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(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part one.)

A Tenacious Affinity for Killing

BUT what if behavior is not always rational? What if there are deeper forces -- rooted in the structure of international politics, or in the cultures that populate the world, or in human nature itself -- that get in the way of calculating expected utility? What if, in assuming rationality, we are continuing to play an old game even as we feel the earth beginning to shake beneath our feet?

Rational-choice scenarios, it is worth noting, assume the continued viability of states. Theorists who favor proliferating nuclear weapons expect them to remain under national authority: no one would want to pass them out to the Aum Shinrikyo cult, or the Montana militia, or some brilliant Unabomberlike loner. Businessmen look to states for the order within which commerce can flourish and contracts can be enforced; there is no rush these days to invest in places like Somalia or Sierra Leone, where such conditions are absent. Democracy could hardly survive if the constitutional protections that states provide were to vanish. If the spread of democracy promotes peace, therefore, that condition, too, requires that states survive and prosper.

Tower Perhaps they will. States are not likely to disappear in the near future, and it is reasonable to expect that they will still be around in some form when the twenty-first century ends. The question is, In what form? Even rational-choice enthusiasts agree that states will not be as powerful as they have been -- that in contrast to the Orwellian nightmares that haunted much of this century, wide areas of human activity in the next one will lie beyond state control. The effects will in some ways be liberating, because states have so often been sources of oppression. But they have also brought stability, and that stability could be the precondition for such rational choices as human beings have made in managing violence over the past several hundred years.

One way to test that hypothesis would be to examine the geopolitical tectonics: to look at how wars were waged in the medieval, ancient, and even prehistoric eras, before states existed. Military historians are doing just that, and what they have found is causing some of them to question the relevance of Clausewitz to the post-Cold War world. John Keegan, whose writings have revolutionized the field, makes the argument most bluntly: "War is not the continuation of policy by other means.... Warfare is almost as old as man himself, and reaches into the most secret places of the human heart, places where self dissolves rational purpose, where pride reigns, where emotion is paramount, where instinct is king." The Clausewitzian view of war, the Israeli historian Martin van Creveld says, "is ... a modern invention ... Having been invented at a certain point in time, there is no reason to think that it possesses some kind of inherent validity, nor that it necessarily has a great future."

These experts are suggesting that if rationality does indeed mean matching the scale of violence to its purposes, then it is not clear who or what in a world of weaker states would perform that function. The historical indicators are not encouraging. For a thousand years following the fall of Rome, Van Creveld points out, "armed conflict was waged by ... barbarian tribes, the Church, feudal barons of every rank, free cities, even private individuals." To view such wars as Clausewitzian makes no sense, for they were "scarcely ... distinguishable from simple rapine and murder." Primitive society was no better: as the anthropologist Lawrence H. Keeley has shown, there were few if any "peaceful savages."
From the archives:

"The Roots of War," by Thomas Powers (August, 1997)
"What we need, if we want to understand the century and take corrective action, Barbara Ehrenreich argues in Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War, is not another theory of international relations but a theory of war itself, of the heart of war, of killing by men in groups."


It is too deterministic to say that people are programmed for violence, like some aggressive species of ants. But the archaeological evidence shows that men -- and often women as well -- have been fighting wars for at least 5,000 years. Organized conflict emerged independently in cultures that had little or no contact with one another. It appears to have been as frequent among the inhabitants of pre-conquest North and South America as in Europe, Asia, and Africa. And collective killing goes back much further than that. It evolved initially, the social critic Barbara Ehrenreich argues in Blood Rites, as a defense against being eaten by wild animals at a time when our precursors as a species were themselves making the transition from prey to predator.

If this is true, if violence is that deeply embedded in human nature, then it must be at least as ancient as is the belief in the supernatural. "War appears to be far more robust than any particular religion," Ehrenreich observes, "perhaps more robust than religion in general." The revival of religion over the past quarter century would surely qualify as the sociological equivalent of a tectonic upheaval: this worldwide phenomenon is not what one might have anticipated in a supposedly secular age.
From Atlantic Unbound:

Flashback: "Balkan Epic" (January, 1996)
In 1937 the novelist Rebecca West traveled to the Balkans in search of a better understanding of that region's historical conflicts. Her classic account of that journey, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, appeared first in The Atlantic Monthly in 1941.

Flashback: "Violence and Unrest in Central Africa" (November, 1996)
A collection of past articles puts the most recent Rwandan refugee crisis in perspective.

Flashback: "Nations of the World: Unite!" (August, 1997)
Some sixty years ago the international community was debating the creation of a League of Nations, the precursor to the UN. Articles both by critics and by supporters of the proposed league appeared in The Atlantic Monthly.

Flashback: "Cold War, Part II?" (February, 1997)
Atlantic articles discuss the history and possible future of NATO.


But what about the possibility that as state-sponsored violence declines, individually and culturally based violence may emerge, as unexpectedly as did religion, to replace it? If the human affinity for killing is as tenacious as faith, and if the states that have channeled that instinct into Clausewitzian patterns of rationality over the past several hundred years are, like secularism, beginning to decline, then another tectonic surprise may be on the way. What happened in Bosnia and Rwanda could be only the beginning of a future that turns out, as in geology, to reflect a very distant past.

THE prospect is a bleak one, and we should not accept it uncritically. As the end of the Cold War demonstrated, gloomy scenarios have no monopoly on getting the future right. The peaceful demise of a superpower showed that unprecedented events can occur -- that the past is not always a reliable guide to what is to come. It is by no means certain that the post-state era, if that is what we are entering, will echo its pre-state counterpart; there may be ways of preserving Clausewitzian rationality "by other means," even if states do gradually lose their capacity to perform that function.

International organizations are one possibility. As the Cold War wound down, hopes rose that the United Nations would at last fulfill its promise in resolving old conflicts and deterring new ones. But whether because of ineffective leadership, because of inadequate support from its most powerful members (especially the United States), or because too much was expected of it in the first place, the UN has yet to demonstrate any significant capacity to control large-scale violence over an extended period of time. Failures like those in Bosnia, Somalia, and Cambodia have forced a lowering of expectations. We have a long way to go before the UN can plausibly substitute for states as the keeper of Clausewitzian order.

Regional organizations are more robust, but their priorities are narrow. Even as it expands, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization concerns itself more with exclusion than inclusion. Keeping Russia out seems particularly at odds with the universally acclaimed example set by post-Second World War security structures, which brought Germany and Japan in. The European Union's priorities look equally askew: is creating a common currency really more vital than removing the economic disparities that divide Europe today almost as dramatically as did the old Iron Curtain? In the Asia-Pacific region, where cooperative action failed to prevent an economic crash, pressures are building for a return to controlled markets. Controlled politics have never disappeared there.

Meanwhile, the majority of the world's population remains saddled with economic systems that have failed, or never took off in the first place. But the telecommunications revolution -- which functions in all societies -- is making these have-nots more aware than ever of what they do not have, even as demographic pressures and ecological deterioration endanger the little they still possess. If, as the historian Paul Kennedy has warned, "the continued abuse of the developing world's environment leads to global warming, or if there is a massive flood of economic refugees from the poorer to the richer parts of the world, everyone will suffer." No transnational institution, governmental or nongovernmental, has even begun to address this problem, despite its potential as the greatest of all breeding grounds for violence in the twenty-first century.

For all their good intentions and often impressive accomplishments, international organizations have a common problem: it is that of collective leadership commanding limited resources. As Clausewitz could have pointed out, restraining violence, like unleashing it, requires both capabilities and resolve; these are hard to achieve when many are in charge and the instruments at hand are few. Transnational institutions, then, face their own Catch-22. They may someday be in a position to counter the decline of states and the disorder that will probably follow. But like the old Soviet Union, they will accomplish this task only by ceasing to be what they now are.

IF the institutional approach seems unpromising, what about the opposite end of the spectrum: a change in the behavior of individuals, so that there would be less violence for states -- or their successors -- to restrain in the first place? The idea is not as far-fetched as it might seem. We are, after all, creatures of evolution, and our survival suggests at least limited success in moderating self-destructive tendencies. Violence is not the only characteristic of our character -- and character itself can change.

The political scientist James Q. Wilson has pointed out that regardless of culture, region, or religious belief, most people today would agree on what constitutes an atrocity -- there is a nearly universal sense of horror. Shifts in standards of behavior must have produced this consensus, for it cannot always have been present: societies that once tolerated human sacrifice and slavery, for example, no longer do so. With the twentieth century's quantum leap in the speed and ubiquity of communication, this shared moral sense seems likely to expand.
From the archives:

"Was Democracy Just a Moment?", by Robert D. Kaplan (December, 1997)
The global triumph of democracy was to be the glorious climax of the American Century. But democracy may not be the system that will best serve the world -- or even the one that will prevail in places that now consider themselves bastions of freedom.

"And Now for the News," by Robert D. Kaplan (March, 1997)
The disturbing freshness of Gibbon's Decline and Fall

"Proportionalism," by Robert D. Kaplan (August, 1996)
As it contemplates the most troubled areas of the Third World, America must seek a path between apathy and optimism."

"The Coming Anarchy," by Robert D. Kaplan (February, 1994)
How scarcity, crime, overpopulation, tribalism, and disease are rapidly destroying the social fabric of our planet.


Political behavior, too, may be changing. The political scientist Francis Fukuyama detects a gradual but irreversible trend toward self-government and away from the old tradition of authority by imposition. The proliferation of democracies, he insists, arises out of a long-term change in human collective consciousness. And the political scientist John Mueller has made the case that attitudes toward war itself are evolving: that in light of the devastation twentieth-century conflicts have caused, the very idea of fighting a war in the twenty-first century -- among the great powers, at least -- will attract more ridicule than respect.

If these trends hold up, we will face some interesting possibilities. New patterns of behavior may evolve in time and with sufficient strength to compensate for the decline of states and the probable ineffectiveness of international organizations. One tectonic force could counter another. Scientists have found that under certain circumstances even inanimate objects -- molecules, crystals, representations of randomness on a computer screen -- have the capacity for self-organization. If some similar phenomenon could work in the world of geopolitics -- if we could "self-organize" rationality without having to rely on states or international institutions to enforce it -- then the prospects for the next century would be a good deal better than one might think.

Will Empires Return?

THERE is, however, another, darker path to order in a disorderly world that few people today want to talk about: "empire" is the form of governance that hardly dares speak its name. Surely, it would seem, we are living in a post-imperial age. European colonial empires have long since crumbled; and even though Soviet and American spheres of influence took on imperial attributes during the Cold War, those structures, too, are mostly part of the past. If economic integration and political self-determination are eroding the authority of states, then these forces ought to be all the more destabilizing for empires, founded as they so often were on the denial of just those principles.

And yet -- a geologist would caution that before we consider volcanoes extinct, or faults stable, we should check the underlying tectonics. After all, states have existed for roughly 500 years, but empires -- like war -- go back almost ten times as long. What assurance do we have that our epoch, which is clearly one of inactive empires, is also the one uniquely privileged to witness the end of empires for all time?

None whatever, if science fiction is any guide. Perhaps it should be, since novelists and filmmakers spend at least as much time as anyone else relating past and present trends to the long-term future. Empires have hardly disappeared from their imagined worlds; indeed, they show up so frequently -- in everything from Isaac Asimov's classic Foundation series to George Lucas's hugely popular Star Wars sagas -- that it is hard to imagine the genre without them. Viewing the future through Darth Vader's eyes may seem, well, slightly flaky. But to anyone who failed to understand the purpose, so would the sight of miners carrying canaries into mine shafts. Early-warning systems must be both impressionable and expressive -- and false alarms by no means render them useless. For these reasons alone we should not too quickly rule out a future for empires.

The historical record here supports the visionaries. No empire has endured, but cycles of imperial consolidation and decline -- the rise and fall of empires -- are one of the few persistent patterns in history. Astronomers know that stars are constantly igniting and burning themselves out. The fact that none ultimately survive is no reason to regard the process that produces them as extinct -- or as irrelevant to the future. Empires, on this planet at least, appear and disappear in much the same way.

What is it, then, that causes them to do so? The arrogance of ambitious leaders, to be sure: Alexander the Great, Napoleon, and Hitler built empires -- and quickly lost them -- through the force of personality. But such instances are relatively rare. Empires have more often arisen from a determination to spread a religion or an ideology, or out of hope for economic gain, or as a response to the prospect of anarchy along one's borders. The first two inducements may be obsolete: in an age of global communication and markets, empires are hardly necessary to disseminate ideas or secure profits. But empires as a method of imposing order -- that is another matter entirely.

For all their injustices, empires have frequently achieved a kind of Clausewitzian rationality. Like states, they have sought to monopolize the means of violence; and because their purposes paralleled one another, empires and states coexisted for several hundred years. Some states, like England and France, transformed themselves into empires; certain empires, like those of the Hapsburgs and the Ottomans, spawned new states. But as democracy spread in the twentieth century, the priorities of empires and states began to diverge.

The democratic state must assume -- even if it does not in every respect ensure -- the equality of those subject to its rule. Empires, in contrast, require inequality: a powerful center asserts its authority over weaker peripheries, at times with their consent, more often without it. That is why, as this "democratic" century ends, there are no traditional empires left. Some of the processes that produced them remain in place, though, and that raises an interesting question about the next century: Is equality or inequality likely to be the dominant theme?

An answer is already emerging, and it is not reassuring. The new laissez-faire economics is distributing wealth in an unprecedentedly unequal manner throughout the world. That, Karl Marx would have said, is what one would expect from capitalism; he expected an international proletarian revolution as a consequence. States proved him wrong by cushioning capitalism's excesses during the twentieth century; had they not done so, the democratization that dominates our era could hardly have taken hold. How will democracy fare, though, if the twenty-first century is one of increasing economic inequality and diminishing state authority?

Suppose Marx should turn out to have been right after all. Suppose unregulated capitalism provokes discontent on a global scale similar to what happened within the industrialized states a century ago. Suppose the anarchy Robert D. Kaplan anticipates in the poorer parts of the world spreads widely enough to alarm the richer parts. Not states as presently constituted, or international organizations, or whatever slow shifts may be taking place in human nature, are likely by themselves to contain such chaos. Empires, however, are a time-tested response to inequality and the unrest it brings -- and the human capacity to package old wine in new bottles (equipped, of course, with politically correct labels) ought never to be underestimated.

Incompatible Virtues

WHATEVER the packaging, the advertising will sound familiar: that without stability -- without some method of countering the human propensity for violence -- the prospects for advancing civilization are at risk. The argument has been made so often, and in support of such dubious causes, that we tend to dismiss it as special pleading -- as an excuse, however feeble, for aggression, exploitation, or discrimination. It seems a relic of an earlier age. We like to think that we are beyond the need for hierarchy and all it implies.

But this perspective, too, may reflect a failure to think tectonically. For it is not at all clear that the two great priorities of twentieth-century democratic capitalism -- economic integration and political self-determination -- will alone produce a better world. If, as appears increasingly likely, these undeniable virtues do not always complement each other, if the simultaneous pursuit of both means straddling a fault line, then seismic shocks are sure to come. And it would be arrogant in the extreme to assume that the past, which has witnessed so many upheavals, can offer no useful guidance in preparing for them.

Sir Isaiah Berlin, one of the wisest men of this century, often warned that values are not necessarily compatible: that the simple-minded pursuit of single virtues can subvert others. The essence of politics is the balancing of priorities, and this requires an ecological perspective -- a sense of the whole, along with a sensitivity to how things relate to one another. That is what seems to be missing as we approach the twenty-first century: the willingness to say that there can be too much of any good thing, that setting up self-determination, or free trade, or anything else, as an absolute priority is asking for trouble. It is like preparing for earthquakes only by stabilizing crockery, without worrying about the shelves, walls, roof, and foundation.

With the plate-tectonics revolution three decades ago, geology became an ecological discipline. It was possible for the first time to visualize the earth as a whole, and to understand how processes at work in some part of it could affect the rest. Geopolitics requires a similarly comprehensive perspective: we need to focus our attention as much on the arenas within which games are played as on the games themselves. We are no more likely than the geologists to predict precise outcomes. But we can at least prepare ourselves for Candlestick Park surprises: we can reinforce the bleachers, back up the communications links, mark the exits, and keep the emergency squad close at hand. We may even find a certain satisfaction -- players, fans, and anchorpersons alike -- in expanding our philosophy, and hence our dreams, to accommodate more of the things that are happening, if not in heaven then at least here on earth.

The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part one.


John Lewis Gaddis is the Robert Lovett Professor of History at Yale University. His books include The United States and the End of the Cold War: Implications, Reconsiderations, Provocations (1992) and We Now Know: Rethinking Cold-War History (1997).

Illustrations by Mirko Ilic

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; April 1999; Living in Candlestick Park; Volume 283, No. 4; pages 65 - 74.

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