligence, and America’s Greatest Foreign Policy Tragedy. Mazarr’s book is a study of the decision-making process behind the 2003 invasion of Iraq. To discover how the United States leapt headlong into catastrophe, Mazarr read all of the administration memoirs, tracked down all available open-source material on the pre-war debates, and interviewed just about everybody involved save George W. Bush himself. His book (and others like it, such as Draper’s How To Start a War or Mann’s Rise of the Vulcans) pop a few common myths about the Bush administration’s drive to war. The administration did not intentionally mislead the nation into battle; motivated reasoning, not deceit, warped their understanding of events. Oil was never central to the campaign; when it appeared in war council discussions, it did so only under the rosy assumption that Iraq’s oil revenues would be sufficient to cover reconstruction costs. Contrary to the received wisdom in many quarters today, the invasion of Iraq was not about about spreading liberal democracy in the Middle East. That justification for the war came mostly in 2004 and the years that followed, when the WMD threat had been exposed as delusion. Liberalism did not lead us into Iraq so much as keep us there.
Perhaps the most astonishing fact about America’s invasion of Iraq is that the National Security Council never formally debated the decision to wage war. “One of the great mysteries to me,” wrote one NSC principal after leaving office, “is exactly when the war in Iraq became inevitable.”1 His confusion is understandable: there was no moment, no meeting, where the pros and the cons of invasion were laid out in full. No one ever asked “should we invade?” Instead they debated questions like “if we decide to invade, what must we do to prepare?” and “When we invade, what must our objectives be?” Mazarr explains this curious lack of first-order thought, the origin point of the motivated reasoning that produced both flawed intelligence assessments and unnecessarily hasty demands for action, as a byproduct of moral imperatives. Here is how he introduces this framework:
George Tenet, At The Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA (New York: Harpers Collins, 2007), 229.
…the second factor I am seeking to highlight: an intuitive, emergent mechanism of judgment that is driven primarily by imperatives—a sense among a nation’s leadership group at a specific moment that a given choice is “the right thing to do” in a sense that is more moralistic than calculatedly rational.
Most conceptions of what is called “rational” decision-making include a few essential claims about the ways in which human beings approach choices. Someone acting rationally is trying to maximize some gain and so weighs various alternatives to judge which one will give the most value in those terms. Such a conception is therefore dominantly “consequentialist.” It is obsessed with outcomes, because only by taking outcomes seriously can one anticipate benefits and costs. It is also what is termed “instrumental,” in the sense that actions aim to produce some outcome that serves the decision-maker’s interests.
But there are powerful alternative models for human judgment, models that emphasize values rather than consequences and paint a picture of decision-makers serving an imperative or norm rather than maximizing objectives. One of these is sociologist Max Weber’s concept of value rationality. Whereas “instrumental rationality” refers to efforts to anticipate possible outcomes and calculate advantage, value rationality describes situations in which people make decisions, not based on what they think will most benefit them, but to fulfill the right thing to do—that is, to do something right for its own sake. I am arguing that, often enough on major foreign policy issues, leaders and senior officials come to be guided by precisely such value-based, rather than instrumental or outcome-oriented, thinking. Rather than what has been called a logic of consequences (weighing the value and cost of outcomes relative to one’s goals), they employ a logic of appropriateness, a form of judgment in which decision-makers are concerned about doing what is right or appropriate given their role and the circumstances.
The resulting mindset looks very much like a commitment to what some scholars have labeled “sacred values.” These are distinct from material interests by their moralistic case; they are, “or ought to be, absolute and inviolable.” They cannot be compromised or traded off against other values; they are absolute rather than instrumental, and must be followed regardless of consequences. In pursuing such sacred values, decision-makers will display “harsh trait attributions to norm violators, anger and contempt, and enthusiastic support” for the enforcement of norms against those who doubt the course of action; they will “censure” and “ostracize” those who disagree. Even sacred values can promote utilitarian calculations, but more often they are “derived from rules that circumscribe certain actions independently of expected outcomes or prospects of success, and that we act in accordance with them because they are the right thing to do.”
Examples of such thinking are legion in the history of US foreign policy. The American commitment to Vietnam was based in part on the idea that the strategic values at stake were inviolable, that fighting communism in Southeast Asia was the right thing to do. The attack on Castro’s Cuba at the Bay of Pigs emerged from a similar sense of obligation; it had to be done, because Castro had to go. More recently, the American commitment to NATO enlargement has taken on a similar moralistic flavor: it cannot be abandoned or even qualified because the countries at stake have a right to make that choice. These and other examples demonstrate how concerns that remain political and strategic can nonetheless take on the aspect of sacred values, and present themselves not as the better or more valuable choice but as the “right” one.2
Michael Mazarr,Leap of Faith: Hubris, Negligence, and America’s Greatest Foreign Policy Tragedy (New York: PublicAffairs, 2019), 116-117.
Key to the emerging moral consensus in 2002 was the rapid, intuitive nature of the value judgements informing policy:
In the process, the character of these judgments diverges in another way from the sometimes nearly mathematical calculations of classic rationalism. They emerge through a sort of intuitive imagination, a creative leap to make sense out of events rather than a weighing of anticipated gains and likely risks.… Henry Kissinger has called the practice of imaginative meaning-creation “conjecture.” “The choice between… policies did not reside in the ‘facts,’ but in their interpretation,” he has written. Foreign policy decision-making demands the “ability to project beyond the known.” And in this area, “there’s really very little to guide the policy-maker except what convictions he brings to it.”
This is true for one dominant reason: the overwhelming complexity and uncertainty surrounding major national security choices. There are simply too many variables at work, too much nonlinearity, to judge outcomes with any degree of precision. Decision-makers lack the sort of comprehensive information assumed by rational decision-making theories and operate instead in an environment of “deep uncertainty.” And so decision-makers hunt for simplified decision rules—key values or imperatives that can slice through the complexity and offer a clear basis for choice.
Confronting such complex situations, decision-makers cannot read objective truth out of a situation—they must construct meaning from their experience. And the result is that the interaction of senior decision-makers with complex issues is a fundamentally interpretive and imaginative enterprise. Facts in such a world are like images in an abstract painting, or the cloud of shapes on a Rorschach blot—ambiguous and open to multiple understandings. Observers are creating meaning, not simply reading or determining it…
This mechanism of judgment looks and feels to the participants like rationalism. We feel as if we are considering objectives, as if we are goal-directed, as if we weigh various options based on how well they contribute to clearly identified interests we are trying to maximize. In fact, though, what we’re doing is internalizing a mass of information and allowing our unconscious to do mostly involuntary work in bubbling forth judgments. The philosopher Alfred Schütz referred to this approach as “an anticipation of future conduct by way of phantasying.” Judgment is a fundamentally imaginative enterprise. It emerges as a vision, an illusion, an invented narrative; a conviction, a belief—anything but a formally reasoned calculation.
Such an approach to arriving at judgments allows us to see the Iraq decision for what it was: a creeping (or sudden and powerful) feeling that a given course of action was the right one, based on simple rules or convictions that were more moralistic or normative than analytical. And the fact that the decision had this character allows us to better understand many seemingly confusing aspects of it: the moralistic language that surrounded the policy process, the resistance to dissent, and the refusal to take risks seriously. Judgments undertaken in such a frame of mind have more of the cast of faith than of consequentialist decision-making, more in common with revelation than calculation. When people are applying sacred values, they come to have an almost thoughtless conviction in what they are doing. It is right—it feels right, from the depths of their well-honed intuitive judgment—and practical arguments have little place in such a thought process.
George Ball, the famous dissenter in the US escalation decisions for Vietnam, wrote of the fact that analytical arguments simply bounced off people who believed they “must” do something. “To my dismay,” he wrote of the reactions to his prescient arguments that US strategy in Vietnam was bound to fail, “I found no sympathy for these views. Both McNamara and Gilpatric seemed preoccupied with the single question, How can the United States stop South Vietnam from a Viet Cong takeover? How did I propose to avoid it? The ‘falling domino’ theory was a brooding omnipresence.” Official statements of US commitment to South Vietnam, Ball continued, “had the sound and solemnity of a religious oath: ‘We now take the decision to commit ourselves to the objective of preventing the fall of South Vietnam to Communism.” The solemnity of a religious oath—exactly the right way, I think, to understand the convictions that burst to the fore after 9/11.3
This is a powerful framework for understanding foreign policy crises. Catastrophic misjudgment rests on the convergence of two elements: an emergent sense that there is a moral imperative to act paired with a breakdown in the formal decision-making processes designed to force policy makers to carefully weigh the potential consequences of their decisions. Combined these elements make for a “pattern of misjudgement” that changes the way officials “weigh the costs and benefits” of their decisions, as they shift from an attitude of “analytical nuance” to “morally charged commitment to acting almost regardless of consequence.”4
The first element of the diad is inevitable. The demand to “do something” is a certain sequel to the high emotions of danger and outrage—be they emotions prompted by a terrorist attack in the heart of America or an invasion on the marchlands of Europe. The “interagency” system was partially designed with this inevitably in mind. When working properly, it leads officials to confront their own assumptions and emotions. But the system is not infallible. For the Bush administration the default to intuition was the product of a dysfunctional national security team; the bureaucratic acumen and fractious interpersonal conflicts of its leading officials destroyed all procedural guide-rails that might have brought the administration back down to reality.5 We still suffer the consequences of that procedural implosion.
See my essay, “Learning From Our Defeat: On the Skill of the Vulcans,” Scholar’s Stage (26 October 2021)
Today the danger is different. We approach the fifth dawn of a fast-moving war; decision makers are determined to respond to an event which has not yet concluded. This rush to act while action is still possible means that all slow paced proceduralism will of necessity be suspended. In the days to come those in high places will be forced to rely on snap judgements and emotional response to guide their decisions.
Certain ground realities make this danger more pressing. As the dramatic policy reversal in Berlin displays, this war overturns the old assumptions that guided foreign policy across the continent. What new assumptions should guide us in the future have not yet been hashed out. The invasion of Ukraine was a violation of the moral norms upon which the European order stands. The cognitive shock and moral outrage we feel is deepened by the relative uselessness of our position. Without risk of nuclear escalation NATO’s ability to prevent Ukrainian defeat is limited. This is a humiliating position for the most powerful statesmen in the Western world. Any man forced into such circumstance will feel compelled to find some way to reassert his agency. Our emotions will demand that we do something if only to prove to ourselves that we still have the capacity to act.
This sort of moral resolution is not inherently bad. It is the only wellspring of daring or fortitude. But our daring must accord with the outcomes we desire! Many of the policies mentioned in the first paragraph of this missive have consequences that will endure long past the end of this war. Have we truly thought through what they might be?
Do we crush the Russian economy because we earnestly think that doing so will unseat Putin, reverse his army’s march in Ukraine, or deter him from similar resort to arms in the future? Or do we do it because we must do something and economic coercion is the only tool in our box?
Have we balanced the strategic effects of removing the Russians from SWIFT from the likely creation of a parallel SWIFT system that we have less leverage over?
How would America have responded if the Russians had been openly, brazenly arming insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan? This sort of thing is not unprecedented in the history of Russian-American relations… but it has consequences. What do we think the Russian response might be?
One can make a convincing defense for any one of these measures. It is quite possible that all of them, combined with the other options now being discussed in Western capitals, will successfully blunt Russian aggression, strengthen NATO’s long term defense, or deter countries like China from repeating the Russian playbook in places like Taiwan. It is possible. Yet events are passing swift. The rapidly spiraling deployment of these policies does not suggest a carefully calculated campaign of pressure so much as a rushed attempt to meet the demands of our own moral imperatives.
The logic of the imperative has led the West into disaster before. We must be vigilant lest we blindly leap into catastrophe once again.
If you found this post interesting, you might find some of my earlier essays on foreign policy dysfunction worth reading: “The Skill of the Vulcans,” “The Assumptions of Donald Rumsfeld,” and “Thoughts on Shitpost Diplomacy” may be of interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.