How do we stop arms races? How do we stop people from fearing that they will be attacked by someone else, and prevent them from constantly gearing up to be prepared to kill someone else before someone else kills them? How do we sidestep the mindset that we have to defeat others so that they don’t defeat us?
This is an important question and in the world of international relations is known as the security dilemma. Even if I am non-violent, even if I generally don’t want to inflect any negativity on another person, I don’t know that they will be the same toward me, and I must therefore be prepared to defeat them and survive at all costs. When everyone thinks this way, we end up in a perpetual arms race where even if we know there is no threat, we prepare for it just in case. This creates an inevitable competition for means of destruction, even among allies. That competition can lead to violence. As Steven Pinker writes in The Better Angels of Our Nature, “competition breeds fear. If you have reason to suspect that your neighbor is inclined to eliminate you from the competition by, say, killing you, then you will be inclined to protect yourself by eliminating him first in a preemptive strike.”
Within the world of international relations and national security, the solution to this problem has been MAD. Mutually assured destruction (MAD) is a byproduct of nuclear weapons. By stockpiling arms that would plunge the world into a global apocalypse, we ensure the peace and safety of the world. But this is not really a solution to the problem. Pinker continues, “whatever peace a policy of deterrence may promise is fragile, because a deterrence reduces violence only by a threat of violence.”
Ultimately, I think that we reduce violence by shifting thinking away from zero sum competitions and mindsets. There are certainly, and will very likely always be, some zero sum competitions in life. Capitalism and market economies rely on zero sum competitions to reduce waste, increase efficiency, and promote technological progress. But in many other areas we can eliminate zero sum thinking and focus less on fears of losing things and more on positive sum thinking. Pushing us to think in terms of zero sum competition encourages fear and the impulse to destroy others, but the reality of our world is that less is truly zero sum than we believe. We no longer live in tribal societies where a single male can dominate all the potential female mates. We no longer live in a society where food and resources are so scarce that we need to control as much as we can and build political coalitions to ensure our survival. We no longer live in a world where losing a job means that you will starve on the streets. We have reduced the zero sum nature of many aspects of human lives and can continue to do so in ways that reduce our need to protect ourselves by shooting first or ensuring the mutual destruction of all. Reducing zero sum thinking is just one way to get to this point, and may help reduce our reliance on MAD.