Last week I looked at driving our cars to test the validity of the pervasive assumptions of our culture — we compete with each other for the good things in life, and there must always be winners and losers. I concluded that if we drove our cars with such assumptions, it’s likely few of us would reach our destinations safely, which is the primary good all of us on the road are seeking. In fact, we know the opposite to be true: Behaving cooperatively by obeying the traffic laws is our best chance for success.
So what about international relations? I raise this question for three reasons. First, waging war is the most hideous expression of our cultural assumptions. Second, it’s the behavior our nation most glorifies. Third, the only justification for resorting to war is if international relations are a competition for national aggrandizement (territory, wealth, prestige). If that isn’t a right understanding, then the sooner we reach universal and complete disarmament, the better off we all will be.
The obvious difference between driving our cars and international relations is that vehicular traffic is regulated by a rule-making authority with the power to enforce its rules. For the most part, that isn’t the case as nations interact. Must we then concede that unbridled self-seeking really is our natural condition, and that we cooperate only when we see no better strategy for getting our way? If so, we won’t curb the anarchic quest for power in the international arena — with its ever-present threat of war — until all nations cede sovereignty to a single global authority.
Such an analysis is what Thomas Hobbes laid out in “Leviathan” (1650). He posited a “state of nature” in which humans originally existed. In that state we were isolated beings, each seeking whatever we desired but frustrated by our constant clash with everyone else’s pursuit. Our lives, therefore, were originally “free” but miserable. So, we were led to make a social contract that we would surrender much of that freedom to a common and coercive regulatory power — the state.
Hobbes’ analysis was very influential, and very wrong. Humans never lived in such a condition. We have always been born into families and lived in groups. By nature, then, we are social and cooperative. No doubt there have always been rules, and sanctions for violating them. But, like our rules of the road, those rules — usually customary, not legal — were more guides than constraints. Real freedom isn’t being able to do anything we want. It’s the opportunity, the desire, and the ability to do what is right. And what is always right is to live as self-delighting gifts to each other.
If we are by nature social and cooperative, why was war prevalent long before laissez-faire capitalism told us we must compete for the good things in life? Primarily because it has taken us so long to understand that, in essential ways, humankind comprises a single group within which we thrive best when we thrive together. The expansive dynamics of capitalism revealed that truth while simultaneously masking it. Capitalism overcame tribalism but replaced it with imperialism, elevating conflict to a global scale.
Using the rhetoric of tribalism, Donald Trump successfully appealed to the voters our declining empire has turned into losers. Yet, the U.S. remains committed to imperialism. The only common ground is militarism. Many pay, few profit.
— Herb Rothschild's column appears in the Tidings every Saturday.