Our ‘better angels’ and foreign policy

The Better Angels of Our Nature

By Alexa van Sickle, Assistant Editor

Robert D. Kaplan, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, describes an ‘intellectual event’ as ‘something that happens when large numbers of well-educated people are all discussing one book or article that contains a big, abstract idea’. The publication in October 2011 of Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, is the most recent example of such an event, wrote Kaplan when he reviewed the book for Stratfor.

Pinker’s central thesis is that, contrary to our perceptions about past and present dangers, humans are becoming progressively less violent. He draws evidence for his claim from a variety of disciplines: history, statistics, sociology, biology and political science, in addition to Pinker’s own field of evolutionary psychology. In a review essay for Survival, Adam Roberts described the book as a work of ‘extraordinary range, boldness and thoroughness’.

But it is Pinker’s assessment of the incidence of wars that gives the book a geopolitical impact. And though Kaplan regards the book favourably in many ways, it is through geopolitics that he critiques it – both in his earlier review and at a recent event at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs in New York, where he sparred with Pinker and ‘challenged and elaborated on’ the author’s argument.

Better angels

The event was formatted as a conversaton, initiated by Pinker, who used graphs and maps (‘we’re primates … we’re visual animals’) to show that the incidence of war is declining. Great powers were usually always at war, he explained, but more recently, almost never. In fact, the twentieth century falls into a ‘long peace’ after 1946, with graphs showing ‘big spikes’ for the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Iran-Iraq War. ‘There are these horrible spikes, but the overall trend is downward,’ he said. ‘We haven’t had a bad one for quite some time.’ There are more civil wars, he said, but these kill far fewer people than do inter-state wars.

So what went right? Pinker underlined that he does not believe human nature has changed – rather, that the nature of human moralisation has changed. He said that after the Second World War, the evidence of the devastating effect of destructive technologies, combined with a growing ethic that human life is precious, helped to ‘re-orient’ nations away from war. He also cited the pacifying effects of democratisation, liberalisation of economic policies, and free trade.

One of Kaplan’s criticisms is that among the many reasons Pinker provides for the ‘long peace’ after 1946 – the spread of education, the feminization of culture, the rise of nation-states which monopolized the use of force – the most glaring omission is the effect of foreign policy realism: ‘If you were to ask me, “What was the most moral initiative taken in the last few decades in foreign policy?” many of you would probably say Richard Holbrooke in Bosnia,’ said Kaplan to the audience. ‘And that would be a good answer. I’ll give you a better answer: Richard Nixon in China.’

Nixon’s motives, Kaplan explained, were very realist, not uplifting. But Nixon assured China that the US was on its side against the Soviet Union and Japan. As a result, China for the first time in decades felt secure on the outside and could devote itself to internal development, creating the right conditions for Deng Xiaoping’s liberalisation, which lifted many out of stark poverty and allowed China to become the largest trading partner of other Asian countries.

Long peace?

Kaplan also said the peace has been long thanks to the policies of realists like Eisenhower – who sought to avoid conventional, land warfare – and other figures like George Schultz, James Baker and Henry Kissinger. Pinker’s riposte was that developments around the ‘long, new peace’ do not really fit any realist narratives – including that of nuclear deterrence. He cited as an example that non-nuclear states in Western Europe and in Latin America have not fought each other.

Regardless, Kaplan warned that there are many reasons our long peace might now be under threat, and took rising tensions in East Asia as one example:

East Asia has undergone an economic boom for decades. It has had mass education, women’s rights, the feminization of culture. Almost everything that Steve writes about you can see in East Asia, from Japan to Australia. What’s the result? One of the greatest arms races in history now, even though The New York Times and others are not really covering it very well.

He elaborates that Japan is coming out of its ‘quasi-pacifist’ shell; China is busy arming itself, as is Australia.

Kaplan also voiced his concern about the possible effects of nationalism, which he believes is still a powerful force in the Indo-Pacific, and the reason that some powers are fighting over ‘not even islands, but rocks under the sea … the contest for status is still very much alive in the human psyche’.

Kaplan also sees less cause for optimism in the prospects for future peace. He listed possibilities for tension and conflict in Central Asia, in the spectre of a second nuclear age‘ in which Iran has the bomb and the instability of the Middle East more generally.

But as Adam Roberts noted in Survival, Pinker nowhere suggests that the long peace is either ‘all-encompassing or permanent: it co-exists with various continuing wars and could break down if certain grim possibilities turn out badly’.

As Kaplan pointed out, the rising tensions or conflicts he mentioned would not necessarily disprove Pinker’s hypothesis, which observes a relative decline of violence, not an absolute one. There are many scenarios that could play out in the next few years that could prove both Pinker and Kaplan right.


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