Tag Archives: international relations

Human Conflicts come from Structural Disequilibrium

Sigmund Freud assumed that humanity bares a sinister instinct of self-destruction, which acts as the counterpart to all other instincts preserving life. It’s a psychological argument that human agency is at fault for all conflict, and as K.Waltz (Man, the State and War) once said, in trying to explain everything with psychology, such proponents ended up explaining nothing; for how can we stop two innately violent people fighting, other than by keeping them apart? Konrad Lorenz (scientist and author of ‘On Aggression’) put such weight on the importance of agency that he ended his book with the hope that we will evolve beyond our more base instincts.

“I believe that reason can and will exert a selection pressure in the right direction. I believe that this, in the not too distant future, will endow our descendants with the faculty of fulfilling the greatest and most beautiful of all commandments [that love and friendship should embrace all of humanity].”

Your FaultSuch arguments see the locus of the important causes of war to be found in the nature and behaviour of humanity. Confucius put it even more simply when he said

“There is deceit and cunning and from these wars arise.”

It’s actually a little bit of a blame game. But what if we weren’t programmed to be violent? What if violence and tensions arose only as a result of imbalances/disequilibria between different structures?

The causes of civil war was the topic of my undergrad dissertation. It was in fact a terrible piece as I only had a few days to write it up. But my research was extensive, and I hadn’t since challenged my basic premise that no single cause of war should be highlighted above the others – until this last weekend. Up until then I separated individual agency from the structures that they lived within, and so had to admit that our innate tendency towards violence could be one explanation of conflict. But I was wrong.

I was refuting (or trying to) an argument that we should base our diets on what the eco-system permits, by arguing that morality should supersede economic logic. I said that each way of thinking, whether it be economic in the thought process employed, or moral, or whatever else, is a lens through which we see the world. Sometimes, after an event has taken place, someone might call you stupid, and provide you with an argument that in hindsight seems obvious, but for some reason you completely overlooked at the time. It doesn’t mean you’re stupid; you were capable of thinking of that on your own. You just weren’t seeing through that particular lens at the time. Put simply, we don’t employ all lenses equally, because we have built them as internal structures within our mind, and used them since birth to make decisions.

lenses through which we see the worldIn every day life we are required to think economically, politically and socially. It’s essential to the tasks that modern economies expect us to perform. And yet it’s quite hard to discover who is moral and who is not. Perhaps more scarily, for many societies it’s as socially acceptable to joke about not being moral as it is to joke about not being clever. And when we do hear someone joking about not being very clever, we usually have an instinctive judgement reaction. We’re able to agree or disagree, even if we don’t actually say what we think. But what about when someone jokes about not being a good person? Then, it can be very hard to judge. Our moral lens is simply less frequently used than our economic one, and as a result it’s slower to adapt.

Right now you exist within an economy. You probably go to work, pay the bills, pay your taxes. In short, you lead quite a rigid lifestyle economically speaking. And yet put into the state of nature, with no economic structure in sight, you’re very likely to start thinking in terms of survival. ‘OK. I need food, water, shelter, safety, warmth.’ Given such a scenario even a devout moral vegetarian will become immediately aware that their eco-system has changed. They’re placed firmly back into the food chain, and will probably hunt and eat meat. But, will they have spent time to make a moral justification? Or will they be fine with the economic one, that their survival rests on their eating meat? Perhaps eventually that person will think of a truly moral justification. But it takes more time for that moral structure to adapt, and thus our immediate economic actions aren’t always the most moral.

It was when I made this argument about the different modes of thinking, and the speed of adaptation for each, that I realised I was thinking structurally. And when in the above example one structure adapts at a different speed to another, there arises a disequilibrium between the internal moral structure for decision-making, and the internal economic one. When the need arises we do what we have to, even if the next day we may feel guilty. Or in other words, these lenses through which we perceive the world are structural components of our thought processes, just as the economy, state, society, and international arena are all structural components of the world order. When those structures are imbalanced, or moving at different speeds, the result is an outpouring of emotions, and potentially aggressive behaviour (this behaviour can be aimed inwards or outwards). Just because we have a natural potential for aggressive behaviour does not mean that natures forces our hand. Even the actions of individual agencies are ruled by structures.

Just in the interests of explanation think about an economy which rapidly grows, while the state structure remains relatively stagnant, and although social expectations rise, little socially actually changes. Russia at the outbreak of the First World War fits this example perfectly. Socio-political expectations rose along with the economic reality, and yet when these expectations weren’t met, frustration and aggression was the result. So when it entered WW1 it entered with severe structural disequilibria, and when it left, it did so to civil war.

Plate SpinningThe best way to think about how structures cause conflict is to picture a game of Plate Spinning (a game where plates are kept from falling to the floor by spinning them atop of a series of poles). If one of the plates begins to spin at a slower speed than all of the others then it begins to wobble. There is an immediate disequilibrium between the different plates, and potential for damage if the plate is allowed to fall. My contention is that each of these plates represents a different structure; or rather each of the poles and people spinning represents a different structure, and the plates represent the visible agencies who are seen to be causing conflict, but are in reality only reacting to structures which have changed their behaviour out of sync with their partners.

What do you think?

21st Century Thought in IR

WW2 VictoryThe effects of World War Two in International Relations are numerous, with only the most obvious below.

  1. The loss of life led to obvious demographic, socio-psychological and economic impacts
  2. Decolonisation after the war led to a re-mapping of the geo-political environment
  3. The international power centre shifted from Europe to the US and USSR
  4. New international bodies emerged e.g. the Bretton Woods Institutions

These effects are well known. Indeed it was the biggest war that humanity has ever experienced, directly involving  over 100 million people, and from more than 30 different countries. So such effects are even expected.

However, one of the most enduring impacts of WW2 has also been one of the least talked about: the entrenchment of political thought. Appeasement is now seen as wrong. There is seen to be no choice other than capitalism or socialism, democracy or dictatorship and liberalism or conservatism; when in reality the number of options that we have is far far larger. And all of these entrenchments seem to based upon two dangerous assumptions: the assumption of knowledge, and the assumption of righteousness i.e. the arrogance of assuming that ‘we’, the subject(s) of contemplation, are always in the right.

It could be argued that we have always held these assumptions, and that they are an implicit part of human nature. And yet not only are they very illiberal and non-cosmopolitan assumptions to hold; it is also a fairly safe thing to say that there have been more conflicts since WW2 than before, year on year. The U. of Michigan’s “Correlates of War” project documents every conflict since 1816, and according to their calculations
there have been a total of 194 actual “wars” between 1945 and 2001, and that does not include the more than 3000 different disputes that occurred in the period. So was it just circumstance that caused these polarisations, divides and tensions? Or was there a fundamental change in the way we think?

The American philosopher Avital Ronell believes that increased moralistic interventions abroad do stem from such assumptions.

The other is so in excess of anything you can understand or grasp or reduce, this in itself creates an ethical relatedness… A relation without relation, because you can’t presume to know or grasp the other. The minute you think you know the other, you are ready to kill them! You think oh! They are doing this or this.. they’re the axis of evil…let’s drop some bombs!. But, if you don’t know, don’t understand this alterity, it’s so other that you can’t violate it with your sense of understanding; then you have to let it live.”

According to Derrida we cannot be moral if we think that we are in fact moral. In other words, if you’re arrogant enough to think that you’re fulfilling what Peter Singer would call your moral obligations to help others, then you’re not questioning yourself enough, and not pushing yourself enough. Thus we could push the argument of Avital Ronell still further (since she cited Derrida’s above argument when saying the above), to suggest that the increase of military interventions in international relations marks a decline in international morality.

Personally, I wouldn’t buy the notion that we are becoming less moral. After all, we don’t need to know someone else to kill them; indeed being able to kill someone when you do have such knowledge seems even more immoral to many people. We can kill instead based on an educated guess. In fact humans act on guesswork all the time. What Ronell is really saying is a values statement that when we know the risks are large, and yet the probabilities of reaching our desired outcome are unknown, we should be risk averse. Just because liberal interventionists are less risk averse, or choose to weigh the unknown probability of success against the unknown probability that more will die if intervention is not carried out, it does not make them less moral than non-interventionists. And indeed the opposite argument could also be made.

Assume NothingThe more pertinent question therefore, is whether these assumptions of knowledge and righteousness are more present, and/or having a greater impact on international affairs today or not. After all, modern examples seem very easy to find. It is why the logic behind why Samuel Huntington’s thesis on the ‘Clash of Civilisations’ seems so compelling. It is the reason why despite the fact that the world is becoming increasingly globalised and cosmopolitan, we see signs of the ‘other’ everywhere. It is the logic behind liberal interventionism, the interventions in the Middle East, Zionist militarism, and even the calls from those inside the affected countries e.g. Syria, for outside help.

Whatever its source, they are dangerous assumptions to hold if we let them dominate twenty-first century thought. The extent to which this is true can be seen in the handling of Russia’s Crimean intervention. The calls are not for Russia to come to the negotiation table, delay the annexation of Crimea, or organise a new referendum conducted under UN supervision. These options are seen as weak, and a form of appeasement, which, despite the fact that Hitler is dead, would only create a new Hitler. So instead, the calls on Russia are for them to simply back down, reject their long cultural history of expansionism and pan-Slavism, and see them adopt the culture and tactics of the United States – the single country which it would most humiliate Russia, and particularly Putin, to be seen emulating. Keynes wrote a pamphlet in 1919, arguing how the world’s tough approach to Germany would cause trouble. And of course he was right. Are we learning the wrong lesson(s) from history?

Do you believe that the assumptions of knowledge and righteousness dominate 21st century diplomatic thought more than they did prior to WW2? What has changed that led us here? And where will it lead us in the future?