rational actor fallacy

Ukranian War, February 28, 2022: How to stop Putin, if he has become a madman with nuclear weapons? Dispatches

The “rational actor model” assumes that the unitary mind making the calculations has access to all relevant information.
However, organizational behavior and bureaucratic politics may affect the information available to a given leader, such as Vladimir Putin. These in turn may be affected by a leader’s personal emotions and prejudices, and his choice of close advisers upon whose advice–and information–he relies.
Even operating under these constraints, his own decisions–as opposed to the actual behavior of his government–may be the product of a rational calculation of costs and benefits as he understands them.
But what if, perhaps under the stress of an international crisis or of war, he has gone absolutely mad? Bonkers?
Horrors the contemporary Western mind can hardly grasp
Unless Putin is stopped, the world may be on the brink of witnessing the devastation of near all-out war on a scale and with an intensity not seen since World War II. This could start in Ukraine, to be sure, but would entail an enormous risk of escalation to nuclear conflict.
This is a horror that the Western mind, insulated from such terrors since 1945 (aided and abetted by an aversion to looking at what was going on in Syria in the civil war which began in 2011) can hardly grasp. It doesn’t want to grasp this possibility.
Nonetheless the prospect of such horror is absolutely clear, and seems to be bearing down on Kviv and Kharkhov with ineluctable force.
Yet there is an even greater terror, which the Western mind, at a subconscious level, seeks with even greater determination not to see. That is the possibility of nuclear conflict, and even escalation to nuclear war–or World War III, as the Russians warn in seeking to deter any U.S. or NATO military involvement in Ukraine.
Our minds cannot grasp it, just as they could not conceive of the evil in Hitler’s Germany that would lead to the death of six million Jews.
How can Putin be stopped?
…5) NATO countries conduct missile or drone strikes on or bomb Russian columns approaching Kviv, and prepare for escalation by Putin.
According to latest reports based on private satellite photos, a 60 kilometer-long (36 mile-long) column of vehicles, armor, and men is currently advancing toward Kviv.
They would make excellent targets.
At some point, as Russia kills tens of thousands of people under the umbrella of Putin’s nuclear threats, NATO countries may have to take military action in Ukraine, As Emmanuel Macron has reminded Putin, NATO has nuclear weapons too.


Ukraine Crisis, February 22, 2022: Putin makes impossible demands on Ukraine, supports inclusion of Ukraine-occupied territory in boundaries of “people’s republics”; Biden’s “rational actor” approach to graduated sanctions not likely to deter Putin from larger war

The “rational actor fallacy” is a phenomenon well known by political scientists and students of international affairs. The classic study of this phenomena is Essence of Decision by Graham Allison, a professor at Harvard, who demonstrated the flaws in using a “rational actor” model to analyze the behavior of the U.S. during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
As we wrote yesterday,

Joe Biden, like Barack Obama before him, seems to have fallen into the trap of assuming Russia is a single, unitary mind, rationally calculating costs and benefits in making decisions that determine state behavior. Now, like Obama, Biden is trying to make fine intellectual distinctions in weighing sanctions, as if Putin were an accountant carefully adding up on his calculator the costs and benefits of invading Ukraine.
In fact, however, Putin is a KGB thug, a war criminal (Syria, Chechnya), an apparent serial murderer of his opponents (Boris Nemtsov, Alexei Navalny–unsuccessful attempt, to be sure, et. al.), and someone who invaded the Donbas in 2014 and kept a war going that has cost some 14,000 lives.
–“Ukraine Crisis, February 21, 2022 (Part II): Weighing options–Biden’s Munich moment,” February 21, 2022.

The problem with Biden’s “rational actor” approach to graduated sanctions is that Russia’s actions, at this point in the execution of a huge and carefully choreographed war plan, may not be under the control of Putin, the postulated unitary, rational actor. Moreover, even if they are, the finely graduated sanctions of Biden’s team are not likely to have enough power to jolt Putin out of his war trance in time for him to pull the emergency brake, assuming that he can be persuaded that he needs to.
At this point, only massive sanctions, imposed immediately and simultaneously, might conceivably jolt Putin out if his war trance. Graduated sanctions are very unlikely to do so. Even massive sanctions, holding little in reserve, may not work. But they should be tried.
The one thing that is certain is that there is no single rational actor, sitting in a control room somewhere, who could accurately perceive the threatened impacts of additional tranches of sanctions, and then exercise control over a country and a war machine that are fully engaged in war.


Ukraine Crisis, February 12, 2022: Analysis–Biden’s grave errors in framing the response to Russian aggression; to deter a Russian invasion, put force back on the table–IMMEDIATELY

Today is a good point to stand back from the mad rush of developments that suggest Russia, with an estimated 150,000 troops encircling Ukraine, may invade that country as soon as Wednesday, February 17.

Kori Schake does an excellent in pointing out Biden’s grave error in taking force off the table in dealing with Vladimir Putin.

Looking at the current Ukraine Crisis from a broader perspective, one can appreciate how Putin’s prior experience with Barack Obama and Joe Biden, when he invaded the Crimea and the Eastern Ukraine in 2014, and above all as he observed Biden’s extraordinary demonstration of incompetence and poor strategic judgment in his decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, might have led Putin to believe he could move against Ukraine with relative impunity.

In Ukraine, we may be witnessing the consequences of another fundamentally flawed Biden decision, or policy. Biden not only decided he would not use force to resist a Russian invasion of Ukraine, but announced publicly from the beginning that the U.S. would not use force, leading NATO members to make similar decisions.

In a word, what needs to be done now, urgently, is to put the potential use of force back on the table. Such an action could complicate Putin’s calculations, and give him cause to pull back from the brink.

Joe Biden is no Jack Kennedy, in Lloyd Bentsen’s famous words in the vice-presidential debate with Dan Quayle in 1988, but adjustments can be made. This is the United States. Adjustments can and must be made.



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