Words matter in seeking to explain the actions of states and individuals and to divine the response that would best protect the national (or business or personal) interest. Complexities abound, and assertions based on minimal facts often must be made.
Oversimplification is frequently a necessary step to explain and understand the motivations — whether compulsions or constraints — of the various actors. That simplification, which accounts for complexity but peels away these layers to a core "truth," may not be entirely nuanced. But it does allow for more effective communication, and thus for building a more reasoned preparation or response.
There are risks, however, to moving from the simple to the simplistic. Complexities are often ignored in favor of a single reason for actions, frequently relying on moral judgments rather than reasoned understandings.
A Historically Charged Term
One term analysts, journalists and government officials use that frequently falls into the simplistic, rather than simple, category is "provocation." In itself, the term is not problematic. It can, however, become a catchall for describing anything one's political, military or cultural opponent might do. A highly moralized term, it frequently denies any justification for the actor's action and fully justifies any response from the recipient of the action.
In a simple sense, a provocation is an act designed to engender anger in, or trigger some response from, another. In a legal sense, provocation provides cover for the provoked entity to respond, even if the return action is violent: An assertion of provocation can reduce a murder charge to voluntary manslaughter, for example.
But what does provocation mean in the daily balance of power among states? Has the meaning of the term changed? Does it still hold the same significance it once did? Is it a viable term of explanation, or is it marked by moralism and simplicity? Are analysts and policymakers risking coming to the wrong conclusions, and thus making flawed assessments and policies, based on the misuse or overuse of "provocation?"
At one point, provocation was seen as a direct attempt to provoke some immediate response, usually a negative response. One would talk of agents provocateurs seeking to turn a rally violent to trigger and justify a harsh security crackdown. Provocations could also be small violent actions aimed at triggering a military response by the opponent in order to justify a larger counter-action by the provocateur. The initial actor's escalation thus appeared to have been caused by his opponent. But provocation now is rarely used with this same meaning in mind.
Current Uses of 'Provocation'
Although not the only case, explanations of North Korean actions embody perhaps the most excessive application of the current use of provocation. For example, a joint statement issued Oct. 16 by the White House following President Barack Obama's meeting with South Korean President Park Geun Hye begins:
The United States-Republic of Korea alliance remains committed to countering the threat to peace and security posed by North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile programs as well as other provocations. We will maintain our robust deterrence posture and continue to modernize our alliance and enhance our close collaboration to better respond to all forms of North Korean provocations.
North Korea's ballistic missile and nuclear programs are specifically cited as provocations. Other forms of provocation are not specified (though they certainly appear to be contributing factors to the developing political and security relationship between South Korea and the United States). Little sense of the levels of significance of the so-called provocations can therefore be had. If North Korea launches an Unha rocket and places a satellite in orbit, that would be a provocation, but so apparently would be the test of a short-range anti-ship missile. If North Korea carries out an underground nuclear test, that would be a provocation, but Pyongyang claiming it could turn Seoul into a "sea of fire" would be, too. North Korean soldiers firing a few rounds across the border would be a provocation, but so would North Korea sinking a South Korean navy corvette in South Korean waters. Thus, there apparently are no bounds to what the term provocation can cover.
A quick look at geopolitical language in the past few weeks illustrates similar overreach in the use of provocation. Russian armed military aircraft flying over Turkish territory near Syria is a provocation. Turkey claiming that its military shot down a Russian drone is a provocation (not because the drone crashed, but because Turkish military reports suggested it was Russian and that Turkish warplanes shot it down). The United States warns China against provocations in the South China Sea via its militarization of artificial islands. China has warned the United States not to carry out provocations in the South China Sea via naval patrols. Protesters in the Czech Republic have called the visit of the Russian Army Choir a provocation. The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry has said the visit of a group of Polish children to Crimea is an act of Russian "political provocation." Taken together, provocation apparently can mean anything from letting children visit a place to violating national sovereignty.
The Trap of Simplistic Assumptions
There is an inherent moralizing in the use of the word provocation in its current context, and this can quickly lead to false or simplistic assumptions. It is not that morality has no place in foreign policy, but that in analysis one needs separation from moral or cultural impositions on the subject. By relying on provocation as a catchall phrase, the assertion is that whatever "they" have done is wrong and without justification, while whatever "we" do in response is right and justified. But if one fails to take the time and effort to understand the motivations and constraints of "they," then one risks creating an entirely counterproductive policy response. While moral and cultural elements may come into play in choosing the "right" response from the options available, without the initial nonjudgmental assessment of the opponent, the viable policy options may go unidentified.
(At this point, contrary forces emerge against the analyst: Those who seek to explain the "other's" actions beyond simply labeling him evil or crazy risk being accused of supporting the opponent.)
Another defect in calling everything a provocation is that all acts receive the same significance no matter how large or small. The North Korean case is illustrative again. There is an assumption that North Korean behavior has little purpose beyond provoking a response. Where provoking the largest guy in the bar can be expected to end badly, with North Korea the assertion is that provocations are designed to yield talks and concessions. While North Korea could be pursuing this strategy, it is rather risky.
Labeling each action a provocation therefore can leave analysts misled by their own simplicity into considering each event as isolated.
If the generally accepted assessment that the South Korean and U.S. forces are far superior to the North Korean forces is correct, and thus any war would yield a U.S.-South Korean victory, why would North Korea continue to provoke its much stronger opponent? Moreover, if North Korea has had to escalate the provocation chain up to testing nuclear weapons and sinking South Korean ships, just how extreme must provocation become to force a positive response without triggering a negative response?
Labeling each action a provocation therefore can leave analysts misled by their own simplicity into considering each event as isolated, or if not isolated, as tied more to the desire to engender an immediate political response than as part of a broader, longer-term strategic plan. By relying on the shorthand of provocation, the only perceived continuity is the propensity toward provocative behavior. Provocation thus becomes an end unto itself, and all policy based on provocation becomes short-term policy.
In the case of North Korea, the persistent propensity toward provocations must mean that the North Korean leadership is illogical or even unpredictable; illogical because it continues to try to provoke a much larger power with limited gain, and unpredictable because provocations are seen as ends unto themselves, and thus can take any shape or level of severity and any time. In the case of Russia, the assertion is that President Vladimir Putin is crazy or bent on domination and that all the provocations by Russia are just a sign of the personality leadership of the Russian president. Provocations by Russia reflect Putin's subjective desires, and thus have little objective reality behind them.
The failure to assess logic in the opponent, or to seek objective realities that may compel or constrain actors such as North Korea's Kim or Russia's Putin — or America's Obama for that matter — leaves the opposite policymaker struggling for any cohesive long-term counter-strategy aside from concession or containment. There is no room for negotiation, no alternative path for engagement or resolution, because it has already been determined that the opponent is bent on provocation, and provocation is unjustifiable.
Avoiding the Provocation Trap
So how does the analyst, at least, avoid falling into this trap? Part of the process is to allow the analyst to be an analyst, to be free, during the analysis, from moralizing and judgmental assessments. While this requires the cooperation of the ultimate end-user of the analysis, first and foremost it requires strict discipline by the analyst.
One tool that can overcome the simplistic overuse of catchphrases is empathetic analysis. This is not "feeling" for the subject of study, nor is it determining what you would do in another's place. Rather, it is seeking to understand what the other will do in the other's place. Empathetic analysis seeks to understand the forces shaping and constraining the subject, from cultural and historical influences to bureaucratic structures, education, and personal experiences.
It is not a psychological profile, but rather a cultural and historical assessment coupled with an understanding of the relationships of power and authority, the structures of influence, and the forces that propel or drag on decision-making. Empathetic analysis is an ongoing process, one that must re-examine the subject as circumstances change. Done right, it can often "predict" behavior and responses before the actor decides, because it looks both at the actor and the objective realities around him to see not the myriad options, but rather the limited number of options.
As one tool in an analyst's toolkit, empathetic analysis provides a check on the tendency to oversimplify the complex to the point of simplistic assertions. But even without that level of rigor, it is important to be aware of the overuse of popular terms and phrases to "explain" actions. For provocation is just one of many words that have evolved and led to oversimplifications in analytical and journalistic assessments and political discourse, depriving the observer of valuable insights into decision-making.