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.
On Signing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

On Signing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is an important component of the Long Peace. Since the end of WWII, most armed conflicts have been relatively minor. There haven’t been any major wars between great national powers. The war in Ukraine is the largest armed conflict in Europe since the end of WWII and the most powerful countries in the world have not fought against each other since the end of WWII. In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker demonstrates how enlightenment ideas represented in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights have changed the way that people think about war, ultimately contributing to the greater peace and stability we see today.
Pinker includes a short recap of the first three articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and these following opening sentences are worth noting:
Article 1. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights…
Article 2. Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration…
Article 3. Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person.”
These principals, Pinker argues, are more than just words on paper. They reflect humanist ideas and move rules and concepts of the nation or people to the back seat behind the individual. Pinker writes,
“In endorsing the Enlightenment ideal that the ultimate value in the political realm is the individual human being, the signatories were repudiating a doctrine that had reigned for more than a century, namely that the ultimate value was the nation, people, culture, Volk, class, or other collectivity.”
The value of life shifted from being part of a collectivity to being an individual. While this has its own consequences that we are still working through today, it shifted the political calculus of war. It is much harder to convince people to go fight in a war for their country when the individual and the life and experience of the individual, is the supreme value for everyone in a society. When people are little more than the subjects of an ultimate ruler, it is easier to send them  to war. When people are the embodiment of a collective, they are expected to go to war. When people are unique and free individuals, directing them to a war in which they may die is harder.
In Ukraine, we are seeing a lot of people chose to fight to defend their country. In Russia, we are seeing massive disinformation campaigns intended to delude the population. Russia has had to rely on misinformation to convince people to go to war, and reports are that many of them never knew they would be in battle (I don’t know how accurate that statement is). It does not seem as though thousands of soldiers can easily be marshalled for the conflict in Ukraine, demonstrating how much the Enlightenment ideals of the individual have changed the approach and calculus of war since the end of WWII, even in a country like Russia which has a host of problems in terms of being a real democracy.
This all makes the world a safer place in terms of violent conflict. Life is not a perfect utopia where no crime, violence, or murder ever takes place, but we haven’t fought major wars with death tolls in the millions in over 60 years. The Enlightenment values of the individual, as reflected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, helps us understand why.
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.
Anti-War Sentiments & Institutions

Anti-War Sentiments & Institutions

Over time human beings have become more peaceful. In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker explains that much of the reduction of violence between humans has been influenced by the institutions we create to govern, organize, and structure our societies, relationships, and human to human interactions. Without institutions to help pacify humans, violence would be an easy and convenient solution to many of our problems.
Pinker uses anti-war sentiment to show how important institutions are in making people less violent. He writes, “to gain traction, antiwar sentiments have to infect many constituencies at the same time. And they have to be grounded in economic and political institutions, so that the war-averse outlook doesn’t depend on everyone’s deciding to become and stay virtuous.” We can praise virtuous monks, we can admire peaceful protestors, and we can hold conscientious war objectors in high regard, but if political and economic institutions do not align with peace, then anti-war sentiment won’t grow beyond these few groups. It is easy to say that humans should all be kind, peaceful, and considerate of others, but without the right institutions, virtues don’t matter much.
People don’t like admitting that their behaviors are driven by large structural and institutional factors. We like to imagine that we are good individuals and that our conscious choices and decisions are what drive our behaviors. We see ourselves as deserving of good things and criminals and deviants as deserving of bad things because of individual choices in life. When we think about the world becoming a less violent place (if we think about that at all) we imagine it is because we are part of a new breed of humans who are more civilized, smarter, less impulsive, and more valuing of human life. Some of that may be true, but if so, it is not something special about humans today but likely something about the institutions we have built which have changed us and our social worlds.
Pinker’s anti-war sentiment quote shows how that is true. It is hard for a population to become overwhelmingly peaceful and anti-war when their neighbor has invaded their country (as we see in Ukraine now). It is hard to favor peace when your own economy is a train wreck and invading your neighbor will give your economy a boost through natural resources (perhaps as we see with Russia). If violence is a quick and easy way to boost your economy and the institutions surrounding you don’t punish you for violence, then you have fewer incentives to be peaceful and anti-war. Institutions, incentives, and larger political and economic structural factors matter – often more than individual virtuosity.
Violence and Convenient Mysticism

Violence and Convenient Mysticism

Mysticism in the United States doesn’t really feel like it lends itself to violence. When we think of mystics, we probably think of someone close to a shaman, or maybe a modern mystic whose aesthetic is very homeopathic. Mystics don’t seem like they would be the most violent people today, but in the past, mysticism was a convenient motivating factor for violence.
In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker describes the way that mysticism lends itself to violence by writing, “the brain has evolved to ferret out hidden powers in nature, including those that no one can see. Once you start rummaging around in the realm of the unverifiable there is considerable room for creativity, and accusations of sorcery are often blended with self-serving motives.”
There are two important factors to recognize in this quote from Pinker, and both are often overlooked and misunderstood. First, our brains look for causal links between events. They are very good and very natural at thinking causally and pinpointing causation, however, as Daniel Kahneman wrote in Thinking Fast and Slow, the brain can often fall into cognitive fallacies and misattribute causation. Mystical thinking is a result of misplaced causal reasoning. It is important that we recognize that our brains can see causation that doesn’t truly exist and lead us to wrong conclusions.
The second important factor that we often manage to overlook is our own self-interest. As Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson explain in The Elephant in the Brain, our self-interest plays a much larger role in much of our decision-making and behavior than we like to admit. When combined with mysticism, self-interest can be dangerous.
If you have an enemy who boasts that they are special and offers mystical explanations for their special powers, then it suddenly becomes convenient to justify violence against your enemy. You don’t need actual proof of any wrong doing, you don’t need actual proof of their danger to society, you just need to convince others that their mystical powers could be dangerous, and you now have a convenient excuse for disposing of those who you dislike. You can promote your own self-interest without regard to reality if you can harness the power of mystical thinking.
Pinker explains that the world is becoming a more peaceful place in part because mystical thinking is moving to smaller and smaller corners of the world. Legal systems don’t recognize mystical explanations and justifications for behaviors and crimes. Empirical facts and verifiable evidence has superseded mysticism in our evaluations and judgments of crime and the use of violence. By moving beyond mysticism we have created systems, structures, and institutions that foster more peace and less violence among groups of people.
Less Violence Correlates with Better Societies

Less Violence Correlates with Better Societies

In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature Steven Pinker makes an argument that doesn’t appear to be correct at face value. He argues that humanity has become less violent over time and that our societies are following a progression toward less violence as we work toward specific societal goals. While it may feel like our society is constantly on the verge of a meltdown and while we may hear about violent murders, robberies, and attacks in the media, the reality is that humans and our society have become less violent. This is true if you take a long view of human history, going back thousands and perhaps even tens of thousands of years, and it is also true if you take a more modern look at society, looking back a century or even a couple decades. There are fluctuations year over year, but the general trend is downward.
In his book Pinker writes, “across time and space, the more peaceable societies also tend to be richer, healthier, better educated, better governed, more respectful of their women, and more likely to engage in trade.” Pinker acknowledges that each of these correlations are complex. It is hard to say that being less violent made a society richer, or that being better governed reduced a society’s levels of violence. None of these variables is easy to separate from the other. But it is clear that less violence is correlated with everything the areas Pinker highlights.
What is important to note is that these correlations reflect a better society that is more favorable to live within. If populations are mobile enough, you would expect people to move toward the more peaceable societies because they want to live in a richer, safer, healthier, and better governed society. Societies which lean into violence, or perhaps that have other negative qualities that cause greater levels of violence, will be less successful and worse off. Populations will want to leave those societies. They will not want to live within and support them. Cultural evolution doesn’t follow a specific path or goal, but we can expect people to want to live in places with the correlates from Pinker’s quote, and we can expect people to try to move toward those better societies. The feedback mechanisms are complex, so we can’t simply say that societies should be less violent for all these positive things to follow, but it does give us an insight into what matters and what societies should strive toward if they want to be successful relative to other societies.
Nuclear Deterrence

Nuclear Deterrence

In the recent Marvel movie Eternals (I don’t recommend watching it) a brainy character helps the United States develop nuclear weapons which are used in WWII against Japan. The character later is at the bomb site and cries when he sees what his technology enabled. The idea within the short clip is that humans are not worthy of saving, and our development and use of nuclear weapons is evidence of how awful humans are.
But it raises an interesting question. Are nuclear weapons really our worst mistake? Some may argue that nuclear weapons our greatest tool for peace. Perhaps both can be true at the same time.
Robert Oppenheimer said that he had become death when the first nuclear weapons were used, but since that time no more nuclear weapons have been used in war. We have had tons of fears related to nuclear weapons and fallout, but we haven’t had any dirty bombs set off in major port cities, haven’t had any nuclear weapons used by a rogue state, and haven’t had any terrorists threaten to unleash a stolen nuclear weapon. Perhaps our timeframe is still too short, but nuclear weapons seem to have had a more positive effect on the world than we might think.
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “the Nobel Peace Prize to end all peace prizes should have been given to Robert Oppenheimer and his fellow architects of the atomic bomb. Nuclear weapons have turned war between superpowers into collective suicide, and made it impossible to seek world domination by force of arms.” In other words, nuclear deterrence has saved a lot of lives. Mutually assured destruction prevents massive wars.
I think we should still be concerned about nuclear weapons. I don’t exactly find it comforting knowing how many thousands of nuclear weapons are possessed by the United States and Russia. I think there is still a danger that a nuclear war could break out and end all human life – even if that possibility is exceptionally small. I do think Harari is correct, however. I think the nuclear deterrents have played a huge role in creating a safer world. I think they have reduced the chances that a major country invades another major country. I don’t think they are the only reason we haven’t had a great power war, but I think they play an important role. Even a victory won from using nuclear weapons would likely be repugnant to the victors, and I think that pressure, along with mutually assured destruction, has made the price of war too high for major conflicts on the scale of the past World Wars to take place. Oppenheimer’s bomb may have killed hundreds of thousands and may have been one of the lowest points of human history, but without it, perhaps millions more have been killed in war and perhaps many more would still be killed in war today.