a cruise missile fired toward Libya, credit wikipedia

The Five Reasons Countries Go to War (And How to Avoid Them) | Chris Blattman

The economist Chris Blattman is well known in academic and policy circles for his research and writing on peace, conflict and economic development. Chris Blattman is a professor at the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago and he is out with a brand new book, Why We Fight: The Roots of War and the Paths to Peace.

The book boils down decades of social science around peace and conflict, using examples throughout history, to explain why groups resort to war. This book is a highly accessible way for the general public to understand what many academics know about war and peace.

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Transcript lightly edited for clarity

How Often is Conflict Resolved Through War? 

Mark L. Goldberg [00:02:04] So I wanted to start our conversation where you start your book. You begin with a premise that it’s actually rather rare and really an aberration to decide to resolve a conflict through war or organized violence. Can you explain that premise?

Chris Blattman [00:02:19] You look what’s happening in the world right now, and our attention gets totally drawn to the carnage and just the horrible things that are happening in a place like Ukraine. And then all of the little settlements and compromises that actually usually get made sort of seem hard to imagine. We don’t notice them but, you know, I like to point out, two weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine, India accidentally fired a cruise missile at Pakistan and that’s because war was just kind of unthinkable for both parties. Just be so costly, so ruinous, you know, something that Russia and Ukrainians are grappling with right now, obviously. So, they just strenuously want to avoid it. And so, if India had actually attacked Pakistan, if Pakistan had taken this not as an accident, but as a hostile act, we could all see how the history books would write up that war. We can all see how it would be about this sort of long animosity and this long history. And then there’s this quote unquote accident. And do we believe it or not? And then we sort of sleepwalk into war once again but that’s not what happened. And so partly what I want to point out is not just ninety-nine times out of 100, but maybe 999 times out of a thousand that’s what happens, and we just don’t pay as much attention to it. And that’s true when people have collected data on this, whether it’s villages or ethnic groups or countries or political factions, it’s just a tiny fraction that actually who could use and use violence. They find a way to attain their political goals through other means. Usually, it’s some kind of negotiation or bargaining and so that’s kind of the basic premise. It’s something that scholars of war from and practitioners of war from, you know, von Clausewitz to Mao have all said, you know, politics is just war without bloodshed, I think was Mao’s quote and war is politics by other means, which is the Clausewitz quote. But they’re super costly means so they’re strenuously avoided.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:04:28] I love the phrase that you invoke in the first chapter of your book: ‘Countries learn to loathe each other in peace rather than go to war.’

Chris Blattman [00:04:40] Yeah, I mean, this is the normal state of being and so when I’m saying peace, I don’t mean like that we’re all sort of holding hands and singing Kumbaya or something…

Mark L. Goldberg [00:04:51] Like a negative peace.

Chris Blattman [00:04:52] Yeah, exactly. This term of negative peace. Exactly. So, it’s just to say that you know what? We’re not actively using violence because there’s nothing—I mean, we all love to live in a world where there isn’t brinksmanship, or we don’t loathe in peace. And indeed, many adversaries over time have sort of built interlinkages and built lots of padding and insulation from warfare so that you don’t constantly live in this sort of terrible, terrible place and the intense standoff and stalemate. But the fact is we often much, much, much prefer a tense stalemate to the actual heat of a long, prolonged violence.

What are the key factors that lead governments to decide to wage war?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:05:36] So you, in this book, identify and define five reasons why that general state of being, whether countries loathe each other in peace or otherwise find a way to avoid armed conflict or organized violence. And I’d love to kind of run through those five reasons or five factors with you and sort of discuss some recent examples of those kind of forces in action. So, let’s start where you do at this idea of unchecked interests, what do you mean by unchecked interests?

Chris Blattman [00:06:14] Well, it’s a good example. Each one of the five is basically it’s something that that causes us to overlook or ignore the costs of war. And so once again, it comes down to this fundamental point that war is ruinous, that that’s such a powerful incentive for peace. It’s like a gravitational pull. Something equally powerful has to yank us out of that orbit. And the argument is that there’s five basic ways that that this happens and most of the explanations for war actually fit into one of these five logics. And this first one is actually, in some ways, the simplest. It’s saying that if the person who’s deciding whether or not to go to war doesn’t bear most of their costs, perhaps they’re an autocrat who can basically overlook a lot of the civilian and soldier deaths on their side. Then they’re much more ready to use violence. These costs are only a deterrent if you bear them. And so now that autocrat or is still going to have an incentive to find a bargain because they do face some costs, right? But it also opens up the space. These unchecked leaders may have a private incentive for war. Maybe it’s to rally the population around the flag or to distract them from something else. Or maybe there’s some private benefit that they get from war. And so that’s sort of the core logic.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:07:38] And the idea that the unchecked interests is a driver of perhaps reasons why autocrats or authoritarians decide war seems kind of logical to me. I mean, if you look right now at the costs that are being imposed on the Russian people in terms of the sanctions that are being imposed against Russia, which will cause, you know, immiseration among the Russian people. I mean, the fact that Russian people are suffering is not something that may dissuade Vladimir Putin from continuing this war because he doesn’t answer to the Russian people. There’s no sort of democratic process that might cause the Russian people to vote him out of office for setting this sort of ruinous course of action into motion.

Chris Blattman [00:08:31] Right. And in the case of Russia, I mean, I think, listen, Putin has to pay at least some attention, indeed a great deal of attention to making sure there aren’t protests on the street and a color revolution. And there’s an inner circle and the wider and wider circles of elites who he has to keep happy as well. That’s the business of being an autocrat. But it does unencumber him from many of the costs. I think the insight here for me in this war is why is it that he wants to exterminate the flame of democracy in Ukraine, and it make it more neutral and demilitarize it and so forth? Well, people give a whole bunch of ideological reasons of glory nationalism, which we’ll get to because I want to. I think that we can give those some credence. But the fact is that the two successful democratic color revolutions in Ukraine right on his border amongst people whom ordinary Russians closely identify with as very like them is very threatening to him and to his regime of control. And so, exterminating that is maybe the private incentive that tips him away from just ‘I’m an autocrat therefore, I don’t have to incorporate some of the cost. Actually, I have a private incentive to waging this conflict. In order to preserve my regime and so that’s maybe even enough for me, I don’t need necessarily these nationalistic games. I just have to have this self-preservation.’ And so that’s one way which you could tell the story of what’s happening through the prism of unchecked leaders.

What are some of the incentives that lead to war?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:10:11] So you just alluded to glory and nationalism, which are two components of what you identify and define as intangible incentives that lead to war. What do you mean by that?

Chris Blattman [00:10:26] Well, what I was trying to say is once again, I said, there’s each of these five has a good common logic, right? And if the logic of unchecked leaders was ignoring the costs or maybe that leader having a private incentive, the logic of intangible incentives is to say maybe the group and maybe especially the leader, especially an unchecked leader, has something they value that they can only achieve through war. And if that’s the case, that ethereal thing, that intangible incentive is what might provoke you to attack in spite of the costs and ruin of war. And this is implicitly, I think, what people are saying when they say Russia, Putin, in particular, his inner circle, have these ideological, these nationalistic beliefs about what it means to be a great power and to overcome the humiliation of the collapse of the Russian Empire of the USSR. And there’s so many varieties of this, and that’s saying that we can only attain this through conquest, maybe through fighting itself, and therefore we’re not going to settle for anything less because we want this thing and this ethereal thing. So, it’s not that we’re bargaining over the territory of the policy space. We’re just bargaining over this idea and that’s probably true. I think we tend to overstate this all the time, so we forget the strategic incentive to say exterminate this potential democratic threat on the border and we put a little too much weight to the ideological ambitions a given leader has, which they always have. But I do think they’re important and they help us, and maybe they intertwine these two things, and they help us get pretty far in understanding what happened.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:12:04] Is there an example of a perhaps other recent conflict you could think of driven by these intangible incentives, whether it’s ideology or religion or something else that fits into this category?

Chris Blattman [00:12:23] I mean, the noble ones are ideological struggles for liberty and self-determination, right? So, any anti-colonial struggle, any struggle of a small, weak people against an imperial behemoth. Most colonized and oppressed peoples sadly, accept their oppression, right, they’re effectively oppressed, it doesn’t make sense to revolt. And whether it’s the Mai revolution in Kenya or the American colonists against Britain or Algeria versus France or Ukrainians in this current conflict, I think we also can understand that there are times when oppressed peoples decide that we are not going to accept this cruel compromise on offer. Yes, we recognize that we’re militarily weak and therefore we can only obtain semi sovereignty at best. And yet we refuse the compromise on the table. We refuse for ideological reasons. We simply refuse to accept this. And so, I think there’s a whole class of struggles that are exceptional and that do happen and that’s a second intangible incentive at work here, right? We pay a lot of attention to Russia’s and Putin’s nationalist ambitions, but we sort of say, ‘Well, actually, you know, Ukraine, like so many of Russia’s neighbors and Russians themselves, probably should have rolled over in response to this aggressive threat and at least compromised on some grounds.’ And they refused. And we could admire that. And I do. But we should recognize that that’s an intangible incentive that’s helping lead to violence here.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:14:13] A third driver of conflict or reason that countries might not loathe each other in peace or otherwise find more peaceful resolutions to their conflict is this idea of uncertainty?

Chris Blattman [00:14:30] To set it up, let me actually talk about one of the others which we’ve come to, which is called misperceptions, which I think is easier for people to grasp and then the uncertainty makes a little more sense once we start with misperceptions, I think. And misperception’s come naturally to us say in the current conflict, where the refrain is that Putin made a gross strategic error, he was overconfident about his own military strength and cohesion. He underestimated Ukrainian pluckiness, resolve, and military capabilities and they underestimated the West’s seriousness and unity in terms of levying punishments, especially sanctions. And I think those are probably true to some extent. It’s very easy to construct an argument which may be true. No one really knows how degenerated his autocratic inner circle is, how much misinformation they’re being fed and they’re feeding up the chain because no one wants to tell the autocrat bad news. All that’s probably going on. And all the nationalism and grand ideals might be distorting everybody’s vision a little bit. But I think that tends to understate just how uncertain a lot of this was beforehand. Like really talented military experts and regional experts in the West made those same mis assessments in many ways. And in all of these, you know, in some sense, Russia got a set of very bad draws out of all the things that could have happened right? There was genuine uncertainty about Western unity, especially Germany. There was uncertainty about Russian military capabilities, and there was a lot of uncertainty about the resolve of the Ukrainian political elite, whether or not Zelensky was going to flee, whether or not, you know, people would really stand up and fight a long counterinsurgency and conventional war against Russia and so on. And so, we tend to like pay attention to the misperceptions and then we forget the underlying strategic logic of what you do when beforehand all of these things are fundamentally uncertain, right? And the fact is this is where game theory comes into play. Misperceptions come to us from psychology, and they’re important. We need to understand them and they explain a lot of conflict and why costly things happen but the uncertainty is really fundamental, and it’s to say that we’re all approaching this with a different set of prior beliefs about what’s going to happen and sort of like in a game of poker, when I don’t know what hand you hold and you don’t know what hand I hold it’s sometimes in your interests to bluff it’s sometimes in my interests to bluff and then sometimes I will fold and sometimes I will call. And the fold is kind of like a compromise, and the call is kind of like going to war. And we know that it’s sometimes amidst this uncertainty because I’m worried that my opponent’s going to bluff because I’m Russia and I’m like, ‘Well, you Ukrainians are saying, you’re plucky and resolved. You, the West are saying that you’re very angry by this and this will be unprecedented in the modern era, and you’re going to come together with sanctions, but how do I really know you mean it? Because, you know, I’ve drawn red lines before, just as I did in Syria, and then I crossed it and you drew red lines and I crossed it, and nothing happened. So, we’ve been down this road before.’ So, there’s a lot of uncertainty about that and so sometimes it makes sense to sort of call out the West when you’re worried that they’re bluffing. And I think that’s part of what happened here. You can only have misperceptions and mistakes in a world of uncertainty. So, let’s not discount the role of uncertainty, the concerns about bluffing, and then the strategic incentives that actors may have to undertake something as costly as war amidst that uncertainty.

What role do misperceptions play in the decision to wage war?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:18:25] To what extent do psychological challenges like mirror imaging contribute to misperception and uncertainty? I know the political scientist Robert Jervis recently passed away, has written a lot on the idea that when countries assume, or leaders assume, that their incentives align with the incentives of their opponent or their views of what’s rational are the same as that of their opponent, this is what often leads to misperception and bad decisions that lead to war.

Chris Blattman [00:19:06] Yeah, I think that’s exactly one of them. I think what I wanted to do is I wanted to say, Listen, there’s a million human foibles and mistakes, and behavioral economics and psychology and behavioral science have given us a thousand biases that we have. My question is which ones are relevant in big groups and what are the mistakes that don’t get filtered out by our good bureaucratic processes? Which mistakes do we persistently make even when the stakes are high, right? So, there’s a lot of behavioral biases like whether or not I buy too expensive a gym membership and don’t go enough but that tends to go away if the gym membership gets super, super expensive. But war gets super expensive, how do we keep making behavioral mistakes when it’s just so costly and over a long period of time? And that sort of led me to focus on a handful of things. I would say some of them are more psychological biases and some of them are bureaucratic bias. So, when I talked about the logic of autocracy where you have to have a loyal inner circle, but that loyal inner circle may insulate you from certain kinds of information, that’s not the fact that I’m psychologically biased against updating, and I can’t see how my other opponent thinks but it’s rather there’s an institutional structure that prevents me from getting good information in a regular, predictable, and sustained way. But there are these other human, much more psychological biases. I think what you described, I would call projection bias—the idea that we project our own interpretation of events and values onto others and persistently fail to see the conflict or see issues from their point of view. That’s a good example of a much more psychological error that I think leaders and groups of leaders are prone to make. Another point too is overconfidence. I think there’s a lot of evidence that not just political leaders, but business leaders, CEOs, every mutual fund manager on the planet, I presume, suffers from persistent overconfidence even over long periods of time, even over hugely high stakes decisions. And so, we need to understand these a bit better. I chart out what we know, and why we sometimes have overconfidence. Why does overconfidence matter some of the time and not others, is a question we need better answers to because I think we’ve been distracted by all these little biases, and these are the big biases that I think in the social sciences we have to understand more.

What is a preemptive war and why are they started?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:21:31] So we’ve discussed unchecked interests, intangible incentives, uncertainty, misperception, and your final reason countries go to war, despite the incentives typically aligning against war, is what you call a commitment problem or commitment problems. What do you mean by that?

Chris Blattman [00:21:55] This is a concept like many of the strategic concepts I’ve talked about that comes from decades of strategic thinking, which is otherwise known as game theory. And this is one of the subtler concepts with one of the least intuitive names that we inherit. Yet, arguably, it’s one of the most important. Generally, many political scientists would argue that every long war and every great power war has a commitment problem at its root, and people use commitment problems to understand everything from World War One to the Iraq War. And there’s a simple version of it that I think everybody would get. And that’s to say that, listen, if my enemy is weak now and I am strong, but I know my enemy is going to be strong in future then I have a window of opportunity to attack and cement my advantage. That’s going to be super costly so my enemy can say, Listen, I’ll tell you what. You don’t attack me now because we both know this is in your interest. And I promise that in future, I will only take partial advantage of my strength and I’ll cede certain things to you. And sometimes we’re able to do that. That’s what constitutions do. That’s how you get smaller and minority groups to participate in in a big political project like a nation sometimes. But that’s not always possible. There’s a difficulty of making that commitment, especially in the international realm where there’s more anarchy. And so, in those cases, you’re like, Listen, you can’t credibly commit, and therefore I’m going to attack. And this is a variety of the commitment problem called the preventative war. And there’s a version of it that influenced—I don’t think it’s a hard commitment problem here in the Russia-Ukraine instance—but there’s a version of it that you hear a certain window of opportunity stories. That is your first clue that something’s happening here that’s narrowing the range of possible deals. That Russia is probably at its peak strength relative to Europe and Ukraine because its growth is starting to stagnate and Ukraine could grow closer to the West, economically grow, be armed by the West, harder to invade in future. So now or never? And it’s hard for them to commit to do otherwise. They have constitutional provision saying they joined NATO. How could they credibly commit not to arm or to grow and grow more powerful in future? So that kind of thing was probably a little bit at work here. And that’s probably the most common kind of commitment problem in history.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:24:38] Yeah, I mean, this idea that a dominant power or the stronger power will seek to preempt the rise of a fast-rising power and initiate conflict is kind of international relations theory 101, that this is the Thucydides Trap is commonly referred to the idea that the strong Athens sought to denude the, you know, rising power Sparta.

Chris Blattman [00:25:09] Yeah and it turns out that a rising power isn’t enough to bring about a commitment problem because there’s lots of ways in which we do make commitments. Sometimes that rise is not so sudden or great that you can’t actually find a deal. So, my own reading is that maybe the Thucydides trap, there was a commitment problem in the Peloponnesian War, but maybe not for the reasons a lot of people think. It wasn’t just the rise of Athens, it was actually the fact that there was a third player, that neutral party who could join with Athens and then very quickly overwhelm the capacity of Sparta. So, I think you need to tell more nuanced stories than many people do to actually get at real commitment problems, which is something I get into in the book. But if only we overemphasized the strategic forces leading to war most of the time. Most of the time it’s the opposite. We take these intangible incentives and these misperceptions, which have a little bit of explanatory power and we’re like, ‘You know what? That explains everything. That Putin’s nationalist ideologies and his mistakes are the whole reason we’re going to war.’ And it’s a way of infantilizing our enemy. I think it’s our own bias. I think it’s actually a misperception that we bring, and it leads us to make strategic errors. So, we just have to accept those explanations as partially true but be cautious with them.

How can we use our understanding of the drivers of war to prevent war?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:26:32] So lastly, how could policymakers or really anyone understand these drivers and sort of reverse engineer them to prevent the outbreak of war?

Chris Blattman [00:26:44] Well, I think one thing that’s really clarifying and helpful to me is to recognize that most interventions and things that we do to promote peace in the world work if and when they address one of these five factors. For example, sanctions are a way to fix the unchecked leaders and intangible incentives problem. You’re not internalizing the costs of war and you have some other ideological reason for fighting. Well, guess what? We will give you a counterincentive. So that’s the logic of sanctions, which is, I think, informative. And it also tells you, when will sanctions work? Well, sanctions will work if that’s actually the thing driving a war. If the thing driving the war is uncertainty or commitment problems or other strategic forces, then actually sanctions might not be the right tool. And so, I think they start to clarify when our tools apply. Likewise, peacekeepers. Peacekeepers are a way to reduce uncertainty between armed forces by exchanging information and by also creating commitment to deals. That’s often a problem in a lot of African civil wars. I think it’s one reason why they’ve been somewhat successful there, and it’s why I think I would be more pessimistic about peacekeeping in a lot of other contexts, including one where there’s an ideological conflict at stake and one party might start to see peacekeepers as the enemy.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:28:10] Sorry, just to interrupt you there. I mean, that’s the key challenge for peacekeepers in places in which there is a jihadist insurgency.

Chris Blattman [00:28:17] Exactly.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:28:18] Places like Mali or elsewhere, where peacekeepers are routinely targeted, you know, by jihadists,

Chris Blattman [00:28:28] You know, to me there’s a larger tendency that happens in this peacebuilding world to sort of think in terms of like off the shelf solutions and best practices that is problematic. That sort of says, listen, everybody kind of gets the same package after war, right? You know, you get your mediators, and then your DDR, and then your peacekeepers.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:28:47] And DDR is disarmament and reintegration and mobilization, not in that order. Sorry.

Chris Blattman [00:28:55] Exactly. And then ultimately, other series of things and then three years after the peace agreement, you can have an election for the president and nobody else. Or we just apply sanctions as a rule, or in American cities, there’s a sort of off the shelf policing tactics and in violence reduction tactics that well if this worked in Philly, I’m going to use it here. And that’s a problem because imagine you went to the doctor and you were like, ‘You know, Doc here’s the thing I’m not feeling well.’ And he’s like ‘Tylenol, Tylenol and radiology,’ and you’d be like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, I didn’t even tell you what was wrong with me. And you’re prescribing a treatment.’ And he’s like,’ Well, you know, Tylenol and radiology. That combination often works’ and you’re like, ‘I don’t know, why don’t we diagnosis this?’ And we would all instinctually react and recognize that that was a bad doctor and yet I think that a lot of us are bad doctors when it comes to peace building at home and internationally because we kind of just prescribe Tylenol and radiology without just sort of thinking about the diagnosis. And that’s kind of what I want to do with the five is like, these things only work if the diagnosis fits the cure, and every diagnosis can be a little bit different so every cure can be a little bit different. And the framework I’m giving, which is this framework bestowed to us I think by a lot of social science, is one that’s just going to help us make better diagnoses and just try making sense of all of this millions of reasons and just sort of recognizing that there’s a few common logics.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:30:22] Well, Chris, thank you so much. It’s a great book. I know we talked a lot about international conflicts and civil wars, but your book also does a really interesting job of using these frames to treat things like gang violence or just violence in cities in general and in really fascinating ways.

Chris Blattman [00:30:42] Right. Which I should specify is my day job. You know I’m most comfortable, and that’s how I came to thinking about international wars in this context is sort of saying, well, all of this apparatus we have for understanding international conflicts is actually really useful for understanding not just civil wars, but like wars between villages, wars between gangs, the kind of violence on a day-to-day basis I’m studying and developing programs to reduce. And I just saw a lot of gainsome trade by actually applying these lessons from one level at another level. And that’s kind of what brought me to writing this book.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:31:18] Well, it’s a great book. I’ll post the link to it in the show notes. Congratulations, I always love reading everything you write. It’s a great book. Everyone should buy it. Thanks. Thank you, Chris.

Chris Blattman [00:31:28] Thank you.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:31:31] All right. Thank you all for listening. Thank you to Chris for speaking with me once again for the podcast and for his wonderful book. And again, do follow the link in the show notes of this episode if you would like to attend either virtually or in person his book event in New York City on May 3rd. All right, we’ll see you next time. Thanks, bye!