The problem with political prophecies

4 min read

On March 29 Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk gave an interview to European media grouping LENA, making his views very clear about the future of Europe. 

He warned that Europe entered a “pre-war era”, no matter how “devastating” it sounds “especially for the younger generation” and that war was “no longer a concept from the past”, just to conclude that “literally any scenario is possible”.

Prime Minister Tusk warned his audience that the next two years of the war in Ukraine would decide everything, adding, “We are living in the most critical moment since the end of the Second World War (…) Europe must be prepared for war”. 

Additionally, Tusk criticized other European politicians for their attitude, claiming that they did not feel the time was right for the war time communication and that “they are choosing their statements more carefully”. 

While one could argue that the term is redundant (it is a pre-war era right until the moment a war breaks out, irrespective whether it lasts only for a few years or for a few decades, like the relatively peaceful period in the center of the Old Continent after the end of the Franco-Prussian war) or that “war” has never completely disappeared, only hasn’t been this close to the doorsteps of Europeans for many years (or that, if anything, the way the war in Ukraine unfolded proves that Russia doesn’t have the capabilities to attack NATO), but there is an aspect that is far more worrying than those two.

Prime Minister Tusk wasn’t the first hoping to “prepare” Europeans for the possibility of things turning for the worse in Ukraine. 

Earlier Charles Michel, President of the European Council, stated that Europe “must shift to a war economy” mode in response to the threat posed by Russia (though he didn’t mean food stamps, orange marmalade made from apples and carrots or rations, just more focus on self-sufficiency). The European Commission has emphasized several times that the EU needed to be defense-ready, declaring that there was considerable consensus about the need of strengthening defense expenditures.

Still, there are huge differences in the communication of various European leaders about the possibility of future war among EU and Russia.

The main difference is between the cautiously pessimistic approach of “Si vis pacem, para bellum” and populistic/bombastic prophecies that threaten with self-fulfillment. 

Charles Michel and most of European leaders seems to have accepted the first adage. The Latin “Si vis pacem, para bellum”, which translates to “If you want peace, prepare for war”.

This concept reflects the idea that maintaining a strong military deterrent can prevent aggression and promote peace by dissuading potential adversaries from engaging in conflict. It’s often associated with the strategy of deterrence, where the capability and readiness to respond forcefully to aggression are seen as crucial elements in preventing conflict. 

A very well-learned peace strategy, based on the key elements of moderation and the balance between the opposing parties.

Driven by deep-rooted historical mistrust (fear) vis-à-vis Russia (and a probably not much different view on neighboring Germany, think Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the memory of which plays a great role in the creation of the Warsaw-Washington axis), Poland’s actions in general, and Prime Minister Tusk’s recent remarks in particular are moving farther and farther away from this balance. 

NATO expectation is to spend 2 percent of the GDP on defense (a target not, or barely met by many NATO members). Lately, Poland has spent a whopping 4 percent of its GDP on defense. 

In 2023, the country signed huge defense contracts, mainly with USA (purchases that don’t support neither European readiness, nor European war economy). With that Warsaw became the second biggest buyer – after the US armed forces – on the US arms’ market. Poland spent a jaw-dropping 35 billion USD just on three main contracts. And plans are in place to continue this trend in 2024 (with more than 150 arms’ contracts in preparation). 

For Warsaw, PM Tusk’s statements are not merely bombastic political catchphrases.

Unfortunately, this type of communication can easily trigger a spiral-effect, when the statements about a new war could indeed become a “self-fulfilling prophecy” that is, a definition/belief about any situation, that is false at the start, but, due to its nature, evokes a new behavior, which, in the end, makes the originally false conception come true.

To put it simple: expectations about a future event influence behavior, hence, self-fulfilling prophecies influence behavior in a way that brings about the predicted outcome. 

In the context of international relations, this means that, as perceptions, biases, and expectations held by states shape their actions and interactions with other states, those potentially lead to outcomes that confirm those initial beliefs. For example, if State A perceives State B as a threat and acts defensively, State B may interpret these defensive actions as aggressive, thus reinforcing State A’s belief in the threat posed by State B. 

This happened in the previous “pre-war” eras (but especially before the Great War), when an uncontrolled arms race unfolded, leading to a situation that inevitably spiraled into a cycle of escalation that ended with what we know today as the First World War. An arms race is not just an extremely costly “way of life”, but also a catalyst for an increasingly tense environment, burdened with gradual (or exponential) loss of trust. 

With the experience of two world wars behind their backs, the leaders during the Cold War era shared a mutual fear of “self-fulfilling prophecies”. Hence the many initiatives to lessen the likelihood of conflict, let it be arms reduction programs or diplomatic efforts (confidence and security building measures). 

Overall, a combination of strategic considerations, diplomatic efforts, crisis management, détente, and economic constraints helped to prevent the arms race during the Cold War from spiraling into a self-fulfilling prophecy of conflict and nuclear catastrophe.

Deterrence is concerned with the deliberate, strategic use of military capabilities and is based on a cold-headed calculation of costs and benefits. It works with professional communication, wisely (cautiously) chosen words – the exact virtues PM Tusk found repulsive in his European colleagues. 

Prophecies build on the unintentional consequences of beliefs and perceptions, emphasizing “fate” or “inevitability”. (For those interested more deeply in the topic, Perception and Misperception in International Politics, a 1976 masterpiece by Robert Jervis is a great choice, in which the author explores the role of those feelings in shaping the behavior of states and their interactions.)

If one thing is worth mentioning from the book is the role of cognitive biases. 

Historically, Russia’s fate has been intertwined with Poland’s security (well, for a very long period, it’s very existence): and rarely in positive terms. It is a history full of grievances and unresolved traumas. Even before the war with Ukraine, relations had reached an all-time low (think Smolensk tragedy or the different historical-political narratives of various episodes in history, think Katyn Massacre). 

Unfortunately, once competing historical narratives are securitized, they tend to take on a zero-sum quality that makes them especially hard to overcome. 

Driven by its own perceptions, Warsaw simply doesn’t accept the argument that NATO’s collective defense capabilities are almost 20 times stronger than Russia’s. 

In this reading, “moderate and calculated” Western European responses are not based on different (maybe less emotionally fueled) worldviews but are considered “weak”. Europe (and the world) might end up better, if they are strong enough to resist the Polish aspirations.

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