Yes, the title is a counter-riff on this old National Lampoon cover:
...but what of that. Of course I’m thinking about the geostrategic value of predictability in a nation: the extent to which its responses to particular developments can be accurately forecast.
And yes, the Syria matter is on my mind again.
Many persons of high prestige study international relations. Unfortunately, most have large, double-edged axes to grind about international relations. It’s a difficult field for anyone interested in gathering unbiased opinions. It’s made opaque by the impossibility of experimentation, though in all candor, the notion of experimenting on nation-states causes me worse shudders than the impossibility of locating an expert on foreign policy who isn’t blinded by his own opinions.
If there’s a central meta-question about international affairs, it might be this one:
...where better should be taken to mean “favorable to one’s own national interests.”
A nation that pronounces specific foreign policies will be deemed predictable if:
- Its actions consistently accord with those policies;
- It announces changes to them before acting on those changes;
- Such changes, if any, are gentle rather than dramatic.
The inverse is also true. But which condition is more conducive to a nation’s own interests?
As usual, the answer is: It depends.
In peacetime, the importance of predictability is high. Nation-to-nation bargaining of all sorts reposes on an expectation of trust: first, trust that agreements will be kept; second, trust that changes in government will not automatically alter or nullify such agreements. A Darth Vader nation (“I am altering the deal, Calrissian. Pray that I don’t alter it any further”) soon discovers that no one is willing to negotiate with it.
Indeed, even a very powerful nation cannot afford to be unpredictable in peacetime, for other states, large or small, will seek to avoid dependency on its actions. Trade relations, customs barriers, the policing of the high seas, and other matters that touch upon the international order will be arranged in such a fashion that the impact of any actions by the unpredictable state is minimized.
The old diplomats’ definition of peace – “a state of tension that falls short of armed conflict” – acquires a particularly ironic force here, because as a practical matter, peace is always a matter of degree. As I wrote in the Foreword to Freedom’s Scion:
The States of Earth exist in an anarchic relation to one another. Each has its own regional code of law, which might differ markedly from all the others. Despite several thrusts at the matter over the centuries, there is no “super-State” to enforce a uniform code of law over them all. More, they view one another as competitors in many different areas; their populations and institutions are often in sharp economic competition with one another. Thus, they are often at odds. They resolve important disputes among them through negotiation or warfare.
Yet individuals manage to move among them with a fair degree of facility and (usually) little risk. Cross-border trade is commonplace, in some places torrential. Though wars are frequent, they seldom result in major alterations to the overall political pattern. The uber-anarchy of Terrestrial society exhibits more stability than one would expect from two hundred well armed, quarrelsome States, each of which perpetually schemes at snatching some advantage at another’s expense.
That condition practically guarantees that the “state of tension that falls short of armed conflict” will be decorated now and then with...armed conflict, albeit mostly of an intensity that doesn’t engage a national military in open combat.
When “peace” begins to slide down the continuum toward open warfare between the militaries of nation-states, the value of predictability decays along with it.
In warfare, unpredictability has a high value. What the enemy cannot predict, he cannot confidently prepare to counter. Major battles in all the wars of Westphalian society have hinged on surprise moves by bold commanders, whose opposite numbers were caught unprepared by them. The slow discovery of the great military value of surprise, whether strategic or tactical, has largely shaped the evolution of warfare since the Industrial Revolution.
Broadly speaking, in warfare:
- You don’t want the enemy to be able to predict your moves, whether in initiative or on response;
- You don’t want the enemy to be well informed about your overall capabilities;
- You don’t want the enemy to know your strategic goals.
But no more than peace is warfare a binary condition. International relations have often produced intermediate conditions – nominally peace, though substantial armed conflict is in progress – that require a sophisticated approach to predictability / unpredictability decisions. In the current circumstances, it behooves the United States to be reliably predictable about some things, but wholly unpredictable about others.
As I’ve said more than once this past week, the United States has maintained a policy of deterring lesser states from acquiring weapons of mass destruction, and of punishing their use when it should occur. WMDs were unknown until fairly recently in historical terms. The first introduction of a WMD to the battlefield was Kaiserine Germany’s use of war gases – at first chlorine; later on phosgene – in World War I. The horror of that weapon was sufficient to include a ban on the use of war gases in the Geneva Conventions.
Over the past thirty years there have been a few cases in which a state was suspected of having employed war gases. Saddam Hussein is believed to have gassed the Kurds shortly before the First Gulf War. Of course, the use of Sarin in Syria is at the heart of the current geopolitical foofaurauw.
President Trump acted on that longstanding policy. If we leave aside the supposed uncertainty about “whose Sarin” it was, the subject of debate is the policy itself. Should the U.S. have such a policy? If the answer is yes, then should our response to the use of a WMD be highly predictable, or should violators (and uninvolved bystander-states) wonder what we’re going to do and when we’re going to do it?
For my part, I think the policy is wise. However, the response, inasmuch as it’s more likely than not to be military in nature, should be difficult to predict, so that a violator cannot know in advance what penalty will be imposed upon him. Such uncertainty tends to augment the deterrent value of the policy.
Of one aspect of the retribution, predictability is essential: it should hurt the violator, and hurt him badly, but if possible without harming the uninvolved. Smith’s violation should not cause Jones to bomb Davis. That problem is what has evoked the use of human shields by gangster-states determined to avert the consequences of their aggressions.
Which is part of the problem I visited in this essay.
There are no provably correct solutions to the problem of aggressive violence by nation-states. As has been remarked many times, hindsight is always 20-20; armchair quarterbacks throw no passes and win no games. I expect the Tomahawk strike against Syria to be chewed over for years to come, whether or not there’s a major alteration of the Middle Eastern muddle any time soon. If there is, of course, politicians will scramble to take any available credit and avert any blame. That’s what they do.