Fantasy, paranoia, enthusiasm and reality

The peaceful revolution that swept away Communist rule in Czechoslovakia six months ago was engineered by leaders of the secret police in Moscow and Prague, according to a BBC documentary. It said secret police leaders in both countries jointly conspired to bring down the hard-line Communist leadership in Prague, because it would not accept President Gorbachev's reforms in the Soviet Union.

– Associated Press, June 1, 1990[i]

The conspiracy, Mulder and Scully had been told again and again, always goes much higher, producing an inflationary logic of endlessly deferred revelation that can never be cashed in. At some stage it was inevitable that viewers would begin to think that the show is crying wolf.

– Peter Knight, Conspiracy Culture, 2000[ii]

The plotters wanted reform-minded Communists to replace the hardliners, but they miscalculated the depth of public desire for change throughout the country ... The people no longer wanted to reform the Communist system: they wanted to get rid of it once and for all ....

– Associated Press, June 1, 1990[iii]


Robert de Niro's recent film The Good Shepherd is a fictionalised history of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), through the life story of Edward Wilson, a character based, in part, on James Jesus Angleton, who was head of CIA counter-intelligence for many years. He was finally removed from office in 1973 because it was believed he had lost his grip on reality. Trying to find Soviet moles, he had succumbed to paranoia and all but crippled the CIA's Soviet Analysis Division. It was time for him to go. In the movie, this doesn't happen. The reality – as is so often the case – is more interesting than the fiction.

Angleton's job was very tough – a "wilderness of mirrors" he called it. He knew that, as far back as the early 1920s, the Soviet secret service had (with a black, or perhaps a red, sense of humour) created a front organisation called "Trust" to trap its foreign and domestic enemies. Trust had fooled both Russian exiles and the British secret service for years, with destructive consequences – including capture of the famous Reilly "Ace of Spies" by the Russians and the rolling up of anticommunist intelligence networks in the Soviet Union.

Angleton knew, by the early 1960s, that the Russians had penetrated many Western intelligence services since World War II. His greatest shock, however, was learning that Kim Philby, his friend and British colleague, had been a Soviet mole since the 1930s. Angleton refused to accept this when it was first suspected, in 1953. It was not until it became undeniable, when Philby fled to Moscow in 1963, that he could bring himself to acknowledge the awful truth. That seems to have been the beginning of his decline. He began to suspect moles everywhere and turned the CIA's Soviet Analysis Division upside down trying to find them. He had produced the very thing he was supposed to prevent – the crippling of the CIA's analysis of the Soviet Union.

Angleton was guided by a KGB defector, Anatoliy Golitsyn, who persuaded him that the KGB had conceived a gigantic plan to penetrate all the Western intelligence services and, even more cleverly, to lull the West into a false sense of security by master-minding apparent divisions within the communist bloc – starting with the split between the Soviet Union and China in 1959-61. There was no such split, Golitsyn claimed, but only an inner elite of the KGB knew how intricately the whole thing was being orchestrated. Even the Prague Spring of 1968 was orchestrated, he told a credulous Angleton. Things were not what they seemed, and the guile of the Kremlin was mind-boggling.


LONG AFTER ANGLETON RESIGNED, THERE WERE THOSE in Western intelligence who subscribed to Golitsyn's conspiracy theory. In a foreword to the 1986 edition of Golitsyn's book, New Lies for Old(Wheatsheaf), several intelligence veterans – British and American – solemnly asserted that it "stands alone as an authoritative analysis of Soviet bloc strategy".[iv] It did, perhaps, stand on its own – but not because it was authoritative. A genuinely authoritative analysis of Soviet strategy in the era when Golitsyn had Angleton's ear is now possible because so much has been learned since the end of the Cold War. What merits close attention is the difference in cognitive process between the paranoid credulity with which Angleton heeded Golitsyn and the richer complexity of the genuinely authoritative analysis.

Among the finest work done on the subject is Khrushchev's Cold War, by Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali (Norton, 2006). They cite a secret speech by Khrushchev to his Kremlin colleagues, on January 8, 1962, in which he declared that the Soviet Union was so weak compared with the United States that it would have to play brinkmanship for years to keep the Americans off balance. "A dangerous approach at any time in history," comment the authors, "but in the nuclear age this approach was potentially suicidal ... What made Khrushchev believe he could control the consequences of Soviet pressure tactics?" [v]


THESE COLD WAR TALES ARE SALUTARY. They vividly capture our common proclivity to think that others (who should not be) are controlling the course of events, and our wish to believe that, if only we were bold enough, we could do so ourselves. Golitsyn's tale suggested that an elite group of master-minds within the KGB could shape the course of history and control the course of events. The historians ask, on the other hand, how Khrushchev could have believed that he could play brinkmanship with the vastly more powerful United States and control the consequences of his actions. Yet we all – or many of us – fall into one or other of these traps, I suggest, in our own thinking about the way the world works and who is responsible for what.

What is interesting, then, is less the paranoia of Angleton, the fantasy of Golitsyn or the hazardous and erratic foreign policy of Khrushchev than the general problem we have in thinking about the shape of things to come, comprehending the intentions of others, and trying to control the consequences of our actions. We are given to fears and apprehensions that readily befuddle our judgement. The matters in question are complex, but our emotions are simple, so no end of confusion and even mischief arises. Where we suspect that some irresponsible or malign centre of power is shaping the course of events, we can fall into paranoia; we can become little Angletons. Where we believe that we have detected a devilishly clever plot, we become little Golitsyns. Where we think that we, or those with whom we identify, can overcome a major challenge by taking bold steps without weighing the risks very carefully, we become little Khrushchevs.

There is a common expression – still widely used – to describe those who believe they can make life or death decisions for others: it is "playing God". God is, of course, a word we use to refer to an imagined higher intelligence that actually does, in an important sense, control the course of events – from start to finish. We have "free will", but He knows everything and has a Plan as to how it will all work out in the End. The current anti-evolutionary notion of "intelligent design" is a version of this theological belief that purposeful intelligence, or intentionality, lies behind how things are and where they are heading. We might say, by way of analogy, that Golitsyn was playing the theologian, Angleton the true believer and Khrushchev God, or the Pope.


AN ALTERNATIVE INTERPRETATION OF THE LARGER SCHEME of things, of course, is that we find ourselves – that, indeed, we are ourselves – complex adaptive systems, within which intentionality ("free will", if you like) plays a very limited and indirect role in how things work out. In this view of the world, there is no overall plot or design to figure out; there is no intention behind natural catastrophes; there is no controlling mind (or secret order of minds) behind the course of world events. There is, however – for just this reason – a great deal that needs to be carefully explored and understood, if we are to take intentional actions in the world with any hope of things working out as we design.

Such thoughts are at a level of abstraction well beyond the history of the Cold War. But all these things play out in an everyday way. They enter, for example, into our current debates about the challenges we face, here in Australia, at the beginning of the twenty-first century. It is well enough known that they did so during the Cold War. They do so still, sometimes in subtle, sometimes in remarkably crude ways. As a matter of both practical, everyday philosophy and practical politics, it might be no bad thing to reflect on this and to ponder the ways in which such tendencies can bedevil our approaches to challenges large and small.

In his recent and widely read reflection on why whole societies or civilisations collapse, Jared Diamond was relatively optimistic about Australia's capacity to cope with the dramatic challenges arising at the dawn of the twenty-first century, because "Australia has a well-educated populace, a high standard of living, and relatively honest political and economic institutions by world standards."[vi] There are, at present, quite strenuous debates afoot about how well educated a populace we really have and how well we are equipping ourselves to raise the bar in the next generation, in a complex world. There are questions to be asked, also, about our political and economic system. But all these matters look more or less serious depending on what challenges you believe Australia will face over the next generation.

Quite a long list of such conceivable challenges can be identified across the board, but it is the biggest ones, naturally enough, that tend to seize the imagination. These are what economists refer to as "exogenous shocks" – unexpected blows that overwhelm the institutions of societies otherwise coping more or less well with their standard challenges. Traditionally, the threat of foreign invasion has held the high ground in this category, but that has changed markedly over the past decade. The apparent aggregation of somewhat novel challenges, however, marks the contemporary scene: wild terrorism of the 9/11 kind; the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of strange and belligerent regimes such as those in North Korea and Iran; the shadow of anthropogenic and damaging climate change; and the danger of pandemic disease are perhaps the most prominent of these.


NONE SEEMS MORE PORTENTOUS THAN CLIMATE CHANGE. Tim Flannery was named Australian of the Year in January 2007 largely for arguing that climate change confronts us all with apocalyptic danger. Interestingly, he was reported a month later as bewildered by what he saw as a "conspiracy" to defame him – channelled through critics who claim that he is more publicist than scientist and is prone to make assertions that go beyond the evidence or are contradicted by it.[vii] Nigel Calder, former editor of New Scientist, takes a somewhat different view of the matter to Flannery. Espousing the hypothesis that, in fact, the climate change we are experiencing is not anthropogenic, he remarked recently: "Humility in face of nature's marvels seems more appropriate than arrogant assertions that we can forecast and even control a climate ruled by the sun and the stars." [viii]

Humility may, in some respects, be a virtue; however, there is surely a case for seeking to anticipate the course of events in regard to climate change – whether or not it is anthropogenic – to better enable us to cope with what may occur. In Heating Up the Planet, the Lowy Institute inquiry into the subject (2006), Alan Dupont and Graeme Pearman urged that the federal government – and, indeed, Australian governments at all levels – set about "thinking the unthinkable" as regards the future impact of climate change.[ix] If very much is to be done about the basic problem, however, solutions will have to be crafted to work within the (highly) complex adaptive system of the global human economic and political order. Mere good intentions will not suffice, and neither playing Golitsyn, nor Angleton, nor Khrushchev will serve any of us well.

Yet forecasting, and at least attempting to control, the course of events is very much what scientific civilisation is about. This is notably the case with regard to pandemic disease. The threat of avian flu certainly calls for careful forecasting and preventive, or at least preemptive, public health care measures. Warwick McKibbin and Alexandra Sidorenko last year modelled the possible human and economic costs of a pandemic in Global Macroeconomic Consequences of Pandemic Influenza (Lowy Institute, 2006). These ranged from about one and a half million deaths worldwide and a cost of over $300 billion to more than 140 million deaths and economic losses well over $4 trillion.[x] Others have estimated that the death toll could be three hundred million.[xi]

McKibbin and Sidorenko allow that "there are many unknowns in modelling pandemic influenza scenarios. There are very few observations in history to draw on and there is a great deal of uncertainty about how individuals and markets will respond." They conclude their study with the remark: "The extent of potential human and economic losses ... suggests that [a] large investment of resources should be dedicated to preventing an outbreak of pandemic influenza." Yet they note that pandemics historically originate in eastern Eurasia, especially China; and that the more severe the scenario, the more skewed the costs are actually likely to be, with Africa and Asia hit far harder than North America, Western Europe or Japan. Whose resources, therefore, should be invested in preventing the outbreak? How large is a "large investment in resources", given the enormous disparities between the scenarios and between the anticipated costs on a country by country basis? How would such an investment be made? Above all, how is a global effort to head off such a natural catastrophe to be coordinated?

Suppose the calculations of the climate scientists to be broadly accurate, and global warming to be occurring to an increasingly dangerous degree; suppose, further, that avian flu does swept the world, killing between a hundred and three hundred million people – starting with all HIV-AIDS sufferers, since they would be among the most vulnerable – and that, at the same time, terrorists succeeded in obtaining nuclear weapons on the black market that A.Q. Khan established, and that they set off such bombs in New York, London and Singapore. What kind of world would Australia find itself in after the pandemic killed up to 100,000 times as many people as 9/11 and the nuclear bombs went off in three cities pivotal to the global economy?


GOLITSYNIST IMAGININGS, ANGLETONIAN PARANOIA AND Khrushchevous (if not mischievous) enthusiasm for urgent or heroic measures are all temptations in the face of such perils – never mind their possible conjunction. There is a whiff of the Khrushchevous about the sudden, sweeping, immensely expensive water engineering schemes being put forward by the federal government in Canberra. This is not to say that we shouldn't be thinking very hard about our water resources and how we sustain them. It is simply to point out that any such scheme needs very careful thought and must, in the nature of the case, be situated within that complex adaptive system that is the social and economic, as well as the larger ecological order. More generally, such careful thought can lead us to radically reassess our policy priorities. In Copenhagen in 2004, a group of distinguished economists concluded that neither action on climate change, nor measures to head off avian flu, nor measures to secure "loose nukes" should be among our top priorities.[xii] The cognitive challenge here is that the course of events is complex beyond our capacity to readily understand it, and well beyond our capacity – whether as individuals or as collectivities – to predict or control. The intractable dilemma we face is that we must, nevertheless, try to understand, anticipate and be able to adapt to the course of events – but anticipation is not precisely the same as prediction, and adaptation is very different from control. If there has been a single philosophical lesson that the long history of the twentieth century has taught us – in science, in politics, in economics – it is, I submit, that the multitude of adaptive, uncontrollable, unpredictable and non-linear processes that are at work in the world makes creative resilience, not programmatic control, the model for understanding how the world works and for trying to work to the best effect within the world.

In science, we have discovered levels of complexity that were unguessed at a century ago – in physics, in biochemistry, in ecological systems. In politics, we have discovered that heroic alternatives to "bourgeois democracy" tend to produce monstrously repressive polities but that, paradoxically, such polities find it very difficult to flourish because they cannot control the flow of information through the course of events. It erodes their rule, it undermines the material basis of their power, it gives the lie to their propaganda, it forces its way into their very thinking. In economics, we have learned – through decades of planning and its unanticipated consequences – that we do best to labour patiently at strengthening the conditions in which individuals and enterprises can make micro-economic decisions with as much freedom as possible, rather than presuming to make such decisions for them and to control the course of events by higher design – to "play God".

In short, the way we are most likely to be able to deal with our various challenges is by incremental, creative resilience. This requires patience, curiosity, humility and a capacity to engage in often difficult and counter-intuitive reasoning. Yet many of us lack these qualities and too many politicians and opinion leaders flounder while trying to navigate through public policy challenges. That, however, is what leadership calls for. In an election year, in which religion has been invoked by both sides, it may be worth stating that a political leader of real calibre is one who understands these requirements and seeks to fulfil them. Such a leader is, indeed, a good shepherd.  ♦


[i] "Czech Revolution a ‘Moscow plot'", The Age, June 1, 1990.

[ii] Peter Knight, Conspiracy Culture: From Kennedy to the X-Files, London and New York: Routledge, 2000, p. 243.

[iii] "Czech Revolution a ‘Moscow plot'", The Age, June 1, 1990.

[iv] Anatoliy Golitsyn, New Lies For Old, Brighton: Wheatsheaf Books, 1986, p. xvi.

[v] Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali, Khrushchev's Cold War: The Inside Story of an American Adversary, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2006, p. 6. William Taubman, himself the author of a distinguished and Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Khrushchev, remarked of this book: "Based on exciting, long-unavailable Soviet documents, this book provides important new details and insights that enrich our understanding of Khrushchev's contradictory and colorful Cold War conduct." Ernest May, himself a specialist on the uses of intelligence in the Cold War and on the Cuban missile crisis in particular, remarked: "Using documents never before opened, Naftali and Fursenko provide new understanding of Soviet foreign policy under Khrushchev."

[vi] ibid., p. 379.

[vii] Brad Norington, "Critics' ‘Conspiracy' Perplexes Flannery", The Australian, February 19, 2007, pp. 1-2.

[viii] Nigel Calder, ‘Relax, It's Only the Sun', The Australian, February 20, 2007, p. 14.

[ix] Alan DuPont and Graeme Pearman, Heating Up the Planet, Sydney: Lowy Institute, 2006.

[x] Warwick J. McKibbin and Alexandra Sidorenko, Global Macroeconomic Consequences of Pandemic Influenza, Sydney: Lowy Institute, 2006, p. 24.

[xi] Laurie Garrett, "The Next Pandemic?", Foreign Affairs, July-August 2005, pp. 4-5 estimates that "assuming a mortality rate of 20% and 80 million illnesses, the United States could be looking at 16 million deaths and unimaginable economic losses". Michael T. Osterholm, "Preparing for the Next Pandemic",Foreign Affairs, July-August 2005. Mike Davis, The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Bird Flu, New York: New Press, 2006.

[xii] Bjorn Lomborg (ed.), How to Spend $50 Billion to Make the World a Better Place, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

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