I usually consider myself an optimist, but I am scared, scared sh*tless, to be precise. Why? Because the responses of Western democracies to the threats posed by Putin and IS have been, are and predictably will be mindbogglingly stupid. The ultimate cause of concern is that such stupidity is the direct consequence of our political organisation: our democratic institutions are the very cause of our own stupidity. If my analysis is right, it means that Democracy itself is inherently vulnerable, because of its strengths, and therefore the stability of the system that allows us to sit in front of our computers and write or read this blog is under a real and present danger. To explain why, I’ll throw in some (covert) game theory, peppered with (even more covert) chaos theory.
Have you ever played Janken (rock-paper-scissors)? How frequently would you win if you could flawlessly predict your opponent choices? Each and every time, just like the Janken robot (albeit it cheats). This simple example sets the general idea: in most competitive situations that involve two or more agents, being predictable constitutes a disadvantage. This is somehow implicit in the ‘agent’ concept: our intuitive idea of agency implies some sort of (real or imagined) free will. When rationally engaged, we don’t consider our electronic gadgets as agents, because we know that they are fully deterministic: when placed in state A, they will always transition to state B, each and every time, unless they start malfunctioning. On the other hand, we are justified to consider something and agent when: this something is expected to make decisions in order to cause an intrinsically-desired effect (i.e. this something seeks to fulfil its own purposes) and these decisions are not manifestly predictable from the outside.
Most notably, this kind of agent is precisely the sort of entity that natural selection tends to generate: any population of trivially predictable organisms will be easily exploitable, therefore, animals, even simple ones, tend to show a certain amount of unpredictability in their behaviour; if they didn’t, most would have gone extinct a long time ago. If you require a more rigorous discussion, the whole concept is explained in an accurate and well documented way by Geoffrey F. Miller in the first part of “Protean Primates: The Evolution of Adaptive Unpredictability in Competition and Courtship” (full-text via link, citation is below), Miller also explains why the general principle becomes fundamental in complex social settings. If the agents involved in a competitive challenge are able to make predictions of each other’s behaviours, the situation generates a recursive, endless regression, where each agent would ideally need to model the decision-making algorithm of the opponent, taking into account that the opponent would do the same, and thus initiating an endless calculation (I know that you know that I know that you know, etc.). Clearly, no finite computation can find a perfect, stable and invariant solution to this sort of problem (for straightforward computational reasons), but even if it could, implementing such solution would make the “ideal” agent predictable, thus undermining the usefulness of the whole exercise.
[Side note: we’ve just found one more strong limitation of (classic) rationality – this is another example of a situation where a strictly rational and deterministic approach degenerates into endless and fruitless recursion. The same conclusion is also one more reason to adopt heuristic approaches inspired by antifragility.]
The stable solution therefore is to aim for unpredictability, and inject a certain amount of randomness in the decision-making algorithm. In short, we go back to the initial intuition: in each and all competitive situations, being predictable constitutes a clear disadvantage. Conversely: in each and all competitive situations, being somewhat unpredictable is a strategic necessity. You can argue as sophisticatedly as you wish, but I see no escape from this universal (!?) rule of thumb, and the implications are frightening indeed.
Let’s look at the crisis in Ukraine. How many people thought that NATO would retaliate with a military action to Putin’s unilateral annexation of Crimea? No one, that’s how many. Furthermore, the same is true to the international response to the following troubles in East Ukraine, Putin, you, me and every other minimally rational person in the world could make an easy prediction: Western democracies will respond with symbolic diplomatic retaliations, military muscle flexing, and pose no concrete military challenge to Putin’s policy. The whole developments have been entirely predictable, and for one root cause: we, the Western masses, have no appetite for an open war against Putin’s Russia, not even a trace of such an appetite (and for good reasons). As a consequence, it was guaranteed that Putin’s murderous actions would go unchallenged, because our leaders simply can’t afford to disregard a universally recognisable mandate: we don’t want a war with Russia, and that is all. How the situation will unfold is of course less predictable, but it’s easy to foresee that:
1. Putin will not change his strategy for as long as the Western public opinion will be clearly opposed to an open war.
2. If the public mood will start to shift, so will Putin’s policies. In order to retain his strategic advantage, and keep knowing how far he can push his (apparent) luck (but really, it isn’t luck, it is just “rational” and cynical calculation), all that Putin needs is a good polling agency.
Therefore, the sad truth is: Putin is able to perpetrate his crimes with impunity because his opponents are (somewhat) democratic, and consequently predictable.
[Side note: I have opposed each and every war the West has conducted so far, I want to consider myself a pacifist, and this line of thought is making me doubt my own principles, it’s yet another reason why I’m worried.]
But it gets worse.
Consider the pinnacle of all current evils (evil is a word that I try to avoid, but I see no credible alternative here): the Islamic State (IS). The same pattern is clearly visible, in even more explicit terms, and with even more dangerous consequences. What has the general strategy of IS been in the last 4-6 months? I can’t see how anybody could negate that IS has consistently and unashamedly pursued one clear objective: they did everything they could to provoke a Western reaction, knowing that sooner or later the West will intervene militarily, but will do so in a very predictable way:
3. Full force, unilateral invasion from the US (with or without European allied forces) is out of the question. Before this option could be even contemplated, Obama and his allies will need to try out all other conceivable options. Once again, this is true because we are democracies: everybody knows that Obama, Cameron and all the other democratically elected leaders can’t afford to proceed otherwise.
4. Therefore, the initial response will come from a relatively toothless air-strikes campaign. Why toothless? Because it’s predictable! IS has been trying to make it happen for months, what are the chances that they have not ensured that they will survive, and survive well?
5. Because it is self-evident that air-strikes alone can’t obliterate IS, it was also entirely predictable that the West will try to involve the active collaboration of other nearby states. Saudi Arabia and other totalitarian regimes are happy to collaborate, and we are already seeing a change in the way Assad’s regime is depicted by the Western media.
6. The last point is already a political victory for IS: their propaganda will be able to (rightfully) claim that the West is happy to collaborate with horribly totalitarian regimes. Once one realises that IS wants to become a stable political actor in the region (how else could it survive?), it is clear that its main foes are the surrounding states, not America and the West. We, the democratic Westerners, are playing the puppet here: we are little more than a convenient scarecrow.
Once again, our democratic organisation is the source of IS’ strategic advantage. Because we are predictable, IS can afford to persevere with its abominations and, at the same time, score the political points that it needs more than money, weapons and combatants. And we are predictable because our leadership can’t afford to macroscopically disregard the will of the people.
The only real source of hope in the Middle East situation is the possibility that IS has badly overestimated its current strength. But considering how competent and ruthless their actions have been so far, I have little reasons to believe that this is the case.
In the long run, for both Ukraine and the Middle East, there are reasons to hope that the final outcome will not be a global catastrophe, but sadly, I can see no way to avoid widespread carnage along the way. Let’s see a few reasons to hope: the particular lens I’ll use is once once again predictability. Both Putin and IS will find their own predictability more and more constrained, in direct correlation with their own level of success. Their own propaganda will constrain their degrees of freedom and at one point or the other, they will eventually find it impossible to de-escalate and withdraw from battles (physical, diplomatic or otherwise) even if they know that they can’t win. At the same time, every success of either Putin or IS will make the Western public opinion less stable and more ready to accept whatever “solutions” our leaders will propose. This means that the predictability of the West will decrease progressively, diminishing the strategic advantage that Russia and IS are enjoying now.
Furthermore, we have seen already how faith-based, top-heavy and prescriptive societies carry their own seeds of fragility: in the very long run, their own intrinsic rigidity is guaranteed to make them fragile.
From the big picture perspective, one can spot a peculiar symmetry: Democracies are inherently fragile because they are predictable, dictatorships can exploit such predictability, but only up to a point, because every success they have will diminish the predictability gap. Looking at this through the lens of Game Theory, one can easily predict the establishment of a meta-stable (strange-attractor-like) equilibrium, where neither opposing political system is ever able to obtain definitive supremacy. I suppose that, looking at the historic perspective, this fluctuating situation has been in place for quite some time already.
All this is scary, and my current smart-ass posture of the armchair blogger, blabbing about Western stupidity makes me feel both scared of the objective situation and ashamed of myself. The only redeeming measure that I can employ is to propose some damage-limitation countermeasures.
For Ukraine: I am in complete agreement with Garry Kasparov. The West needs to react vigorously. At the moment, our predictably feeble responses are only indirectly increasing Putin’s strength, he is ‘just’ exploiting our weakness. As Kasparov argues, we might be able to undercut Putin’s power by making it less obvious that he will be able to remain unchallenged. The key is that Putin does rely on the compliance of a vast network of powerful Russian oligarchs, and may not be able to keep doing so if and when they will start to fear for their own safety.
For IS and the Middle East: our current strategy is suicidal, unfortunately. It is quite simply the worse course of action that we could choose. Rapid and vigorous escalation may work (I genuinely don’t know), but is currently out of the question for democratic reasons. Therefore, the only option is the strategy that one should always adopt in response to terrorism: ignore the provocations and uphold legality. Restraint, more restraint, dialogue and fairness can, and usually do defeat terror.
I am astonished that nobody seems to care about the obvious problem of predictability: especially with the current policy of air-strikes in Iraq and Siria, it seems undoubtedly true that IS has been trying to make them happen in all possible ways. How can we even suppose that doing exactly what IS wants us to do might be a good idea?
Still, I’m human, and the conclusions I’m reaching disgust me: am I advocating to declare war on Russia? Am I suggesting to start a dialogue with IS and Al Qaeda? Have I lost my mind? I don’t know, but this is where rational (?!) enquiry is leading me. I would be grateful to learn that I’m wrong, so please do chip-in if you have good counter-arguments.
Miller G.F. (1997). Protean primates: The evolution of adaptive unpredictability in competition and courtship, Extensions and Evaluations, 312-340. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/cbo9780511525636.013