Kennan, Putin, and the Danger of Thinking Your Opponents Are Irrational


Years ago, I was in a stupid bar on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.  We used to go there after work because they had ridiculously cheap Long Island Iced Teas during Happy Hour, which was almost always a mistake.  (Actually, not “almost”–just “always.”)

And one day a musclebound, intense-looking middle-aged white guy was there at the bar.  Somehow we got into a conversation.  He claimed to work for Blackwater, the mercenary company that the George W. Bush administration outsourced its foreign military misadventures to, and he said he was waiting to turn over his identity to some agent at that very bar, that very night. I would not have even given him the benefit of the doubt except that he whipped out five driver’s licenses, all with the same face (his) but different names.  Who knows what this guy was really up to, but it was definitely something.

In any case, we got into a conversation about the War on Terror, nukes, and Iran.  I made the point that the people who run Iran might be religious fundamentalists, but they’re also people who own property, have business interests, and possess a basic sense of self-preservation. They know if they nuked Tel Aviv then Iran would be erased from the map by massive American retaliation.  This seems elementary. Everyone knows this. They might be so crazy as to ensure their own imminent annihilation, but I doubt it.

The faux mercenary became incredibly belligerent, grabbed me by the neck and pushed me against the wall.  He said the mullahs are crazy, and they’ll do anything. You don’t get it!  I placed my hand on his shoulder to push him away, and he screamed, “Don’t you touch me! How dare you touch me? If you put a hand on me again I’ll end you.”

I thought about pushing the issue, as I’ve been prone to do so many times before, but I realized that this person suffered from PTSD or at the very least was on an extreme ‘roid rage and might actually kill me. So I de-escalated the situation.

The point of this whole story?

A lot of bad decision making and policy making gets done when you assume your opponents are crazy. For what it’s worth, I think we just saw this with Donald Trump, to our immense detriment.

As a history professor, I often teach the “long telegram” that American diplomat George Kennan sent from Moscow in 1948 as a primary source.  It crystallized a lot of American thinking about the Soviet Union and Russian culture heading into the Cold War.  In the document, Kennan tries to explain why the Soviets were such a malignant force.  A tradition of autocratic rule had emerged from the situation of an empire situated on a vast, mostly defenseless plain, subject to invasion by everyone from the Mongols to Napoleon to Hitler.  The Soviet Union had the great misfortune, he said, to combine a uniquely Russian sense of strategic insecurity with a feeling of cultural, economic, and technological inadequacy vis a vis the West; when all this was married to a virulently militant political ideology in the form of Marxism-Leninism, you could expect trouble.

Hence, the Soviets were driven by paranoia and insecurity to pursue ruthless international goals, which posed an implacable threat to the United States.

A lot of what Kennan said at the dawn of the Cold War was not really wrong – there really are historical and cultural patterns that have predisposed Russian political culture toward authoritarianism.  But I always want students to look at the situation of the US and the Soviets in the late 1940s and see that psychoanalyzing your enemies creates many risks – was the USSR really this relentlessly expansionary force?  Much of the history of the Cold War would suggest otherwise, as Stalin and his successors were primarily interested in securing a defensive perimeter around Russia, much like Putin today, not pursuing an endlessly expansionist ideological world revolution.   Projecting mentally ill psychological motivations on to your rivals can be very risky because it can lead to consequential misreadings.

Which brings us to Putin. Today we see a Russian regime mostly shorn of ideology  (at least the radical left-wing one of yore), but acting in much the same way as their historic predecessors.  Is the contemporary Russian regime crazy, nuts, paranoid, irrational?  Doesn’t seem so to me.  They have successfully nibbled away at parts of the former Soviet empire, such as South Ossetia in Georgia and Crimea in the Ukraine, and such efforts appear to have worked out quite well for them–to say nothing of their shameless meddling in the US election.

They’re achieving their goals.  Is this irrational?  A charitable explanation would be that they felt threatened by the march of US/NATO/EU influence to their historical doorstep in Eastern Europe and responded with pretty predictable force.  I’m not sympathetic to Putin’s regime in the least, but major powers tend to be sensitive about their near periphery; the US almost blew up the world in 1962 over a similar foray into our own backyard.  While some liberal commentators, such as Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall, ponder whether Russian actions are motivated by paranoia and irrationality, it seems odd to describe Putin as irrational when he seems to be playing the game according to a conception of Russia’s strategic national interests better than almost anyone else.

Today’s Russia is a sick country, possibly worse off than it was even under the ailing Soviet state.  It is literally withering away, and only has its sclerotic big-power status to hold on to as its people succumb to negative population growth, alcoholism, poverty, corruption, and so forth.  So it is a scary situation, for sure.  But irrationality just does not seem to be the right frame for this.