THE UKRAINE WAR. Part 1: Are Biden & Co. risking NUCLEAR WAR with Russia?
Are Biden & Co. risking nuclear war with Russia over Ukraine?
If so, Biden & Co. have lost their minds.
But is that a good hypothesis? (Or is your reality being managed?)
Ron DeSantis: “…F-16s and long-range missiles should therefore be off the table. These moves would risk explicitly drawing the United States into the conflict and drawing us closer to a hot war between the world’s two largest nuclear powers. That risk is unacceptable.”
Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: “…we need to remove our Aegis missile systems, which house the Tomahawk missiles — nuclear missiles — from 70 miles from the Russian border. When the Russians put nuclear missiles on Cuba, 1,500 miles from Washington DC, we were ready to invade [the Cubans], and we would have invaded them if they had not removed them.”
Noam Chomsky: “Will Putin pack up his bags and slink away silently to obscurity or worse? (…) Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief Gen. Valery Zaluzhny had written that Russian cruise missiles ‘could strike across the country with ‘impunity,’ adding that ‘limited nuclear war cannot be ruled out.’ As we all know, the escalation ladder from limited to terminal nuclear war is all too easy to climb.”
Donald Trump: “We have never been closer to World War III than we are today under Joe Biden. A global conflict between nuclear-armed powers would mean death and destruction on a scale unmatched in human history. It would be nuclear Armageddon. Nothing is more important than avoiding that nightmare.”
Tucker Carlson: “America and the UK demand total war with Russia—regime-change war with Russia. (…) That is clearly insane and dangerous … the closest we have ever been to nuclear conflict in history. (…) This is complete craziness. This is a, quote, ‘strategy’ that could easily bring the total destruction of the West. And soon.”
More than one reader has asked me why I haven’t said anything about the war in Ukraine. Seems like I should. The trouble is: I can’t make sense of it. But I’ll try to reason through some possibilities here.
A lot has been said on the causes of the war and its justice or injustice, but this is not my present quarry. As someone who grew up in the 1970s, when many kids were traumatized with nuclear-holocaust ‘duck and cover’ drills, the question I’d like to answer is this:
Why, given that Russia has nuclear weapons, has the US been escalating so much (and right on Russia’s border)?
At the time of writing, the war is still going on, and it seems Biden & Co. are getting ready to give Ukraine some F-16 fighter planes. But even if a peace agreement is signed within the next sixty seconds my question remains.
It is a question to which prominent dissidents from the right and from the left have given a common answer (as evidenced in my quotations above).
On the right, running for president against Joe Biden, we have Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis; on the left, also running, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. And over in commentary space we have Noam Chomsky on the left and Tucker Carlson on the right. A diversity of voices but not of opinion—not on this. They all claim that Biden & Co. are risking all-out or ‘terminal’ nuclear war between the US and Russia. Since that would carry an infinite cost, the implication is that Biden & Co. have lost their minds (though only Carlson says it quite like that).
But have Biden & Co. really gone crazy? Or are we missing some information that, once understood, renders US escalation in the Ukraine rational? That’s what I’ll investigate.
As my first step, I’ll present my foundational assumptions on content and method.
Back to first principles
First, let us agree to say ‘Biden & Co.’ for whoever makes Ukraine policy in the present US administration. Whether Joe Biden is literally that person matters not to my arguments. He is taking responsibility for it and that is enough for us here.
As for my main assumptions, I’ll begin by accepting:
The official narrative of what Biden & Co. are doing in Ukraine.
The central assumption of classical game theory: rational action.
A few brief comments on this.
Please don’t misunderstand me on the first point. I do not accept the pious homily about defending Ukraine to make the world safe for democracy. I think skepticism on that is healthy.
What I accept is the bare-bones description: US bosses and their Western allies are sending ever more sophisticated, deadly, and even long-range weapons to Ukraine, a country at war with Russia. And I accept the obvious implication: that Biden & Co. have gone to war with Russia. And that’s it. Everything else is up for grabs.
Now, we all have an intuitive sense of what ‘rationality’ means, but game theorists and other sorts of economists are forced by their trade to produce a careful and explicit technical definition. In this technical definition, the bosses are rational if:
they are motivated by material self-interest, meaning (among other things) that they prefer to hold power over an economically productive population rather than a nuclear wasteland1;
before making a choice, they calculate costs and benefits—with the information available to them, and within all other applicable constraints—in order to choose the largest expected net payoff to their material self interest;
when weighing alternative ‘strategies’ (courses of action), if A is preferred to B, and B is preferred to C, then A is preferred to C (transitivity); and
the rank ordering of preferences is relatively stable (preferences can change, of course, but not every 60 minutes—that’s insane).
Behavior that satisfies these conditions is called canonical rationality.
How to use rational choice theory (RCT)
One must be careful when making judgments. A behavior may at first seem irrational to you, the observer, and yet be rational.
This may happen, for example, if the actor is mentally representing the structure of costs and benefits differently from you (because of his ignorance, or because of yours); or if the actor makes untrue public claims about his values (‘preference falsification’) that you are naively taking at face value; or if you inferred the actor’s preferences incorrectly; or if the actor is betting on a chain of events or on a time frame that you haven’t pondered or yet considered relevant.
Thus, when faced with apparent irrationality, you may choose:
Option 1. Ask: ‘What assumptions must you introduce, discard, or modify in your model of the Universe, and of this person’s representation of it, and of his preferences, so that his behavior—which right now seems irrational—will become rational?
Or you may choose:
Option 2. Interpret the apparent irrationality as evidence that rational choice has failed as a model for this particular behavior.
It is good form to leave option 2 as a last resort, only after repeatedly failing with option 1. And this is good form generally, with any theory, for this is how you explore a theory.
For example, when the orbit of Uranus was found anomalous, astronomers didn’t rush to conclude that Newton’s equations were in error (option 2); instead, assuming Newtonian infallibility (option 1), they solved Newton’s equations for the mass and vector of the body that should be pulling on Uranus to make it orbit so. And then they looked (with telescopes). And there it was: Neptune! Other previously unknown bodies were discovered in this manner.
But with Mercury’s orbit, also anomalous, astronomers failed repeatedly to find the body that, according to Newton’s equations, should be pulling on it to make it orbit so. That’s when they began suspecting a better theory than Newton’s might exist. And this, among other anomalies, paved the way for Albert Einstein and the Theory of Relativity, which explains everything that Newton can and also a few things that Newton cannot (including Mercury’s orbit).
Yet Newton is hardly useless today. For lots of problems, Newtonian Mechanics is still the go-to model.
In the study of geopolitics, Rational Choice Theory is my Newtonian Mechanics. Any time a policy behavior seems irrational, I consider first what assumptions I must modify to make it rational. And then I look (I see whether the modified assumptions can be documented).
But isn’t this antiquated?
My insistence on canonical rationality may seem like a rejection of the latest behavioral science. After all, rational-choice theory (RCT) has come in for criticism in the last few decades—and from game-theoretical economists, whose behavioral subspecies turned game theory into an experimental science. Such criticisms are grounded in careful and colorful lab demonstrations of people acting emotionally in ways that most definitely contradict the predictions of canonical rationality.
I do accept all this. Heck, I collaborated in a famous cross-cultural investigation whose results argue that meaning-drenched cultural values anchor the powerful emotions governing the evolved rules of thumb guiding our many non-rational yet (at least originally) adaptive strategies. And I agree that by taking these discovered rules of thumb as our new axioms we can build better behavioral models of the little people.
We should certainly care to explain the little people, the Salt of the Earth, as they are most of humanity.
But if we wish to explain the small handful of bosses who make world policy—as we also should, for we may forfeit our lives in their decisions—the stubbornly emotional and impulsive choices of little people playing experimental games under the watchful eye of behavioral economists will not give us a good model.
To really grok Ukraine policy and other such large interventions we’ll need the lens of canonical rationality. I’ll tell you why.
To explain geopolitics, you need rational-choice theory (RCT)
The bigger the stakes, the more carefully you make decisions. If needing a pencil for everyday duties, you might purchase one at random—they’re so cheap relative to the cost of investigating the market. Perhaps you’ll get a suboptimal pencil, but it’s a small loss. If buying a company, however, you’ll conduct what is called due diligence and investigate the company, which is expensive but far cheaper than making a serious mistake. Or, if you consider due diligence necessary for the pencil, then you’re probably an artist—for you, the stakes in a pencil are high.
The game with the highest material stakes is world power. Those playing this game, the big world bosses, are just like the little people in one sense: their psychologies routinely perform rule-of-thumb proxy calculations with impulsive emotions.
But that’s not how they make decisions.
With the stakes so high, the bosses naturally want costs and benefits to (their) self-interest rationally estimated and deliberated. To that end, they’ve created enormous, functionally organized systems with sundry internal checks and balances to capture information for process and analysis, make decisions, and deploy power. We call them defense, security, diplomatic, police, and intelligence bureaucracies.
In countries where the power elite, the bosses, are playing for world power, these bureaucracies swallow the lion’s share of the budget. In the US, in 2022, defense alone accounted for about 45% of all discretionary spending. (The intelligence budget is a state secret, but believed to be included in the ‘other’ category within defense.) By contrast, the categories of ‘education,’ ‘training,’ ‘employment,’ and ‘social services’ together make up just 8% of discretionary spending.
More resources means more power—more power to capture and process information, develop game-theoretic know-how and analysis, and build effective decisionmaking structures. We can expect the defense and intelligence bureaucracies, therefore, to be hyperrational. (‘Military intelligence’ is not an oxymoron.)
It follows that, for any massively expensive intervention of US bosses in our world system, the rational-actor model should generate the default or ‘null’ hypothesis. The so-called burden of proof—the obligation to present clearly stated and carefully supported special reasons—should be on those who, in the context of geopolitical discussions, invoke non-rational models to explain observed policy behaviors.
Implications for the research process
My stance has four important logical implications for the research process.
First, whenever the geopolitical policy decisions of the bosses seem stupid with respect to my values, I reject my values as a good model for boss values, and I search instead for the model of boss values (and hence of their preferences) that will make their behavior rational. Then I look: I try to see whether I can document that they indeed have those values.
Second, whenever the policy decisions of the bosses seem crazy with respect to my beliefs concerning the facts of the world or the laws of the social universe (and predictions therein), I reject my beliefs as a good model for boss beliefs, and I search instead for a model of boss beliefs that will make their behavior rational. Then I look: I try to see whether I can document that they do have such beliefs.
Third, since I recognize that a) the bosses—with world power at stake—are highly motivated to learn the facts of the world and the laws of the social Universe, an enterprise for which they possess tremendous advantages; and b) they have the ability to manage my reality, I try to learn from them—to infer from their behaviors what they, with their superior knowledge, take the facts and the laws of our Universe to be.
As mentioned, the bosses sit atop the most powerful bureaucracies ever created, employing multiple human teams and advanced artificial intelligence to collect and analyze yottabytes of information with which to plan short, medium, and long-term strategies. These strategies rest on hypotheses tested on a vast behavioral surface, as the bosses make State policy for millions of people and get real-time feedback on everything they do. The proven ability of the bosses to hold and keep power suggests that their linked hypotheses about our social universe, the model implicit in their choices, is—at least in a qualitative sense—highly predictive. But they have an interest in obscuring, where the citizens are concerned, what that model is.
Accordingly, what I do is this: after deducing from boss policies what their model of our social universe—assuming rationality—ought to be, I examine the component hypotheses of their implicit model for possible merits and adopt any hypotheses that, in a fuller analysis, seem sound.
( Here’s one example. I used to think the bosses felt contempt for the little people. Then I became acquainted with the enormous efforts of the putatively ‘democratic’ bosses to corrupt the media [see here and here]. And since Elon Musk released Twitter documentation after purchasing that company, we know from those Twitter-Files how the bosses also corrupt social media. It follows from such efforts that the bosses consider us little people dangerous to them if properly informed; else they wouldn’t work so hard to manage our reality. After doing a fair amount of historical research on the evolutions and revolutions of our Western political systems, I now think the bosses are right: We The People are indeed powerful; the bosses are right to fear us. )
Fourth: When the policy outcomes of the bosses undermine the rights and freedoms of the little people, and the media insist too strongly, and too consistently, that the bosses are stupid and/or crazy, I grow suspicious (or contemptuous) of the media. And I am provoked to investigate the relationship of the media to power. Because it strikes me as rather convenient for the bosses that the media should insist so much that catastrophes for our individual rights and freedoms are just the ‘screw-ups’ of well-meaning democrats (and not the bad-faith bullseyes of clever, stealth totalitarians).
How I propose to investigate the Ukraine war
Okay, so I will try to build an explanatory model for US policy in Ukraine without giving up the key assumption of canonical rationality.
If US escalation seems irrational—because it appears to pose the risk of an all-out nuclear war—I will assume that I, as observer, am missing some key element of context. Perhaps I lack some information which the bosses do have; or perhaps I have not yet understood big-boss values; or perhaps I haven’t noticed yet some important implication of our known facts.
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I will reason my way through to what should be true if these policy behaviors are rational, and then I will look to see if important and relevant facts agree or disagree with such predictions.
As evidenced by my quotes at the top, however, every prominent public detractor of Biden & Co.’s Ukraine policy—whether on the left or on the right—has been doing precisely the opposite of what I recommend. They have all gone straight to option 2. They have concluded, in Carlson’s words, that “this is complete craziness” and that Biden & Co. are “insane.”
That’s one hypothesis. But to me it reeks of reality management.
In my following pieces I will propose two alternative hypotheses to explain US escalation in Ukraine. (No, I don’t think US bosses are crazy. Yes, I think the military-industrial complex is smart.)
Some economists have tried to wiggle out of this assumption. The style of it is like this. They’ll say that rationality is about ‘maximizing utility,’ but anything can give utility. Self-interest oftentimes gives utility, but other things can do that too. Economists are merely saying that people will maximize utility. Okay. But if that’s all that economists are saying, then they really aren’t saying much. It amounts to saying that people will consistently try to get more of what they want, which could be anything. That’s more like a theoretical tautology than an actual theory, because it explains everything yet predicts nothing. No, to be interesting (to make predictions), economic theory needs the self-interest axiom. And that’s why economists always fall back on it. Applied here, if we say that bosses in the US and Russia are as likely as not to find ‘utility’ in ‘ruling’ over a nuclear wasteland, then we can’t make any predictions. But if you say that a world leader would have to be insane to prefer a nuclear wasteland to an economically productive population, now you can work out how to keep these powerful bosses from destroying everything. And that’s what MAD is (but I get ahead of myself; I will deal with MAD in the next piece).