Sinister centennial calls for caution in current crises!

By: Torgeir E. Fjærtoft.

We are approaching a sinister centennial – the outbreak of World War I in 1914.

Why bother with this centennial today when Europe is at peace and the menace of war is looming in other parts of the world? The lesson is that what causes war is not necessarily the nature of the issues in the conflict, but the way the disagreements are handled. When harmony is not realistic, crisis-management is the better alternative to war. To all parties concerned.

Analogies: dangerous or constructive?

The Nobel Laurate, the Israeli psychologist Daniel Kahneman, shows how our mind analyses current events and tasks by associating with analogies, previous events. Such analogies are our interpretation. In other words, analogies are relevant to the degree, and in the way, we believe they are. Kahneman’s point is that we think and act on the basis of our cognitively constructed, but, because of our cognitive limitations, necessarily simplified perception of reality. Sometimes these simplified perceptions turn dangerous. But also good deeds start with good thoughts. Kahneman shows that our minds are succeptible to impressions, but for that reason also malleable by constructive analogies,

The British historian Christofher Clark, in “The Sleepwalkers: How Europe went to War in 1914”, points out some fateful features of the prelude to that catastrophe which, unfortunately, occurs ominously relevant for the current confrontation in the state system formed by the triangle of Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia. He writes that “all key actors..filtered the world through narratives…built from pieces of experience glued together with fears, projections, and interests masquerading as maxims.” He furthermore refers to “..the conceptual framework withing which the crisis was interpreted, once it had broken out”.

Pressure by time running out

In 1913 – 14 in Europe, fateful decisions were made under the feeling by key decision-makers that their time was running out by a deteriorating relative power position. In other words, power projection intended to induce compliance and restraint instead bred desperation to act while there was still time.

Currently, US, Israeli and Saudi policies towards Iran are driven by the deadline of when Iran is able to produce nuclear arms. In this scenario the short-term risks of force seem less than the long-term risks of nuclear arms. However, power projection, including by sanctions or proxies, runs the risk of breeding desperation. Panic may lead to “leaps forward”. A case in point is the rumor that some close the Supreme Leader urges a decison to immediately produce nuclear arms to face the West with an established, irreversible fact. In this reasoning, the best strategy to remove sanctions is to make them fail their purpose.

Complications by internal power struggles

Clark shows that while policies were perceived as the result of coherent intentions by the adversary, actions were actually shaped in a dynamic interaction both between nations and among the groups within them. He writes that “fluiduty of the power relations within the European executives” made the crisis in Europe unmanageble. One reason was that threating statements about another country was often addressed to domestic rivals for political power. Initiatives that drove conflicts frequently originated outside the control of the nominal heads of government.The catastrophic outcome was not the intention by anybody.

Today, the American and Iranian side tend to discount Rouhani and Obama respectivey as either insincere or impotent in the internal power struggle. However, to have power without being omnipotent is the normal state of affairs in all countries at all times. Both Rouhani and Obama, and for that matter Netanyahu, need to build a prevailing domestic alliance to succefully shape policy towards other countries. This is not the least the case when facing a stalemate in highly contested issues. Concessions for compromise inevitable comes at some political cost domestically. Therefore, the best negotiating strategy with a constructive representative whose domestic power is vulnerable, is to enable sufficient victories to mainatin his power while keeping up the necessary pressure to induce concessions towards a compromise. This is especially important when the alternatives to the current negotiating partners are most likely worse, or at least highly unpredictable.

Such political predicaments now face both Obama and Rohuani. Obama needs tangible concessions in the nuclear issues, preferably amplified by Iranian cooperation in crisis-management in Syria, Iraq and Afgnanistan to win acceptance for a deal with Iran in Congress. Without support in Congress sanctions cannot be repealed. Rouhani needs tangible relief in sanctions to maintain domestic support for concessions in the nuclear issues and cooperation in the regional crises. If this fails, the alternatives were most likely worse for all parties concerned.

Escalatory mechanisms

Clark describes how the dictates of military necessities, such as mobilization, created political dynamics. I a reversal of Clausewitz’ dictum that war is but an extention of politics, the political process, such as attempts at crisis management and last-minute diplomatic efforts, had to yield to the operational procedures foreseen in the various war plans. When war was considered unavoidable, preemption, striking first, became the most effective defensive strategy. Clark calls these dangerous dynamics “esclatory mechanisms”.

Both Obama, Netanyahu and Rouhani, with his expertise as seasoned nuclear negotiator, know that nuclear strategy is composed of escalatory mechanisms. They also probably know how dangerous misunderstandings almost led to nuclear war in 1983, as described i.e. by the public CIA study “A Cold War Conundrum: The 1983 Soviet War Scare”

What can we do?

Clark compares the crises leading to WW1 to the Euro crisis, which evolved as he wrote the book. In the crises leading up to WWI, the current European institutions for working out joint solutions were lacking. Such regional institutions for cooperation are also absent in the triangle of Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

This is an extremely important point to reiterate. Kahneman shows how our mind automatically picks as point of reference the analogy that happens to be at the top of our minds, which is what our minds happend to have registered most recently. Therefore, effective influence is to discuss more constructive analogies, such as the political failures that caused WW1. Since in Kahneman’s theory thinking is shaped by the most recent association, the perception of options is influenced by communication. There is no alternative to engaging all parties. Talk can be good. Refusing to talk leaves a cognitive void that others will fill. Their talk could be noxious.