Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 02:39 | SYDNEY
Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 02:39 | SYDNEY

Reader riposte: Of shoes and rationality


Sam Roggeveen


2 June 2008 14:02

Al writes in response to my post about Iran, in which I argued that those who look nostalgically back at the 'rational' Soviets to justify their view that the US cannot deter the 'mad' mullahs in Tehran should think again. The Soviets were plenty erratic at times, for instance when Krushchev banged his shoe on the lectern at the UN. My response follows Al's email:

I was struck when I was reading this by the recall that Khrushchev brought the shoe with him. We know now, as did people within various Western foreign services at the time, that the shoe was a theatrical prop. No spontaneous sign of madness/irrationality. But like all good theatre it hit its mark. It’s a interesting example on the broader topic of brinkmanship. 

Theatre, as Krushchev crudely demonstrated, has had, and still has, a central place in state relations since classical times. Postings in the western or southern Balkans, the Malay Archipelago or the Pacific or anywhere in the Levant or Orient are instructive along these lines. The Iranians are always keen to give lectures on their ancient civilisation and its superior and sophisticated diplomacy and statecraft. Pride, rationality, management of long-term state interests and appropriate use and grasp of theatre are part of that claimed heritage. There are metaphorical shoes being banged aplenty still. So far the Iranians have shown a very rational approach to managing development of their nuclear capabilities.

Foreign services, their ministers, advisors and other organs still have a hard time anticipating when otherwise (supposedly) rational state actors behave against their self interest by pressing a button and behaving in an ‘irrational’, and in the end self-destructive way, whether by launching an invasion, embarking on a war or thumbing their noses at UN or following the example of others such as the Israelis, Indians, Pakistanis who produced nuclear weapons and have got away with it. That sends the supervisors of  IR and intelligence analysts and their political masters running in ever tightening circles. States do behave ‘irrationally’ — Indonesia and Serbia in 1999 on Timor and Kosovo are two good examples.

From the perspective of nuclear stability between the US and Soviet Union, I'm not sure there is much comfort to be taken from the claim that Krushchev actually planned the shoe stunt. Is feigning irrationality less concerning for strategic stability than the real deal? How is the other side supposed to tell? Theatre does indeed have a central place in state relations, but the stakes were never as high as they were in the Cold War, and it's a good thing neither side's brinkmanship ended in disaster for all of us.

I couldn't agree more with Al about perceptions of rationality. Part of what's needed to understand the rationality of others is empathy — what do the circumstances surrounding decision X look like from their perspective? Empathy is a little lacking in our strategic debates, particularly on China.

One aspect of empathy is to be open to the possibility that other states are making mistakes, rather than deliberately pursuing nefarious policies. It's amazing how often we bemoan our own governmental inadequacies but then fail to consider that other states probably have worse systems than ours, and poorer information. On China's apparent desire for aircraft carriers, for instance, Western analysts routinely cite the reasons why this is a bad idea for China (eg. huge costs, a tempting target for the US, useless in a Taiwan conflict etc). The fact that China is doing it anyway is taken to mean that China has ambitions well beyond Taiwan and wants a naval capability to dominate the Pacific and the sea lines of communication to the Persian Gulf.

That might be true, but it's also possible that China is making a huge mistake, just as Germany did in its naval buildup before World War I, and the Soviet Union in the 60s and 70s. Australia's defence strategy and military procurement practices are far more open to dispute and debate than China's, yet we routinely make big errors. It is not beyond China to do the same.