Our Collective Amygdala, 3/13
Social media and the war in Ukraine
Pundits sometimes refer to the Internet as our “collective brain.” But a brain has a frontal cortex, capable of thinking and planning. With social media—and legacy media are now little more than a mirror of social media—the analogy is limited to the amygdala. A more primitive part of the brain, the amygdala operates on the basis of fear and anger, not careful deliberation.
A video posted by an Eastern European media organization—which has been seen more than 1 million times—purports to show how a “#Ukrainian pilot shoots down #Russian attack aircraft near #Kharkov.” In reality, it’s a scene from the video game Arma 3. Other videos being shared show fighting in Libya, Syria, and Iraq; military drills; and the war in eastern Ukraine. Another much-shared video allegedly showing a Ukrainian fighter pilot nicknamed the “Ghost of Kyiv” is, in fact, footage from a digital combat simulator. A virally spread phone call with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in which Russian President Vladimir Putin admits the war was a mistake is fake too.
The Ukrainian government has also turned out to have an outstanding military public relations team, which unsurprisingly issues updates that make Ukraine look good. That’s what any country does during a war. The problem begins when social media users mistake their amplification of good news—however fantastical—for a step toward Ukrainian victory.
Our collective amygdala wants Mr. Putin overthrown. Until that happens it wants to hurt the Russians.
For the WSJ, Tunku Varadarajan interviews Edward Fishman.
Mr. Fishman, 33, is a fellow at the Atlantic Council and at the Center for New American Security—think tanks devoted to global strategic questions. From 2014 to 2017, he was the lead for Russia and Europe at the State Department’s sanctions office.
If my arithmetic is correct, then Mr. Fishman was 25 years old when he first headed our country’s office administering sanctions against Russia. Think about that.
Mr. Fishman teaches a course on sanctions—“Economic and Financial Statecraft”—at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs. Sanctions, he says, are “first and foremost a tool of behavior change.
I wonder if in his course he spends time on the actual behavior change that sanctions have achieved in Cuba, Iran, and other countries where they have been applied. That might be a very short lecture.
The aim of the current financial sanctions is to pressure Mr. Putin. “In 2014 the average Russian could sit on his couch, eat popcorn and applaud Putin as he courageously won back Crimea from the West.” That’s not possible now: “They’re not on their couches; they’re in ATM lines, racing to pull their money out of banks.”
Why should we believe that the people waiting in the ATM lines are a threat to Mr. Putin? Fidel Castro survived as head of Cuba for 50 years of our economic sanctions against the island.
That said, Mr. Fishman doesn’t believe the sanctions will force Mr. Putin to alter his behavior. It’s unlikely that “all of this economic pain will alter Putin’s calculus. I think it’s very hard for a dictator like Putin to pull back military forces once he’s ordered them in.”
In that case, what is the point of inflicting the economic pain on the Russian people? As I have written before, deliberately harming civilians, especially if you do not believe that it contributes to achieving your desired military objective, sounds to me like a war crime.
Syria was a case where sustained outside military support for a worthwhile cause proved catastrophic in human terms—and failed, ultimately, to help the cause prevail. The version of the “Is Ukraine becoming Syria?” question that’s most worth pondering is the question of whether that pattern will be repeated.
…It’s certainly possible that the Biden administration’s internal deliberations reflect a keen understanding of the dangers of turning Ukraine into “another Syria”—of utterly wrecking the country, at great human cost, without fundamentally changing the outcome of the conflict.
Wright is suggesting that sending arms to Ukraine is only prolonging the war without changing the outcome. There might be less suffering if Russia achieved a quick victory. Although the idea of not helping Ukraine’s fighters seems repugnant, you have to admit that Wright is using his frontal cortex.
I think that there may be a strategic justification for sending arms. That is, although prolonging the war will not save Ukraine, it is serving to reduce Mr. Putin’s ability to pursue further military adventures. I am no expert, but I would guess that encountering stiff resistance in Ukraine reduces the probability of a Russian invasion of Estonia. But what I call a policy of “fighting to the last Ukrainian” is not morally glorious.
Our collective amygdala has appropriate instincts about this war. Mr. Putin is evil. Ukrainian fighters are brave and resourceful. But if we were using our frontal cortex, I do not think that we would be indiscriminately imposing pain on ordinary Russians. We might not be rooting for the war to keep going.
And, incidentally, we would recognize that our domestic oil producers are strategic assets, not enemies.
Re: "there may be a strategic justification for sending arms. That is, although prolonging the war will not save Ukraine, it is serving to reduce Mr. Putin’s ability to pursue further military adventures."
The frontal cortex would ask also whether sending arms substantially increases risk of escalation to a direct war between NATO and Russia.
'Red lines' are shifting under pressure. Today, WSJ reports: "Russian Missiles Strike Ukrainian Military Training Base Near Polish Border
Attack on site where U.S. trained local forces kills at least 35, follows Moscow warning that arms shipments to Kyiv won’t be tolerated.":
Deterrence or escalation? Decision-making under uncertainty.
I'm not very taken by the metaphor. Seems to me that labeling one view the "frontal cortex" and another the "amygdala" is effectively another way of labeling them "smart" and "stupid". That assumes the wisdom of de-escalation, which is not so obvious to me, even after a little deliberation.
Another framing is that de-escalation at all costs is short run thinking, while tit for tat escalation is long run thinking. That framing has the opposite effect. Or one could stick with the amygdala metaphor and assert de-escalation represents fear without a coherent plan to deter Putin next time.