Although the phrase “worst-case thinking” is now an established term of art among international-affairs analysts and commentators, it is generally in bad odor. The phrase may be reluctantly conceded to have some value as a “heuristic device” or an “analytical tool,” but beyond that it is most likely to be introduced as evidence of a pathological state of mind and to be used in association with terms like “paranoia,” “cold-war mentality,” “threat experts,” and “conspiracy theory.” Which is interesting when one considers that anyone who had predicted events in this century on the basis of a general pessimism concerning the prospects of liberty and democracy would have stood a good chance of being on one of the longest winning streaks in the history of gambling.

It is also interesting that the counterpart term—that is, “best-case thinking,” as exemplified by a systematic determination to interpret events and trends, particularly those involving the enemies of democracy and free societies, in a way that denies that they constitute a serious threat—has not gained currency. Indeed, it is not generally acknowledged that such a phenomenon exists. And yet it most surely does.

Consider, to begin with, two Asian examples. Before the fall of Saigon it was widely claimed by Western liberals that a North Vietnamese victory would not result in the subjugation and suppression of the South and that the latter’s autonomy would be respected. At the same time, it was also insisted that the “fiercely independent” Vietnamese would never be the tool of the Soviet Union (remember all that talk about Titoism?). Then, after the fall, when the sandaled foot of the North was being firmly planted on the face of the Southerners, and when the Soviets were establishing themselves in Cam Ranh Bay, there was no shortage of reassurance that the regime would be so busily engaged for the foreseeable future in “reconstruction” that it would pose no threat to its neighbors. Now that this too has been falsified and the Vietnamese army is installed in Laos and Cambodia, comfort is found in the belief that Vietnam is “seriously overextended” and that it will have difficulty in consolidating its position in Indochina. It can be asserted with reasonable confidence that if and when the Vietnamese move against Thailand, there will be plenty of comment available to the effect that (a) it is an isolated engagement; (b) it was provoked; (c) this time Vietnam is really dangerously overextended; and (d) in any case, the attack has no serious strategic significance.

The second Asian example pertains to China. Since 1949 that country’s foreign and domestic policies have been characterized by violent discontinuities, a series of sudden zigs and zags dictated mainly by internal power struggles and/or the failure of previous policies. Given this record, it might be thought that extreme caution, if not skepticism, would have been appropriate in interpreting and responding to the latest major zag which occurred in the 1970’s. But not at all. It was quickly and widely assumed that the “pragmatic” and “moderate” China was here to stay and that, despite the fact that it remained one of the most oppressive totalitarian regimes in the world, it could be treated virtually as an honorary member of the Western alliance. Whole regional and global strategies were proposed on the basis of those assumptions.

Moving to the other side of the globe, best-case thinking is clearly evident in much of the discussion about the current problems of the Western alliance. The new Secretary General of NATO, Lord Carrington, assures us that “it would be foolish to expect in NATO the total coincidence of views which few of us can achieve even within our own national parliaments and public opinion”—as if that absurd expectation were the issue. Willy Brandt dismisses doubts about NATO’s future and cohesion as “vague” and the debate about it as “a phantom battle.” Couve de Murville declares: “That the alliance is in a state of crisis is something which I have been hearing throughout the thirty years of its existence,” and, to descend a little, Hodding Carter echoes him by characterizing the current tension as “a repeat of a play witnessed many times before.” So, we are in effect asked, what’s new? The Western alliance survived these sorts of problems in the past and—with a little common sense, a little bit of give and take, and perhaps some minor tinkering here and there—it will do so again. To think otherwise, to deny that it is essentially business as usual, is to be unduly alarmist.

What is new, and what is ignored by thinking of this kind, is that the nature of the three relationships which are of fundamental importance to the alliance—those between the U.S. and the Soviet Union; between the U.S. and its European alliance partners; and between the Europeans and the Soviet Union—has altered profoundly in recent years.

First the military balance between the U.S. and the USSR has shifted in favor of the Soviets, as they have achieved nuclear parity while retaining conventional superiority, with the result that the credibility of the American nuclear umbrella on which the alliance is predicated has diminished drastically.

Second, the economic and political balance between the U.S. and its European allies has changed radically. In the late 1970’s, the gross national product of the European Community surpassed that of the U.S. for the first time since 1945. At the same time the Europeans, both individually and collectively, have become more assertive (though not necessarily more confident) politically, while trust on both sides of the Atlantic in American leadership has suffered a series of blows from which recovery has been slow and only partial.

Third, Gaullism in France and Ostpolitik in Germany, as well as the Soviet arms build-up, have altered the relationship between Western Europe and the Soviet bloc. By the late 1970’s, Western Europe’s two-way trade with the bloc was more than seven times greater than that of the U.S. And as far as credits are concerned, well over 70 percent of the Soviet bloc’s debt to the West is owed to the West Europeans and less than 20 percent to the United States.

With these developments have come new political attitudes in Western Europe, ranging from an optimistic belief in the capacity to manage and change the nature of the Communist regimes, through a resigned settling for damage limitation, to outright appeasement and pacifism.

In the face of such fundamental structural changes, only the most determined optimists can prattle on about Dulles, the Suez crisis, de Gaulle, and the “repeat of a play witnessed many times before.”



Before turning to consider in more detail the most blatant and serious instance of best-case thinking—that involving the Soviet Union—it is worth pausing over the example of the Third World, if only to provide a reminder that while this kind of facile optimism is especially characteristic of liberalism, it is not completely absent from conservative thinking.

Conservatives generally tend to discount the importance of the Third World. Indeed, their initial position is usually to deny its very existence, characteristically speaking of “the so-called ‘Third World.’” In support of this, they point to the enormous diversity of its supposed members and to the conflicts that exist among them. They also take comfort from the fact that Third World leaders often speak more sensibly and moderately in private than their representatives do at the UN and other forums. The implication is that Third World radicalism is all a matter of rhetoric and posturing, a way of letting off steam rather than a serious expression of goals.

Further, it is maintained that even if the notion of a Third World did have some substance in the immediate post-colonial period when memories of liberation struggles were fresh, that reality is fast fading as some countries “make it” and get ready to “graduate out” and pursue more pragmatic and self-interested courses. And last, it is asserted that even if the Third World is a reality and continues to be one, it is comparatively unimportant. Economically, technologically, and militarily it is weak (how many divisions does the nonaligned movement have?) and poses no threat to the West. The conclusion drawn from all this is that the West should be relaxed about the Third World: should call its bluff, keep its demands and problems on the back burner, circumvent it with bilateralist diplomacy.

All these arguments are bad ones. To proceed from the (undeniable) facts of diversity and internal conflict to the conclusion that the Third World does not exist is to misunderstand the nature of ideological movements. The same argument would establish that, say, the working-class and national movements of the 19th and 20th century had no reality—or indeed, that the American nation did not exist today. All ideological movements and entities, even totalitarian ones, are characterized by internal diversity and conflict. As for the private “moderation” of Third World leaders, Ferdinand Mount of the London Spectator has probably said all that needs to be said on the subject:

There’s a plenipotentiary sucker born every minute. How many men of good will have been seduced by private conversation with the Great: “Of course, you understand, I only have to spout this far-out stuff to keep people happy”? And how often it is the public words that have provided the terrible guide to future action.

On the question of “graduating out,” it is always possible that this will happen, but two decades after the great surge of decolonization, and many years after the first prediction of the imminence of the phenomenon, we are still waiting for the first example. Even after enjoying extremely rapid and substantial economic growth, newly industrializing countries like Singapore are still in the Group of 77 and the nonaligned movement, which suggests that they see some advantage in membership (or at least disadvantage in getting out). And while it is true that in terms of most conventional indices of power the Third World is weak, in some important respects it is not. OPEC, after all, was and is a Third World phenomenon. Moreover, the ideological strength that the Third World movement has displayed in holding together a huge and diverse collection of countries and exploiting the advantages of solidarity in multilateral forums is a real source of strength. The control of strategic sites (canals, straits, peninsulas, etc.) by individual Third World countries, especially when combined with the commitment to solidarity, is another source of strength.

Finally, the Third World countries individually and collectively have the power of the weak and the desperate: the power to create serious trouble and disorder, to threaten the stability which developed countries value. When allied to an ideological conviction of the righteousness of their cause, this can be very potent indeed.

As for the policy conclusions that usually flow from the best-case arguments about the Third World, as often as not their effect is to undermine the moderate elements and strengthen the radicals, by making it evident that the West will not take the Third World seriously unless and until it becomes genuinely menacing in one way or another.



While all the above instances are interesting and important, however, there is no doubt that best-case thinking is evident in its most blatant and dangerous form when the discussion turns to the Soviet Union. It is here that the insistence on swimming against a tidal wave of evidence and maintaining a buoyant optimism reaches truly heroic proportions.

Consider first the sequence of arguments which has been regularly advanced in recent years in response to those who have expressed concern at the relentless military build-up of the Soviet Union, and its increased willingness to use that strength to achieve political and military gains in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Southeast Asia, and Central America:

  1. Until the evidence to the contrary became overwhelming, and not infrequently beyond that point, it was maintained that the Soviet Union was not in the process of attempting to achieve military superiority. The figures, it was claimed, were cooked or misinterpreted (lots of sophisticated stuff here about the difficulty of comparing apples and oranges, etc.). Or if not that, the Soviets were merely trying to “catch up”; or were reacting to provocative behavior on the part of the United States.
  2. As if half-aware that this line of argument was not going to be sustainable in the long run, a few years ago best-case thinkers began supplementing, and increasingly replacing, it with the argument that even if the Soviets were aiming for military superiority, such superiority no longer had political or strategic significance. In its simpler form this conclusion rested on the idea that enough is as good as a feast. However, more ambitious and high-powered best-case thinkers went further, arguing that, due to interdependence and a number of other factors, the efficacy of all military power as a tool of foreign policy was declining and being replaced by such things as economic, technological, and agricultural power.1 As it has become increasingly evident that the Soviet Union does not really appreciate the force of these arguments, they too have become somewhat less prevalent, though they are still heard (mainly from spokesmen of the peace movement).
  3. The next fall-back position has been that, even if the Soviets are overdoing the military build-up and even if military power is not yet quite useless, there is no real cause for alarm, because the Soviet Union is essentially a conservative, cautious, status-quo power which will not exploit its advantage and which fears war above all things. This is usually supported by some historical information on the number of times Russia has been invaded and with references to the particularly traumatizing effects of World War II.
  4. Finally, and to account for cases in which the Soviet Union may not behave in a convincingly conservative way and with proper respect for the status quo, comfort is taken from the fact that the Soviets have often mishandled winning situations and snatched failure from the jaws of victory, particularly in their dealings with the Third World. Egypt and Indonesia are regularly introduced to make the point. On this basis it is implicitly suggested that positive action by the West is not required: it is enough to wait and allow the Soviet Union to destroy any advantage it may gain.

And so it goes. Collectively these arguments constitute a formidable—or at least a determined—defense in depth against taking anything but a complacent and relaxed view of Soviet interests and actions.

Parts of this pattern merit further comment. There is no reason to doubt that the enormous suffering the peoples of the Soviet Union experienced during World War II had a great and lasting effect on them. But this does not mean that the experience had the same effect on Soviet leaders. It is at least questionable that a regime which itself killed as many Soviet subjects as Hitler did was “traumatized” by the suffering of the war. The consciousness and the conscience of the men responsible for implementing the great terror and the Ukrainian famine were, after all, rather different from those of the average Western liberal.

This “trauma” thesis becomes especially questionable when one remembers that, despite the suffering, the war was a tremendous political and strategic success so far as the Soviets were concerned. When it began, the Soviet Union was probably the least formidable of the six great powers in the world. When the war ended, the Soviet Union, despite its devastated condition, was one of the two dominant powers—was indeed a superpower—and its writ extended into the heart of Europe.

Perhaps it does not obviously follow that the Soviet leadership drew the conclusion from this experience that war pays. But it certainly does not follow that a group whose dedication to the pursuit of power is beyond question would have drawn the conclusion that war is an unmitigated disaster which must be avoided at almost any cost. To say the least, fear would have been balanced by an awareness of the advantages and opportunities that war can provide.



A variant of the “trauma” thesis is the “paranoid” argument. When 40,000 Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan, for example, Kevin Klose of the Washington Post, along with many others, was quick to explain that the leaders of the Soviet Union were “driven by historic near-paranoia over the security of its borders and convinced of the danger of instability all across its southern frontier.” More recently Helmut Schmidt has explained that the Soviet Union “clearly suffers from encirclement, persecution, and security complexes”; and more recently still, Seweryn Bialer has instructed us that, “In an already paranoid regime, the intensification of dread takes place rapidly.”

One can see the attraction of the paranoia argument: it allows for an emphasis on the Soviet sense of insecurity without necessitating a justification of its rationality; it also opens the way for comdemning as dangerous a strong Western reaction to Soviet behavior (for, as Bialer puts it, “A rekindled sense of insecurity fires an angry and defiant response—a desire to lash out and restore the respect of others”).

But the paranoia argument suffers from devastating weaknesses. In the first place it is distinctly tautological or circular. Why does the Soviet Union behave as it does? Because it is paranoid. How do we know that it is paranoid? Because it behaves as it does. More seriously, the argument establishes not what it sets out to do, but the opposite. Not only are the fears and suspicions of the paranoid intimately connected with delusions of grandeur, but the way they express themselves is through an obsession with absolute security, the manifestation of which is indistinguishable from aggression. It is in the nature of paranoia, as a morbid state, that its fears are unappeasable short of achieving absolute dominance. Thus, insofar as the argument is advanced, as it usually is, to advocate understanding and forbearance for the sick, it points to an inappropriate response. Dr. Johnson made the point a long time ago:

If a madman were to come into this room with a stick in his hand, no doubt we should pity the state of his mind; but our primary consideration would be to take care of ourselves. We should knock him down first and pity him afterwards.

If indeed the Soviet leaders are paranoid, it is in no way reassuring. It does not dispose of the fact of aggressiveness but rather establishes it, defines its character, and calls for a robust reaction, one determined by one’s own interests and values and the behavior of one’s adversary, rather than by his alleged psychological state.

Another serious confusion is involved in the equating of “cautious” and “conservative.” It is true that conservatives are disposed to political caution, but it is not true that those who are cautious are, by virtue of that fact, conservative and committed to the existing order. Or as Richard Lowenthal puts it: “It is an error that a Great Power that is wary of dangerous adventure must therefore be regarded as a ‘satisfied power.’” What is at issue in interpreting the behavior of the Soviet Union is not whether it is or is not reckless (no informed person maintains that it is) but whether, on the basis of the rational calculation of opportunities and risks, it is or is not expansionist.

Finally, as to the alleged inability of the Soviet Union to consolidate its gains in the Third World, there is an element—but only an element—of truth in this. The Soviets have had their failures and they have also had, and are having, their successes. But surely it would be insanely complacent and optimistic for democratic countries to base their policies, and risk their future, on the anticipation of a continuous pattern of error on their adversary’s part. Great and responsible countries do not make such bets. Even conceding a record of Soviet insensitivity and stupidity, what if the Soviets are on a “learning curve” in their handling of relations with the Third World? Or what if their increased military strength is changing the nature of those relations and more than outweighing the consequences of their maladroitness?

As the term itself suggests, and as the examples given above emphasize, the characteristic feature of best-case thinking is the determination to stick with interpretations of events that deny the need for a response that is in any way painful, even in the face of the repeated and clear rebuttal of those interpretations. The best-case position is usually defended by several rings of polemical trenches. As one trench is overrun there is a retreat to the next—and the next and the next. Moreover, unless the attackers are very vigilant, over time the defenders of the position are likely to infiltrate back into the lost trenches and proceed as if they had never been overrun. No victory is final. As we have seen, it matters little to the best-case thinker that the different arguments may be inconsistent and mutually contradictory; the important thing is that the optimistic position be held and the reality evaded.



Two questions arise. Why is this kind of thinking as prevalent as it is? And does it matter that it is? The first question is the more difficult one to answer and the second the more important.

Part of the explanation of best-case thinking is no more complicated than that nice is better than nasty—particularly when the latter is very nasty indeed. The prospects of a long haul against totalitarian regimes whose only comparative advantage is a military one; of, at worst, a nuclear war and, at best, an indefinitely prolonged commitment to heavy armament programs; of the periodic need to use force in local situations if interests are not to suffer; of dealing with endlessly demanding poor countries which insist on accompanying their demands with moralistic attacks on the West and a refusal to put their own houses in order: all these prospects are very daunting, and the temptation is great to read events and trends in ways that deny their reality.

But there are other elements too. It has to be recognized that best-case thinking and the degree of influence it has been able to achieve are partly accountable in terms of a reaction to the intellectual crudity and oversimplification of much of the earlier cold-war propaganda. Primitive anti-Communism—the kind that stresses conspiracies and “blueprints” and monolithism (long after it has ceased to be a reality)—has been the best ally of the anti-anti-Communism associated with the best-case syndrome. For it has served to undermine and discredit all efforts to establish the facts about Communist regimes and to argue for a determined defense of freedom and democracy. (To some extent, the conservative tendency to trivialize the phenomenon of the Third World and to dismiss relations with it as a serious dimension of international affairs can be explained in similar terms. Here, too, there has been a reaction against the gross overselling of the importance of the Third World by liberal and progressive publicists, culminating in the claim which became current during the Carter Presidency that the North-South axis was displacing the East-West one as the central structural feature of world politics.)

But where liberals are concerned—and it is they who are the true representatives of the phenomenon—best-case thinking has deeper roots than all this. While one strand of liberalism has always emphasized pluralism, competition among conflicting interests and ideas, and the importance of the diffusion and balancing of power (as represented by the institutional separation of power and authority), another liberal tradition has tended to deny the reality of conflict in the name of a fundamental harmony of interest, which is obscured only by ignorance and misunderstanding. To the adherents of this school of what might be called universalistic liberalism, there are no real, intractable conflicts of interest. All people, all countries, once they have had the scales of prejudice, error, and fear removed from their eyes and come to understand their own true interests, will see that they want the same things—peace, wealth, “development,” stability, etc.—and that any enmity between them is illusory and unnecessary. The motto inscribed on the banner of this school is E.M. Forster’s “Only Connect.” For it, international relations represent not so much a political problem as an educational and managerial one. The task is to create structures and stimulate processes which will foster “understanding”—in the sense, that is, of promoting harmony, not of recognizing what actually exists.

This doctrine has been, and continues to be, enormously influential in shaping Western attitudes toward international politics. Earlier in this century, it constituted the ideological drive for the creation of the League of Nations and the United Nations. Today, it largely animates the peace movement. It is apparent too in much that is preached about “interdependence” (see, for example, a major Trilateral Commission document, “A Renovated International System,” prepared by Richard Cooper and Karl Kaiser, which maintains, among other things, that “The public and leaders of most countries continue to live in a mental universe which no longer exists—a world of separate nations—and have great difficulties thinking in terms of global perspectives and interdependence”).

There is one other area in which this thinking is both prevalent and influential, and that is in the bureaucracies that advise Western governments on foreign policy. One obvious reason for this is that universalistic liberalism is very prevalent in such institutions. This is not difficult to explain and the explanation is not sinister. For insofar as universalistic liberalism has been the dominant international-relations ideology among Western intellectuals and in Western universities, it is natural that it should be reflected in the recruitment to foreign-policy bureaucracies. Indeed, the wish to put that ideology into effect has probably been a strong motivation in making young idealists choose a foreign-affairs career in the first place.

On the basis of personal experience, I would also suggest that the wish to protect a professional mystique—to reject what is obvious and “vulgar” (such as the view that the Soviet Union is expansionist) and to embrace “complexity”—and the belief that the technical task of maintaining “relations” should take precedence over the political one of defending interests, contribute significantly to this bias. It has to be acknowledged, too, that to a considerable extent the vested interest which bureaucrats have in protecting their investment in existing programs works against all boldness and innovation, whether based on optimistic or pessimistic premises. In this sense, bureaucratic best-case thinking often takes the form of the belief that what exists in the way of policy represents the best of all possible worlds, and that it is foolish to attempt to change it radically.



Does all this matter? Well, yes, it does. One does not have to believe in Murphy’s law to come to the conclusion that the congenital optimist—he who, in Henry James’s phrase, “lacks the imagination of disaster”—is likely to be surprised repeatedly by the world, especially when he does not recognize his own bias and regards it as merely a sensible, commonsense approach to things. He will not be able to take timely preventive steps against potential dangers because he will not acknowledge that the dangers exist. The best he will manage will be reactive measures late in the day, after what Solzhenitsyn has called “the pitiless crowbar of events” has broken the armor of illusion around his mind.

By then, the cost of action is likely to come high. We have already witnessed this process once in living memory, and no one has described it better than Walter Lippmann, writing about what he called “the vicious circle of pacifism”:

In the name of peace, the nation is made weak and unwilling to defend its vital interests. Confronted with the menace of superior force, it then surrenders its vital interests. The pacifist statesmen justify their surrender on the ground, first, that peace is always preferable to war, and second, that because the nation wants peace so much, it is not prepared to wage war. Finally, with its back to the wall, the pacifist nation has to fight nevertheless. But then it fights with its own armaments insufficient and with its alliances shattered. . . . The generation which most sincerely and elaborately declared that peace is the supreme end of foreign policy, got not peace, but a most devastating war.

At the same time, as optimism is the mother of utopianism, the best-case thinker will believe in, and pursue, unrealizable objectives—a pursuit that will necessarily end in failure but which will not be without its unintended consequences. This, too, we have witnessed repeatedly in this century and we are still living with those unintended consequences.

Both a consistent worst-case and a consistent best-case mentality interfere with the ability to see things as they are. But there is a difference. The characteristic error associated with the former is the taking of unnecessary measures to meet problems which do not arise (though, even then, there is always the question of whether they would have arisen had not action been taken). The characteristic error associated with best-case thinking, on the other hand, is the failure to take measures to cope with problems that do arise. The first is likely to be wasteful; the latter may be fatal.



1 See, for example, Seyom Brown's article, “The Changing Essence of Power,” Foreign Affairs, January 1973, which envisages “the maturing of a full-blown system of multiple interdependence where power would be exercised largely in the form of constructive exchanges of valued resources rather than threats of physical destruction.” When this article was anthologized some years later, the editors noted that “it was considered mainstream when it was published.”

+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link