International relations

Notes for February 18

Main points

Hobbes had three examples of the state of nature: (1) native Americans (in the seventeenth century), (2) societies in civil war, and (3) international relations.

“It may peradventure be thought, there was never such a time, nor condition of war as this; and I believe it was never generally so, over all the world: but there are many places, where they live so now. (1) For the savage people in many places of America, except the government of small families, the concord whereof dependeth on natural lust, have no government at all; and live at this day in that brutish manner, as I said before. Howsoever, (2) it may be perceived what manner of life there would be, where there were no common power to fear, by the manner of life, which men that have formerly lived under a peaceful government, use to degenerate into, in a civil war.

(3) But though there had never been any time, wherein particular men were in a condition of war one against another; yet in all times, kings, and persons of sovereign authority, because of their independency, are in continual jealousies, and in the state and posture of gladiators; having their weapons pointing, and their eyes fixed on one another; that is, their forts, garrisons, and guns upon the frontiers of their kingdoms; and continual spies upon their neighbours; which is a posture of war. But because they uphold thereby, the industry of their subjects; there does not follow from it, that misery, which accompanies the liberty of particular men.” (Leviathan, 13.11–12.)

Today we talked about what the behavior of states in international relations tells us about what the state of nature among individuals would be like. We will take up Hobbes’s anthropological speculation next time.

How bad is it?

Hobbes described the state of nature as involving a dilemma: people in the state of nature will be insecure no matter what they do. If they do nothing to accumulate power, they will be vulnerable to those who are more powerful. If they accumulate power, they will pose a threat to others.

What’s worse, being insecure has a perverse consequence. Suppose others believe A feels insecure and that A thinks there are significant advantages to striking first (to gain the advantages of surprise and fighting on the best terms for A). Then they will worry that A will strike them first. And that makes them more likely to strike A (to gain the advantages of surprise and fighting on the best terms for them).

When put in these abstract terms, it can seem as though violent conflict is almost a logical necessity of life in the state of nature. But, of course, that isn’t the way it actually works. We can look to Hobbes’s own example of international relations to see this.

One feature of international relations is that some states are significantly more powerful than others, which makes it quite easy for them to live at peace. Canada and the United States do not face a security dilemma.

The international relations theorists who are most inspired by Hobbes are called realists. They maintain that the sorts of dynamics Hobbes described apply to the relations among great powers, states that have the military capability to put up a serious fight against the strongest states in the system. Realists hold that great powers primarily pursue power and that they do so at least in part due to competition with one another.See John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, (W.W. Norton, 2001), chs. 1-2.

Trachtenberg’s article points out an interesting feature of the realists’ thinking. On the one hand, their analysis of international relations leads them to portray violent conflict as inevitable. On the other hand, they use this analysis to explain how states can preserve peace. Specifically, they recommend that states seek to maintain a balance of power in the system as a whole, abstain from aggressively threatening other states, and abandon what the realists regard as romantic or moralistic pursuits. In Trachtenberg’s opinion, the historical record shows that the realist prescriptions are a good guide to avoiding war.

Hobbes did not go into these questions about how a balance of power could preserve peace. Realism in international relations has to go beyond him in this respect. Realists have to use their fundamental claim that the behavior of states in international relations is driven by the pursuit of power to explain two things: why there are so many periods without violent conflict and why war persists as a regular feature of international affairs.

And Hobbes?

As for Hobbes, it is worth noting that his definition of “war” does not involve actual violence.

“WAR, consisteth not in battle only, or the act of fighting; but in a tract of time, wherein the will to contend by battle is sufficiently known ….” (Leviathan, 13.8)

Hobbes’s point is that it’s undesirable to live in a society where “the will to contend by battle is sufficiently known” for at least two reasons. First, it means that everyone will be insecure. This may not make actual violence inevitable, but it makes it much more likely. Second, it makes life poorer. For example, resources that could be devoted to productive uses go to defense. And the the fear of being victimized reduces the confidence necessary for trade and building. You can see this in international relations. We would be a lot better off if we didn’t devote so many resources to the military and if we could trade across the world with as much confidence as we do at home.

Hobbes himself suggested that the anarchic world of international relations is better than anarchy among individuals would be. He made the point that individuals can experience security behind the walls of their states even though the states themselves are at war with one another. That makes it possible for them to enjoy the benefits of commerce and the arts and sciences. Spinoza had a valuable contribution here. He noted that states are not as vulnerable as individuals are: you can’t surprise them as easily and you can’t eliminate them in one shot. So anarchy in international relations should be considerably more stable than anarchy among individuals.

Julio’s point about morality

Julio objected to the realists’ rejection of morality in international relations. The realists might be right to say that the “realistic” way of pursuing our values involves recognizing that international relations are fundamentally driven by considerations of power. But it doesn’t follow that we should drop our moral values in international relations. The most that follows is that we should be sensible about their pursuit. As Charley pointed out, stability isn’t always so great and sometimes wars are necessary for reasons other than maintaining a balance of power. He cited World War II as an example.

I think Julio and Charley are right and that the realists themselves haven’t really described a coherent attitude towards moral values. They sometimes say morality is irrelevant in international relations. But they haven’t explained how anyone other than a moral nihilist could believe this. And their own behavior suggests that they’re actually quite principled themselves. As Trachtenberg points out, few realists take the cynical view that their own states should dominate the world; they usually take the point of view of humanity as a whole.

I suspect the best way of understanding their attitude towards morality in international relations is by analogy with John Stuart Mill’s rejection of moralism as a rationale for interfering with individual liberty.

“the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him, must be calculated to produce evil to some one else.”John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, ch. 1, par. 9.

Mill thought we should refrain from using (some of) our moral opinions in deciding whether to interfere with the liberty of others. His reasons were complicated: he thought that we would do worse for others if we followed our moral opinions than if we did not. But Mill himself clearly didn’t reject morality. Now, I should add that it’s not obvious to me that he succeeded in describing a sensible way to think about moral opinions here.See Gerald Dworkin “Devlin was right: Law and the enforcement of morality.” William & Mary Law Review, (1999) 40:927–946. But that’s the model that the realists should look to, in my opinion.

By the way, Julio is quite right to be bothered by Hobbes’s line that “notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, have there no place,” where “there” is the state of nature (Leviathan, 13.13). I know I haven’t really responded to his points about it on more than one occasion. I don’t mean to be evasive. Really! I just have a plan to discuss it later, on March 6 and 11.

This page was written by Michael Green for Hobbes Seminar, Philosophy 185s, Spring 2013. It was posted February 28, 2013.
Hobbes Seminar