Reality has a way of catching up to us. Sometimes it comes via a sudden shock, Sputnik or Tet. Sometimes it creeps up incrementally, as in Ukraine with each thousand round Russian artillery barrage, and the steady rise of the ruble now 25 percent higher than at the onset of the crisis.
Dim the lights, the party's almost over. But that is not the end of the affair. Whatever the exact outcomes, there is no going back to the status quo ante " - the world, especially Europe, has changed in fundamental respects. Moreover, it has changed in ways diametrically opposite to what was desired and anticipated.
The West has been inhabiting a fanciful world that could exist only in our imaginations. Many remain stranded in that self-deluded mirage. The more that we have invested in that fantasy world, the harder we find it to exit and to make the adjustment, intellectual, emotional, behavioral.
An assessment of where we are, where we might go and the implications over time of the reactions of other parties is a singularly complex undertaking. For it requires not just specification of time frames, but also the varying definitions of national interest and strategic objective that government leaders might use as reference marks.
The number of permutations created by the array of players involved, and the low confidence margins associated with forecasts of how each will act at key decision points down the road, exacerbate the already daunting challenge. Before one even contemplates embarking on such a task, there are a few crucial considerations to bear in mind.
Those in Charge
First, the people who count at the head of governments are not pure thinking machines. Far from it. They are too often persons of narrow intelligence, of limited experience in high stakes games of power politics, who navigate by simplistic, outdated and parochial cognitive maps of the world. Their perspectives approximate montages composed of bits of ideology, bits of visceral emotion, bits of remembered but inappropriate precedents, bits of massaged public opinion data, and odds-and-ends plucked from New York Times op-ed pieces.
In addition, let's remind ourselves that policy-formation and decision-making are group processes especially in Washington and Brussels encumbered by their own collective dynamics. Finally, in Western capitals, governments operate in dual currencies: policy effectiveness and electoral politics.
Consequently, there are two powerful, in-built tendencies that inflect the choices made: 1) inertial extension of existing attitudes and approaches; and 2) avoidance wherever possible of endangering a hard-won, often tenuous, consensus on a lowest common denominator basis.
One thing we know with certainty: no fundamental change in thinking or action can occur without determination and decisiveness at the top.
Necessity is the mother of invention " or so it is said. However, grasping what is "necessary" can be a very slippery business. An actual recasting of how one views a problematic situation normally is a last resort. Experience and history tell us that, as do behavioral experiments.
The psychology of perceived necessity is complex. Adversity or threat in and of itself does not trigger improvisation. Even the survival instinct does not always spark innovation. Denial, then avoidance, are normally the first, sequential reactions when facing adversity in trying to reach an objective or to satisfy a recognized interest. A strong bias favors the reiteration of a standard repertoire of responses.
True innovation tends to occur only in extremis; and even then, behavioral change is more likely to begin with minor adjustments of established thinking and behavior at the margins rather than modification of core beliefs and patterns of action.
The American Dilemma
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