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Tuesday, April 20, 2004


Don't worry: the article on Iraq and its democratic prospects --- for that matter, those of the other Arab countries --- is still in the works, scheduled to start appearing tomorrow . . . probably in three or four versions. In the meantime, a good article link in the New York Times science section today directly relates to what the lectures in political science 121 --- international relations theory --- have been dealing with the last month or so. What follows is an extended version for buggy visitors that was sent earlier today to the students in that class and other subscribers to gordon-newspost.

Note: no need now to click on the Times link. First, follow the argument uncoiled here, then --- at the appropriate point toward the end --- you'll find the link again, at which point click away.



(i.) Our Aim

The commentary should help you understand the rooted mental causes of power politics and warfare, the outcome of millions of years of evolution by hominoids and modern homo sapiens in small clans of 10-40 or 50 people, the maximum limit imposed by the need to gather food by foraging and hunting on a daily basis. For those 6-7 million years --- until the agricultural revolution and the emergence of city states in Mesopotamia and elsewhere around 6000 years ago --- those pre-humans and then our own species who always lived in clans were all genetically related to the other members. Literally; nothing mythical about it. The outcome, charged with wider political implications?

It was two-fold:

  • On the one hand, individual self-identity was intimately and inseparably bound up for almost all our evolution with the identity and survival of the clan-group. For all those millions of years, no individual or his spouse and children could survive on their own, let alone flourish. Period.

  • On the other hand, the group-identity of the individual clan was forged by means of self-enhancing beliefs and categories in starkly competitive opposition to all other groups. In psychological terms, this meant for almost all our evolution as a species --- modern homo-sapiens no more than 100-200,000 years old --- that our brains and consciousness were developed in strict them-us terms toward all outside groups and their members, always marked by stereotypes and other simplifying categories.

What follows? Well, consider carefully the title of the next section:


(ii.) Contemporary Nationalism and National-Identities Are A Matter of Both Hard-Wired
Propensities And Social Learning: The Wider Consequences for International Relations.

As you'll see, thanks to this evolutionary history, the them-us distinction in people's mind --- remember, marked by competitive categories and simplification: call these stereotypes --- seems to be hard-wired into our brains and social life, the point of the NY Times article as you'll see . . . and also, come to that, additional evidence for the buggy prof's lectures. Note right off though: the specific content of any group's social identity --- these days, say, national identities encompassing 1.3 billion Chinese or 290 million Americans --- is a matter of social learning, a cultural product. So too are the degrees of mistrust towards others, never mind the extent of aggressivity or hostility.

These can also change noticeably over time. Think of the big shifts in German national identity from the 1930s and WWII era of Nazi raw aggression and rippling racist extermination to the Federal Republic today. (Remember too: the big changes in German nationalism and the development of a stable democratic country derived from total defeat in WWII and the occupation of the western sectors by the US, Britain, and France. Similar changes in Japan emerged out of the same circumstances of WWII, with the US alone in overhauling Japanese institutions and policies.)

Still, Germans remain ethnocentric --- as do the other EU countries (Britain's national identity and resistance to European federalism more powerful than others in EU survey [polls) --- and the EU is far from being a unified federal state, let alone one anchored in a solid, overarching shared identity across 25 member states. For that matter, German national identity still retains certain competitive categories --- not least, to judge by the dominant thrust in the German media nowadays, in terms directed at the US a major "the other".

These general points, abstract as they are, should emerge with clarity as you read on.


(i.) The Two Sides: Power Politics and International Order

In the buggy prof lectures this quarter in political science 121--- international relations theory --- the first four weeks seek to set out a barebones model that distills the essential logic of international life over the 6000 years of organized states, starting with the emergence of city-states in the Mesopotamian river area. The logic divides international relations into two sides: a system of power politics with war built into it, and on the other, a highly variable system of international order . . . rules of the game, formal and informal, for competition and cooperation. Rules regulating competition, for instance, can include formal legal treaties that create a host of laws for how wars should be fought: the treatment of prisoners, minimizing casualties to civilians, outlawing or restricting certain kinds of weapons systems, and so on.

That said, quickly note . . .

(ii.) . . . A Duo of Qualifications

First, whether or not states --- meaning their leaders --- follow these rules, including the laws of war, is another matter. They frequently don't. Sometimes they blatantly show contempt for them. In particular, when there are serious, war-like conflicts aggravated by religious or ideological differences, following them is highly unlikely: witness the Nazis fighting the Soviet Communists in WWII or Nazi behavior toward Jews and gypsies or Japanese militarism running amuck in China and elsewhere in WWII. For that matter, think of urban bombing practiced by all the belligerent countries in WWII. Before Pearl Harbor, the US government had repeatedly criticized Japanese bombing of Chinese cities. Within months after Pearl Harbor, the first aerial bombing of Tokyo took place.

Second, the reference to 6000 years ago --- the start of city states in the Mesopotamian region and soon afterwards elsewhere --- is misleading. Human evolution started way before that, millions and millions of years earlier. And as we'll see, an evolutionary perspective is vital here.



(i.) What We're Explaining: General Warfare, Not Particular Wars

Note right off that the theoretical observations here do not explain why any specific war between specific states, induced by particular causes --- say, the Coalition's attack against Saddamite Iraq last March 2003 --- occurred then. The specific causes of that war have to be located in a chain of complex action-reaction between Saddamite Iraq and the US (and its allies) over the last two decades or so . . . not to mention the emergence of Al Qaeda and other Islamo-fascist terrorist networks, the 9/11 massacres, and the war against Taliban Afghanistan. Then, too, on top of that, you have to ponder the decision-making processes and mind-sets in the Bush administration, the Blair government in the UK (and other allied governments like Poland or Spain or Australia), the French-German positions (plus Russia's) in the UN Security Council, and of course what was unfolding inside the dictatorial regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. At every point in the democratic countries that joined the Coalition against Saddam, political leaders had to consider the trends in public opinion as well. Even when certain conservative governments like those in Denmark, Holland, Spain, Portugal, and Italy backed the US-UK position, that opinion was sufficiently anti-war to prevent those governments from sending troops into battle.

So much for investigating the causes of a specific war like that in Iraq last year. What is being talked about here is more theoretical: why war exists in a general sense, as part of the inherent logic of international life in every civilization and involving almost every organized society where it's found over thousands of years. Since 1945, for instance, about 125-130 member-states of the UN's 190 have fought a total of nearly 300 wars with one another, including civil wars that became quickly internationalized across boundaries.


(ii.) The Pivotal Issue Stated in Contemporary Terms

At bottom, then, the key theoretical question that needs answering is this: What explains the persistence of armed-states and warfare, despite a multitude of political techniques besides war for resolving international conflicts: whether diplomacy and diplomatic negotiation, the use of rewards or bribes, the recourse to coercive diplomacy, the use of economic sanctions, and the use of various levels of limited military force:

Consider the evidence. As the reference a moment ago to the number of wars since 1945 indicates, the persistence of armed-states and warfare flourishes today, decades or so after WWI, WWII, and the Cold War, and in spite of about 1000 international organizations emerging to help manage common interdependence and to facilitate cooperation to that end for mutual benefit. Among these organizations, for that matter, there's the UN Security Council. It played a role in the first Gulf War, over Bosnia, and in the war against Taliban Afghanistan, but not in the war with Yugoslavia over Kosovo in 1999 or a decisive role last year in the war to topple Saddamite Iraq. In both of these cases, war was the outcome. And almost all UN-sponsored peacekeeping missions, whether in Africa or the Balkans, have been botched until a major power --- the US, the British, or the French --- decided to use clear, overwhelming force.

Is there anything new in warfare, other than the recent techologies that add up to a revolution in military affairs (see the buggy articles, March 2003, here: one, two, three)?

Well, yes. In plain language, it's the kind of universal terrorist networks of a radical Islamist sort --- now largely stateless, after the destruction of Taliban Afghanistan and Saddamite Iraq and the terrorist attacks against the Saudi Arabian regime --- that launched the massacres in the US in 2001 and recently in Madrid this last March. Terrorism itself, of course, is age-old. That isn't what's novel here. If the world-wide Islamist networks like Al Qaeda or those linked to it loosely in the Middle East and Asia and Europe are new, that's because they are a creature of modern globalizing forces . . . especially the Internet and advanced telecommunications, plus the impact of satellite television that arouses the popular sentiments of way too many Muslims who say they admire bin Laden: in Pakistan, Jordan, and Morocco to cite the recent Pew Global Attitudes Survey, or in Saudi Arabia in an earlier poll.


(iii.) The Causes of International Anarchy

At a fundamental level, power politics arises from the refusal of armed territorial states to submit voluntarily to world government . . . that stubborn resistance rooted, it needs to be added quickly, in ingrained attitudes and beliefs, emotionally charged, which exist in all manner of states since 4000 B.C. or so and, more to the point, has created a system of international anarchy.

The crux of these ingrained, mentally internalized beliefs and outlook? Sharp them-us distinctions. Members of national groups --- to focus just a moment on the latest of these territorial societal groups, nations and nationalism as a unifying factor for hundreds of millions of people in some instances (or billions for China and India) --- see and define themselves with certain categories, highly simplified, that clearly set off other nations as outsiders. Their personal self-identities and interests are bound up with the national group, always involving stereotypes toward others --- some times in hostile ways, other times less so. It all depends.

We'll return to these mental phenomena in a moment. For the time being, fix your attention on the meaning of international anarchy.

It doesn't mean chaos in international affairs, though at times chaotic political and economic cirumstances occur . . . say, in WWII or for decades or longer following the breakdown of the western Roman Empire in the 5th century. It means, strictly speaking, that the international system is marked by a lack of effective and legitimate world government and by a self-help outlook that follows from its absence. Meaning? Meaning, in strict terms again, that it's up to the leaders of states --- backed by their peoples where popular consent is needed --- to decide what their national or state interests are and how they should go about protecting and promoting them. In such a self-help system, there's no international 911. If you are invaded or your cities are hit by terrorists or your women and children are being raped by one ethnic group on your territory armed by an outside state, you can't ring up the global police force and have them stop the violence and arrest the perpetrators.

Whether outside states want to help is also a matter of their leaders' choices. Even alliances may not lead to all the allies standing firmly with the state under attack. If, as it happens now and then, outside states will honor a Security Council decision to send peacekeepers, that too is a matter of what the leaders decide . . . including whether, once their peacekeepers are in the field, they will fight or not against violent challenges. Bosnia was an example in the early 1990s. The withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq is another taking place right now.



(i.) The More Basic Explanation: People's Mental Evolution and Group Identity

In the lectures, the powerful ethnocentric preferences for one's own group, national or otherwise --- and degrees of competitive categorizing and stereotypical biases concerning others --- were traced back to a lengthy evolution over several millions of years our human species in small clans, genetically related, with strong them-us distinctions. The origins start with the split between chimpanzees and various pre-modern humanoids, roughly 6 or 7 million years back. Modern humans, homo sapiens or Cro-Magnon, emerged 100-200,000 years ago, only about 2% of our long-extended evolution. Territorial states themselves are much newer, not more than 6000 years old or so, recall.

What made larger, more elaborate chiefdoms (up to 50,000 people) or city states (up to 100-200,000 at times) possible, with their complex division of labor and, at least in some city states as far back as Sumeria about 3000 years ago, a written language and laws?

Essentially, in a nutshell, the agricultural revolution --- the harnessing of animal energy to plows, along with the knowledge about cultivating plant seeds that earlier humans and humanoids gradually learned about.


(ii.) States in Recorded History

The agricultural revolution freed a percentage of the population from having to always be hunting or foraging, with possibly slash-and-burn agriculture added some time around 15,000 years ago. Thanks to it, there could be a ruler, administrators, priests, a professional military corps, merchants, and guilds, with slaves used extensively for hard manual labor. In turn, city states were no sooner founded in 4000 BC or so than systematic war began (it had already encompassed --- still does --- much smaller tribal societies, roughly 40-50 up to 500 in size). Empires soon emerged among victorious cities and tribal groups that conquered others, as did --- think of the ancient Israelis and King David --- royal kingdoms.

Eventually, a few hundred years ago out of the breakdown of feudalism in parts of Europe from the 15th and 16th century on, the modernizing national state emerged --- West Europe and Italy, after 1500 or so, now forging ahead of all other civilizations in technological and scientific knowledge. Soon, too, in the next centuries, they would pioneer the modern centralizing monarchical state, a national economy, a national education system, a national written language, and eventually ---after 1776, the US revolution, and 1789, the French and their huge fall-out in Europe and Latin America --- modern nationalism and the contemporary nation-state.


(iii) Human Evolution: Genetic Identity and Kinship, Hard-Wiring, AND Social Learning

To repeat: independent territorial states are fairly new in history, just 6000 years old at most. Whether they are chiefdoms, city-states, imperial-states, monarchical states, or modern nation-states, though, the shared identities of their peoples --- always assuming that state is stable and enjoys some form of patriotic support even if it's non-democratic --- have built on millions of years of evolution and the clear identity of individual humanoids and humans with their clan identity and the related sharply defined tendencies toward a them-us outlook in our brains. How could it be otherwise? That time span represents only 1/36th of 1.0% of all human evolution . . . a tiny blip on the evolutionary scale, nothing larger.

But note quickly.

Clans are always tiny in size, limited by the daily struggle to find food . . . 40-50 the upper limits for foragers and hunters. The members are genetically related, sharing DNA --- kinship groups. Not so chiefdoms and city states of tens of thousands, never mind far more complex imperial states like Rome or Egypt or the Inca or kingdoms like the tribal federation ruled over by Kingdom, let alone nation states of hundreds of millions of people who are very diverse in ethnicity and not related to one another at all in any kinship sense. Enter social learning.


(iv.) Socialization and Indoctrination, Part of Social Learning

With the emergence of warfare and conquering city states 6000 years ago --- at times, too, tribal groups that conquered them like the Huns and Visigoths or Genghis Khan's Mongols or the Ottoman Turks that then conquered city states or empires --- there also emerged a need to socialize and indoctrinate the large number of people into shared national cultures and the link between self- and group- or national identity. The result? Even though the specific content of the them-us distinctions --- which creates ethnocentric biases, in favor of your own group and its well-being, with degrees of less favor or mistrust or even hostility to outside groups --- varies with the socialization and indoctrination (remember: sometimes vicious, racist, and aggressive, other times more moderate and defensive or accommodating ), it draws on this 6-7 million year evolution of humanoids and far later homo sapiens that has produced a hard-wired tendency within human brains for favoring your group over others.

[Sidebar Comment: Note that the indoctrination that appeared in the first city-states around 4000 BC was always organized around religion. Each city --- and later empire like the Roman --- had its own deities that favored them, not the "others", though sometimes, of course, if things went badly for the state or empire, it might be because the local deities were unhappy with the behavior of their populations. It's not by accident that kings and emperors --- right down through the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe and in Asia through much of the 20th --- were regarded as "divine" in their personages and right to rule. Democratic republics, of course, can't draw on this divine claim for their presidents or prime ministers, but their patriotism can still reflect religious impulses --- witness the legal debate over the Pledge of Allegiance cited by American school kids each day.]

So much for speculations. Turn your attention now to more rigorous work, in particular:



(i.) Minimal-Group (Conflict) Theory and Social Identity Theory

These evolutionary speculations have been pinned down for about five decades now by a combination of minimal group-theory and social identity theory in hundreds of social psychological experiments. The results, it turns out, are also robust across cultures. Minimal group theory, now about a half century old, has repeatedly found in experimental settings that even arbitrarily divided groups --- say, the left-side of a room and the right-side --- will, sooner or later, start displaying marked them-us distinctions in a competitive situation, with various degrees of mistrust and even aggressive hostility emerging fairly quickly if enough time goes on . . . say, a couple of weeks.

The original experiments were carried out by Muzafer and Carolyn Sherif back in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Their resulting work was actually called group-conflict theory, though minimal group theory is also used; and it eventually blossomed into a better-known, more sophisticated variant developed by Henri Tajfel and John Turner in Social-Identity Theory that explains how even arbitrarily drawn groups could become highly competitive and even hostile. As one recent study by an IR specialist put it:

"The Sherifs found that intergroup competition transformed a group of seemingly well-adjusted and amiable boys at summer camp into something "wicked, disturbed, and vicious.(35) One of the few attempts to replicate the Sherifs' experiment got out of hand. Intergroup hostility led to a knife fight among some of the boys. The police evacuated the camp to prevent further violence, and the researcher was hospitalized for exhaustion.(36) It was in response to this functional view of conflict that Tajfel conducted a series of experiments to discover the minimal conditions necessary to trigger intergroup discrimination. To explain the results from the minimal-group experiments, Tajfel and Turner developed SIT." (Jonathan Mercer, "Anarchy and Identity", International Organization (Spring 1995),

Note that Social Identity Theory deals directly with inter-personal and inter-group processes, in particular how they interact to shape the outlook of their members in competitive, simplified ways that always involve, it seems, them-us distinction. As such, it avoids reducing complex social processes --- say, the decisions of modern states to prepare for warfare against somebody in general terms --- to individual psychological traits. That said, note next how the categories used by the members of a cohesive group are flattering to their shared identity: we're more rational or more moral than others, or better soldiers, or better scientists and businessmen, or directly in touch with the true Deity. The others may even be demons --- the dominant view, it appears, in radical Islamist circles regarding the US and Jews. Inversely, these flattering categories of the group's members stand in contrast to the traits of other groups, outsiders. Some of these outside groups may be despised. Some may be feared. Others are seen in less hostile ways, but lack the defining virtues of one's own group . . . at least in large part.


(ii.) To Repeat: Robust Findings That Don't Vary Noticeably Across Cultures

The absence of cross-cultural influences doesn't mean there isn't variation in group-identities irrespective of specific cultures. The main variable? It turns out to be the strength of internal group cohesion --- in present circumstances for the last two hundred or so years, national-identity for most modern nation-states.

In particular, the more cohesive the national identity and the more people take pride in it, the more competitive the outlook towards other countries --- even though this competitiveness need not entail hostility and aggression per se. That latter, to repeat, vary historically and are learned phenomena. They can also change: witness German Nazism in the 1930s and WWII and German democratic identity today . . . even though clearly there are competitive aspects of such an identity in Germany, directed especially these days, it seems, at the US.


(iii.) More Recent Work, The New York Times Link: Prejudice and Them-Us Distinctions

In today's New York Times, recall, you'll find an article in the weekly science section on more recent work carried out by psychologists at two universities that show how prejudice against other groups is grounded in evolution, with the new findings relating prejudice --- negative stereotypes --- to variation in people's emotions. People are wired to distrust outsiders, to put it bluntly, but those who feel either angry for whatever reason or, alternatively, good about their groups are also inclined to distrust others and ascribe negative stereotypes more than people who are sad.

For the link, remember, go to the Times. It's a good concise article, which tersely summarizes the experimental work in this area that's under way --- however discomforting to liberal aspirations of a utopian sort, never mind the politically correct pieties in many academic circles these days.


(iv.) A Duo of Qualifying Remarks about National Identity

Note that these findings --- like all the others --- deal with organized groups. Two qualifications follow that need to be stressed.

Not all peoples have a strong national-identity, a big disadvantage in ethnically diverse societies. If there are huge problems within, say, Arab countries that are fragmented along lines of tribal-clans, it's owing to a lack of a strongly learned national identity as a cohesive, overriding influence. In Iraq, where the divisions also exist along religious lines --- or in the Kurd's case, ethnic ones --- people have learned over 14 centuries and far longer than that to fight for "tribe and faith", not to see themselves as Iraqi citizens. Will that change?

Within countries that have a strongly shared national identity, there may, of course, exist prejudices towards minorities and others (and reciprocated).

These biased attitudes, too, are learned in their content and strength. And that means something encouraging: they can change --- and at times swiftly.

In the US, for instance, prejudice toward non-white minorities has graphically diminished in the last half century, brought out not only in survey data repeatedly, but in the rapid upward movement of, say, African Americans into prominent positions --- unthinkable before the 1950s --- as the heads of major corporations like American Express and as the National Security Adviser and Secretary of State today. Generally, the strength and nature of prejudice varies inversely with education: the more educated, the less prejudice.

Sidebar Clarifying Comment: Contemporary nation-states that are multi-ethnic --- with the various ethnic identities at loggerheads with one another, even at times violently so --- can exist with stability for decades under a successful dictatorial regime. Obviously.

Witness the Soviet Union or Saddamite Iraq. The same is true of numerous "electoral democracies" in Africa or Southeast Asia or parts of Latin America. There are several dozen of them these days. Still, unless knitted together by an overarching national identity, these multiethnic states --- even the dictatorships --- are prone sooner or later to breakdown, usually through civil war. Witness Yugoslavia recently. The breakdown and disappearance of the Soviet Union, by contrast, were achieved peacefully (though the Chechnya war within post-Soviet Russia, aided by Al Qaeda terrorism, still flares on).

Second Clarifying Comment: What about the "electoral democracies" in multiethnic states without an intensively shared national identity as a unifying force?

Well, if they survive for decades, they usually hang together only if the competing leaders of the various ethnic groups agree to work together. Unfortunately, that usually means working together to share the spoils of corruption, nepotism, and clientele networks. In such circumstances, what will likely happen? For one thing, a transition to a rule of law, transparent and accountable government, and a vigorous civil society --- all preconditions of a stable liberal democracy, of which there are only 30-35 in the world --- will be difficult to institutionalize effectively. For another thing, as a direct consequence of these failures, effectively sustained economic and technological development will be no less difficult to achieve.

India, possibly --- just possibly --- might prove an exception; if so, it will take decades to be sure. And Turkey, we hope, will prove an exception too.

Note in passing something else: the problems of economic backwardness will also tend to hound those dictatorial regimes ruling over badly fragmented multiethnic societies. In fact, if you look at the advanced industrial countries, essentially only one dictatorial regime --- in Singapore, a small city-state of Chinese ethnicity --- has managed to produce a modern affluent society that can rival the per capita income of Japan, West Europe, or the English-speaking countries. Otherwise, no effective rule-of-law and vigorous civil society, no advanced economic development. Period.

Third Clarifying Comment: There are, of course, some noticeably successful multiethnic liberal democracies: Switzerland and Belgium in West Europe, for instance, thanks to both federalism and a shared national identity forged over a long period of time.

Even then, however, the British have been struggling with the problems of Ireland --- first in the south for centuries, then in the north for decades --- without fully resolving them. The French continue to combat Corsican independence and terrorism; the Spanish, Basque tendencies of the same sort. Canada, to move closer to the US, nearly broke apart in peaceful manner when Quebec nationalism flared in the 1970s and 1980s. The US itself remains an uncommonly effective democracy of a multiethnic sort, in part because the various ethnic/racial groups aren't concentrated in distinct territories, and in part thanks to an intensely shared national identity. Still, it took a bloody civil war to end slavery, and then another century virtually to ensure that full civil liberties were accorded to African-Americans in the South. It's testimony to the strength of American national identity that, in such circumstances, African-Americans turn out to be as patriotic across the board as other Americans. For an interesting set of relevant comments here --- which encompass Hispanic Americans too --- see Alan Wolfe.



(i.) The Implications for International Relations

The findings indicate, in line with the lectures and earlier work in minimal group-identity and social-identity theory that (to cite the Times article):

"For better or worse," one of the researchers noted, "stereotyping, arising as it does from the mind's tendency to make sense out of the world by categorizing and simplifying, provides a basis for that rapid response . . . People may be very reluctant to confront this about themselves, because it's so undesirable to be prejudiced," he said. "Confronting the possibility that these biases exist in us is a necessary part of the solution."

The upshot? As long as the peoples of the world divide into independent, armed territorial states --- anchored in the hard-wired propensities of people everywhere toward ethnocentric them-us distinctions, plus the cultural learning and indoctrination that create specific forms of national identities these days --- then international anarchy, the absence of legitimate and effective world government voluntarily subscribed to by the peoples of the world, will persist and entail a system of essentially self-help.

There are other consequences too. Among them are security dilemmas and prisoners' dilemmas.


(ii.) Security Dilemmas Explained

1.Security dilemmas arise from the absence of a major public good that governments provide in stable nation-states: protection of individuals and their families (and property) from armed predators, thanks to authoritative laws, the police, and compulsory criminal proceedings for accused criminals. In international anarchy, states will tend to arm for protection against other states. In the process, even if they all start out defensively, some states at least --- given ethnocentric tendencies to see relations with outsiders in a biased light --- will detect potential threats. At that point, arms racing can begin, along with spirals of rising mistrust and fear. The outcome? It could be a pre-emptive war, one side --- genuinely convinced the other is about to attack imminently --- will launch a war to get in the first blow.

Fortunately, most arms competition of this sort doesn't lead to war, pre-emptive or preventive (a longer-term matter, with no clear status in international law). Now and then, though --- according to the best statistical study --- it occurs about 7-10% of the time. [See Dan Reiter, "Exploding the Power Keg Myth: Preemptive Wars Almost Never Happen," International Security (Fall 1995), pp. 5-35]


(iii.) A Key Question

A query follows immediately: What causes most wars then?

The barebones answer: a belief on the part of the initiating states that, on balance, they will benefit from using force and winning the war. If their leaders are even minimally rational, they will, of course, consider the relative military power and options of the state or states they're attacking, and the costs of fighting the war along with the probability of winning. The costs would be in lives of your soldiers and civilians, plus economic losses; they would likely encompass, too, the prospect of the leaders, elected or dictatorial, losing power in the event of a defeat. Leaders vary in their risk-taking propensities. Some like Hitler are aggressive, high-stakes gamblers; others, fortunately, are more cautious and can respond to effective counter-balancing efforts by status-quo states to raise noticeably the costs of warfare or the likelihood of defeat.

In the cold war, the shared risks of mutually suicidal nuclear war had a big dampening effect --- leading to mutual deterrence --- on Soviet and American competition. In particular, from the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 on, the leadership on both sides understood that this shared interest in avoiding nuclear war transcended geopolitical and ideological conflicts and encouraged a variety of arms control efforts and confidence-building measures.

Sidebar Note: If violent crime varies noticeably across even stable states, that's due less to ineffectual policing and prosecutions than it is to the number of asocial and anti-social people who show little internalized self-restraint and contempt for the law. In less crime-ridden societies, to be more concrete, most people follow the law out of a combination of self-interest and spontaneous compliance with it, plus a sense of moral obligation. The US, it's worth stressing, ranks in the bottom half of industrial democratic countries in the incidence of violent crime . . . considerably below Australia, Britain, and most of West Europe (contrary to popular beliefs).


(iv.) Problems of International Cooperation, Among Them the Prisoners' Dilemma

2. Prisoners' dilemmas bedevil cooperation among independent states in the absence of compulsory and effective adjudication.

To put it bluntly, collective action for cooperative purposes is shown in game-theoretical models --- AKA, strategic interaction (what you can gain or lose depends on your interaction with others, all the players being rational) --- to lead to defection on agreements as the dominant strategy. Defection is another name for cheating in this interaction, modeled after the classic Prisoners' Dilemma game. There are ways to get around this, it's claimed --- especially if the game isn't just a single-short effort at cooperation at one point, but rather a repeated game of ongoing interaction --- but the fears of being cheated on certain kinds of cooperation, especially in say disarmament or serious arms control agreements, can be a looming and at times insuperable problem.

Cooperation in international relations, it needs to be quickly stressed, is a complex matter. The scholarly work on it has piled up the last decade or so, mainly of a highly theoretical and abstract sort, especially drawing on grame theory. The following quartet of qualifications should help put the problems of cooperation in a rounder perspective.

First Qualification: Within stable states, the existence of a district attorney, authoritative criminal and civil laws, and institutionalized police power can ensure that property rights are protected and contracts honored. The use of non-legitimate violence by citizens to settle civil disputes entails, of course, criminal proceedings against the perps.

Second Qualification: Collective action problems in cooperation aren't limited to cheating in the terms just described. A twist is free-riding: if someone else is willing to incur the costs of providing a collective good --- call it a public good (though it's a more restrictive form of a collective one) --- then no one rational, leaving aside moral obligations, will probably pay the costs if non-contributors can't be prohibited from enjoying its benefits. The common defense of a country is a good example, so is the protection of private property by the courts and police. So is a solid currency. Self-interest alone won't lead to the collective or public good materializing. Even Adam Smith recognized a clear role for authoritative and, if need be, coercive government to provide such public goods in the form of taxing and regulative powers.

Third Qualification: There are other forms of cooperation in international relations that can be formalized in game theory --- remember, a name for strategic interaction where what one agent (a state, say) can get or accomplish depends on the actions of other agents. Among them, there is a coordination problem. States might want to cooperate for a common end, avoiding mutually unpleasant outcomes if they don't; but there may be distributional problems over the gains that create coordination problems on a mutually satisfying outcome. The term for this is the focal point, one variant of which is the Nash equilibrium. There are, again, ways to get around this problem in theory --- one of which is shared knowledge about what's desirable.

For problems relating to the ozone layer, to take one instance, there was a scientific consensus across the developed countries that it was thinning out, that the causes were largely in CFC chemicals, and that it was desirable to sign a treaty and absorb the costs for common action. By contrast, there is far less scientific consensus that global warming is a problem, or if it turns out to be one, may or may not be due to human causes, or on the costs/benefits of acting in conformity with the Kyoto Treaty.

A Fourth Qualification Quickly Follows: One of the problems of reaching an agreement on a common focal point for cooperation --- as just noted --- is a distribution problem of how to divide the gains and costs of common action. In international relations where the security of a state and the defense and promotion of its other national interests are a matter of largely self-help --- and in the end, strictly that because even alliances might break down --- state leaders might be particularly concerned about relative power: economic, technological, and military.

At times, therefore, even if common action seems to be desired for solving a similar problem --- say, an arms control treaty or even a trade treaty that removes industrial policies and other barriers to free trade --- the negotiating governments might fail to agree . . . and not just because there are fears about being cheated. Even if such fears aren't present, some of the negotiating governments might balk at signing a treaty for out of concern that the benefits will be lopsided in favor of other states, either real or potential adversaries. Note something. This problem of relative gains isn't confined to just rival or hostile states. In the NATO alliance, this can concern even long-time allies. Hence the French, to take a prime example, worry mightily about the growing relative power of the US compared to them and West Europe.


(v.) Another Problem: Domestic Politics

Something else also intrudes at times to disrupt international cooperation: domestic politics.

At times, a government might want to cooperate with other governments --- on economic issues or security ones --- but is prevented from doing so by powerful domestic opposition. This problem, note, isn't necessarily confined to democratic government, potent as it frequently is in democratic politics. Franklyn D. Roosevelt found that out in the run-up to WWII: his efforts to work closely with Britain and the other democratic countries against fascism and Japanese militarism were hemmed in by isolationist sentiments until Pearl Harbor. The British government's current desire to join the eurozone in the EU is restricted by popular opposition too: hence Tony Blair's decision to opt for an outright referendum on not just the eurozone but the new EU Constitution whenever it's signed. Even dictatorial regimes may be restrained by domestic opposition. Most are collective dictatorships. Unless dominated by a Stalin or Hitler or Mao or Saddam Hussein, the chief honcho needs the support of top generals or significant party elites (the Communist Party a case in point) or maybe certain business or financial elites; and if their interests will be hurt by adhering to a new international agreement, the government --- however dictatorial --- might not be able to follow through.

And as the recent elections in Spain showed, a previous government's commitment to international cooperation --- in this instance, keeping peacekeepers in Iraq --- can be overturned abruptly by a new government

(vi.) What Follows?

There are hypothetical and even practical solutions to the problem of relative gains. Even so, along with the other difficulties mentioned here --- fears of being cheated (the Prisoners' Dilemma and free-riding), distributional problems regarding a focal point for coordinated common action, or worries about relative gains: never mind domestic politics --- it follows that, as a general thing,

  • Cooperation in international relations among states may not be as generally easy to achieve as it is by groups within a stable, legitimate nation-state . . . this, even though the leaders of various states want to cooperate on a certain issue. In anarchy, to put it tersely, collective action problems can't be as easily overcome all the time.

  • By the same token, even if cooperation is initially achieved, it may be harder to sustain at times, especially in the face of dynamic changes in civilian and military technologies, economic growth rates, and the ups-and-downs of relations across countries . . . above all, ups-and-downs in their degrees of friendliness or hostility.

  • Finally, as one more dynamic uncertainty, the vagaries of domestic politics --- from electoral outcomes to civil wars or revolutions --- may also make it hard to sustain international cooperation once it's achieved. As the recent withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq shows, the breakdown of cooperation on a key issue like security can even disrupt the relations of allied countries.


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