Duty Bound to Disaster: Beware the Imperative in Foreign Policymaking
Editor’s note: Don’t miss our comprehensive guide to Russia’s war against Ukraine.
The United States is edging closer to what may be the most fateful choice of its modern history: whether to take bolder and more aggressive action to defend a beleaguered people against the world’s other major nuclear power. As the brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine grinds on and the humanitarian toll rises, many observers have demanded just such action in increasingly urgent terms. Some of these appeals focus on proposed no-fly zones, some on the idea of shipping MiG-29s to Ukraine. Others represent more general demands for military threats against Russia, or efforts to create humanitarian corridors.
Many of these proposals have been posed in confrontational, even dismissive language, depicting doubters as appeasers and fools. One of the most respected American defense intellectuals, Eliot Cohen, recently mocked the “hand-wringing over escalation” and insisted that Russian President Vladimir Putin will back down if adequately menaced. “We are dealing with an enemy that is vicious but weak,” Cohen claimed, “menacing but deeply fearful, and that is likely to crack long before our side does — if only we have the stomach for doing what needs to be done.” Retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula portrayed a United States “frozen in its tracks, fearing Putin’s unpredictable wrath.” The journalist David Rothkopf tweeted that anyone proposing an “off-ramp for Putin” should be “ashamed” of themselves.
The moral urgency that drives such pleas is entirely understandable. Russia’s invasion is criminal, Ukraine’s resistance courageous, the humanitarian toll horrific, and U.S. support for that resistance more essential every day. Yet many demands for more belligerent actions reflect a mindset commonly associated with foreign policy catastrophes: acting based on an overwhelming sense of what a country must do, rather than a primary and rigorous assessment of which course of action would best advance its interests and goals. The pattern can be described as “imperative-driven judgment.” It is foreign policy by moralistic duty.
Appeals for bolder action in Ukraine will understandably only grow more intense as the appalling humanitarian toll mounts. But imperative-driven action almost always leads countries astray — and in the days and weeks ahead, it will be critical for the United States to stay alert for its symptoms.
When Imperatives Drive Policy
After 9/11, senior officials of the Bush administration quickly decided that, in the new era of terrorism, Saddam Hussein could not be left in power. This conviction reflected urgent fears about the threat posed by Saddam, and a rising frustration with what some saw as tentativeness in using American military force. Removing Saddam, and demonstrating U.S. power in the process, became an imperative. It simply had to be done.
This certainty about the right course of action sidetracked honest discussion of risks and costs. It is one reason why the decision process for the war lacked a single identifiable judgment point, a moment when the president gathered his war cabinet to debate whether invading made sense. It was, instead, a process obsessed with working out the minutiae of a choice already made. As then-CIA director George Tenet put it in his memoir, “In none of the meetings can anyone remember a discussion of the central questions. Was it wise to go to war? Was it the right thing to do?” What never happened “was a serious discussion of the implications of a U.S. invasion.”
It was worse than that, however, because people who did raise awkward questions were quickly sidelined, shouted down, or given wink-and-nod suggestions that it would be best to remain quiet. A common rebuke thrown at doubters was, “You just don’t get it.” Stop worrying, they were told. The decision has been made. This is happening. This must happen.
Imperative-driven judgment of this sort takes hold when leaders or decision-making groups come to believe that a given policy has the status of a duty or necessity. It is a kind of non-consequentialist decision making, a choice focused on the act itself rather than its results. One result is a form of cognitive closure in which alternatives to the seeming imperative are dismissed, and analysis of outcomes not only ignored but actively resented and stifled. The language around such arguments tends to include a high proportion of affective, emotional terms that depict the stakes involved as existential. The public debate begins to revolve around passionate, dogmatic statements of exigency rather than more nuanced assessments of prudential strategies.
Once it has taken hold, imperative-driven judgment perverts the risk calculus of decision-makers: Leaders in thrall to a moralistic sense of righteousness cannot see past the burning demand to act. Imperative-driven judgment tends to ruin effective planning, because the focus is on performing the duty rather than its aftermath. And it is always accompanied by some degree of groupthink and quashing of dissent, because to go against the imperative becomes a form of apostasy.
Once the direction is set by an imperative, the decision-making system shifts into a form of autopilot. And it can drive a nation right off a policy cliff.
The Miserable Legacy of Imperative-Driven Thinking
History offers a litany of such cases, when imperative-driven thinking caused leaders to brush aside issues of risk and feasibility, quash dissent, and embrace disaster. Apart from Iraq, modern U.S. foreign policy offers at least two potent examples: the Bay of Pigs and Vietnam.
Confronting the Castro regime in Cuba after the revolution of 1959, the degree of urgency and wrath propelling the U.S. effort grew into a sort of moral obligation. Plans to drive Castro from power became an imperative. On the way to the Bay of Pigs, U.S. officials reached the point — as Jim Rasenberger explains in his compelling account The Brilliant Disaster — at which they were “operating under conditions that made the venture almost impossible to resist. At a time when Americans were nearly hysterical about the spread of communism, they simply could not abide Castro. He had to go.”
In Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson’s escalation decisions were couched in the language of obligation — the United States simply could not allow a communist victory. He repeated some version of the domino theory many times: “If they take South Vietnam, they take Thailand, they take Indonesia, they take Burma, they come right on back to the Philippines.” He worried about ruined credibility and the domestic political price for withdrawal and felt the clear imperative to stay. “Our national honor’s at stake,” he said in a June 1965 conversation with Sen. Richard Russell. That same month, speaking with Robert McNamara, Johnson concluded simply: “We can’t give up. I don’t see anything to do except give [the commanders] what they need, Bob. Do you?”
Yet Johnson’s tortured decision-making reflects one of the most agonizing features of a leader driven by imperatives: Often enough, they know the course they are on promises disaster — and yet they simply cannot break free. Over and over again, Johnson expressed some heartbreaking version of the same sentiment. As he put it to McNamara, “I don’t think anything is going to be as bad as losing, and I don’t see any way of winning.” Later, confronted with the demand for Marine reinforcements, he uttered what must be one of the most poignant admissions of any president under the influence of an imperative: “My answer is yes. But my judgment is no.”
The example of imperative-driven thinking in foreign policy with perhaps the most ominous implications for the current crisis comes from 1941. Committed to an invasion of China they could not abandon, threatened with slow strangulation by U.S. financial and oil sanctions, and believing they would be humiliated and reduced to a third-rate power if they conceded, Japanese leaders saw no alternative to attacking the United States. “The resolve to ‘not flinch from war,’” the scholar Eri Hotta explains in her magnificent Japan 1941, “had come to be regarded, beyond logic, as an inviolable priority in Japan’s foreign policy agenda.” Once this imperative was in place, “None of the top leaders … had sufficient will, desire, or courage to stop the momentum for war.”
Echoing a Rival’s Imperatives
Imperative-driven judgment can thus drive a country to take impulsive risks. It can be dangerous in another way as well — when a country’s actions generate the same pattern in a rival, goading it into extreme reactions. Such a dynamic lies at the heart of one of the biggest debates around America’s Ukraine policy: the role of NATO enlargement in the Russian decision to invade.
To be sure, there has been a huge and thoughtful dialogue since the 1990s over the role of wider NATO membership in European security, including deep assessment of possible risks and costs. But since about 2008, when Russia invaded Georgia, and certainly since 2014, the presentation of the issue in the United States and Europe has arguably become characterized by absolutist, moralistic language and the status of an uncompromisable imperative. Offering an unlimited open door to NATO became something the West simply had to do, a nonnegotiable commitment.
Some insist that the trajectory of NATO enlargement was largely irrelevant to Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine, that Russia was bound to take such action eventually thanks to an elemental urge to dominate its near abroad. But such essentialist arguments can’t explain both action and inaction. Russia did not invade Ukraine in a major fashion before 2014, and it didn’t launch an all-out attack until this year. If Russia is constitutionally preordained to undertake military aggression in Ukraine, it seems odd that it would have waited three decades to do so.
The frame of imperative-driven thinking instead suggests a two-stage process leading to war. A nation may have a generalized strategic culture that inclines it toward a certain set of ambitions. But that worldview is typically not pointed and urgent enough to spark highly risky, system-shaping choices. That requires a second factor, an event or trajectory that triggers an imperative.
That may have been the role of NATO enlargement — especially after about 2007–2008, once NATO focused more pointedly on embracing members closer to the core of Russia’s security priorities. At that point, the United States and NATO were engaging Russian fears in ways that finally provoked what looks very much like imperative-driven thinking among Putin and his cronies.
This in no way excuses Russia’s violent response, or its broader claim to the right of constraining the sovereign choices of its neighbors. But the trick for U.S. statecraft is to understand when extending U.S. power and ambition risks inciting such reactions, and when holding back is the more sensible option. That is precisely the balance that can be lost under the influence of our own imperative-driven thinking. We feel compelled to act, rebuffing concerns that our policy might spur the same urgent sense of obligation on the other side. And we play our tragic part in the bigger drama, helping to produce a collision of rigid, emotional, compulsive judgments.
In this sense, the idea of imperatives may offer a new way of thinking about security spirals or security dilemmas. In most international relations theory, security dilemmas are thought to arise from general threat perceptions and the broad-based competition for power. Yet great powers, and even bitter rivals, can escape such dynamics much of the time. Rivalry does not always produce escalatory spirals of competition and violence. In fact, such spirals may be especially likely when the actions of one side create within its rival not merely garden-variety threat perceptions, but the more discrete conditions for imperative-driven thinking. It is when one or both nations have their sense of risk and cost suppressed by such moralistic thinking that spirals of instability become more likely. It now appears that this was very likely the case with Putin: His perception of Ukraine’s trajectory over the last decade made invasion seem, to him, inevitable.
Preserving Deliberative Judgment in Ukraine
The risk of imperative-driven judgment carries a few important lessons for the Ukraine crisis. U.S. national security officials should be attuned to signs that they are becoming caught up in imperative-driven policies. That means being on the lookout for arguments or policy statements suffused with emotional language, heavy on claims of limitless stakes in the conflict, full of moralistic appeals to duty and obligation, and contemptuous of anyone who doubts the proposed course of action. Whenever officials, scholars, or citizens hear such appeals, their guard should be up. This does not counsel inaction; indeed, tougher actions toward Russia are likely to be required as the humanitarian crisis intensifies. It only argues for being wary of demands for action based largely on duty and obligation.
Ultimately, the best answer to imperative-driven tragedies is robust deliberation, both public and inside government, that performs exactly the sort of outcome-based, consequentialist analysis the purveyors of imperatives seek — even if unconsciously — to avoid. Key questions we should be asking about any proposed action in Ukraine include: Will this policy make a measurable difference in the war? Does it risk crossing some objectively defined escalatory threshold, such as the conduct of actual combat operations? What might Russia make of the act? How might it respond? Are there alternatives that would achieve the same effect, with lower risk? What are the possible second-order effects? Does the act accord with American national interests at stake?
The effect of imperative-driven judgment is to brush aside such inconvenient questions. Had enough of them been asked — by the right people, at the right time, with the needed seriousness — the United States might have avoided catastrophes like the Bay of Pigs or the invasion of Iraq. Global peace is at stake in the wider war that could spread from Ukraine. In this crisis, the United States does confront one undeniable obligation: to ask the right questions before, rather than after, taking large-scale action; to check its sense of duty and moralistic commitment; and, this time, to be sure it finds its way to wise action, rather than a road to disaster.
Michael J. Mazarr is a senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and the author of Leap of Faith: Hubris, Negligence, and America’s Greatest Foreign Policy Tragedy (PublicAffairs, 2019).
Image: Ukraine Ministry of Defence