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Unthinkable end to our ‘geopolitical nap’

Nik Gowing, Founder & Co-Author, Thinking the Unthinkable

by Nik Gowing, Founder & Co-Author, Thinking the Unthinkable

Filed under Diversity of Thinking

It is unthinkable. We are even closer to war in Europe. The inevitability of what Putin is forcing upon us continues to be real.

The date and numbers 22022022 are the new 9/11. History will remember February 22 2022 as the day the post World War Two security of Europe was shaken.

I write this as the founder of the Thinking the Unthinkable (TTU) project in 2014.

That year Putin’s actions in Eastern Ukraine, then seizing Crimea, catalysed TTU’s creation. After my 35 years reporting often unpleasant events at the cutting edge of international affairs, Putin’s actions seemed inconceivable. They broke all the rules. And he got away with it.

What had driven Putin to overturn the hard-won principles of modern international life? He had knowingly ordered the violation of the sovereign rights of a nation state – Ukraine. International treaties and norms had been violently swept aside unchallenged.

Misunderstood and ignored

Putin’s strategic motives and actions have been the most vivid proof of that. He resented being misunderstood and ignored.

At the 2007 Munich Security Conference Putin signalled in person what he intended in Georgia, then Ukraine, plus elsewhere in the former Soviet space. Given what seemed to be the positive direction of geopolitics in Moscow’s once unchallenged area of influence, few leaders took seriously his strategic single mindedness.

Putin’s analysis and warning seemed unthinkable.

But he kept to his warnings. Even more ominously, those actions and motives were soon rapidly being mirrored globally by other leaders bent on securing power and influence on increasingly authoritarian terms.

Overturning the status quo

Again, the new reality was unthinkable. International norms that we all took for granted were not just being challenged. They were being overturned.

A year later Putin did what he threatened. As the 2008 Beijing Olympics closed, he ordered Russian forces who were ‘on exercises’ through the Roki tunnel into Georgia. The declared aim was to support separatist forces in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The west had been wrong footed.

World powers were similarly caught off guard in 2014 when Russia seized Crimea. Western leaders and those working for them did not have the bandwidth to conceive of what Putin was planning, and then that he would do it.

Putin had outflanked them all. Worse still, he then confirmed how powerless they were to halt what he planned, even if his actions did create new unity among NATO nations.

It was all unthinkable. But everyone needed to think about both the precedent and sinister implications of what Putin had achieved.

‘What are you smoking?’

I judged 2014 to be a parallel moment to Herman Kahn’s shocking warning of the imminence of nuclear warfare in 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis. Kahn urged the thinking of unthinkables. Our project would therefore adopt his title.

I invited Chris Langdon to join me from the Oxford Research Group. After Ukraine in 2014, together we defied majority thinking and signalled other unthinkables including the UK vote for Brexit, Trump’s nomination and election, the likely horrific impacts of a pandemic and the massive implications of the fast growing climate emergency.

But almost everyone – including the most eminent and distinguished – politely dismissed our over-the-horizon analyses. We were right. But we were outside their comfort zone. So they asked Chris and me jokingly, sometimes dismissively: “What are you smoking?”

But a few did take notice. Those challenging conventional unwisdom included former British 4-star General, Sir Richard Barrons and the UK’s former NATO Ambassador, Dame Mariot Leslie. They both shared their frustrations trying to raise unthinkables working within the system.

A month after Russia’s Ukraine surprise in February 2014, Michael Ignatieff, then professor of practice at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, put his cold, analytical finger on the stark new reality which few wanted to embrace.

Re-ordering under way

Ignatieff warned leaders, and those who serve them, of the end to all they assumed professionally about a certain global order and normative political practice. “We are still arguing about how to react accordingly.” said Ignatieff. He described ‘the new reality of multiple events making us search for our bearings’ with a ‘re-ordering under way’.

Ignatieff was among a handful identifying this new watershed moment. “We are experiencing a new normal,” warned the leading democracy policy analyst, Thomas Carothers, Vice President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

They too were ignored.

At the Munich Security Conference last Saturday, Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki described failures to think the unthinkable as the “geopolitical nap” of the past two decades. That was because conformity had reigned. Leaders had de-tuned from reality and seemed to be half asleep.

‘Geopolitical nap’

That ‘geopolitical nap’ has distorted and restrained the reading of reality. Few on the highest rungs of the leadership ladders were convinced. Frequently there was not just inertia, but denial too.

Even after Putin published his warning essay last July entitled On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukranians, leaders were apparently not fully across the profound depth of the Russian President’s intention until it was far too late.

“We have been slow, very slow to wake up to what he [Putin] has been doing,” confirmed Kurt Volker, a former US ambassador to NATO and US Special Representative for Ukraine negotiations on the eve of 22022022. ‘Helplessness and dread’ was how Fred Kempe, President and Chief Executive of the Atlantic Council described the mood in Munich.

The true unthinkables of Putin’s intentions had not been adequately contemplated until too late.

The two decades of ’geopolitical nap’ meant that what Chris and I wrote in our tightly argued book Thinking the Unthinkable published in 2018 was unfashionable. Regrettably, it made little difference when it should have done.

We argued that since 2014 unthinkable events had become increasingly unpalatable for those leaders reared in public or corporate life on a predictable conformity that would move in largely positive directions within predictable tram lines.

Stability unravelling

Yet there was a new reality. On a huge number of issues the stability we all so readily took for granted was unravelling.

Nothing was secure or safe from disruption. Everything was at risk from unthinkables and unpalatables.

TTU’s main finding was that the conformity which qualified leaders for the top in many ways disqualified them from appreciating the enormity of disruption, its implications and the kind of radical new approaches needed.

We urged leaders to think carefully about this finding and reflect.

Cost of conformity

Professional conformity qualified a huge number of leaders to somehow beat off rivals and climb the greasy pole to the top. But in so many ways that same conformity now disqualified them from embracing the scale, speed and implications of the profound new enormity of change that was underway.

We asked: are too many trapped by the conformity which got them to where they are? We answered with an emphatic ‘yes!’ Hence the inability to spot unthinkables and act as decisively as needed in a timely way.

Putin and Ukraine on 22 February 2022 is the latest confirmation.

Russia's President Putin sitting giving a speech

Unpalatable more than unthinkable

The challenge is not just unthinkables. It is unpalatables as Dame Mariot Leslie told us. The evidence had usually been there for what lay ahead. It was usually credible. But until too late few wanted to take the professional risk of signalling and believing it.

This is what also happened on Brexit. The signals were there to see, but they were ignored. “I am sorry, I failed. I accept that my approach failed,” was the unusually frank admission by British Prime Minister David Cameron after a narrow majority in the UK voted for Brexit. “The physics of policy have changed…feelings were prioritised over facts.”

That oversight dominates why unthinkables are not thought about.

At senior executive levels in government and business, ‘unthinkable’ events like these were leaving a widespread sense of astonishment, bewilderment, impotence and anxiety. It usually morphed into fear. ‘People don’t know whether to be excited or paranoid. They are typically both,’ a prominent risk counsellor told us. “They mask their fear. … they mask their discomfort,” said a former minister.

Next unthinkables looming

Already on 22022022 the unthinkable of what Putin has now launched is being compared to the acute global dangers created by the Cuban Missile Crisis. Then it was the imminent threat of nuclear war. That was the unthinkable identified by Herman Kahn.

As the first regular Russian troops officially entered eastern Ukraine on Putin’s orders, the new danger was swiftly being compared to the unthinkable possibility of nuclear war over Cuba in 1962.

Confirmation of the level of international impotence when confronted by unthinkables will not be lost on China as it calculates its next steps to secure the PRC’s sovereignty over Taiwan.

A recent Economist front cover labelled Taiwan the “most dangerous place on earth” over the image of a darkened radar scan of the island state off the Chinese mainland.

Unthinkable? No, inevitable.

And other more existential unthinkables threaten.

Climate unthinkables next

Actions to prevent a climate emergency are failing. The UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres told the Munich Security Conference: “The climate crisis is out of control. We are not winning the race. We are losing the race. The climate crisis is becoming too serious. If something happens that is bigger than COVID, we are doomed.”

Johan Rockstrom, Co-Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research said that the world is “currently experiencing a serious hammering”. He added: “The world is on a road to disaster.” Why? It is what seems to be the unthinkable to most people that our planet cannot cope with the stresses we continue to place on it.

John Kerry, The US Special Presidential Envoy on Climate Change warned that on the climate emergency ‘everything is accelerating - except us’. On 28 February the IPCC will issue an even starker scientific warning on the accelerating scale of the climate emergency. Unthinkable? No unpalatable. No leader can claim we are not being warned.

22022022: Date to remember

Putin. Ukraine. Climate.

22022022 is the sombre date and symmetry of digits that will be remembered. It has suddenly jolted us all from that ‘geopolitical nap’. Unthinkables must now be addressed - not viewed through blinking eyelids. Then pushed to one side.

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