Unwarranted Optimism and Thoughtless Pessimism

By Couloumbis, Ahlstrom & Weaver

In 1911, before leaving Moscow to assume the duties of Russia's ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, A. Nekliukov was given strict instructions by Czar Nicholas II to delay the expected general European war at least until 1917.

The Czar was not alone in his expectation of war. By the summer of 1914, governing elites in Europe were so conditioned to the prospect of war that they were unable to resist a chain of events which soon culminated in World War I. This preemptive escalation of general mobilizations was triggered by the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo by Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip.

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A generation earlier, this collapse into the chaos of war would have been resolved by an international congress.

World War I was doubtless hastened by misperceptions of the intentions of adversaries. National leaders decided to attack before they were themselves attacked, and they firmly believed that their own aggressive acts were motivated by only the need to defend themselves.

Nearly 35 years ago, Columbia University professor Robert Jervis, employing a political-psychological approach to the study of world politics, argued that misperception, distorted images, selective use of intelligence, thinking about and reacting to historical analogies and imputing unity of purpose and internal cohesiveness to presumed adversaries was the rule for decision-makers. Jervis concluded that key European leaders, influenced by their pre-World War I experiences, tended to underestimate Hitler's aggressive plans after his rise to power in 1933.

But if World War I was accidental, World War II was not. It resulted from Hitler's drive for continental hegemony. No amount of international discourse beforehand would have prevented war. In fact, exactly the opposite is true. Successive conferences convinced Hitler that his adversaries were weak and unwilling to deter Nazi expansion into neighboring counties. The diplomatic failure to prevent the war came to be known as "appeasement" and has colored both analysis and response to international crises ever since.

The result has been a pendulum swinging between extreme optimism that diplomatic interchange can prevent war to extreme pessimism that all adversaries are intent on attacking others and diplomacy will only encourage aggression.

For Jervis and others of the same view, Western leaders traumatized by inter-war appeasement and the horrors of World War II tended to overestimate the Soviet Union's aggressive potential. For them, misperception--whether one-sided or mutual--was at the bottom of every conflict.

Understanding the real intentions of an adversary is vital to determine what foreign policy tactics are best. If the adversary is motivated by fear, then deterrence, unwillingness to engage in diplomatic dialogue and the threat of force will only escalate the possibility of war. On the other hand, if an adversary is motivated by aggressive hegemony, then dialogue might actually encourage war and the best way to prevent conflict would likely be deterrence.

Fast forward to 2009. What are we to do in the Middle East, South and Central Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and "flash points" elsewhere, as history has a stubborn tendency to continue unfolding? World War I taught us not to be fatalistic about impending conflicts. World War II warned us against accommodation to constantly probing aggression.

From Roman times we have heard such warnings as "si vis pacem, para bellum"--"if you wish for peace, prepare for war." But the Latin caveat is often stood on its head: "If you prepare for war, you will certainly get it." It depends upon how adversaries perceive or misperceive your intentions.

As President Barack Obama will soon announce his goals for the American mission in Afghanistan, a number of questions Professor Jervis raised over three decades ago are relevant: Are we to assume unity of purpose and identical interests among Islamic fundamentalists in the Af-Pak region? Are contradictions emerging within the Taliban ranks as well as between al-Qaeda and the Taliban? Are tribal and regional balances being disturbed by external military interventions? Is there a danger that Western troops in the region are adding fuel to the fire of the so called "clash of civilizations," with conflicts defined in religious terms? Is the United States increasingly seen as the threatening "they" that produces a more unified defensive "we" among Muslims in Afghanistan and elsewhere?

What is the international community to do with the frozen issue of a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians? Should the U.S. act alone or in concert with the European Union and Russia in seeking pathways back to meaningful negotiations? Has the engagement-with-adversaries approach attempted by the Obama administration run its course?

And how do these immediate threats relate to the more global--and more fundamental--issues of climate change, pandemics and nuclear proliferation?

If Jervis was right that misperception of intentions magnified by thoughtless optimism or unwarranted pessimism leads to wars, how can this be balanced or even overcome by confidence-building measures, intelligence sharing, genuinely independent non-governmental organizations which shine the spotlight of factual discussion on brewing conflicts, piracy, abuses of human rights, corrupt and failing regimes, international trafficking in arms, drugs and disadvantaged people?

What lessons about thoughtless pessimism or unwarranted optimism can we learn from the immediate past that can help guide us through the current thickets?

Theodore Couloumbis is vice president of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy and professor emeritus at the University of Athens, Greece; Bill Ahlstrom is an executive at a US multinational; Gary Weaver is professor at American University’s School of International Service; these views are their own.

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