Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2022.01.18

Top risks of 2022: Smaller issues vs. the big picture

To avoid 'the fallacy of composition,' a sound overall strategy is needed

the japan times on January 9th, 2022

International Politics/Diplomacy China Russia COVID-19

A regular staple for New Year’s in Japan are the predictions made by the nation’s mainstream media. Traditionally, the editorials of major dailies on New Year’s Day are usually sanguine about the future. This year is no exception.

What was notable this time, though, is that while conservative papers focused on the pandemic and the economy, liberal dailies, on the contrary, were more political. The Asahi Shimbun editorial board wrote “At the dawn of the 75th year of the Constitution: Protecting human rights in an ocean of data,” while the Mainichi’s headline was “Rebirth ’22: Testing the power of linkage between democratic politics and civil society.”

As usual, these editorials, whether liberal or conservative, carefully avoided taking risks when making their forecasts, perhaps because New Year’s Day in Japan is considered the happiest time of the year and nobody wants to run the chance of making misleading predictions.

Top risks in 2022

As Japanese media are reluctant to make risky forecasts of their own, they instead quote those by foreign think tanks and firms to fill the void. In recent years, one of their favorite reports has been the “Top Risks” forecast published by the political risk consultancy Eurasia Group.

This year’s report, as expected, was as easily predictable or banally commonsensical as previous ones.

The top three risks for 2022 are “No Zero COVID” in China, “Technopolar World” and “U.S. Midterms.” Any one of these are hardly an ingenious finding or prediction.

In my view, this year’s most serious risk is the “fallacy of composition” in policymaking. Fallacy of composition means that correct judgments from a microscopic perspective do not necessarily hold true in the larger domain when they are synthesized.

The best defense against avoiding the fallacy of composition is to have a sound big-picture strategy, rather than pursuing a specific microscopic success.

It is especially true when it comes to dealing with the Russians, the Chinese and even the pandemic.

Russia and Ukraine

American conservative media recently denounced U.S. President Joe Biden for making what some said were concessions to Russia with his announcement that the U.S. would not deploy troops to Ukraine or place missiles there. To them, Biden took two military options off the table.

Both of Biden’s decisions, however, outwardly appear reasonable and even inevitable. The United States will neither send its troops to Ukraine to fight the Russians nor deploy missiles there. In the diplomatic real world, Washington will deal with Vladimir Putin’s concerns through talks after consulting with its NATO allies and friends.

Biden also told Putin that Russia has only a limited number of options: It needs to de-escalate through diplomacy or face decisive economic sanctions and increased military aid to Ukraine if it invades the country. These propositions on the surface seem to be rational and correct, but when taken as a whole, these measures also appear to be nothing more than an effort by America and NATO to appease Putin’s Russia.

The Russian leader may try to test Biden’s to see if he will react strongly — especially if he knows the West won’t pursue any military option.

U.S. measures may be doomed to fail, and this is exactly what Putin has been waiting for.

Diplomatic boycott

As for the Beijing Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games, the international community, including Japan, decided not to dispatch representatives in what some countries are calling a diplomatic boycott. Tokyo will only send the presidents of its Olympic and Paralympic Committees and the organizing committee for the Tokyo Games.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida echoed the sentiment of other countries taking part in the boycott, stating that “Japan believes that it is important that the universal values of freedom, respect for basic human rights and the rule of law be guaranteed in China, and we have been working directly with the Chinese side at various levels to promote this position held by Japan.”

I have no objection to the measures Tokyo is taking. These are all correct and reasonable in my opinion.

That said, is the international community sending a tough and effective message to Beijing so that China will change its policies? Hardly, because Beijing knows those measures as a whole are too weak to cause China to lose face as a host of the Winter Games and, therefore, will not take the message seriously.

This is another example of a trap in the fallacy of composition.

COVID-19 and the economy

The Yomiuri Shimbun’s editorial board wrote, “We have to face the twin challenges of getting the market economy back on a healthy track and revitalizing it, while building a peaceful and stable life for the people. We need new ideas and persistent efforts. This is the year to take that first step.”

In his New Year’s reflection, Kishida stated that once the country prevails in the fight against COVID-19, it should strive to realize a new form of capitalism in which, rather than leaving everything to the markets and competition, both the public and private sectors must together play their roles.

For sure, to control the pandemic, changes in our behavior and stringent measures to restrict people’s activities are needed. But to revitalize the COVID-19-damaged economy, however, the tight regulations need to be lifted and people need to be encouraged to return to their pre-pandemic lives. Both measures taken individually are true. Unfortunately, as we all know, we can’t always have it both ways.

All in all, there is no silver bullet for overcoming the fallacy of composition. What is needed now may not be the “new ideas and persistent efforts.”

The best way to minimize the fallacy-of-composition risk is to have a group of strategically minded leaders who can convince the people that, in difficult times, we must prioritize overall collective interests before our respective personal interests.