Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

How Not to Think About Ukraine

As Russia wages war on its neighbor, Western observers fall into familiar patterns of thought, with potentially disastrous results.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a very big deal and a very bad thing. Permit me to stipulate that, before going on to observe that the event has also triggered the latest outbreak of mass hysteria among the Western ruling class, the severest yet.

Just when sobriety, responsibility, probity, and diplomatic skill are most needful, our pundits and policymakers offer the opposite: trembling emotion, cheap propaganda, wild fantasies, a refusal to dialogue and de-escalate. And the worst part is: It’s all so damned familiar. Once more, we are falling—or rather, being driven—into structural information traps that hamper sound decision-making and force policy choices we might regret dearly when it’s too late.

The process has proved highly costly in recent years. This time, it could spell catastrophe. This time, rash action risks a direct confrontation with a mighty Eurasian civilization with wounded pride and a vast arsenal of strategic weapons. How did we get here?

If you’re stuck in one of these info traps, it is very difficult to pull yourself out. Those who might try to help will face the full force of your wrath (as we will see). Once the media moment has passed, of course, you might wonder how you ever came to believe X or to advocate Y. There might be hints of regret. But then life presses on. Other concerns compete for your limited time and attention. That is, until the next trap-laden media event.

Yet we must examine previous episodes. Four especially stand out: the post-9/11 wars, the Arab Spring, the European migrant crisis, and the Covid pandemic. These happen to be the defining media moments of my career as a journalist, and in some cases, I fell into the info traps. The experience indelibly shaped my worldview. But you don’t need to share my worldview to notice—and beware—three info-trap patterns common to all of these media moments.

First, beware emotionally charged images that tend to overwhelm reason. The Arab Spring should have been instructive on this count. Following the self-immolation of a Tunisian fruit vendor in 2010, images of denim-clad, smartphone-wielding young liberals taking to the streets dazzled reporters and social-media users. The images fed a narrative of heroic Jeffersonians facing down hidebound kleptocrats. The fervor suppressed inconvenient questions.

Questions like: Were these youths, in fact, representative of their societies, or did they win our favor merely because they happened to look and sound like us? Were they actually prepared to govern their societies, or might their movements be hijacked by less-savory actors? If Islamists with mass support did end up in power, would the young liberals be able to accept that? Were there reasons to take a more cautious approach, taking into account religious and tribal complexities and the geopolitical fault lines that crisscross the region?

Needless to say, the United States didn’t pursue a cautious policy, pushing its clients to step down and, in the case of Libya, mounting a military intervention to oust Muammar Gaddafi. The result: instability, civil war, ungoverned spaces, terror, and an eventual return to autocracy in most Arab Spring states.

Emotive images similarly overwhelmed rational decision-making during the 2015-16 European migrant crisis. The decisive shift toward flinging open the continent’s gates came in response to a photograph of a Syrian child lying dead on Turkey’s western shore after trying to reach the Greek isles. More than a million newcomers—mostly men, many unvetted—poured into Europe as refugees. It was far from clear how many were, in fact, economic migrants whose crossings had been made possible by human smuggling. Concerns about mass migration’s adverse effects on security, welfare services, and social cohesion were, again, suppressed until much later—when it was too late.

The pandemic supplied its share of gripping and potentially misleading images—above all, that of the death and misery in Italy’s Covid wards, scenes that were certain to arrive at a hospital near you, unless drastic but temporary measures were taken. Few inquired about the extent to which Italy’s horrors were a specific product of Italy’s health system and its elderly population.

Second, beware the treatment of dissent or criticism as treason. This is perhaps the most pernicious pattern in info traps, because it taps into the very human tendency to ostracize and “out-group” dissidents. Modern media, with their power to incite ravenous mobs, have supercharged this ancient temptation. The mob has been instructed to defend a certain policy—and only a traitor or villain could have second thoughts!

Thus, opponents of the Iraq War, including many who made this magazine their home, were called “unpatriotic” conservatives. France’s reservations led to the idiocy of “Freedom Fries.” Those who questioned the Arab Spring—including as eminent a scholar of the Middle East as Bernard Lewis—were dismissed as “Orientalists” and worse. Likewise, those who questioned Angela Merkel’s open-door policy could barely get a hearing in the mainstream.

Then there was Covid. Everyone had to wear a mask. Everyone had to boast of his vaccination status online, to post masked selfies. To proclaim #StayHomeSaveLives. Critics of job-killing and small-biz-destroying lockdowns were no doubt callous and heartless. When R.R. Reno, editor of First Things, warned that the West was succumbing to a dangerous safety-ism, prioritizing physical wellbeing at the expense all other goods, the Catholic University theologian Joseph Cappizi accused him, falsely, of proposing that “the value of life should be measured in economic terms,” of being “indifferent to the wellbeing of society’s most vulnerable members.” It was a sophisticated way of asking the same question posed by Reno’s frothy online persecutors: “How many Grannies are you prepared to kill on the altar of your economy, Rusty?”

Third and finally, beware delusions of total mastery over complex crises. It’s all too easy for people speculating on traditional or social media that complex matters are actually simple, that “we” can take drastic measures without worrying about the consequences, because the West enjoys a uniquely capable civilization, thanks to its scientific and technological prowess. We think we can “game out” the outcomes, to see around the corner, to prophesy with data.

Time and again, events make a mockery of this confidence—yet it persists. The Iraq War’s proponents told us we would be greeted with flowers, that the occupation would be short and sweet. Operation Iraqi Freedom plunged the country into chaos and civil war that finally redounded to the benefit of Iran. “Wir schaffen das [We can do this],” then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel said of the prospect of absorbing a million migrants. Her decision dramatically destabilized European politics. “Two weeks to flatten the curve” lasted more than two years.

Do you notice similar patterns in the Western response to the Ukraine crisis? I’m afraid I do. From the pictures of grandmothers and photogenic young women taking up Kalashnikovs to defend Ukraine, to (manufactured) stories of Ukrainian troops sacrificing themselves rather than surrender, we are being bombarded with one-sided, emotionally gripping images.

We are once more treating dissidents and critics as traitors and villains and “Putin shills.” The same people who accused lockdown critics of murderous indifference are now accusing critics of escalation of…the same thing: Capizzi on Monday assailed the Harvard Law scholar Adrian Vermeule for “liking” a map circulating online showing Russian forces encirclement of the Ukrainian city of Kharkov. Vermeule was guilty of something, because he had clicked “like” on a map of a place “where innocents are dying.”

And we are once more touting our own mastery over events that are rather hard to master. The usual hawkish suspects are feeding the dream of a hopeless Ukrainian resistance. These figures are likely merely deepening the Ukrainian people’s pain, without altering the ultimate outcome of the conflict. And measures that could plausibly alter the outcome bear the unfortunate risk of bringing us close to the brink of all-out war with Moscow.

Perhaps that is what many Americans want. But those who are comfortable with the escalation cycle and think they’re prepared to accept the downsides might consider if they’re viewing events from deep inside an information trap.