Why We Fight

From The Economist:

AS WHAT COULD end up as Europe’s bloodiest war since 1945 grinds on, this is an apposite time for a book explaining why and when human beings fight and, at least as importantly, why they do so rarely. A dismal belief holds that people are hard-wired to settle disputes by violent means. Christopher Blattman, a Canadian development economist specialising in the study of conflict, says the opposite is true.

Even people with a reputation for making extreme violence the basis of their business models, such as gang members in Chicago or the leaders of Medellín’s drug combos—both of whom the author got to know well—have strong incentives to do deals with rivals, thus avoiding the high costs and uncertainty of fighting. The Colombian combos may hate each other, and their bargaining power comes from the barrel of a gun, but it still makes sense to avoid war because it is so destructive and the outcomes are so unpredictable.

As long as both sides have a realistic appreciation of the huge price of fighting, Mr Blattman writes, the rational option is almost always to avoid it. Nuclear weapons have been extraordinarily effective in preventing hot wars between the countries that have them, because mutually assured destruction is the ultimate deterrent. This approach to preventing war works most of the time, but, obviously, not always. Mr Blattman identifies five “logical ways” why, despite all the reasons to compromise, people opt to fight. All five map quite neatly onto the war in Ukraine.

The first is what the author calls “unchecked interests”. This is when the interests of rulers differ from those of the ruled—who have no means of influencing their overlords. Vladimir Putin may have invaded Ukraine to stop it turning West and becoming a successful liberal democracy, an example that could undermine his grip on power. Or he may have hoped his legacy would be the recreation of the tsarist empire. Perhaps he did take into consideration the killing and maiming of young Russian soldiers and economic hardship for ordinary people due to the imposition of sanctions. But he did not much care and there was nobody to stop him.

“Intangible incentives” are the second of Mr Blattman’s “five logics”. People will fight over values and ideas that a realist view of economic self-interest fails to capture. Ukraine’s heroic resistance and willingness to absorb suffering arose because its people, like most when given the choice, want to live in a liberal democracy that is free to determine its own destiny.

The author’s final reason why wars start is “misperception”. Do states and leaders really understand the other side—or even themselves? As well as underestimating Ukraine’s sense of national identity, Mr Putin must have been highly confident in the capability of his armed forces to deliver a quick victory. He may also have convinced himself that a decadent and divided West would fail to exact more than a petulant slap on his Patek Philippe-clad wrist

Link to the rest at The Economist