Tribalism Among Nations
Why does the psychology that deepens tensions with Russia and China seem so… familiar?
Last week Robert Jervis, a political scientist at Columbia University, died. As deaths go, his wasn’t tragic. He had lived a full life, and he left a robust and influential body of work; by one count his name was the fourth most common on syllabi for college political science courses.
But his death pointed to a kind of tragedy: As our understanding of the roots of international conflict continues to grow, we don’t seem inclined to put that understanding to use. Even as people like Jervis have shed more and more light on how cognitive distortions lead to war, we continue to indulge the distortions.
It’s kind of strange when you think about it. The journalists and think tankers and government officials who are in a position to bring these insights to bear on the world would, you’d think, be aware of them. They went to first-rate colleges, where professors teach the classic texts in the field that Jervis had as big a hand as anyone in creating: the psychology of international relations. But you don’t see much evidence of contact with those texts when you read the media’s coverage of national security issues or listen to the pronouncements emanating from think tanks and government offices. It’s as if America’s national security elites had been instructed to read Jervis’s seminal 1976 book—Perception and Misperception in International Politics—and to then, rather than avoid the pitfalls it highlights, illustrate them.
There is, I should emphasize, some good news: America is deeply polarized! I don’t mean polarization is good news in itself. But at least the polarization has fostered discussion of the “psychology of tribalism” (as several recent issues of this newsletter reflect)—and has given Americans an incentive to pay attention to the discussion. And any learning we do in this realm could pay double dividends, making both America and the world more cohesive—because the psychological dynamics of tribalism are largely the same whether the conflict between tribes is intranational or international.
So let’s get started! Let’s see how the psychology of tribalism plays out on the international landscape. And, for our dataset, let’s take the events of the last seven days. So pervasive is the failure to learn from the work of people like Jervis that you can pretty much pick a week randomly—like the week Jervis happened to die—and show American elites failing to get the picture he painted. In the past week, in fact, we can see this failure on the two fronts where the possibility of future conflict involving America is most alarming: Russia and China.
One of the most powerful and unsettling ideas to have emerged from Jervis’s field is the “security dilemma.” The basic idea is that if a country strengthens its military posture for defensive purposes, that also makes it more of an offensive threat to other nations—and their consequently heightened sense of threat may lead them to engage in a military buildup of their own that, though defensive in intent, also has offensive potential. So then the first country has cause for another defensively motivated buildup. And so on, forever.
As Jervis characterized the security dilemma in Perception and Misperception in International Politics: “When states seek the ability to defend themselves, they get too much and too little—too much because they gain the ability to carry out aggression; too little because others, being menaced, will increase their own arms and so reduce the first state’s security.”
As Jervis emphasized, the spiral of escalation emanating from the security dilemma can unfold even if all actors are seeing the world clearly. Even if you understand that another country’s intentions are peaceful, and that its motivation for strengthening its military posture is defensive, you never know when the country will come under new management; or when the old management, facing a change in domestic or international politics, will become belligerent. So it can make sense to strengthen your own military position for good measure.
But it turns out the world’s political actors tend not to see the world clearly—and some common misperceptions can intensify this spiral. In particular: nations often see the defensively motivated actions of other nations as offensive in intent.