August 1, 2008  

War’s irrational motivators

The fundamental dictum guiding our diplomats and analysts has been that states and human collectives act in their own rational self-interest. This is utterly wrong, leading us to convoluted analyses that seek to justify our assumption, while guaranteeing diplomatic failure: It’s difficult to defeat an enemy or even negotiate with a partner whose moti¬vation you refuse to understand.

The fantasy claiming that states will act in their own rational self-interest is a product of late 18th- and 19th-century European self-delusion. Babble about enlightened self-interest made no sense when applied to a Promethean figure such as Napoleon — or to Britain’s or the Iberian population’s resistance to Napoleonic power. Accommodation, not confrontation, would have been the rational choice. The renowned 19th-centu¬ry Austrian diplomat Prince Klemens Metternich was the excep¬tion, not the rule, and popular revolutions soon would shake the continent as states consistently failed to act in their own enlight¬ened or rational self-interest. (We mistakenly equate reactionary politics with rational politics). The Prussian wars of aggression later in the 19th century masqueraded as Realpolitik but were, in fact, outbursts of nationalist fervor. Then came World War I, perhaps the most irrational major conflict in history.

Yet, the myth of rational self-interest as the motive factor in the behavior of states and peoples persisted. Mussolini launched wars of pride and Hitler indulged in grudge-fight wars of passion — of the Axis Powers, only Japan showed a glimmer of rational self-interest, although it expressed it in irra¬tional acts. Nonetheless, the comforting delusion that human beings and their governments could, in the end, be counted upon to behave logically persisted. Nuclear arsenals expanded until they were capable of destroying life on earth many times over; their use has been prevented by fear, not reason.

The great decisions of our personal lives, too, are the prod¬ucts of emotion, not rational analysis (how many of us calmly choose a spouse according to a checklist?) Even academic dis¬ciplines increasingly accept the existence of irrationality in individual and collective decision-making. The great holdouts against the obvious are in the field of international relations, on campus, in think-tanks and in our State Department — although Pentagon and CIA analysts also contort themselves to fit acts of religious fervor or blood passion into a logical framework. From suicide bombers to the nationalist bump¬tiousness of today’s Russia, analysts strive to construct rational models to explain emotion-driven behavior.


Instead of clinging to the failed model of rational self-interest as an analytical tool, substitute “emotional self-interest.” It’s akin to switching on a light. If, instead of fabricating logical sequences of calculation where none exist, we accept that indi¬viduals, peoples and states act in ways that are emotionally sat¬isfying, no end of knotty analytical problems dissolve. Whether we look at why we vote for the candidates we do, why a terror¬ist straps on a suicide belt, why Hutus massacred 1 million Tutsis with cold steel or why states blunder into war, assessing the degree of emotional satisfaction gained from the act is as enlightening as seeking logic in such deeds is frustrating.

Consider a range of historical examples — chosen from many, many more — that snap into focus if we accept that emotion trumps reason in human affairs:

The Crusades. Since abandoning religious belief as beneath contempt, academic historians have struggled unconvincingly to explain why, over two centuries, hundreds of thousands of European dukes, knights, retainers, laborers, peasants, priests, mendicants and not a few women left their homes to march east to free the Holy Land through force of arms without so much as reliable maps to guide them. Yes, younger sons were superfluous. But kings went, too. Yes, Europe had surplus labor. But why not let your neighbor risk his life? Yes, there was a chance of glory and wealth. But that was for the very few, not the masses, and even after riches proved illusory for most and tens of thousands perished miserably long before nearing the Holy Land, tens of thousands more knelt and took the cross.

Meta-Darwinism may one day offer a convincing explanation for this phenomenon, but for now the obvious answer is that a contagious, ecstatic vision of a divinely sanctioned mission, reinforced by the promise of eternal salvation, led vast columns of Europeans to brave hunger, thirst, plagues, betrayal, pirates, slavery and battles against daunting odds in their determination to reach an envisioned Jerusalem of which they possessed not so much as a crude sketch. Few Crusaders survived to claim success of any kind, yet the emotional fervor believers felt was satisfying enough to justify unimaginable suffering. No Marxist explanation of the Crusades works. Emotional self-interest shaped by religious belief was the organizing factor.

The Holocaust. Fast forward to another historical enigma, in which Europe’s German-speaking populations (abetted by others) systematically rooted out their Jewish minorities and did their best to exterminate them. In terms of rational self-interest, this was madness: Per capita, Jews made a dispropor¬tionate contribution to the modernization of Germany and Austria, leading developments in science, medicine, educa¬tion, the arts, banking and industrialization. German Jews, especially, saw themselves as every bit as patriotically German as any other citizen of the Reich (and proved it by winning an impressive number of awards for valor in World War I). The average German lost nothing because of his Jewish fellow citi¬zens and gained a great deal. Yes, some Ostpreussische Junker had mortgaged their estates, while Christian academics some¬times felt envious of the success of their Jewish colleagues. But no explanation couched in terms of rational self-interest begins to offer a convincing explanation for the passion, ener¬gy and commitment of resources in wartime that the German people applied to the destruction of European Jewry.

Instead, look at this monstrous frenzy in terms of the emo¬tional satisfaction it provided. In “the Germanies,” anti-Semitism enjoyed a popular appeal dating back to the Crusades and beyond — not only because Jews were different, but also because human beings need a malign force to blame for their self-wrought difficulties (or for acts of nature, such as epidemics). The factual innocence of the Jews was irrelevant. The cathartic satisfaction of taking revenge on a caricatured, dehumanized enemy, in nodding approvingly as thugs smashed shop windows and bellowed “Juden raus!” was enor¬mous: Was anything pleasanter to a good German in 1938 than seeing a middle-class Jewish family reduced to a huddle of overcoats and suitcases? There was no German silent majority opposed to the Holocaust. If the German majority was silent, it was because they had no objections to what was happening and quite liked the whole business.

Enlightened self-interest? A dead end analytically. Emotional self-interest? There you have it. The satisfaction Germans derived from tormenting and murdering their Jewish neighbors was so great it drove them to act in a manner direct¬ly opposed to their rational self-interest.

At a minimum, analysts should supplement their standard queries as to which material or practical advantages a foreign power or hostile entity gains from a specific course of action with the question of what level of emotional satisfaction the opponent gains from the act itself. The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, did not deliver rational benefits to the realms of Sunni Islam, but the emotional high even Middle Eastern moderates felt in their immediate aftermath was unprecedented in recent generations.

Arab states, Palestinians and Israel. According to ration¬al-self-interest models of statecraft, Arab states and Palestinian leaders should have come to terms with reality and made peace with Israel after their defeat in 1967 or, at the latest, after the follow-up war in 1973. Yet, only Egypt pursued a limited peace. For all of the other actors — as well as for many individ¬ual Egyptians — the emotional cost of making the best-possi¬ble peace with Israel was unacceptably high. Although some heads of state reasoned that continuing their hostility through other means was necessary to ensure their personal survival, Arab populations, including the Palestinians, had far more to gain in practical terms through peace, trade, the reduction of military budgets, etc.

Pride trumped profit and progress. Telling themselves that, one day, the “Palestinian homelands” would be free once more — in fact, they were never free — Arab states and Palestinians alike continued to impoverish themselves for an odds-against-it dream. When Washington’s emissaries touch down in the West Bank or Damascus with their carefully reasoned briefs as to who would gain what on a practical level, they’re deaf and blind to the driving force behind the region’s intractability: emotion.

Post-Soviet Russia. The collapse of the USSR resulted in a tremendous outburst of goodwill toward the new Russia. Indeed, it’s hard to find another instance of the international community bringing such positive emotions to bear so swiftly on a recently threatening state that had oppressed hundreds of millions. Virtually everyone wanted to cooperate with, do busi¬ness with and invest in Russia. Western expectations soared extravagantly. Russia could write its own ticket.

Russia did. Unable to surmount its traditional paranoia, suspicious of the best intentions, humiliated by the loss of empire and spiteful by character, Russia attempted to bully its former possessions, supplying arms to separatist groups and irredentist factions while invading one of its internal states — Chechnya — in a disastrous bloodbath. Instead of the rule of law, power brokers ruled. Business contracts were abrogated without regard to legality, starry-eyed foreign friends were rebuffed and, by the time Vladimir Putin succeeded Boris Yeltsin as president, Russia had thrown away its chances for mutually beneficial cooperation with most of its former pos¬sessions and with all of its former satellites. Instead, the Kremlin re-embraced rogue regimes.

Rather than patiently developing a seductive energy strate¬gy, in successive fits of pique, the Kremlin cut natural gas sup¬plies to Ukraine and Georgia in the dead of winter, alerting Europe to the long-term dangers of an over-reliance on Russian gas. Instead of concealing its cyberattack capabilities until a real crisis arose, the Kremlin tipped its hands and attacked Estonia’s infrastructure over the removal of a minor monument from one site to another. Aware on an intellectual level that a nuclear-armed Iran is a far greater threat to Russia and its interests than to Europe or North America, the Kremlin nonetheless sold dangerous technology to Tehran in deals whose profits were slight compared to the existential risks involved — helping Iran was another way to poke the West and, especially, Washing¬ton in the eye. Of late, Russia has been staging military provocations against Georgia, a tiny state that poses no threat to Moscow, but whose nas¬cent democracy and rejec¬tion of Russian suzerainty is viewed as an affront by the Kremlin’s masters.

Russia may produce brilliant mathematicians and chess masters, but its foreign policy has been driven by emotional self-interest, not rational calcu¬lation. The Schadenfreude Russians feel they are teaching the West a lesson. But how rational is it to scrape up spare parts to get two antique bombers into the air and fly them toward a U.S. Navy carrier? What does Russia gain in practical terms? We know their mili¬tary is in a disastrous state, and they know that we know it. But such gestures make them feel good.

For our part, the U.S. Realpolitik quickly foundered on pas¬sionate national liberation movements then broke up on the rocks of reawakened religious fervor. Our diplomats are sur¬vivors clinging to rafts and driftwood. Our cherished explana¬tions just don’t work. And yet, we keep squeezing every new analytical problem into the old cookie press of material or political advantage. This is the behavior of the certifiably insane: the endless repetition of the same failed action in the expectation of a different outcome next time.

Suicide bombers. One of the most dismaying experiences I’ve had in Washington since Sept. 11, 2001, (that’s quite a standard) came a few years ago after a briefing at the National Counter-Terrorism Center. A senior analyst dismissively told me that Islamist suicide bombers were never motivated by religion. “Research has shown” that most had practical griev¬ances, a mistreated relative or personal reverses. And that was that. The point that many of us have personal grievances but that few Western Christians, Jews or atheists become suicide bombers, was lost on him. Nor did the logic faze him that tak¬ing revenge for a grievance need not involve suicide — why not just emplace a bomb and scram?

The analyst, who had little personal exposure to Muslim societies, could not grasp that religion isn’t solely about personal faith, but also pervades the social environment, set¬ting the parameters of acceptable behavior even for those who shrug at belief. The proud mother of the suicide bomber did¬n’t factor into that analyst’s equation, since she didn’t fit. Yet, it has been the atmosphere of encourage¬ment and approval, of admiration for the sacrifice of self-immolation, that has fostered the cult of the suicide bomber. While offense given to a sister or the imprisonment of a cousin might have awakened the impulse, it was ultimately the sense of emotional satisfaction, of anticipated catharsis and the admiration of others that compelled the suicide bomber to walk into a marketplace or a clinic and detonate himself.

Logic doesn’t work here. Suicide bombing is an emotional act. The puppet masters above the bomber may have cynical goals (along with their religious zeal), but suicide bombing doesn’t make sense in a Cartesian universe — the obvious point being that human beings don’t operate according to strict Cartesian logic even in the West, and when we expect them to do so, we call it wrong.

Suicide bombing isn’t a logical act. It’s a selfish one.

The bring-the-troops-home-now movement. If you need an example closer to home of how emotional satisfaction trumps rational self-interest in human affairs, you need look no further than the current mind-set of the leave-Iraq-now advocates in the U.S.

Over the past 18 months, the situa¬tion in Iraq has turned around remark¬ably and, while challenges remain, every major indicator has turned posi¬tive. A strictly logical analysis would suggest that, at this point, a premature withdrawal of our forces would pose enormous risks to Iraq, to the region and to our own security. Furthermore, with casualties down and “peace breaking out,” there are no compelling logical arguments for a swift retreat. According to the rational-self-interest model, activist politicians and voters should have changed their positions. Yet, there has been no shift at all in the position of anti-war activists in the face of the evidence that the surge succeed¬ed, that Iraqis are making rapid progress, that al-Qaida has suffered a catastrophic defeat, while Iranian designs have been frustrated, and that an objective assessment suggests that the odds now favor a reasonably posi¬tive outcome. Given the proven threat that al-Qaida has posed to our citizens and our interests, the terrorist organi¬zation’s loss of potency and status alone would argue that our efforts are not wasted, while a premature evacua¬tion would allow al-Qaida to claim vic¬tory and recover. In terms of rational self-interest, we should stay — hands down.

But rational self-interest was never in play for most of the activists. Empirical data are irrelevant. The movement was always about emotional satisfaction, about acting out, about an emotional rejection of our involvement in Iraq as a symbol of their perceived political and social nemeses. One only has to turn on the television to hear yet another politi¬cal activist deny that the surge has made any difference. The behavior is that of a child shutting his eyes and clamping his hands over his ears to make reality go away.

This isn’t a matter of whether we should or should not have gone into Iraq. Responsible citizens can disagree about that. The point is that emotional self-interest, the need to be right at all costs, trumps both reason and our collective self-interest — and we’re sup¬posed to be the rational actors on the world stage.

The closest thing we have witnessed in our own country to rational self-interest in the behavior of individuals has been the drop in sales of SUVs dur¬ing the current fuel-cost crisis. On the other hand, it wasn’t rational calculation that drove the huge sales of SUVs over the past decade but emotional self-interest, the satisfaction of projecting a certain image in the dangerous wilds of suburbia.

The purpose of this essay is not to argue against objective analysis but to expand the scope of our analysis to include a consideration of our opposite number’s emotional needs. Identifying an enemy’s emotional composition is essential to predicting his strategic course: In the ineffectual shock-and-awe campaign against Saddam Hussein’s regime, we expected him to respond according to our desires and we ignored his own emotional make-up; the result was that our “rational analysis” proved to be irrational, a case of wishful thinking carried to a strate¬gic extreme. It was a repetition of our analysis in 1990, when our diplomats and their advisers reasoned that Saddam would not be irrational enough to invade Kuwait — we looked at the dictator’s world through Western lenses and failed to see what was hap¬pening, literally, before our eyes in Iraqi divisional assembly areas on the border.

We rely on analytical methodology that fits our own prejudices comfort¬ably, rather than on techniques suited to the strategic climate. That, too, is an emotional choice.

We need not totally discard rational analytical models, but we must stop relying on them exclusively. In Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, the West Bank, Russia and on, ad infinitum, we can witness, on any given day, how powerful emotion can be as a galvaniz¬ing factor, how dominant emotional self-interest is in human affairs and how passion trumps practicality, while pride overrules rational self-interest.

It isn’t the human mind that’s the killer. It’s the human heart.

RALPH PETERS is a retired Army officer and the author of 23 books.