Strength, Negotiation, & Conflict Resolution

Peace, Negotiation, & Conflict Resolution

The easiest, or most clear and straightforward, way to resolve a conflict is through simple displays of force. The strongest party simply dominates another party. A weaker party is crushed, completely eliminated, or reduced to being inconsequential and incapable of defending or asserting their rights and needs. 
But conflict negotiation where the strongest dominate the weakest don’t necessarily lead to good outcomes for the dominating party. If the weaker party fights to the bitter end, then the stronger party faces serious consequences. Among animals, the alpha-male could be seriously wounded. Among countries, a prolonged war could ruin infrastructure and cost the lives of many combatants and civilians. The victor may end up with much less than what they imagined at the outset of their campaign of dominance.
Steven Pinker considers this concept, and how most modern countries find themselves in positions where they benefit more by becoming democratic, engaging more with global market economies, and participating in intergovernmental organizations via negotiation. Underpinning all these areas of a country’s political, economic, and relational norms and institutions is a shift in ideas of conflict resolution. Pinker writes, “a willingness to resolve conflicts by means that are acceptable to all the affected parties, rather than by the stronger party imposing its will on the weaker one,” is what is at the heart of countries becoming market oriented democracies that participate in intergovernmental organizations.
This is an important shift in modern human governance and institutional design. We frown on countries like Russia and leaders like Putin who are willing to resolve conflicts by force. We think more about our connections with peoples on other sides of the globe, who we will never meet, and their wellbeing. We are more willing to negotiate to resolve conflicts as opposed to exercise our strength and dominion over others to resolve conflicts.
This makes the world a safer place. It reduces the chances of violence and increases global positive sum outcomes. Countries cede a little of their own gains, their own power, and their own dominion for a tide that lifts all boats, and we are better off for it.
Market Economies & Peaceful Nations

Market Economies & Peaceful Nations

In his book on the decline of human violence, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker writes,
“A democratic peace strongly kicks in only when both members of a pair of countries are democratic, but the effects of commerce are demonstrable when either member of the pair has a market economy.”
Democratic peace theory suggests that countries that are democracies are less likely to go to war (especially with each other) than countries that are autocratic or otherwise non-democratic. But another consideration, that can be separate from how democratic a country is, is whether the country has an open market economy. If the country engages in trade with other countries, and whether that trade adheres to general market standards is an important factor in the likelihood of that country to go to war. “A country that is open to the global economy is less likely to find itself in a militarized dispute,” writes Pinker.
From a standpoint of global human peace, improved democratic institutions combined with global market participation are an important goal for all nations. The more we can encourage countries to democratize and engage in global markets, the more likely we are to see reductions in levels of violence. Historically, trying to push countries to democratize is difficult, but encouraging greater market participation seems like a better pathway to peace. A country’s leaders may not want a more democratic government, but they might be more likely to want the bounties of markets. Building more support and momentum toward open market economies can have positive externalities for everyone. 
Evidence Supporting Democratic Peace Theory

Evidence Supporting Democratic Peace Theory

My last post questioned whether Democratic Peace theory is valid. I highlighted a few reasons for why democracies might be less likely to go to war with each other and offered a couple of points which suggest that Democratic Peace theory might be a statical fluke rather than something with solid evidence and backing. There haven’t been that many democracies in human history, and since WWII most democracies have been allies of the United States. This suggest that we may just be experiencing a period of peace between countries that happened to be democratic. Or that we are experiencing peace between allies, which isn’t very surprising at all.
The arguments against Democratic Peace theory come from Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, but Pinker also demonstrates that Democratic Peace theory does hold up against the points I raised in my last post and does have statistical value. Using larger datasets dating back before WWII and the current Long Peace, we see that, “not only do democracies avoid disputes with each other, but there is suggestion that they tend to stay out of disputes across the board.” Democracies are less likely to fight anyone, not just themselves.
The same is not true for autocracies. They are not less likely to fight each other in the way that democracies are less likely to fight each other. This is true regardless as to whether the United States or Britain has been the world’s leading power. It is not just that democracies have been allied with each other that has decreased disputes. When democracies border autocracies, they are less likely to go to war than two autocracies that border each other. The causal reasons I gave in my last post in support of democratic peace seem to hold, and the cynical take that the statistical sample is too small or that democracies are allies of the United States doesn’t have much power in explaining the longer term history of democracies and conflict.
Does Democratic Peace Theory Hold Up?

Does Democratic Peace Theory Hold Up

There is a theory in the world of international relations: democracies don’t go to war against each other. Democracies, the theory holds, are unwieldy to begin with and are thus hard to send to war. In a democracy, the people can vote you out of power if they don’t like your choices. No single person holds the levers of power that could plunge a nation into war. Negotiations and diplomacy go further than violence and bloodshed. These all sound like plausible reasons for why democracies don’t fight each other, but could the reason why we haven’t seen democracies declare war on each other be due more to random chance than to actual causal factors based on the nature of democracy?
Steven Pinker lays out some arguments for and against the democratic peace theory in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature. He describes the theory as being powerful because it helps explain our current Long Peace. There haven’t been any major wars between the leading powers of the world since WWII. For over half a century, we have lived in a time of relative peace and stability, something that is fairly unique in human history. Democratic peace theory is one way to explain why the Long Peace has persisted. However, Pinker explains that the theory has some problems if you look close enough:
“Critics of the Democratic Peace theory … point out that if one draws the circle of democracy small enough, not that many countries are left in it, so by the laws of probability it’s not surprising that we find few wars with a democracy on each side. Other than the great powers, two countries tend to fight only if they share a border, so most of the theoretical matchups are ruled out by geography.”
Democratic peace may just be a function of the fact that there haven’t been that many democracies in human history. To go one step further, most democracies have allied themselves with the United States, who was the sole great power for a period of time following the Cold War and was the great power confronting the Soviet Union following WWII. “A more cynical theory accounts for the Long Peace,” writes Pinker, “since the start of the Cold War, allies of the world’s dominant power, the United States, haven’t fought each other.”
Perhaps the structural factors I discussed in the opening paragraph really do make democracies less likely to go to war against each other. Perhaps there are causal relationships between democracies and the Long Peace, but the cynical take on the Long Peace also seem like a reasonable explanation for why democracies haven’t gone to war with each other. There could be less interesting relationships between countries that explain a lack of major war without getting into ideological and political differences along the lines of democracies versus dictatorships.
Theory of Mind is Underrated

Theory of Mind is Underrated

Sometime when infants are around three years old they begin to recognize that the other human beings in their lives are similar to themselves. Whether it is their parents, care takers, or other kinds that they interact with, typically developing children around three will begin to understand that others have the same feelings and emotions that they have. Infants begin to develop what we call theory of mind. It is a momentous and underrated step in human development.
I seem to be experiencing the world. To me, it feels like there is a conscious individual inside my head who has thoughts, feelings, desires, emotions, joys, pleasures, fears, and experiences of physical phenomena (as an aside, the idea of a single conscious self is up for debate). But I can’t prove that any other person has conscious experiences of the world in the way that I feel as though I do. I can see other people who appear to be virtually exactly like me. I see other people who react in ways I would expect myself to react if I was in a similar happy, scary, or boring experience. I can create a reasonable and testable theory which suggests that other people do indeed have conscious experiences of the world even though I can never fully prove it. This is theory of mind, and this is what three year old toddlers do when they start to realize that other people don’t like being hit, don’t like when someone takes their stuff, or would be happy if someone shared a piece of cake with them.
This is a phenomenal super power and without realizing it, we apply this power in most of the ways we think about the social world. In WEIRD countries it underlies our moral and social contracts. As Steven Pinker writes in The Better Angels of Our Nature, “I experience pleasures and pains, and pursue goals in service of them, so I cannot reasonably deny the right of other sentient agents to do the same.” This humanist philosophy develops from our earliest ages and influences how we understand the world. If we were not able to think about others and infer that they have a mind and have the same experiences as we do, our social interactions would be dramatically different, and peaceable democracies might not be possible.
Autocracy, Democracy, Risk, & Benefit

Autocracy, Democracy, Risk, & Benefit

How often do you pick up trash along the street when you are out for a walk? If you are like most people, you probably see trash, think that someone should do something about it, and keep on walking. If you were to pick up the trash you and everyone else would benefit, but you alone pay the price of removing the trash. It may be unpleasant to pick up someone else’s water bottle. It may be expensive to pick up a TV along the side of the road and recycle it. Even though these costs are small, they are real and when a single individual pays the costs, the fact that the benefit extends not just to the individual but to other people doesn’t make up for those individual costs. The fact that others will benefit in some ways makes the individual costs harder to go through with.
The little example of the cost and benefit of picking up trash extends to larger contexts, like disposing of an autocrat. To explain how democracies have helped people become more peaceful in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker shows how democracies can overcome the individual cost problem that I demonstrated. Pinker writes, “in a dictatorship, the autocrat and his henchmen have a strong incentive to stay in power, but no individual citizen has an incentive to depose him, because the rebel would assume all the risks of the dictator’s reprisals while the benefits of democracy would flow diffusely to everyone in the country.”
A transition to democracy, away from an autocracy, can be difficult and violent, but once you get there, society can be much more peaceful. Opposing an autocrat, as Pinker notes is dangerous. Everyone may despise the ruler and believe that things would be better without them, but taking action on their own is difficult. The costs of overthrowing the ruler are potentially life or death, making it hard for any single individual to oppose the autocrat.
But once you get past an autocrat, once enough people have joined together and once a country has democratized, peace can be more achievable. In a democracy, ousting bad leaders is easier and doesn’t have as many individual costs. The benefits are still there for everyone, but the individual costs have been reduced or eliminated, making peaceful transitions more likely. Violence within democracies comes at a cost to the individual, shifting dramatically from the arrangement in an autocracy. Ultimately, the risk and reward imbalance that individuals face is part of what helps keep autocrats in power, just as it keeps trash along the side of the road.
Democracies & Peace

Peace & Democracies

Democracies are less likely to go to war than autocracies. In recent years it has felt as though the United States is continually at war, continually bombing someone, and continually in an armed conflict somewhere in the world, but data do show that democracies are more peaceful than other forms of government. As the United States demonstrates, democracies are not entirely peaceful, but they are much less likely to be in an armed conflict at any time and it is rare to see two democracies fight against one another as opposed to fight against non-democracies.
Steven Pinker writes about this phenomenon in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature in order to show how and why the world is becoming a less violent place to live within. Describing the peaceful incentives for a democracy, Pinker writes, “democracies tend to avoid wars because the benefits of war go to a country’s leaders, whereas the costs are paid by its citizens.” Leaders who will not suffer the consequences as directly or as direly as their citizens are less likely to be hesitant to go to war. If their position and status are not dependent upon the support of the population who will suffer, then they have few disincentives to war. “But if the citizens are in charge,” writes Pinker, “they will think twice about wasting their own money and blood on a foolish foreign adventure.”
This concept seems to be playing out right now in Ukraine. Many people have suggested that Russia’s autocratic leader has had some sort of mental breakdown and that his decision to invade Ukraine is the result of an undiagnosed mental illness. What is more likely is that Putin didn’t expect to face many direct costs in this conflict himself. He may have known people would suffer, but thought he could win quickly and not pay any major consequences himself. He was not the one who would be on the front lines and in the corrupt Russian system, he did not have to worry about losing power.
In the United States and Europe, however, countries have been hesitant to get involved directly with the conflict. Directly challenging Russia could lead to a much larger conflict, and public leaders would certainly be ousted from office if they chose a path toward the next world war before making less aggressive actions to try to stem the tide of autocratic violence taking place in Ukraine. Democracies better reflect the experiences of the people, and as a result are less likely to pursue war or violence relative to autocracies.
A True Democracy

A True Democracy

A while back I wrote about Cory Booker’s autobiography, and a quote he included from a housing advocate in Newark. Booker, learning from this advocate, talked about how important it is that everyone have access to housing. Both men believed that housing was a human right, just as we have rights to property, we have rights to stable, affordable, healthy housing. The reason housing must be a human right is because we cannot survive without it. We cannot flourish, we cannot store necessary medications, and we cannot live out our democratic responsibilities without a home. A true democracy helps its people do more than survive – it helps them participate, grow, and be valued members of society. A home is a necessary component of a true democracy.


A quote in Johann Hari’s book Chasing The Scream brought these ideas of a true democracy to my mind this morning. Housing is a first step toward solving many of the problems we see in society, but it also depends on how we think about our society and see our responsibilities within society. Right now we are too quick to cast out others and to see their lives as valueless.


Writing about drug users and people addicted to drugs, Hari writes, “In a true democracy, nobody gets written off. Nobody gets abandoned. Nobody’s life is declared to be not worth living.” We write off the lives of the homeless, of drug addicts, and of our nation’s poorest people all the time. If we were to be a true democracy, however, we would have to think more critically of our shared stories, futures, and connections, and work to lift up those who we have pushed down. A true democracy doesn’t limit you to your worst quality or mistake, it helps pull you up beyond your lowest point.


The quote makes me think about how important housing is for a democracy. You can’t participate in local politics without a local home. You can’t engage meaningfully with your society if you don’t have a place within society that you can call your own. You also, I think Hari would agree, can’t triumph over drug addiction without a home where you can be safe and have the necessary protection from the terrors and pressures which may push you back toward drug use. If we want to be a true democracy, we need to think about the ways in which homelessness leaves people behind, and we have to decide that their lives matter, and that they can’t be written off, even if they have used drugs or committed crimes in the past. Writing them off and shutting them out of our democracy doesn’t help them and doesn’t solve any problems, it only further entrenches the problems that already exist.

New Governance

The definition for governance, according to a quick Google search is the action or manner of governing. Governance is the how behind the what. It is all about the manner and form that people and societies adopt to determine what will be legitimate in the managing, overseeing, and organizing of a society. Whenever we have a group of people, we have some type of governance in place, even if there are no formal rules, regulations, or titles among the group.


As opposed to formal constitutional governments, where the structure and rules of government and its boundaries are well defined, the idea of governance is fluid. Humans don’t have the mental capacity to think of every possible situation, combination of events, and potential conflicts that may arise within a group of people, so while government tends to set a forum for regulations and organization, governance comprises a complex web of interactions that adjust and exist in flux from situation to situation. In the United States today, as the world becomes more globalized and as dynamic cities have begun to exercise the economic muscles, governance is changing to adapt to new realities.


In The New Localism, Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak talk about the ways governance is changing. “Governance is being driven by collaboration rather than coercion,” they write, “stewarded by diverse networks rather than by elected decision-makers alone, and characterized by iterative problem solving rather than by rigid and prescriptive rule-making.”


Governance is inherently collaborative in a democracy, and today, the collaboration needed to advance policy and drive society forward is more collaborative than in the past. Authority within a structure of governance comes from collaboration among the people with the will and the power to make decisions. In the past, authority may have come from a position or title, but today, that is not enough. We are tackling more challenging problems and adding extra dimensions to what used to be simpler problems. We have additional hurdles, additional concerns about environment and equity, and additional veto points in any decision that we make. Enhanced collaboration between diverse networks is the only way that governance can occur in the new age of local governmental power.

Participation in Government

In America we are obsessed with being more democratic than any other nation. As the world’s oldest democracy, we have made changes to open government ever further and to be more democratic so as to show the world how great we are with our ever expanding participation in government. We love our democracy, and we constantly fight to make our democracy more representative, less driven by special interests and big money, and more accessible by the average citizen. These are all excellent goals for our country, but they contribute to what Richard Pildes has called Romanticizing Democracy. 


In his book Political Realism, Jonathan Rauch reviews the ideas of romanticizing democracy and thinks about political participation from a realistic and pragmatic point of view. What Rauch finds and what is important to remember is that more participation in government and more direct democracy does not necessarily translate into better outcomes. He writes, “The general assumption that politics will be more satisfying and government will work better if more people participate more directly is poorly supported and probably wrong.”


Rauch is not arguing that fewer people should vote in elections or be knowledgeable about issues, programs, and what is taking place in government, but that our country does not need to continually reshape systems and institutions to be ever more democratic simply because they could be more open. When we push government to rely on more direct democracy, then our systems require more input from a citizenry that is poorly informed of any given issue. Continually opening government or forcing government to rely on input from public constituents makes it more likely that issues will become polarized, leading to charged discussions driven by shadow actors. Rauch writes, “Where direct engagement with politics is concerned, the polarized and financially interested have an inherent advantage.”


Not everything in our system should be operated by and determined by the opinions of experts, technocrats, and academics, but at the same time not everything needs to be decided by direct referendum from the public. Some features of government should be opened to the public, but other aspects are poorly understood by the public and do not need to be completely open. On his podcast The Ezra Klein Show and on his media company’s show The Weeds, Ezra Klein has often remarked that congress (which we have made more democratic and transparent) has dismally low approval ratings while the Supreme Court (which is less democratic and less transparent than almost any other part of government) has very high approval ratings. More transparency and direct participation does not always mean better outcomes and a more satisfying democracy.