Foreign policy experts love making bold predictions.  The clearer their conclusions, the wiser they sound.  Unfortunately, as Philip Tetlock documents, their predictions about controversial topics are scarcely better than chance.  They’re all style, no substance.  The Economist’s recent editorial on Russia and NATO beautifully illustrates these pathologies.

The overconfident recommendation:

[T]he West should forcefully reassert NATO’s willingness to defend itself and make it clear that all members of the alliance share its complete protection…

In particular, that means other NATO members sending at least a few troops, missiles and aircraft to the Baltics (or to neighbouring Poland), and making clear that bigger forces will follow if there is any continued aggression from Mr Putin.

The cursory recognition of countervailing considerations:

Why go that far? Plenty of people in the West would prefer to “wait and see”. The Balts have the promise of protection, they point out, so there is only danger in provoking Mr Putin. Wishful thinkers say that having made his point in Crimea, he will probably stop while he is still ahead. Instead of ratcheting up tension, the West should provide “off-ramps” that steer Russia towards détente. Other hard-nosed foreign-policy “realists” argue that Russia has legitimate interests in its near-abroad. It is madness, they say, to pick a fight when Russia and the West have other business to be getting on with–Syria’s civil war, Iran’s nuclear programme and China’s growing power.

A litany of overconfident predictions:

In fact the opposite is true. The greatest provocation to Mr Putin is to fail to stand up to him, and the least costly time to resist him is now. Emboldened, Mr Putin could test NATO’s resolve by changing the facts on the ground (grabbing a slice of Russian-speaking Latvia, say, or creating a corridor through Lithuania to Kaliningrad) and daring the alliance to risk nuclear war. More likely he would try destabilisation–the sabotage of Baltic railways; the killing of Russians by agents provocateurs; strikes, protests and anonymous economy-wide cyber-attacks. That would make life intolerable for the Balts, without necessarily eliciting a response from the West.

Either way, if the Balts begin to disintegrate, it would leave the West with a much less palatable choice than it has today: NATO would have to walk away from its main premise, that aggression against one is aggression on all, or it would have to respond–and to restore deterrence, NATO’s response would have to be commensurately greater. That in turn would pose the immediate threat of escalation.

Better to take steps today, so that Mr Putin understands he has nothing to gain from stirring up trouble.

Notice: The Economist presents no empirics about past experiences with “standing up” versus “backing down.”  If it bothered to do so, it would find many supportive examples – plus many unsupportive counterexamples.  World War II is the poster child for “standing up.”  World War I is the poster child for “backing down.”  The Korean War – standing up.  The Vietnam War – backing down.  Anyone who knows basic history can multiply such examples endlessly.  International relations is inherently complicated.  In hindsight, it’s easy to explain how Serbian terrorism in 1914 led to North Korean Communist dictatorship in 2014.  But who in 1913 even hinted at this possibility?

This doesn’t mean, of course, that empirical study of foreign policy is fruitless.  Maybe an exhaustive study would reveal that standing up works better 55% of the time, and backing down works better 45% of the time.  But unless you hide behind lame tautologies (“I favor smart standing up.  That never fails!”), you’re unlikely to reach a stronger conclusion.

You could object, “You can’t galvanize resistance by saying there’s a 55% chance you’re right.”  Fair enough.  But if that’s all you can honestly claim, why are you so eager to galvanize resistance in the first place?  Why are you so hasty to claim opposing experts haven’t a clue?  Maybe you should spend a few years publicly betting your opponents.  There’s no better way to prove to the world – and yourself – that your forecasts are genuinely better than chance.

Look in the mirror.  You don’t know the best way to deal with Russia.  “Taking steps today” could work precisely as The Economist
hopes.  It could lead Putin to double down.  Crossing your fingers and
waiting for things to blow over might be a disaster.  Then again, it
might work.  Stranger things have happened.  If you scoff, I’m happy to bet.  But since you’re claiming knowledge and I’m pleading ignorance, I want odds.

P.S. Not April Fools.