Risk, Uncertainty, and Black Swans: Why Soviet Socialism Was Forever Until It Was No More
Talk given at the Annual Berkeley-Stanford Conference
UC Berkeley, March 3, 2017
A few words to begin with about the title.
Many of you probably recognize the reference to Alexei’s terrific and influential book about late socialism, “Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More.” The book is framed around a particular observation, which is that in the late Soviet period Soviet citizens assumed that Soviet socialism would last forever, but after the fact they looked back and saw all sorts of reasons why it had to collapse.
It wasn’t just Soviet citizens who felt that way, however – outside observers did as well. Indeed there has been a great deal of criticism of academic specialists, and perhaps more importantly of the U.S. and Western intelligence communities, for having assumed that “everything was forever” and for failing to predict the collapse of communism in the USSR and Eastern Europe. In fact, just yesterday I read a piece in Foreign Policy claiming that Kremlinologists are “ haunted” by their “fabled inability to foresee one of the most significant geopolitical events of the 20th century — the collapse of communism and the Soviet Union.”
My argument that if indeed they are haunted – which I don’t think is true, at least I’m not – they shouldn’t be. On the contrary, the early assumption of both Soviet citizens and outside observers that “everything was forever” was entirely reasonable, and ex-post claims that what happened was predictable are not only wrong but reflect a typical cognitive bias highlighted in some of the research in psychology and behavioral economics on cognition and irrationality in decision-making.
In short, my argument is that the collapse of the Soviet Union shares at least one thing in common with Donald Trump’s election as president, which is that it was a highly improbable outcome with enormous consequences. Which is to say, it was a black swan.
A few general points before diving in. Continue reading
As readers of this blog know, I believe that Putin and his advisors are convinced that the United States is trying to encircle, contain, weaken, exploit, and even destroy Russia as a unified state. They are also convinced that the West’s rhetorical commitment to democracy is a smokescreen for U.S. hegemonic ambitions globally and in Russia’s rightful sphere of influence particularly. This understanding of U.S. objectives is also shared by the bulk of the Russian public. It’s what many Russians believed before the Ukraine crisis (and it helps explain why the Kremlin reacted the way it did to the Maidan events), and it’s believed all the more now that Russia has lost Ukraine as an ally and NATO is reinforcing its eastern defenses.
That Russian officials and the Russian public think this would be dangerous under the best of circumstances. Russia, after all, is a nuclear superpower with a large and very capable conventional military. What makes it particularly dangerous is the fact that the Kremlin’s security problems with NATO are not only getting worse but are likely to continue to do so for years to come. Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, its role in destabilizing the Donbas, and its intervention in Syria have been very popular domestically, at least to date. But they have also produced an American military “repivot” to Europe, a steady but significant increase in NATO hard power capabilities close to Russian borders, and a surge in military spending by most of Russia’s increasingly worried neighbors. Continue reading
I’ve been asked to attend a workshop next month that will “take stock of the economic, political and foreign policy developments in Russia and their implications for the United States.” In preparation, I’m going to post a long analysis of where I think U.S.-Russian relations are headed, but for now let me summarize my take as follows.
- The already dangerous U.S./NATO-Russian military relationship is getting more dangerous.
- A continuation or further deterioration of the West’s security relationship with Russia is not in the interest of the United States or its allies.
- Russia’s security problems with the West are not going to be solved by undermining the European Union, by promoting divisions within the West, or by improving ties to China.
- Russia’s security problems with the West are not going to be solved by turning Ukraine or Georgia into permanent political or economic basket cases.
- Russian military operations in Syria have added to tensions with the West and have increased the risk of a military clash with NATO.
- Russia’s overall relations with the West in general, and with the U.S. in particular, are not going to improve significantly unless and until there is a stabilization of the NATO-Russia military relationship.
- It is unlikely that Western economic sanctions on Russia will be lifted even partially in this year, and Crimea makes it highly unlikely that they will be lifted in full for years to come.
- Making Russia’s security relationship with the West less dangerous is going to require direct negotiations between Russia and the United States.
- Those negotiations should focus initially on arms control and security-related confidence building measures, and they should be comprehensive and include not just negotiations on strategic (START) weapons but also on theater nuclear weapons (INF), on ballistic missile defenses (BMD), and most importantly on conventional forces dispositions (CFE).
- Progress on arms control can make the NATO-Russia military balance less dangerous and contribute to a gradual normalization of political relations (a détente)—way down the road it might even give Ukraine and Russia the space needed to negotiate some kind of status compromise over Crimea (but don’t hold your breath).
Last spring, I argued in a talk at Berkeley that the Ukraine crisis was still very dangerous despite the signing of the Minsk II Agreement on the Donbas conflict. In brief, my reasoning was that (1) the Ukraine conflict is the product of an intensifying geopolitical struggle between Russia and the West in general and the United States in particular; (2) there is a powerful ideological component to that struggle, which is one reason why it is very likely to last for the foreseeable future; (3) the most dangerous dimension of the struggle is the military one; and (4) there is a non-negligible risk of a military clash between NATO and Russia.
I’m going to double down on my Chicken Little-ism today and make three points about Russia’s military intervention in Syria: (1) the immediate effect of the intervention is to increase the risk of a military clash between Russia and the United States or one of its allies; (2) it is very unlikely that Russia’s intervention will lead to a genuine “grand coalition” against ISIS or “terrorism”; and (3) there are no good options for Washington in Syria in general, and no good options in responding to Russia’s intervention in particular. Continue reading
[Following is an expanded version of a talk I gave at UC Berkeley on Monday, November 23, 2015.]
Much has been written recently about whether the United States and Russia are once again in a “Cold War.” Somewhat more optimistically, the question is often rendered as “Can the United States and Russia avoid another Cold War?”
I suppose one could treat these as invitations to make a purely historical comparison between the current US-Russian relationship and the US-Soviet relationship during “The Cold War”? But I don’t think that is what most people have in mind when they raise the issue. Rather, I suspect that what most people want to know is how adversarial are U.S-Russian relations today, how dangerous is the relationship, is the high level of tension between the two countries likely to last, and what are the costs of hostility going to be over the long run?
It therefore strikes me that to answer the implied questions, one needs to break the problem up into at least four parts, as follows.
(1) What do we mean by the term “cold war”? (That is a conceptual problem about a category of events or states – hence no initial caps.)
(2) Are we already in a cold war with Russia? (This is a descriptive or empirical problem about whether the current relationship meets the definitional criteria.)
(3) How is the US-Russian relationship likely to evolve over, say, the next two years? (This is a predictive problem that will likely produce different answers depending on the forecast period – say five years instead of two.)
(4) Is there a way to return to a genuinely cooperative relationship in the foreseeable future? (This is a prescriptive problem in which it is perfectly possible to argue that such and such should be done but it is very unlikely that it will be.) Continue reading
The European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) has a useful “explainer” on Article 42.7 and the reasons why France invoked it, which can be found here.
To my mind, the section at the end of the ECFR’s article, which is entitled “How have other member states [of the EU] responded?,” highlights a point made in my previous post about the disconnect between the security needs and obligations of the EU member states on the one hand, and the EU’s institutional and hard power capabilities on the other hand.
There is, however, one point made in the ECFR article that warrants close attention, and which I was unaware of when I wrote my earlier post. Continue reading