Alexander Solzhenitsyn warned the West in his 1978 Harvard address that our short-term thinking is a danger to our future safety. When we make concessions to remove some immediate threat, we inadvertently create incentives for other groups/states to attack us when they find themselves in similar circumstances. The desire to save American lives today can create more dangers for our citizens tomorrow if we fail to recognize the consequences of our decisions. In failing to take a long-term approach to our problems, our policies may only encourage violence against us in the future. Our acts made for peace may actually lead to war. We cannot judge policies by their intentions, but by their results. Solzhenitsyn also warned that the West was suffering from a lack of courage. We do not have the willingness to make the sacrifices necessary to preserve our country tomorrow and, without a firm commitment and willingness to endure suffering, we create the conditions where we encourage opposition and violence against us in the future. This is a general cultural problem, one that applies to all areas of contemporary life.
There are rare examples of current scholarship that examine the recent history of the West to address the consequences of our short-term thinking. Robert Pape offers a research paper that looks at Western responses to suicidal terrorism and finds that our short-term thinking has rationalized the concessions we made to terrorists and this served to create incentives for groups to use this violence against us. “The Strategic Logic of Suicidal Terrorism” was published in the American Political Science Review in 2003 and Pape examined every act of suicidal terrorism from 1980 to 2001 which reveal important patterns. He reports that:
1. Suicidal terrorism is an activity managed by groups seeking a political objective (there is some rational organization behind the violence)
2. Democratic states are the only target of this form of violence
3. The terrorists goal is to get the democracy to remove troops from its territory and establish a homeland
4. Suicidal terrorism has been increasing for the past 20 years
The revealing aspect is that the target is always a democratic state and the goal is to get the democracy to withdraw troops from a territory. Democracies are perceived as easy targets because they will be constrained in their response and lack the courage to endure long-term violence. One reason for the growth of these types of attacks is that they work approximately half of the time; the West has repeatedly withdrawn from a territory in response to these attacks and this made future use of terrorism more frequent. Our historical concessions made to terrorists in the past work to endanger us today because they have created incentives for others to carryout these attacks. The cultural inability to engage in long-term thinking has led us to support actions that hurt our security in the long-run.
What is the primary lessons of Pape’s work? The West should never make concessions to terrorists because this will increase the probability that we suffer more attacks in the future. Although there are many voices arguing for the U.S. to step away from those regions where our troops suffer attacks, one likely outcome is that all our troops will be in greater danger tomorrow because we show that these attacks work. The more unified we remain as a country in the face of violence, the stronger our civilization will be.
Short-term thinking is an educational problem. The desire for peace is good and should be nourished, but we cannot settle for a temporary peace that increases the violence and danger we will face tomorrow. We need to see reality and acknowledge that if we love our civilization, we cannot give into violent acts. We need to be stronger tomorrow and correct the mistakes democracies have made in the past. We need to be honest about recognizing the historical errors that have increased the danger we face today. If we do not change our behavior, we will only encourage those who wish to engage in acts of violence against us tomorrow. We also need to acknowledge the heroism of our military and their families; without the willingness of men and women to give their lives for our civilization and country, we would not have the strength to confront those who wish violence upon us. As Pape and Solzhenitsyn show, the West needs the courage to make the long-term stands that will protect our military and country in the future.