In the United States, a huge amount of what we do is driven by economics. The political saying, “it’s the economy stupid,” is a great demonstration of how much economic measures matter in our country. When Americans perceive that the economy is going well, they will support incumbent politicians. When they perceive that the economy is not going well, then the president and their party is in for a tough election cycle. Wealth and economic well-being are central to the American experience and psyche, and when we look beyond our borders we project that same idea onto other countries and peoples who are not always as worried about the economy as we are.
This seems to be the case with the current war in Ukraine. American’s cannot understand why Putin is waging a costly war and taking on so many sanctions that are hurting Russia and Russian citizens. Our central value is economic, so it seems completely irrational that Putin would wage a war that is as economic costly as the current war in Ukraine. But, as Steven Pinker notes in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, economics isn’t always the main driver in war time situations. Pinker writes,
“The economic futility of war is a reason to avoid it only if nations are interested in prosperity in the first place. Many leaders are willing to sacrifice a bit of prosperity (often much more than a bit) to enhance national grandeur, to implement utopian ideologies, or to rectify what they see as historic injustices.”
This seems to explain the current situation in Ukraine well. American’s are almost singularly focused on prosperity and when we look abroad that is what we expect other people’s to be focused on. Putin, however, seems to be focused on a narrative of a unified Ukraine and Russia. Whether that narrative is historically accurate or not, Putin is obsessed over the idea that Ukraine belongs as part of Russia, not as a separate, sovereign, more European entity. The war that Putin is pursuing is about something other than economic prosperity and Putin is willing to sacrifice lives and economics in his effort to bring his vision to life.
I think this idea reflects a larger point that I think about and write about frequently. As individuals, even as an individual nation of 330 million people, we have a limited perspective on the world. We have limited experiences and limited factors that influence and shape what we believe to be good or bad. Therefore we have only bounded rationality to guide us. We cannot understand all and know everything. Life has far more ways of living than what we as a single individual or single nation can fully understand. In the case of Putin and Ukraine, our single view of how people should behave, informed by our central economic values, is what has guided us to respond to Putin with economic sanctions that may or may not be effective in the long run. A more informed perspective and understanding of how other people see the world (in this case how Putin and Russian citizens understand the world) might lead us to make different decisions in how we respond to the type of war and crisis we are seeing in Ukraine. This is something we should remember when thinking about our own lives, the decisions we make, and the decisions of other people. We don’t fully understand the factors that lead to other people making their decisions, and we should realize that what makes sense to us may not make sense or may not be as strong of a factor to others.