On Vladimir Putin, Black Swans And Pink Flamingoes
A few years back there was a popular concept in international affairs and intelligence analysis called the Black Swan Theory. The theory, popularized by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, sought to explain the prevalence in human affairs of big but highly improbable events such as financial market collapses, the outbreaks of conflicts or scientific breakthroughs. According to Taleb, a Black Swan event has three characteristics:
• It is a surprise to governments, experts and outside observers.
• The event has a major impact.
• After the first instance of the event, it is rationalized by hindsight (which also is why a Black Swan event never happens the same way twice).
For a while there was an effort on the part of government agencies and experts in various fields to use the Black Swan Theory as a basis for anticipating surprises. Just come up with a list of impossible scenarios and try and work backwards to find evidence to support one versus another. Of course, Taleb never suggests any such thing. He argued that it is not possible to predict Black Swans and hence the proper strategy is to increase the resilience to negative events and create a reserve capacity to exploit positive ones.
A noted U.S. defense expert, Frank Hoffman wrote recently about U.S. military strategy and how to deal with both Black Swans and Pink Flamingoes. The former he defines in a manner similar to Taleb. The new concept, the Pink Flamingo, refers to “a predictable event that is ignored due to cognitive biases of a senior leader or a group of leaders trapped by powerful institutional forces.” Hoffman’s prescription for dealing with these two different species in the military domain is similar to what Taleb proposes: be aware both of your lack of predictive ability and your biases, and build in robustness and breadth to a military that will have to deal with unanticipated or just blindly ignored threats.
What neither Taleb nor Hoffman foresaw, however, is that Black Swans can morph into Pink Flamingoes, at least in the arena of national security. We have an example of this phenomenon. Vladimir Putin has undertaken a series of political-military actions in various parts of the world, none of which were anticipated by Western observers and intelligence officials and each of which have had significant consequences. There was the occupation and then annexation of Crimea, the fomenting of a civil war in Ukraine, the shoot down of a Malaysian airliner by a Russian-manned anti-aircraft battery, repeated Russian Air Force “buzzing” of U.S. and NATO aircraft and ships, the deployment of a combined arms military task force to Syria, the warning to U.S. forces in Iraq to stay out of Syrian airspace, two deliberate violations of Turkish airspace, a Russian fighter intercepting a U.S. drone in Syrian airspace, the threat to send Russian “volunteers” to fight in Syria and, most recently, the firing of 26 cruise missiles from Russian ships in the Caspian sea across Iranian and Iraqi territory against ISIS targets. Not one of these events was anticipated by defense or intelligence agencies. Classic Black Swans.
Except, when you line up all these Black Swans they turn into a Pink Flamingo. The events listed above point to a single conclusion, a reality that our senior leaders wish mightily to ignore. This conclusion is that Vladimir Putin is out to directly challenge the power and unity of the Western Alliance, generally, and the United States specifically. Moreover he is willing to use military force and defy the West to counter his actions. President Obama at his recent press conference opined that Putin’s recent military move into Syria was a sign of weakness and that overall the Russian President was “on the wrong side of the story.” What a pair of Pink Flamingoes.
Even though the eponymous theory states that it is impossible to predict Black Swans, given the arc of Moscow’s actions over the past two years, I would venture to propose several prospective next steps in Putin’s onward march towards a new Russian imperium. They are more in the nature of half swans and half flamingoes. The most straightforward is that Russian forces shoot down a U.S. drone in Syrian airspace. Of course they would claim it was a case of mistaken identity. Next on my list is a shoot down of a Coalition or even U.S. warplane. I think this is plausible in large part because all the experts, commentators and government officials are vehemently asserting that it is impossible. A third is the beginning of a Russian move against one of the Baltic states, Georgia or even Kazakhstan under the pretext of securing the safety of ethnic Russians. This would be a more sophisticated replay of the Crimean invasion.
Taleb and Hoffman both argue for preparedness and resilience. It is time that Washington and the other NATO capitals stopped seeing Pink Flamingoes and accepted the reality that it is in an age of very ugly, very Black Swans.
 Taleb, Nassim Nicholas (2010), The Black Swan: the impact of the highly improbable (2nd ed.), London: Penguin.
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