More than 40 years ago, “Perception and Misperception in International Politics” became the household guide for studying international crises. Written by Robert Jervis, the book covers how crises in foreign policy are often simply results of misperceptions, such as biases or misread situations. These biases often end up escalating, making resolutions more difficult by limiting flexibility during mediation and negotiations. While writing his book, Jervis’s main focus was probably the Cold War, but his arguments are still relevant today. In fact, the majority of Jervis’s claims have been cited in multiple crises case studies in various parts of the world, mostly focusing on the possibility of conflict resolution relative to the decision-makers’ mutual perceptions.
During current political crises, foreign players still face similar constraints and limitations that the scholars of international politics mentioned in their studies. As a result of limitations, stress or biases, crisis resolution and de-escalation alternatives have not been effectively assessed and evaluated within policy-making circles. Of course, the structure of international relations, which has become increasingly unpredictable, uncertain and unstable, has contributed greatly to mutual misunderstandings. However, mindful decision-makers can still navigate the misinformation minefield with strategic care to avoid miscalculations and conflict in their foreign policies. In the case of time-constricted leaders, the responsibility of effective decision-making falls on those who can assess the situation accurately, while weighing in the risks and pressures of the outside parties.
At such a period of time, more constructive policies that will not lead to another conflict in the Gulf and the Middle East are needed
In crisis-ridden regions of the world, risk assessment and levelheaded decision-making are crucial skills, especially in the flash points of international conflict, such as the South China Sea and the Middle East. The presence and possibility of tension and conflict in these regions tends to run high, with a constant risk of further escalation or sudden expansions of conflict designed to pull larger world powers into the disputes. Retrospectively, we see that the previous problems in these regions, particularly in the Middle East, were results of misconception, sometimes even layers of it. Though these misunderstandings sound like a “comedy of errors” to scholars now, each has caused significant trauma to the people of the region. As mentioned previously, none of these crises ended with an absolute “winner.” In fact, the involved parties always ended up in worse shape, both physically and psychologically. In addition to costing money and lives, these crises created an increased feeling of insecurity for the governments and people in the region.
Currently, the Middle East is facing another major crisis, this time in the Gulf. Despite negotiation efforts from Turkey and Kuwait, and a delayed attempt following confusing statements from the United States, the parties still have not reach a common ground for a resolution. The demands that were leaked to Western news agencies on Thursday night may not be grounds for negotiation and mutual understanding in regards to the resolution of the crisis. The possible mediators in the region need to take into consideration, not only the consequences of an escalation of the crisis, but also the possibility of the unintended fallouts and aftershocks of such a disagreement. The region’s history is full of tension that has led to conflict and sent shocks through the underlying ethnic, sectarian and ideological fault lines. In the past, most of the region’s crises ran wild and resulted in a less secure Middle East in the end. The region should not be cursed with the same fate again. Acting responsibly, avoiding biases and being constructive during critical junctures in history are all very important for the future of the region. In the end, the world’s interwoven status has eliminated the “us” and “them” or “our side” and “your side” stances. Like it or not, we all win or lose as one.
This article was first published in Daily Sabah on June 23, 2017.