In proper Tetlockian fashion, I thought I would look back and consider how well IR experts did in the time leading up to the current war in Ukraine. In particular, how many of them saw in advance that a war was coming? And I don’t mean a day or two before the war started, though there were still many commentators in denial at such a late point.
Where to start? One might look at the mid-2021 words of the very smart Daniel Drezner:
Wertheim thinks that Ukraine could trigger a great-power war. Meh. In 2021 we have already had one round of Putin brandishing the sword on Ukraine, Biden standing firm, and the situation de-escalating. NATO’s deterrent power seems important to the region. To be honest I would be more worried about flash points in the Pacific Rim.
Drezner lived in the Donbas region for some while in the 1990s, so he is hardly a stranger to the relevant issues.
More recently Chris Blattman, who is also very able and very smart, wrote in February that Putin probably was not going to attack. Chris has just published a very well-received major book titled Why We Fight: The Roots of War and the Path to Peace. Chris does not pretend he is a Ukraine/Russia expert (“I know very little about Ukraine or Russia”), but he does command the literature on war and violent conflict with very real authority.
John Mearsheimer is one who foresaw the very real possibility of a war against Ukraine. I think he is quite wrong about NATO as the provocation, but if you are grading him on predictions alone obviously he wins some serious kudos.
See also this Scott Alexander post, though mainly I am looking for somewhat earlier predictions. By December 2021 a lot of us knew because it was pretty obvious (as for Scott’s puzzlement over me, due to the information flows I am sometimes in, I am not always in a position to make all my predictions fully public).
Garry Kasparov is another one who was right about the motives and the willingness of Putin to engage in further violent conquest, and I will return to him later. Garry knows a lot of IR, but of course he is not an IR scholar in the academic sense of that term.
Who were the other voices speaking up with urgency? IR voices? Comments are open and I hope you can guide me to the very best commentators who got this one right.
When I google “who predicted Russia war against Ukraine” I get Mearsheimer, a retired Russian general, and a blind psychic, but no bevy of IR scholars.
You might argue that IR scholarship is not about prediction, just as some macroeconomic theories themselves imply that recessions cannot be generally predicted. Still, if IR scholars understand this region reasonably well, many more of them should have been raising red flags, no pun intended. There is no analog of the efficient markets hypothesis here, so IR work should not be so far from some degree of predictive accuracy. Not so many scholars (of various kinds) predicted the collapse of the USSR, and I think it is absolutely correct to conclude they did not understand the late 1980s USSR very well. The same can be said of the earlier Iranian revolution, which also was not widely predicted.
As for further instances of getting it wrong, how about Obama’s famous gaffe in the 2012 debate with Mitt Romney, mocking Romney for his fear of Russia and cold war mentality? While Obama was a President and not an IR scholar, this was toward the end of his first-term and his was a “presidency of expertise” like few others have been. Obama was not irresponsibly “winging it” with his sarcastic take on Russian danger, rather it was a common point of view, especially among Democrats and Democratic political science experts at that time.
Or consider this more recently:
During Burns’ Senate confirmation hearing in February, he said that, as CIA director, he would have “four crucial and inter-related priorities.” They were: “China, technology, people and partnerships.” Russia was not on that priorities list.
Again, he is not an IR scholar but still:
To be fair, few people in Washington were bothered by that at the time. The city was far more obsessed, on a bipartisan basis, with China and its ambitions.
Overall, on a scale of one to ten, how would we grade the performance of IR scholars on the Russia-Ukraine war? 2? 2.5?
What are some possible reasons for those individuals so consistently missing the boat on this issue? I see a few options:
1. The IR community is mostly Democrats, and they were unprepared for the narrative that Putin might invade under Biden but not Trump. They too much had mental models where the evil of Putin works through Trump.
2. Perhaps the IR community doesn’t put enough emphasis on historical continuity and persistence. Russia has been messing around in Ukraine since at least Catherine the Great during the 18th century. Since that time, how many of those years has Ukraine been a semi-free, autonomous nation? Hardly any.
3. The IR community is risk-averse, and preserving of its academic reputations, and thus its members are less willing to make bold predictions than say pundits are. You might even think that is good, all things considered, but it will help explain the missed predictions here.
4. Perhaps partly for ideological reasons, it is hard for much of the IR community to internalize how much Putin (correctly?) thinks of the Western Europeans as cowards who will not defend themselves. The Western European nations are supposed to represent reasonable ways of running a polity, committed to social democracy above all else, and that is what so many academics believe as well. It might be hard for them to see that Western Europe has been full of folly, including with respect to nuclear energy and also collective defense.
5. Amongst academic and many of the scholars outside of academia but on the fringes, thoughts about evil are channeled into domestic directions, such as Trump, guns, “the right wing,” and so on. Maybe there isn’t enough mental energy to stay sufficiently alert about possible evils elsewhere. Along related lines, we don’t always have the background in the humanities, and history, to recognize that a certain kind of destructive evil still is possible in today’s world.
Listing those five points returns my attention to Kasparov, who has been banging the drum about Putin for quite a few years now and telling us Putin is going to do something like this. Garry is often considered an “extremist” by academics, or “not one of the club,” but it seems to me he has been entirely right and most of them entirely wrong. I know Garry, and can report that he really is able to pierce the veil on 1-5 very clearly. Perhaps that helped him see what was coming. For instance, Garry is strongly anti-Trump, but he doesn’t let that distract him from other issues of relevance. He also knows Russian history and the humanities very well, and his understanding of evil is well-calibrated to yield good predictions in situations like this.
I’ve also found that many individuals from the Baltic states, with real skin in the game, have had an appropriate level of suspicion about Russia for a long time. Anecdotally might this broadly Baltic view be more correct than the weaker suspicions held by the IR scholars?
Addendum: I’ve heard a few people claim that Putin is just an irrational madman and that he lies outside the sphere of prediction altogether. Well, the action in Ukraine had very definite and very direct precursors, including other invasions of Ukraine! It hardly seems like a pure black swan. Furthermore, a lot of the Russian public supports or at least tolerates the invasion. “Putin’s propaganda,” some cry, but all that same machinery of censorship and propaganda was not enough to get the Russian public to trust the Sputnik vaccine, which very likely would have saved many of their lives. So these events are not just about Putin by any means.
Also, if you are curious as to where I think things stand now, here is a good and interesting thread on the current state of the war and where it might be headed.