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Why We Fight: Interview with Christopher Blattman
April 26, 2022

“Narratives can unravel this interdependence and they can actually accentuate our misperceptions. They are very powerful, so they work both ways, and our leaders construct them. And it goes back to the uncheckness problem, is that the unchecked leader with a private interest in war will construct a narrative to pursue their private interests, and you have to hope it’s one of interdependence and not one of inflicting suffering.” – Christopher Blattman

Kevin: Welcome to the McAlvany Weekly Commentary. I’m Kevin Orrick, along with David McAlvany. 

Well, I’ve been waiting for this interview for about a month, Dave. You introduced me to a book. Fortunately, I got a chance to read it before it came out, Why We Fight. And one of the things that I really enjoyed about Christopher Blattman’s book is that he’s not coming at it from a normal war book perspective. It’s not why we fight and let’s find out the good things about war. It really is mainly why we don’t fight.

David: Yeah, because most rivals loathe one another in peace. They look at the cost of war and they figure out how to keep a peace, and it doesn’t mean they don’t fight on occasion, but all out war is something that happens actually more rarely than you’d think. And that’s a part of the conversation is to explore how is it that we fixate on war when actually peace is more of a common theme. Again, peace does not mean that everyone gets along perfectly, but there are some things that keep rivals from compromising.

Kevin: Something I really enjoy about knowing you, Dave, is you travel a lot and you really try to meet the people that— When you’re traveling, you try to talk to them, get into their heads. Rarely ever, though, do you meet someone that later you find out is an author and we can have on the show. You love books. You love people.

David: Yeah. As regular listeners know, I believe books are an amazing opportunity to learn and discover gaps in our thinking and in our knowledge base. So to find out there are aspects of complexity you’ve never considered is both frightening, but it’s also thrilling. 

Meeting Christopher Blattman and entering into a casual conversation suggested that he brought something unique to our conversation. He reminded me— He seemed like the main character in Mark Helprin’s book Memoir from Antproof Case. There’s this economist who has muddy boots. He’s got a farmer’s tan, he’s constantly gathering information and he is paid to do so from taxi drivers, sitting in cafes and talking to people, hanging out with gang members and talking to unconventional entrepreneurs. Economists generally live in sort of a removed and sanitized world of numbers and analysis, but not that character, and not Christopher Blattman. 

I’d be remiss in not mentioning Jeannie Annan from their serendipitous meeting at an internet cafe in Nairobi through her PhD program in psychology and Chris’s PhD program in economics. Now their shared adventure and life together with kids in Chicago. 

Why we fight. I actually got to see something very interesting as it relates to their whole family. It was fabulous to meet them both and to see their kids negotiate peace over Sour Patch Kids and Dr. Pepper. So we were dealing with scarce resources and parents know that that’s either bargaining chips or the source of the next skirmish, and occasionally could be linked to an outbreak of war. So Chris, welcome to the program.

Christopher Blattman: Thanks for having me. And now I have a new book on my reading list.

David: Well, I’ve read your book. I think our listeners should, too. They can easily order it at Amazon. It’s hot off the press as of April 19th. My gratitude extends beyond the book to the bibliography. As I went through that, we share about 18 overlapping points of interest, that is to say, from your 25 pages of references, there’s 18 books that tie our minds together from Hershman to Jervis, to Fukuyama to Shelling. I actually invited Thomas to be a guest on our program, summer of 2016 before he fell ill. But now I have 28 books on order and these are by authors—

Christopher: Oh great.

David: —I’ve never heard of, and they’re on topics that I should understand, but I don’t. So I’m grateful for a sort of fresh prodding to learn and to grow and to fill more gaps. So thanks for the book. Thanks for the bibliography.

Christopher: Oh, that’s great.

David: You’re interested in solving problems. Most economists are. The problems that are on your mind occasionally sound like they are the work of an economist. Sometimes they sound like they’re the work of an aid worker heading off to a third world backwater malaria pond. Conflict— though what I like about my interaction with you personally and in the book is that conflict has a face for you. It has a name. It has a story. 

When most people think about the Russian invasion into Ukraine and conjure up images of tanks, and munitions, and the skeletal remains of buildings—statistics almost—you seem to go back and forth between the world of game theoretical cause and effect and a compassionate desire to see the world at peace, with particular faces in mind, with particular places in mind. And so from Nairobi to Medellin to Mexico City, even to New Haven and Chicago. I like the kind of economics that you do. So we have a lot to talk about. I want to talk about the roots of war, but first I think a quote from the second part of your book is helpful in framing your goal. “Ronald Reagan commented, ‘Peace is not the absence of conflict. It’s the ability to handle conflict by peaceful means.’” What’s your goal with this book?

Christopher: I spent most of my life, professional life especially, learning about conflict and war and reading books and hearing ideas, and each one would rotate my brain 90 degrees. It was that important. And what I realized is nobody was bringing these ideas to the world, and they tended to sit in academic circles. Sometimes one of them would escape, maybe by accident. And that struck me as a problem because if you get the diagnosis wrong, you are going to get the treatment wrong. And so there was this gap, and I waited and I waited and then I decided, “Well, if no one else is going to write this book, I’m going to write this book.” Mostly just to bring that. It’s like a gift. I’m an economist and I’m at University of Chicago, so I’m not supposed to believe that there are dollar bills lying on the sidewalk, but this was as clear, as evidence, as any that they do.

David: So we’ll look at the five reasons for war. You’ve got unchecked interests, intangible incentives, uncertainty, commitment problems, misperceptions. We’ll look at the five reasons for war. We’ll look at your four paths to peace, four approaches that insulate from the five failures. Start with why we don’t fight, then give us an overview of those nine points.

Christopher: Yeah, that’s the crucial piece. I mean, it’s the thing we forget, and maybe the most important thing we have to know. We’re kind of like doctors who only pay attention to sick people and forget that everyone else is healthy. We spend all of our time looking at the grizzly spectacle of something that’s happening, like the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Of course, we have to spend time looking at that because just doctors do have to spend all their time with the most severely ill patients, but we forget that actually that’s the exception, not the rule. 

And a good example actually comes two weeks into this recent invasion when India accidentally launched a cruise missile at Pakistan, and common suit, nothing happened because both countries, despite their interest, despite the lack of any settlement over cost and other issues have strenuously avoided fighting, not strenuously avoided competing, they strenuously avoided violence because it’s so costly. And there’s just example after example of that and we just don’t pay as close attention. Somebody did write an article about that, [unclear], but you had to go through 18 pages of Ukraine news on your phone screen before you got to it, and that’s pretty common. 

And the reason they don’t fight is because, as we’re seeing in the case of Russia and Ukraine, it’s just so costly. Everybody loses, and everybody knows they lose. And they actually know that in advance most of the time, and so they try to find any other means to come to some kind of settlement. And so every cause of war— And we do fight. I didn’t write a book called Why We Don’t Fight. Every cause of war is something that led a group or usually the leader of one side to ignore those costs and to go to war in spite of them. And so it’s just a different— It’s trying to turn things around and have us think about them in a different way. 

The second discovery I made—which is not just my discovery, but I think I organized a bit differently and a bit more completely than others—is I said, well, actually, and then it so happens that all these ways that people ignore costs really just fall into five buckets. There’s five distinct logics, and you named them. The thing that links all of them is they’re different ways that groups and their leaders overlook the costs and go to war in spite of them.

David: Yeah. So this issue of ignoring the cruise missile—and it ties back to what you describe as selection bias. Early on you start with the story from World War II, where planes are limping back to a base and there’s an engineer who slaps together a solution. We see where the holes are, let’s put armor on those parts of the plane. And then this guy, Abraham Walt, steps in, the statistician, the numbers guy. He’s like, “No, no, no. Unh-unh. Right diagnosis and bad prescription. Let’s do something else.” Tie that into selection bias and again, why we tend to focus on the fight and not actually the path to peace.

Christopher: Yeah. So he said the missing bullets are on the missing planes, and so the reason we don’t see planes with the cockpit full of holes was because those never came back. And so that sort of led— That’s the classic example of survivor bias, where if you pay attention to survivors you’re going to totally get the causes of survival wrong. We’re making the opposite mistake when it comes to war. We’re only looking at the planes down, and they’re riddled in bullets, and we don’t know which ones are fatal or not. And so we’re constantly distracted by the nonfatal bullets because they are on the carcass. It’s not like they didn’t matter, but they weren’t really what you have to focus on if you want to survive. So it’s not just like, “Oh, we should be more optimistic because there’s less war and isn’t that nice?” But actually no, no, no. Now that we understand that mostly we don’t fight. We’re going to diagnose the problem differently, and then of the hundred factors, we’re going to pay attention to five.

David: Counting the costs. That’s a part of the process, and you’re saying that at points we ignore the costs and— I have an overarching question about rationality. We came into the global financial crisis, one of the post-mortem contributions comes out of behavioral finance. The assumption that you’ve got rational people, and that ends up flying out the window. Our risk models are based on rationality, allocation strategies are based on rational actors. That’s a meaningful pillar. That’s what I want to ask you about. So we learn to see things differently. To find the real roots of fighting, you say, we need to pay attention to the struggles that stay peaceful. To what degree do you rely on the assumption of rational actors capable of doing the math, choosing peace instead of war?

Christopher: So at least three of the five are very strategic and rational in the sense that there are problems that can cause war that you don’t need any irrationality to explain. Like there’s the idea of unchecked leaders, which is to say you have a powerful central leader who is unaccountable to at least some of the costs. Maybe completely unaccountable, like an autocrat, so they’re ignoring most of the costs, and they may even be pursuing private agendas precisely because they’re unchecked. So these unchecked interests, it’s kind of obvious why that would be perilous. 

And then two others, which really are central to the strategic analysis of war: uncertainty and commitment problems have to do— one, on the one hand, with how the fact that we don’t know the strength of the other side may lead them to bluff, may lead us to just make bad guesses, but may also give them incentives to bluff. And sometimes we have to call that bluff, which is, anyone who has played poker understands the basic logic. 

And then commitment problems, most people understand as well. They think of it in a more familiar way where if my enemy’s going to get super powerful next year and I have a temporary advantage, I can lock that by attacking now before it’s too late, because they can’t commit not to— They know I have that incentive, but there’s nothing they can do because they can’t really commit not to take advantage of their strength in the future. And some people call that preventative war. 

So those are strategic logics that anyone can fall into. But the other two, one’s definitely irrational. It’s why I call it misperceptions. I think you’ve had Bob Jervis on the program, so that obviously inherit that idea from many people, but especially him, the idea that we have systematic biases and mistakes. A lot of the same systematic biases that mutual fund managers and CEOs share, biases that persist even when smart, highly incentivized people doing the same thing over and over again keep making that mistake. And so that’s irrational in that sense. 

And I talk, what I think is really— which ones, which biases in particular are important for war, but the other, is it rational? Is it irrational? I don’t know. This fifth one, intangible incentives. It’s psychological. It’s the things we value. So if, as an autocrat, I value personal glory or I have some nationalist vision that I want to pursue, no matter the cost, which is the dominant narrative of Vladimir Putin right now, for example, then I will pursue that ethereal objective, that intangible incentive, despite the cost, because it’s worth it and I can only get that thing through violence. So violence isn’t so costly anymore because I get something from it. 

That’s a common narrative in war and I think it explains a certain amount of wars and explains a certain amount of this one, both these ignoble and evil, but also more noble, intangible incentives. People fight for them all the time. And is that irrational? I mean, Vladimir Putin, maybe there’s a degree in which maybe he is deluded or it makes him have misperceptions, but if my nationalist values are my nationalist values, my values for liberty are my values for liberty, but the person taking their values as given, that person’s acting strategically. So that’s how I think about it. Two psychological, three strategic roots, and only one of those psychological roots is really irrational.

David: Well, let’s work through some of them because it’s kind of like a war typology. You say in your view there’s no good or bad leaders who will act nobly or not in office. There are only constrained and unconstrained ones. So paint a picture of a leader’s private incentives differing from public interests.

Christopher: Right. I mean someone like Vladimir Putin is a good example, an easy example, having a democracy on his border, but not just any democracy, but a democracy and two color revolutions in the last 10 years in a place that Russians identify with maybe more than any other place on the planet. So it’s a dangerous example, but that dangerous— that’s an example. It’s not dangerous to the average Russian. It’s dangerous to Putin’s apparatus of control. And so his private incentive to invade and his main strategic incentive to invade is actually to exterminate that threat in that example because it threatens him. 

I say that’s easy because it’s easy to see with any personalized autocrat. It’s harder to see in other cases, but it happens in democracies. The example I use in the book, I like to use the example of George Washington, who early, but long before he was president, helped ignite what Americans call the French Indian wars and what later became the global seven years war through his greedy land prospecting with— And at the head of a militia that was basically advancing the interests of a bunch of wealthy Virginian landowners like himself.

David: I have to tell you, that’s a big gap in my history. And when I was reading through this, I’m like, “How do I not know this?”

Christopher: There’s a whole book by a guy named Bruce Bueno Mesquita, NYU, on American presidents and all of the ways in which, imperfectly checked, they did some unpleasant things—amongst the noble things, right? Like all the noble things we think about George Washington are true also and probably dominate, but we sort of sweep other things under the carpet in our high school history lessons.

David: So he too was an example of someone who had a private interest and it wasn’t necessarily consistent with the public good?

Christopher: And he was somewhat constrained, right? Especially once he eventually became president, although— And so he wasn’t necessarily as war mongering or he wouldn’t have had the same— Even if he had the same private incentives, he wouldn’t have been easily been able to act on them, because there’s a Continental Congress and wealthy land owners and business people and things who could formally, informally, check him. And so that reduces the problem, right? 

And that’s why I say there’s no such thing as good or bad leaders, although there are. I’ll label some intangible incentives and good and evil, but put those aside and still leaders’ intangible incentives won’t influence the decision the polity makes if that leader is fully checked and forced to internalize all the costs. And it’s one reason we have what many people call the democratic peace, which is the fact that democracies almost never go to war against one another and then seldom go to war against other places. And when they do, it’s almost always against an autocracy that’s more biased and unchecked.

David: Yeah. I could feel the constrained versus unconstrained and no good or bad leaders. It felt like a little dose of Realpolitic.

Christopher: And the thing is it’s the centralized unchecked leaders, not just that they ignore the cost, they might have private incentives, but it turns out that augments all of the other roots of war as well if they have intangible incentives, evil or noble. You’re more swayed to them because power’s centralized and personalized if we’re more subject to their misperceptions. There could be a lot more uncertainty about what’s going on in their mind, which is more important. And then it’s hard for them to make credible commitments, and so when there are big swings in power, it’s hard to solve that commitment problem. So when I try to pin down— If there’s one fundamental driver of instability in our world and in the future, it comes from centralized, personalized power. And if that fades— I would just say if we reach a more checked world, I have faith that’s it’s going to be a much more peaceful world.

David: It seems to me that as you’re talking through some of these ideas, there’s sort of a cross application. The checks and balances certainly apply within the area of unchecked interest, as do the rules and enforcement, and even interventions, which we can get to in a bit. But after the global financial crisis, we saw the difference between privatized gains and socialized losses. Taxpayer took the hit. Wall Street financial creativity. You had late nineties deregulation, minimization of rules and enforcements, and that gave financial firms— Actually it was legal, but it was legal opportunity to practice what became an unchecked interest. Where does this crop up today? What countries are suffering from this more recently? I mean, set aside the most obvious, but where someone enjoys benefits, but is insulated from costs.

Christopher: That’s a good question. So I think it shows up in a few different ways. It shows up by any increasing authoritarian turn, which is happening in many countries, or any undermining of social norms or supreme courts or parliaments and things of this nature. The most palpable one is when there’s some sort of material resource—oil countries, quote unquote, blessed with the oil. That can often skew the incentives of the leadership, especially in a perfectly checked one, both to basically insulate themselves further from accountability so that they— And use the resources to do that so that then they can make more money from it. And then the unchecked rulers next door seem to be more likely to cross a border and invade to grab that resource. 

So it can be very destabilizing, and other natural resources have somewhat of the same effect, though some of that’s been counteracted. I think blood diamonds is a classic example, like an African warlord like Charles Taylor in Liberia who may have incentives to start instability or keep it going because they can start a war economy and make some money, and suddenly peace doesn’t look so attractive. And so any kind of war economy is a good example.

But then other less material things— so every time you’ve heard of a rally-around-the-flag effect and accusations, maybe true, maybe false, that Margaret Thatcher and the Falklands, or George W. Bush and Afghanistan or Iraq, or Bill Clinton and bombing in Kosovo, and so forth that leaders will use—or Putin in this invasion—will use warfare to improve their political prospects at home by rallying people around the flag. It’s not clear that’s actually a very successful strategy in the past. It fails maybe almost as often as it succeeds, but they just have to believe it’s a successful strategy to use it. And there’s some suggestion that it happens. So that’s also private interest that… It’s not in the interest my group to go to war, but it’s in my personal political interest to actually—

David: To maintain power.

Christopher: —use violence more readily than otherwise.

David: Yeah. And you finish up this idea with a sobering need for the rule of law to be present, and for there to be something that is taking into account, not only today, but tomorrow, the idea that a successful society must take a dimmer view of humankind, leaders especially you say, and build systems for the worst of them. And I think that sounds realistic. I mean, you hope for the best, but that’s not always what you get.

Christopher: Yeah. You want to build a presidential system for the worst possible president that might ever come into office and make it impossible for them to take over. And that was the explicit aim of the American framers of the Constitution. It’s also the basic principle of constitutional design everywhere, and some places have been more successful than others.

David: Intangible incentives. You say— this is one of the ones that’s a little stickier, less logical, perhaps less rational. Can you tell us the story of the pilot, at one point flying in the open skies, and then, as circumstances change, now navigating through a narrow gorge? And tie in that word picture for how intangible incentives change the navigation.

Christopher: Yeah. So what I wanted to communicate, I searched for a metaphor to communicate the idea that there’s never one reason for war, that often the five act in concert, and the cost of war is so large that if actually accountable and there aren’t these intangible incentives and other of these other strategic issues involved, then the chances you find yourself war are trivial. It’s just not going to happen. And you’re like a pilot flying in open skies. You’re unlikely to crash into the ground. 

But now you start to have an unchecked leader who is ignoring most of the costs, and that puts you in a more fragile position. Those costs of war are no longer so great, at least in the minds of the decider. And so that’s a little bit like the ground coming up to meet you. Maybe like, I use the metaphor of starting to fly through a canyon. And then there are misperceptions, or maybe there’s a lot of uncertainty, an unusual amount of uncertainty, new technologies, this sort of thing that make— And opportunities to bluff and few institutions to believe that information. 

And so the walls close in further still, and then there’s looming power shifts on the horizon, and you’re worried that your enemy’s going to be more powerful in the future and you have to act now. There’s a closing window of opportunities, so now the walls are closer still. And so all of these strategic forces usually still leave some room to find peace. It’s in this fragile moment, that’s fragile precisely because these more fundamental forces have caused leaders to overlook the causes of war, that their mistakes and their delusions or whatever nationalist or liberal or whatever ideologies they have will cause them to go to war. And the slightest little move in one direction might send them careening into the cliff, by which I mean conflict. 

So that’s one way I look at what’s happening in the world today with Russia and Ukraine is that ever this dominant narrative is that Putin is isolated, getting bad information, a little bit delusional, has this desire for personal glory, nationalistic ideologies that have led him to ignore the cost of war. And I’m sure that’s true to an extent, but we forget that that’s the kind of thing that could carry a country into— two countries into such a destructive war, precisely because some of these other more strategic factors meant that he and Zelensky were flying in a narrow gorge. And so we blame things too quickly, or overestimate the importance of these psychological factors sometimes, especially in armchair analysis of conflict.

David: We want to oversimplify. It’s easier for us to sum it up with a sentence. 

With intangible incentives, you’re basically saying they work against compromise. These are the non-negotiables. So you narrow the range of options. Two things, like ideology makes sense. What is the range of intangibles and which we ones are the hardest to work with or work around?

Christopher: A great example that’s very different is ideologies of freedom, which I endorse, sympathize with, try to live my life by, but let me give an example from this conflict that I think is also at work here. 

Ukraine was extremely weak. It had no military allies. Its economy stagnated for 30 years. Its per capita income was lower than in 1990, astonishing. Russia, meanwhile, Putin had consolidated political control, oil and gas discoveries, booming economy—at least until 2015—and had somehow managed to get Europe to make the deeply unwise strategic decision to become energy dependent on it. And so had an enormous amount of leverage over Ukraine and in Western Europe—and arguably peak leverage, it has just been growing, and maybe complete peak. 

And here’s this threatening—this democracy, this nascent democracy that’s threatening to Putin, on his doorstep. And he says, “Listen, I’ve got more power. I’m interested in using it to quash what’s going on here, and like all my other neighbors and like my own citizens whom I have quashed and they have complied, I expect the same of you.” Which was a cruel and evil, but quote unquote, reasonable response in the sense that he could ask for it and expect to get it to some degree. 

And Ukraine said, no. Their military strengths could not justify defiance. In that sense, quote unquote, should have compromised, but they said, we refuse. This is a repugnant compromise. Essentially one explanation is that they were ideologically committed to the idea of sovereignty and freedom, and they would not compromise on such a thing. That was a price too high. 

And I tell the same story in the book about America, about the American Revolution. So I bring back George Washington and I make him look a little bit better than I did in an earlier chapter where I note that this is one of the main explanations that historians have, the ideological urgency of the American Revolution, that it was the colonists rejected the semi-sovereignty on offer from this tyrannical imperial superpower that militarily dominated it. They had no business winning any fight, which is why they seemed unlikely, so they probably should have accepted that compromise, and they didn’t. They chose not to. 

So that’s another kind of intangible incentive that leads people for more noble reasons to reject the most reasonable compromise and offer given the cost of war and pay the cost because, out of principle. So I think that we can’t ignore that in this Ukrainian case. There’s a war in Ukraine because they’re the only neighboring republic that didn’t roll over.

David: There’s so many ways to approach the ideology of freedom, and there’s a huge philosophical discussion to be had there, but it seems like there’s an approach to discussing ways of looking at freedom, that if you’re talking about a religious ideology, it’s more of my way or the highway. When you see sort of the righteous outrage, that would seem to be one of those intangible incentives where there’s nothing for discussion here, we’ve got evidence from God that we’re right. How do you argue with that?

Christopher: Yeah. You also see people refusing compromises and believing them to be repugnant for those reasons as well. So, yes, your ethnic group is stronger than mine. Yes. Your religious group is stronger than mine. And in all probability you could crush me, but I will not give up what you’re asking me. I will not convert or I will not give up my ethnic identity. I will not let my children only learn your language. I will fight rather than give up this thing which you have the military and material power to command because I value it too much. And sometimes that’s noble and sometimes it’s just hatred for that other ideology. So it happens a lot, and I just want us to recognize that all of these different stories, disparate as they are, are just different variations on a theme, which is to say, I will pay those costs of war because I value this other thing, this ethereal intangible thing.

David: It seems this is one of the areas, this kind of domain for charismatic leaders to leverage influence in the intangible incentives.

Christopher: Yeah. Well, even if the leader doesn’t have that ideology, if they want to rally people behind them, they better manufacture it fast. That’s a form of a military strength.

David: Propaganda.

Christopher: Yeah. Propaganda, because you know what? All my bargaining power vis-à-vis my adversary comes from my ability to win a war and threaten to burn the house down. And one way you do that is by unifying your group behind you and having them work harder and put more money in and fight longer. And so intangible incentives can be a reason that leaders go to war, but once they’re at war, it’s a source of bargaining strength. And before you go to war, if you can manufacture this, you have more bargaining leverage vis-à-vis your enemy.

And so that’s the tricky thing, like why would a leader consciously try to foster an intangible incentive to fight knowing that could— Actually he could lose control, or she could lose control, of that and find the nation at war in future. Well, they might manufacture it and risk that it gets out of control because it’s the source of bargaining power. Because if you can pull it off better than the next country or the next group, then you’re going to be able to claim more of the pie.

David: Yeah. I mean, you see this in our two-year and four-year election cycle. You’re trying to harness the energy of the masses, and it actually pays to some degree to keep people frustrated and angry and bitter, sort of this bitter political animosity because that represents a source of energy for moving the ball farther down the field. Not healthy, but it’s—

Christopher: Yeah. There’s a famous scholar of Indian riots who calls it the institutionalized riot machine, and you can see it in every society. Fox news and MSNBC, to some degree, that it’s like you need to actually, as a political leader or a— You need something to sort of continuously keep your people enraged so that when the time comes to undergo something risky and costly, you’re able to persuade them to do it out of this mix of information and misinformation and passions that you’ve channeled. And sometimes you’ve channeled it in peaceful ways and the institutionalized riot machines and some Indian cities do not, but that’s it. That’s what our online and television rage machines are doing.

David: Yeah. I think that’s an interesting segue. You mentioned that [Josef] Göbbels [Hitler’s propaganda minister] thought radio was the most important instrument of mass influence that existed anywhere. What would he think about media or social media today?

Christopher: Yeah, I mean, I can only assume that, I don’t know. I might have just the same talent in genius, evil genius for this. Certainly many people do. It’s kind of incredible actually how— I would not have predicted 20 years ago that it was possible for authoritarian regimes in particular to exert this much information control over this huge, diverse, grassroots thing called social media, and yet that is what many of them have figured out how to do.

David: Uncertainty. So it seems to explain the build up to war. That’s another factor you’ve got out of your five. Talk to us about the judgment of relative strength and the judgment of someone else’s determination or resolve and the risk of misjudging.

Christopher: Yeah. I mean, in some ways it’s pretty intuitive, which is to say that if we each have a 50/50 chance at winning a war and we both know that, and war’s going to be incredibly costly, well then this conclusion, which I’ve just drawn, which is, well, then most of the time we’re not going to fight is kind of obvious. But if I think I’ve got a 75% chance of winning and you’re convinced that you have a 75% chance of winning because things are so uncertain and maybe that was just my best guess, now it sounds like in this uncertain world where we can both draw erroneous conclusions we might at least start fighting because we disagree about the basics. 

Presumably we figure that out pretty quickly, but maybe it takes months. Maybe more importantly and the more important dynamic is the fact that this uncertainty actually makes me worry that my opponent’s bluffing, and that they’re saying they’re super strong, but are they really? So you’re in this situation where I think I’m strong, you think you’re strong, and then you’re saying, “No, no, no, no, we don’t want to fight.” We can’t both be overconfident, right? So I’m the strong one and you’re like, “Well, on the one hand, you have an incentive to tell me the truth because you don’t want to go to war anymore than I do. On the other hand, you’re also— You’ve got something in it to fool me.” 

And so I walk in through the details of that strategic logic in the book. Wars are so costly that in spite of that, actually adversaries spend a lot of time trying to signal the truth to each other accurately so that they don’t end up at war, so they hold military parades and they have border skirmishes and they do other things to demonstrate strength. 

In the book I also talked about gang— Most of my day job is working a lot with rebel groups and criminal gangs and things of that level, not nations at war. And I talked about how a gang leader, ex gang leader, who’s now a friend of mine used to go gang banging, and I asked him what he meant by that. He said, “Well, I go to the neighboring gang’s territory and I’d shoot at their buildings.” He was just engaged in some costly signaling. In the animal kingdom we call it agonistic behavior. He was basically trying to say, “Hey guys, I said I’m strong. I’m really strong. A weak guy would not walk around your neighborhood and shoot at the buildings. I want a bigger share of this pie that we call the drug neighborhoods in the streets of Chicago.” So all that signaling happens. So we mostly manage to avoid war, but nonetheless, these logics of uncertainty conspire to sometimes set us about fighting.

David: I love the movie, The Mouse That Roared. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen that, but yeah, you’ve got this little-

Christopher: Oh, I love that movie.

David: —country that no one’s ever heard of and they show up in Manhattan with a Q bomb and they’re actually— I think they’re actually, if I remember correctly, dressed up in medieval armor, just out of the— Like, who are these people? Why are they here? But they’re out to prove— It’s their version of masculine muscle flexing. It’s weaponry, it’s the hissing of the animal, the baring of the teeth, that whole thing. 

The bluff you mentioned is interesting because, when do you call a bluff? Playing poker with my 13-year-old, I mean, you have to. Otherwise— I mean, he is constantly like a herd of stampeding buffaloes. Every hand is the best hand he’s ever had, and he’s betting everything. And you’re like, okay, but he won the last three hands. At some point, even if you lose and you know you’re going to lose, you have to do something. Maybe you can discuss your idea of mixed strategy.

Christopher: Yeah. So the idea is that— Let’s say you’re not playing against the 13-year-old. I mean, that adds a whole— You mix in misperceptions with uncertainty, and you mix in the idea that you might have— Your opponent might be a little bit crazy, right? And that can actually really mess with your strategy. That just adds the uncertainty and it—

David: Oh yeah.

Christopher: Some countries have incentives. People have written out these models. Actually, if I can elect a leader for the next five years who’s a little bit crazy or a hardliner, right? Why do I like a hard liner? Well, if I like a hardliner, I’m going to— That’s someone with an intangible incentive to not want to bargain and— or a crazy person, who’s just going to make you nervous, and better yet a slightly crazy hardliner. 

Well, when I elect that leader, I’m admitting there’s a slightly higher possibility for war, but I’m trading off the fact that that’s going to put me in a much better bargaining position, because closing off all these— Of all the things in our bargaining range that the cost of war generates, I’m closing off a whole bunch of ones that are unfavorable to me because I’ve elected this person who will refuse to accept them. And if the other side has the same incentive, now it’s got two 13-year-olds playing poker and it’s not pretty. 

But let’s say you’re playing with a master player. If you’re playing with a master player and you don’t have to worry about that, a mixed strategy— You actually don’t want to predictably attack and you don’t want to predictably not attack, and you don’t want to predictably bluff and you don’t want to predictably not bluff. When you’re kind of strong relative to your opponent and you’re kind of evenly matched, your optimal strategy is basically to bluff some of the time, and the optimal reaction is actually to call, or attack, some of the time. [Unclear] costly a war is, but it could still happen, no matter how costly, because it really never makes sense to never bluff and never call in these situations. So you can end up fighting even if you’re the perfectly rational duo competing.

David: Yeah. And so the judging of relative strength and commitment. You suggest that skirmishes are actually part of that. It’s a discovery process. You need to know. And so a little fight, you’re not— And I think the way you describe it in terms of gang warfare, there’s stuff that happens all the time and it’s not the end of the world. It’s not an all-out war, but it’s important because there’s information being gathered, and that is what’s being factored into the judgment of relative strength.

Christopher: Yeah. And that’s partly why in the book I say I want to focus on prolonged fighting by groups, and that’s what I’m going to use as my definition for war, because there is all this gang banging and skirmishing that is also costly and inefficient. Maybe shouldn’t happen a lot of the time, but actually can also have its own strategic logic in this signaling and resolving uncertainty and so forth. So I just like to say, no, that’s not so puzzling. We can understand why this friend of mine would go gang banging. What we can’t understand, what seems— The thing that really has to be explained is why he and this group would engage in a lengthy, years-long gang war with an adversary. That’s the really suboptimal thing that they should be trying to avoid, and usually do.

David: Now the one out of the five that is probably, on the face of it, less clear is commitment problems, just in terms of what those two words mean.

Christopher: It’s one of the worst terms in political science. Yeah.

David: The quote that you share, it makes it crystal clear. It’s better to have your enemy for lunch, that way they can’t have you for dinner. I mean, this is about some sort of preventive action or a first strike advantage, no?

Christopher: That’s exactly right. And it captures this idea of that, if I think you’re going to be more powerful in the future—

David: Got to do something now.

Christopher: —then I have a window of opportunity. Whenever you hear the words, window of opportunity in the context of conflict, I think it’s usually a signal that there’s a potential commitment problem.

Kevin: Window of opportunity equals commitment problem. Well—

Christopher: But actually that’s an important distinction. It doesn’t actually equal. It sets us up for of the opportunity for one, because the window of opportunity is there, but then your adversary knows about this window. If you’re threatening to eat your enemy for lunch because they’re threatening to eat you for dinner, well, they don’t want to get eaten for lunch and they can see it coming, and so they should try to do something to assure you that they won’t eat you for dinner. 

And there’s actually a lot of things you can do, right? You can find third parties to help enforce that, and you can sign compacts. You can exchange hostages. You can do just lots of— You can try to carve up. You can hand over some of your power in some ways. You can give them some of your ships or destroy, sink some of your ships, or handover strategic territory. There’s lots of little things you can do that they usually find. It’s only in the very small number of cases where they can’t commit that you have this true commitment problem—where they cannot commit, not take advantage of the future.

David: So I want to race through three big ones, Germany, 1914; Rwanda, if you think that applies, and then we’ll come back to the Peloponnesian War. And I think there’s a couple of questions I have for you on that, but start with Germany in 1914.

Christopher: Sure. So this is a great application of this other thing you referred to of the pilot in the gorge, which is that the popular conception and the story that a lot of very knowledgeable historians tell is one of ideological nationalistic and frail and inept leaders in Europe brought the world to war. And those things are all true to an extent, but once again, it’s this situation where those frail and feeble and ideological leaders only could matter because the strategic circumstances had made this so fragile, and so unchecked leaders were at work in a very autocratic region of the world. 

There’s lots of uncertainty, but the commitment problem, the famous window of opportunity that was closing that worried German generals for decades as the future drew close, was the looming rise of Russia. It was huge. It was consolidating power. It was industrializing. Its war machine was getting speedier and speedier, and so a lot of the best German military analysis and generals thought that it would be very difficult to ever win a war in future beyond maybe 1916, 1917. They thought, this is it. Our window of opportunity is closing. 

Now, was that a true commitment problem? Was there nothing Russia could do to prevent that, especially— I mean, surely there was something. There was probably a deal that could have been sorted out, but they would’ve had to admit that they were— Germans were ready to invade now in order to prompt that. So maybe strategically it was difficult. It was just tricky to bring about, and there’s lots of uncertainty and they wanted to maintain an element of surprise, and so forth. So there’s lots of… But they were also feeble and maybe ideological and that carried them through the war. So it’s a classic example of somewhere where this was a— really narrowed the range of peaceful options for Europe, and then the world slept-walked into war. The other was Rwanda—

David: Rwanda.

Christopher: So in some sense, it’s an interesting example. That was a— I wouldn’t say a commitment problem brought about that war. Now, what most people don’t know about the genocide in 1994 is that it happened several years into a long-running—I believe it was at least two years, but I may be wrong—civil war that was going on in the country. And it was a sort of a final solution of one side that thought it was losing the civil war. It had an opportunity. It saw— 

So the Hutus in power, the majority group in terms of population, were in power. And the Tutsi, the minority group that had been out of power, but had [unclear] force were steadily marching and making progress and winning the war, and eventually they did—led by Paul Kagame, current president of Rwanda. And the Hutus said, “Well, we have a choice here. We can actually accept this defeat or we can one last gasp to try to eliminate this Tutsi threat altogether by trying to slaughter as many of them as possible. And maybe that will cement our political advantage, even if we do lose, and maybe it will keep us from losing.” 

And that’s true of most mass killings, and that’s true of most genocides in the world. Most of them happen within ongoing civil wars as a kind of last gasp. And it is a commitment problem because it’s such a costly and terrible thing to do. It’s also very hard. It’s not easy to organize a genocide. And so, in principle, it shouldn’t take too much for the other side to say, yeah, yeah, we’re winning, but don’t worry. Don’t do this genocide. Don’t try to exterminate us. Don’t use your last weapon at your disposal because we promise that when we take over, that we’re going to make sure you at least get a deal. You’re going to wield this threat of genocide as a tool of bargaining power, and that often has been done. And in response, I’m going to try to make a commitment. I’m going to have a constitution that guarantees access rights for you, that I’m going to find it hard to renege on. 

That’s what lots of civil wars end up with is compacts and constitutions and other ways of dividing power that assure each side and make credible commitments. But when that can’t happen, then you have a commitment problem. And so most episodes of mass killings happen in wars and they happen because of this sort of commitment problem logic.

David: So you’ve got something similar stretching back to a much earlier time, the Peloponnesian War and Thucydides describing what was, in his view, an inevitability. Adequate power today, but not forever tilts the math towards taking aggressive action while you still can, Sparta and Athens. Talk to us about Thucydides, and that being a trap, and why he was wrong about war’s inevitability.

Christopher: Right. So it’s the war that the most scholars have studied over the centuries and it’s very iconic. It’s also the one that was taking me into the most unfamiliar territory, as my day job is studying gangs and rebel groups, and then I understand politics of the last century and I’m certainly no expert on Greek history. So this becomes my take, and I wanted to bring it up because there is this famous line that’s been so influential. It was the rise of Athens that led Sparta to begin the war. I’m sorry, I’ve got the exact quote. I don’t have it on the tip of my tongue, but this gets the general idea.

David: It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this inspired in Sparta that made war inevitable.

Christopher: Correct. It sounds like a commitment problem, right? It sounds like, “Oh, here’s this rising power and we must attack now in order to prevent it.” And that’s why a lot of people know the commitment problem as Thucydides’ trap, and you hear it invoked all the time. The rise of China. Are we doomed to go to war against them? Are we in a Thucydides’ trap with China? 

And Xi Jinping loved to ask this question and talk about this with reporters. He’s kind of obsessed with it over the last five or 10 years, which is kind of a dangerous thing for him to be really obsessed with, or worrisome. It was invoked in the Cold War, the rise of the Soviet Union. Was conflict inevitable? And of course we didn’t go to war with the Soviet Union, at least not directly. And hopefully, I think we won’t end up at war with China. Because I think the rise is not enough. 

It goes back to what I said, that the rise isn’t sufficient. You actually need it to be fast and large enough that your worries about that power shift are so great and so imminent that it overcomes the cost of war, which are going to be brutal. But more importantly, you need your adversary not to see this, recognize it, and try to provide assurances in some way. And so I was unsatisfied with the mere rise of Athens, as I read the histories and analyses, that that was sufficient. 

And the thing that really leapt out at me—and this is my hypothesis, and not enough people have analyzed this war from a strategic perspective, almost none as far as I could tell. I was hoping that I would be able to just relate the story that some historian or political scientists had demonstrated, but no. But my hypothesis is that the really crucial thing was that there was a neutral third power. Today we know this. It centered around what we call the island of Corfu. Then it was Corcyra. And they had the second largest navy after Athens and they were neutral. 

And for a set of reasons I go into in the book, they drew closer to Athens, and Athens almost strenuously avoided any entanglement with them because they understood that that threat of them joining would just be too much, would make them too powerful, and that would really compel Sparta to act. But they couldn’t avoid it. They couldn’t assure Sparta that this was improbable enough. And so before these two non-allies became allies, Sparta decided. 

So it was the potential rise of Athens that didn’t happen through this alliance that I think was probably the true commitment problem. And it may be that some political scientists and specialists in Greek history gets enraged at my book weeks after reading it and totally disproves me, and that could happen, but I still think it’s very illustrative. It really helps us crystallize this idea that the power shift is not enough.

David: I mean, that’s what— I’m not, after you, a classicist, I’m not one. But the issue is, war’s not the first step. Containment is. And so in the modern era, we’ve got NATO, which has attempted to contain Russia over the last two decades. You’ve got the US. You read Foreign Affairs magazine, the US is attempting to contain China. We’ve shifted a lot of energy that way in recent years, just like Reagan was containing Iran, containing Russia. What should we bear in mind in terms of the risk of containment strategies?

Christopher: Well, one thing I year when I hear containment strategies or any number of these things is, this is just— There’s two adversaries and each one is trying to improve their bargaining power over the other by better arms, better alliances, better technology, better tactics, everything. And so containing by essentially trying to strengthen alliances and put weapons in this place and so forth is in some sense, you’re just competing for advantage here so that the bargain you two have to strike is more in your favor because you only get the share of the pie that your material and military power can win you. So I don’t see that as inherently destabilizing, especially because modest and even rapid changes in your relative power over your adversary don’t generate commitment problems. I think when something is imminent and large enough, then the risk of that, it makes sense for this adversary to fight now, before it comes about. And so I don’t think containment automatically does that. I guess my conclusion would be, I don’t see it as particularly destabilizing. I just see it as jockeying.

David: Well, I’m looking at the clock and I still want to talk about misperceptions, interdependence, and a number of other things. So I love this section on misperceptions. You start with— I mean, in a summary, you start with how we see ourselves, then you look at how we see others, and then finally you explore the crazy cycle as erroneous conclusions supported by disconnected narratives escalate towards conflict. I know that’s a brief summary of— Expand on that a little bit for us.

Christopher: I mean, for me, the world’s grown much more sophisticated in its behavioral psychology and economics over the last decade or two. And so people are familiar with lots of little biases that we have as human beings and decision making. But a lot of those matter most for kind of trivial decisions in the sense that we get the wrong gym membership. But if it gets really, really expensive, we start making the right decision. 

So I didn’t want to focus on those because I wanted to focus on the set of biases that seemed to persist even when the high stakes are really high and even when it’s being deliberated on over long periods of time with groups. And I wanted them also to be really relevant for these strategic interactions. So mistakes you can have about your ability vis-à-vis another—overconfidence and mistakes you can make about the other, basically misperceiving what they think is important and projecting your own values onto them—become really, really important, or how we develop really poisonous, rigid views of the other and refuse to see out of any other lens. 

Those seem to happen— They explain a lot of interpersonal conflict. They also explain a lot of intergroup conflict, even at big levels, over long periods of time. And I tried to focus on the tiny subset of human frailties, like overconfidence, like this mis-projection and like these rigid negative frames that we can develop a better adversary, because they seem to persist over long periods of time, even when there’s enormous evidence to the contrary. And that’s why I called the whole chapter Misperceptions.

David: [Unclear] says there’s no bias more significant than overconfidence. So you talk about the gambler, the CEO directing mergers and acquisitions, the NFL exec choosing draft picks. Overconfidence, is it too easy to say, “Okay, that describes Putin.” Is there a correlation between oversimplification and confidence?

Christopher: Yeah.

David: Does this apply to Putin?

Christopher: Yeah, I think it does or it possibly does. It’s always hard to know. That’s the tricky part with it. And then if we have our own misperceptions, we want to infantalize and demonize the enemy. And so I think we also have to tread cautiously with this emphasizing the overconfidence story and underestimating the strength of the enemy. Sure it’s true to degree, but it— And it might be everything. It might explain it all. But none of us can peer inside his mind, and I think it’s dangerous, and ignores history, to assume that’s the main, let alone the only driver.

David: Well, I think what I like about this chapter is it could be a standalone book. I mean, this is one that crosses over into so many different fields. I can also imagine more than a few interesting conversations between you and your wife, as deeply read as she is in psychology. There’s a lot of this here.

Christopher: Yeah. It’s definitely a chapter where I benefited the most from help, and both Jeanie, Richard Thaler here at the university and Nick and Betsy Paluck at Princeton are all some of the leaders in this area. And I leaned on them more heavily than I maybe leaned on anybody for any other chapter because I wanted to really get this right.

David: It’s kind of mind blowing to me, digging into Jervis and his works. It’s just very complicated. We have a hard enough time knowing who we are, and to try to accurately gauge who someone else is, here we are making highly consequential decisions with questionable data because we can’t judge ourselves accurately a lot of the time. And like you said, we can’t get into Putin’s mind. We don’t know what’s going on here. So in terms of international relations, how do we better manage misperceptions?

Christopher: It’s a good question. I think that one of the problems with centralized power and autocratic power is that autocrats have incentives to insulate themselves a little bit or they— Not directly, they want good information, but they also have to minimize the risk of coup threats and they have to never make anybody too powerful, and so they can end up surrounded by a degree of mediocrity and a degree of insulation. 

That’s the cost they pay for social control. And we see this the world over, and successful autocracies and successful autocrats are ones who manage to get great information and always know where they stand without giving anybody too much control. And so they’re just— they’re able to stage elections that are just fixed enough, because that’s information. And they let social media be just free enough, because that’s information. And so on and so on, but that’s a tricky thing to do, and they don’t all succeed. 

There’s a compelling argument that Putin didn’t succeed and that’s why he was isolated and insulated, and maybe was getting bad information if we believe a lot of the stories we’re hearing. And that’s just a really common problem, and so I think the more we have checked and accountable power, which is a long-term goal, but I think the fewer misperceptions are going to come up because I think they’re the product of institutional design that are designed to insulate leaders from accountability.

David: In this section where you’re talking about narratives playing a forceful role in how we frame decisions, I think this is a good segue into the next section as well on interdependence. Because you illustrate with narratives from Belfast—some events, identical facts have occurred, different meaning given the narratives that are in the backdrop, which serve as an interpretive guide. So narrative serves as a small scale Rosetta stone. Talk to us about the role of narratives and bridge that to empathy and interdependence where we’re actually striving to engage with the other.

Christopher: Right. I’ll reverse it. I’ll start with the interdependence and then work back. 

If I have empathy for you and I understand you and I care about your wellbeing and suffering and if you’re my adversary, right? So I suppose I care about the average Russian, which I do. I don’t want to go to war because—not just because of the cost to myself, which is the only thing the model, the simple model says I care about, but I actually care about you. Well, that’s going to widen the cost of war because now I’m not just accounting for the cost to me, I’m accounting for some of the costs for you, and it makes peace more attractive because your happiness and success is a little bit my happiness and success. And we can do that through ideology. We can do that through social linkages, we can do that through economic development and elections. And there’s lots of ways that develops. 

And we construct narratives of human rights and of brother- and sisterhood and of commonalities between my people and yours, and those narratives are really important for building that empathy and interdependence. But we can also construct narratives that do the opposite, that demonize you, maybe that cause me to enjoy your suffering and to take pleasure in your pain, or maybe just make me interpret everything you do in the most unfavorable way possible, which is this action you’ve taken to maybe signal your strength I take as an insult or an affront or something else. 

And so narratives can unravel this interdependence and they can actually accentuate our misperceptions. They are very powerful, so they work both ways and our leaders construct them. And it goes back to the uncheckedness this problem is that the unchecked leader with a private interest in war will construct a narrative to pursue their private interest and you have to hope it’s one of interdependence and not one of inflicting suffering.

David: The four paths to peace, the interdependence is the easiest for me to grasp. So going from that to checks and balances and rules enforcement and interventions. I’m reminded of the conversation we had with Otmar Issing. This is in 2008. Issing was the longest standing member of the ECB board at the time, European Central Bank. And he told me about a lunch gathering with a fellow economist in the canteen. This is in the early days of the ECB. What they discovered was the crossing of two distinct narratives and one overarching passion. You had Issing’s father who was a prison guard in the war, and his colleague’s father a prisoner in that German camp. And the importance of the work they both committed to at the ECB they felt in every fiber of their being; the costs of war and the tragedy so near to both of them made their work more incredibly important. All of a sudden it’s not mere monetary policy. It wasn’t interest rates that mattered. These men were looking for a generational do over, and having Europe having a shot at living in peace. So just fill that out for us a little bit because the inter-linkage, the interdependence— In the old days that might have been dynastic marriage. Maybe today it’s trade deals and social interactions. Just build it out for us a little bit.

Christopher: Yeah. I mean, that’s mostly stabilizing. The fact that if my economy is completely entangled with yours. This is one reason— Will the US ever go to war with China? Well, that would be costly war that everyone would strive to avoid, even if Americans and the Chinese did zero business with one another. But the fact that the economies are so intertwined, that would be so painful for everybody and for so many influential people in both societies to actually unravel that just to fight, that it’s an added incentive or counter incentive, right? It just makes war even more costly than it was when you weren’t entwined. And so that’s generally stabilizing. 

Now if you want to put a little asterisk and say, well, in a world where you’re integrated with everybody, it’s actually, maybe— sometimes it wouldn’t be so costly to completely disentangle yourself from one loathed enemy and so it’s not just— The more and more integrated the world gets, it’s not just like we move more and more towards peace and total entanglement. But nonetheless, we don’t even need that entanglement to have incentives for peace. And you have the entanglements and almost all the time. It’s just going to make war all the more painful. And I think that’s the project that so many European leaders engaged in for these two or three generations in order to create this amazingly peaceful— what we call Western Europe today.

David: To some degree, we suggested the value of checks and when we were talking about unchecked interests, and if we had more time, we’d fully cover that and rules of enforcement and interventions. What I would suggest is that anyone listening just orders the book. Read it, study through it, learn. It’s a valuable contribution. And Chris, I appreciate the serendipitous meeting in Utah. I’m glad your family likes to ski, and I’m glad that you were engaging interpersonally. I’m grateful for who you are, what you’ve contributed, and what our listeners get to benefit from. Not only in this Reader’s Digest version, but also as they dig in and read your pages. April 19th. Available at Amazon. Order a copy.

Christopher: Thank you.

David: Any parting shots?

Christopher: No, I’m grateful as well and grateful for the meeting.

David: Thanks so much for your time. I look forward to the next time we get to spend a little time together.

Kevin: You’ve been listening to the McAlvany Weekly Commentary with our guest, Christopher Blattman. You can find us at That’s And you can call us at (800) 525-9556.

This has been the McAlvany Weekly Commentary. The views expressed should not be considered to be a solicitation or a recommendation for your investment portfolio. You should consult a professional financial advisor to assess your suitability for risk and investment. Join us again next week for a new edition of the McAlvany Weekly Commentary.

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