A version of the article has been published by iPolitics.
It is well documented that reasoning through analogy is an accepted form of argumentation though not always a particularly good one. For policy makers, analogies are a lazy way to make day-to-day decisions. During a crisis, they can be dangerous. In essence, reasoning through analogy imposes blinders on policy makers by restricting relevant information in generating appropriate foreign policy choices in response to a crisis situation.
Reasoning through analogy is like taking a short cut. Think of a good policy choice as one that comes from a process that considers a range of inputs and information sources, that weighs and balances those pieces of information, revises initial assumptions and then comes up with viable options. Under situations of uncertainty, like a crisis situation, decision makers don’t know exactly what their adversary intends to do, and they are, therefore, required to do a lot of assuming about their adversary’s intent. Decision makers might also not have a lot of time to search for the information they need. Crises are stressful situations because they typically impose a time constraint on leaders with the probability of war looming in the background.
Enter the historical analogy. An easy way to infer adversary intent is to consider past behaviour and similar instances (even if the comparison lacks consistency – initially, at least, the analogy only has to make sense for the person invoking it). Historical analogy is great because not only does it provide a convenient and simple package to assess the problem it also provides ready made policy options. All that messy stuff about collecting and analyzing all that detailed information, finding pieces of missing information and so on are unnecessary.
With a convincing analogy at their disposal, a decision maker can jump right from assessment of the problem to crisis decision. Throw into the mix a situation where decision makers all agree on the utility of the historical analogy and you have collective group think – a psychological constraint where alternative points of views are discounted and even discredited because they don’t fit that common perspective. Oddly enough, the idea of “not going along to get along” is a very good way of avoiding group think.
Today, the core argument used by American and Canadian leaders to explain to their publics that Putin has done something bad and perhaps even evil by sending his troops into Crimea is to provide an historical comparison to an event that preceded the outbreak of World War II. Events of 1938 saw Adolf Hitler demand annexation of a portion of what was then part of Czechoslovakia, known as the Sudetenland. With the acquiescence of leaders from the UK and France, the annexation became a fait accompli. Events that followed saw Germany formally invade Czechoslovakia as a lead up to the war against the allies.
What is less well understood is that Hitler had his supporters, admirers and sympathizers in the region. For example, the annexation of Sudetenland was followed by a decision from the Slovaks to breakaway from the Czechs and become an ally of Nazi Germany. Sudetenland as well became one of the most pro-Nazi regions under German control.
For Western decision makers to use this analogy leads to two concerns the West might have about Putin’s behaviour . First, that he presumably wants to annex territory that they think does not rightfully belong to Russia and, second, that Putin is very much likely to find allies in the region by doing so. So, there is the potential here for diffusion in the sense that people on the ground will make choices and some will inevitably side with Putin while some will not. In reality, support for Crimean independence has existed in Crimea since at least 1991, when its Parliament voted multiple times in support of autonomy and independence. On March 16, there will be a referendum to consider whether Crimea should join Russia. But, a second question will be considered on whether Crimea should pursue independence. The term annexation is not used in either of these questions.
The analogy fails the basic test of credibility for other reasons. First, Western governments have used interchangeably statements that Putin’s maneuvering resembles Soviet style aggression alongside the Sudetenland comparison thereby begging the question of whether, in their eyes, Putin is a communist or a fascist. Let’s assume for the moment that Western leaders actually believe that Putin is behaving more like Hitler did in 1938.
This would suggest then that the appropriate response to this kind of aggression is not appeasement but firmness (because that is the opposite of what the West did in response to Hitler). That firmness might entail compelling the aggressor to vacate the territory through force, punishing the perceived aggressor for their actions so they won’t do more of it or building up a deterrent mechanism to limit the scope of the diffusion.
We could, of course, also rightly assume that Western leaders are using this analogy to help illustrate to their publics how dire the situation is. “We must stop Putin now, his thirst is unquenchable. He is very likely to take all of Ukraine and we must do something about that.”
Finally the analogy is particular salient for the New Europe and frontier states that border Ukraine whose populations have lived through Nazi occupation. Fear, it seems, is a great motivator for justifying limited policy options. The analogy also assumes that Putin is actually interested in taking control of the basket case that is currently the Ukrainian economy. This objective at face value seems unlikely.
So if we consider the kinds of Western policy options being put on the table right now most of them are focused on either punishing or compelling Putin. They have little to do with actually addressing the reasons why Putin might have sent his forces into Crimea in the first place. So far, Kerry and Canada’s Foreign Minister Baird have discredited Putin’s claims that he has intervened at the request of the leaders of Crimea or that he is concerned about the safety of Russian peoples there. Like Hitler, Putin has ulterior motives, they argue.
Apparently the West is sufficiently convinced this is that case that they can confidently call Putin a liar. But what if Putin is right or even partially right? What kind of evidence might we look for to show that insecurity has increased in the Ukraine after the “revolution”? Well, there is some evidence to suggest that at least some people of Ukraine feel less not more secure with a new government in Kiev. Israel has dispatched trainers to Kiev to teach Jews self-defence in response to what they perceive as a rising tide of anti-Semitism and, only last week, a Rabbi urged his people to flee Kiev. Hungary is preparing for the possibility that ethnic Hungarians will be forced to flee to Hungary in the trans-Carpathia region. Both groups feel threatened by what they believe to be a rising wave of far right nationalism in Ukraine from political parties who now have more clout in the fledgling government in Kiev. Under pressure from these right-wing parties Kiev recently overturned legislation that would protect minority language rights.
Do these concerns also make them liars? To be sure Israel and Hungary’s concerns may not be as evident as Putin’s claimed objectives of protecting Russian nationals but the intent is the same: to pre-empt and prevent the possibility of hostilities against a particular group of peoples.
Even if Western policy makers find Putin’s claims incredulous on that score, their fixation on him as an “enemy” is blinding them to alternative scenarios. Violence is still a very strong possibility in Ukraine. The situation there is far from settled and the question remains: what efforts are being made to provide for the security of all Ukrainians?
What would have happened if Putin’s forces hadn’t scrambled across Crimea ? There is little doubt that Crimea would have sought independence anyway and may have done so through force. This conclusion is based largely on precedence and efforts dating back to 1991 and 1992 when Crimea’s parliament voted for autonomy in an “independent Ukraine” and were thwarted in seeking full independence by then Ukraine leader Kuchma in 1994. Furthermore, transfer payments from Kiev to Simferopol have been dwindling over the last two decades and the prospects of staying within an even economically weaker Ukraine would have been unpalatable.
Finally, analogical thinking also shows how little the West really understands Putin. They clearly misread the importance that Crimea has for Russia. Looking at the intervention in hindsight, Putin’s efforts were clearly pre-emptive in nature. Anticipating the possibility the he might lose the peninsula to a pro-Western government and along with it a long-standing lease arrangement for a naval base – his actions can be understood, if only from a basic strategic perspective. And, understanding an adversary’s motivation is an essential ingredient in crisis decision making. Far superior than reasoning through analogy.
By David Carment