Negotiating with Madmen
Monday Notes
Negotiating with Madmen
Is Putin rational? Or is that the wrong question?
Published on: Feb 21, 2022  

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Why has diplomacy thus far failed in the Ukraine crisis? One of the refrains we keep hearing from analysts is that both sides have missed opportunities to de-escalate. Presumably there is a middle ground that can be reached through the give-and-take of rational dialogue. For some people, this is the essence of diplomacy—a positive sum negotiation.

Some have criticized the Biden Administration for not approaching diplomacy with Russia in good faith. They claim that in being unwilling to bend on principles about NATO enlargement, they have pushed the Russians to escalate. But even those critics (like our recent guest on the podcast Samuel Charap) have betrayed some surprise at Russian intransigence throughout the crisis. Ever since Moscow unveiled its demands for a peaceful denouement in mid-December of last year—no NATO expansion into Ukraine, no offensive weapons on Russia's borders, and a pullback to the 1997 military force posture on the European continent—it also hasn't budged an inch. Instead, Moscow has been acting less as if it is playing its opening gambit in negotiations, and more like a hostage taker demanding a ransom.

The high-minded critic casts his aspersions widely: neither side is acting "rationally". At the limit, a rational actor knows that war is the most destructive human activity, and thus ought to be avoided. The rationalist explanation of war, therefore, relies on misunderstandings, missed signals, and a regrettable tendency for people not to listen to each other. No one wants to go to war, but far too often people miscalculate their way to conflict. Diplomacy failing is, in this telling, an unfortunate tragedy. But in the same breath, it is justification for continuing to try for a diplomatic solution. Maybe clearer heads will eventually prevail.

I've never liked this line of argumentation. It feels like there is something deeply off in the normative assumptions underlying these claims, but it's been hard to articulate exactly what they are. Watching the Ukraine crisis spiral in recent days, however, has given me some partial clarity about how to approach the problem. It's not a full thesis as much as a sketch.

In a remarkable ratcheting up of tensions, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a lengthy televised speech today, minutes ahead of his recognizing the breakaway enclaves in Ukraine's Luhansk and Donetsk regions. The speech was a resentful diatribe against the idea of Ukrainian historical sovereignty and against the duplicity of the West in its dealings with Russia since the end of the Cold War. As a statement of perceived reality, it strikes someone in the West as crazy. Indeed, watching it in real time, it felt like I was listening to the rantings of a madman. Like Putin's now-infamous essay on Ukraine, the speech is neither a faithful nor nuanced rendering of history. But as an argument taken on its own terms, it was not incoherent. Putin was not being irrational. Indeed, if you take his speech at face value, as an openly stated set of beliefs about events leading up to today, you can clearly see that his worldview is taking him into conflict.

This weekend, while I was reading Brendan Simms' new biography of Hitler, I came across a striking passage. Franklin Delano Roosevelt observed—in 1933 no less—that Hitler's rise was a "portent of evil," and astutely observed that his rise would lead to incommensurable conflict with the liberal West.

Hitler, he predicted, 'would in the end challenge us because his black sorcery appealed to the worst in men; it supported their hates and ridiculed their tolerances; and it could not exist permanently in the world with a system whose reliance on reason and justice was fundamental'.

FDR is pointing to a kind of fundamental irreconcilability in worldviews. It's remarkable that he describes Hitler as "evil" this early on. For FDR, "reason" appears to imply toleration, and "justice" is something that flows out of a rationally ordered society. But note that the moral argument is grounded not in Hitler's actions. Yes, by 1933, everyone knew Hitler to be a violent antisemitic thug who had managed to claw his way to the head of Germany, and who was already well on his way to completely suppressing dissent. But he hadn't yet started on his genocidal project in earnest, and few at the time could imagine that he would actually try to prosecute his murderous designs.

Instead, FDR's rebuke is grounded in first principle questions. Hitler appeals to human hatred, to division. He mocks tolerance. To write off Hitler as merely an unreasonable madman is to render his hold over the German people incomprehensible. "Black sorcery" gets at the heart of the matter much more aptly. Hitler's starting premises—his first commitments—are irreconcilable with our own. But his first commitments are also powerful appeals to real aspects of human nature. A worldview grounded in grievance, suspicion, and loathing may be hideous to contemplate, but it is coherent. And, moreover, plausible and durable.

By invoking Hitler as a parallel for current events, I know I risk falling into the reductio ad Hitleram fallacy. Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that Putinism is the new incarnation of Nazism (though at time of writing it feels ominously violent). Nor do I plan to invoke Neville Chamberlain when I criticize those that will, no doubt, continue to believe that a diplomatic solution to the current crisis is still within reach. My point is narrower, though perhaps no less grim: there is no bargaining with Putin's Russia. The sooner we understand this—and the sooner we recognize what we are up against—the better.