Saturday, May 07, 2011

Gat on War (3): Seal Team 6 and the Evolution of Peace

The American commandos who killed Osama bin Laden belong to an elite military group--Seal Team 6. They are said to be the "all-star team" of the Navy Seals (Sea-Air-Land teams). In a recent article in the New York Times, Elisabeth Bumiller describes their training:

All Seal members face years of brutal preparation, including a notorious six months of basic underwater demolition training in Coronado, Calif. During "hell week," recruits get a total of four hours of sleep during five and a half days of nonstop running, swimming in the cold surf and rolling in mud. About 80 per cent of the candidates do not make it; at least one has died.

For those who succeed, more training and then deployments follow. After several years on regular Seal teams, Team 6 candidates are taught to parachute from 30,000 feet with oxygen masks and gain control of a hijacked cruise liner at sea. Of those Seal members, about half make it.

Ryan Zinke, 49, a former member of Seal Team 6 . . . said members of Team 6 had a certain personality: "I would say cocky, arrogant."

The American celebration of the heroic toughness of these Spartan warriors manifests our natural inclination to honor courage in war. But in recent years, it has become common for many theorists of international relations to argue that we are evolving into a modern world of perpetual peace in which war will be unnecessary, which suggests that war is not natural but cultural, and eventually a pacific culture will abolish war. In such a world, we will not need the military virtues of men like those in Seal Team 6.

I agree that the evolution of war shows a trend--especially, over the last two centuries--towards a more peaceful world as governed by the cultural norms of liberal capitalist democracy. But I see no reason to believe that perpetual peace is achievable, because I see no reason to doubt that there will always be some severe conflicts of interest between societies that will motivate people to go to war through fear, interest, or honor.

Azar Gat's book--War in Human Civilization--helps me to think through my position by showing that war is "both innate and optional," because the level of violent aggression fluctuates in response to the physical and social circumstances of life, so that we can experience long periods of peace, although we will go to war whenever we think war is instrumental to satisfying our evolved natural desires.

From the time of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer to the present, evolutionary thinking about war has displayed an odd oscillation between militarism and pacifism. On the one hand, the evolutionary view of war seems to be militaristic insofar as it shows the importance of warfare for group-selected evolution in human history. That's why so much of the militaristic rhetoric from the late 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century employed the Darwinian language of races and societies progressing through a struggle for existence in which the stronger defeated the weaker.

On the other hand, both Darwin and Spencer foresaw moral progress in the future towards an ever-wider extension of cooperative dispositions. Spencer predicted that the social order based on contractual relations of voluntary association would eventually evolve into a global condition of perfect and permanent peace. Without the threat of war, human beings will enter the final state of evolutionary history-- a civilized anarchy in which human beings will organize their societies without government.

Although the historical evidence of the past two centuries hardly supports an inevitable evolution towards perpetual peace, it does seem to support the idea of a "democratic peace," and consequently, "democratic peace theory" has become a lively research program among theorists of international relations.

From 1945 to the present is the longest period in history in which the great powers of Europe and North America have not fought a war against one another. This was preceded by the second longest (1871-1914) and third longest (1815-1854) periods in which the great powers did not fight one another.

Democratic peace theory proposes to explain this by claiming that it arises from the spread of democracy in the modern world, because democracies rarely wage war against other democracies. Remarkably, this theory has influenced political leaders like Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Tony Blair, who have all cited this theory as supporting the wisdom of a Western foreign policy that promotes democracy around the world as a way to promote world peace.

And yet, scholars continue to debate whether the historical evidence really does support this democratic peace theory. There seem to be many cases in which democracies have fought one another. For example, in the ancient world, the democratic city-states of Greece fought one another. Recent cases include the War of 1812, the American Civil War, the Spanish American War, World War I, the war among the new states emerging from the former Yugoslavia (1991-95), the NATO intervention into Kosovo (1999), and the India-Pakistan war of 1999.

Defenders of the democratic peace theory try to explain away these exceptional cases by defining "democracy" narrowly enough that the societies in these wars can be said to be non-democratic. But then this narrow definition of democracy leaves us with so few cases of truly democratic regimes over such a short period of history that it's not clear that the data is sufficient to support the theory.

Recently, some scholars have argued for a "capitalist peace theory": the correlation between democracy and peace arises not because democracy causes peace, but because modern democracies tend to be capitalist, and it's really capitalism and its attendant prosperity that fosters peace. Capitalist societies benefit from free markets and free trade, both within and between societies, which create networks of global interdependency and exchange that are disrupted by war.

Moreover, in capitalist societies based on contractual relationships with strangers based on social trust and the rule of law impartially enforced by the state, individuals are habituated to peaceful cooperation rather than violent aggression. Michael Mousseau argues that what promotes peace is the move from a "clientelist economy" to a "contract-intensive economy." In clientelist economies, individuals depend on their families, their friends, and their group leaders--their patrons--to provide economic and physical security, which promotes a xenophobic psychology of in-group/out-group conflict that fosters military conflict. In contract-intensive societies, individuals are habituated to making contracts with strangers with the expectation that those contracts will be enforced impartially by the state under the rule of law. Citizens in such societies are inclined to see the advantages of bigger markets with more contracting opportunities, and so they support foreign policies of international cooperation under an international rule of law that facilitates global trade and mutual exchange. As one example of the empirical support for his theory, Mousseau claims that from 1961 to 2001 there was no violent conflict between nations with contract-intensive economies ("The Social Market Roots of Democratic Peace," International Security, 33 (Spring 2009): 52-86). (Mousseau and others survey much of the evidence and reasoning for the "capitalist peace theory" in a special issue of International Interactions [May 2010].)

Gat proposes a sensible synthesis of the "democratic peace theory" and "capitalist peace theory" within a broad evolutionary framework. This allows us to see the many factors shaping war and peace in the modern world, while also seeing how this all fits into the two-million-years of human genetic and cultural evolution.

Gat proposes that peace is promoted by a complex combination of a capitalist economy, a liberal society, and a democratic polity. Affluent liberal democracies tend to be more peaceful than other regimes. The fundamental point is that in pre-modern times. Economic trade and growth was so limited that resources were practically finite, and thus competition over scarce resources was a zero-sum game, where war could bring great gain for the victor at the expense of the loser. But with the emergence of modern industrialized capitalism and global trade, wealth was increased in ways that benefited all the parties who participated in free exchange. This was Adam Smith's insight supporting his argument for free trade, free markets, and liberal societies. Under these conditions, the benefits of peace become so great for capitalist liberal democracies that they are reluctant to go to war against one another, although they might go to war against regimes and groups that threaten the international order of capitalist liberal democracy. That's why capitalist liberal democracies will fight against Political Islam and terrorists like Osama bin Laden who threaten the international order of liberalism.

By putting all of this in an evolutionary framework, Gat shows that the changing cultural circumstances of war and peace interact with the stable dispositions of human nature. Ultimately, war is a tool for satisfying the desires of the innate human motivational system grounded in the deepest needs for survival and reproduction and in all of the proximate needs of human nature, which include honor, glory, and dominance.

Human beings will always choose war or peace to satisfy their natural desires. In the continuing debate over international relations theory, Gat suggests, the "liberals" are right to see that the modern liberal order makes peaceful cooperation the increasingly attractive option; but the "realists" are right to see that war will always be an option when human beings are caught in tragic conflicts over the objects of desire.

For as long as our evolved human nature endures, we will need those Spartan warriors of Seal Group 6.

Some posts on related topics can be found here, here, here, here, here, and here.

1 comment:

Empedocles said...

Again I don't think you consider the findings of evolutionary game theory sufficiently. Players playing the strategy of peace will always encourage the spread of warlike strategy players. This is expressed in Jefferson's "Those who hammer their swords into plowshares, will soon be plowing for those with swords."

Another point: you write "in pre-modern times. Economic trade and growth was so limited that resources were practically finite, and thus competition over scarce resources was a zero-sum game, where war could bring great gain for the victor at the expense of the loser." You seem to imply that capitalism creates resources out of thin air. There is interesting studies of the relationship between the exploitation of fossil fuels and economic growth. In short, economic growth requires ever greater energy expenditures. And then think about what might happen when we hit "peak oil" extraction rates.