“Nobody knows anything,” William Goldman, the legendary screenwriter said. “Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.”
I’m starting to think the same thing is true of foreign policy. Culminating over the weekend, the Ukrainian military has achieved some remarkable victories over their Russian invaders in the northeast of Ukraine. The scope and speed of the victories seem to have surprised everyone, starting with the Russians, who abandoned vast amounts of materiel as they fled in panic—or as the Russians put it, “regrouped.” It’s the most significant Ukrainian victory since they thwarted Russia’s assault on Kyiv in March.
Except for Russia and its fan club, everyone—markets, politicians and media alike—was pleasantly surprised by Ukraine’s success.
Surprise seems to be an overarching theme in foreign policy these days. After all, many of the same people were surprised by Vladimir Putin’s invasion in the first place. They were shocked again by Ukraine’s success in thwarting Putin’s plan for a quick, surgical, decapitate-and-conquer “special military operation.” The White House (and probably the Kremlin, too) was stunned when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy refused to flee—sorry “regroup”—reportedly telling American officials: “The fight is here. I need ammunition, not a ride.”
There have been other Ukraine-related surprises, for both the Russians and the West. From Russia’s willingness to use barbaric tactics in plain view to Germany’s willingness to reverse decades of pacifism to aid the war effort. Few—especially Putin—thought that Sweden and Finland would join NATO almost immediately in response to the invasion. Various diplomats have been shocked to learn that sanctions and condemnations have had little of their intended effect on Russia.
This is all against the backdrop of other surprises. Many Afghans and Americans alike were startled by Biden’s sudden withdrawal from Afghanistan. Whether the Pentagon was blindsided by Biden’s decision is debated, but the collapse of the Afghan army clearly “took us all by surprise” as Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin admitted.
The Trump years were so full of surprises it’s difficult to catalog them all, in part because Trump relished being a bull in a china shop. The success of the Abraham Accords took the foreign policy establishment off-guard. But Trump’s coddling of dictators mystified our allies.
Before that, the Obama administration didn’t foresee how their “Russian reset” wouldn’t work. Nor did they see Putin’s seizure of Crimea coming until it was a near fait accompli. They also failed to understand the threat posed by ISIS.
The Bush years involved one shock after another, starting with the September 11 attack 21 years ago Sunday. The weapons of mass destruction American intelligence agencies, as well as their counterparts in Britain, expected to find in Iraq never materialized. And the Bush administration was caught flatfooted by the Iraqi insurgency.
Indeed, ever since the end of the Cold War—another big surprise!—the world has refused to comply with the confident assurances of the experts. China’s rise stems in part from the confident bipartisan bet by politicians and policymakers that inclusion in the global trading order would put China on the path to democratization. I still think that’s possible, but it’s worth noting that the experts now all agree it isn’t.
What’s the lesson here? I don’t think it’s that experts are never right. No doubt all sorts of shocks to the system were avoided because the experts headed them off. Averted crises are a lot less visible than unaverted ones. But all of these surprises do suggest a little humility is in order. Tactics and strategy—even the right ones—can be thwarted by the law of unintended consequences.
The most important lesson, however, is that principles, unlike strategies, don’t change with events. Firm public commitment to principles is often the best way to prevent unpleasant surprises because most surprises come from your adversaries’ suspicion that you lack the resolve to adhere to them. Al-Qaeda attacked us because they believed we wouldn’t fight. Putin invaded Ukraine because he believed NATO lacked resolve and the Ukrainians weren’t serious about their nationhood.
Clear principles—and credibility that we will act on them—is the best deterrence and the author of all worthwhile strategy.