It’s easy to overlook the underlying strategic forces of war, to see it solely as a series of errors, accidents, and emotions gone awry. It’s also easy to forget that war shouldn’t happen—and most of the time it doesn’t. Around the world, there are millions of hostile rivalries, yet only a fraction erupt into violence, a fact too many accounts overlook.
Christopher Blattman is the Ramalee E. Pearson Professor of Global Conflict Studies at the University of Chicago. He is co-lead the university’s Development Economics Center and the Obama Foundation Scholars Program. In his new book, Why We Fight, Christopher Blattman reminds us that most rivals loathe one another in peace. War is too costly to fight, so enemies almost always find it better to split the pie than spoil it for everyone or struggle over thin slices. In those rare instances when fighting ensues, we should ask: What kept rivals from compromise? He combines decades of economics, political science, psychology, and real-world interventions to lay out the root causes and remedies for war, showing that violence is not the norm; that there are only five reasons why conflict wins over compromise; and how peacemakers turn the tides through tinkering, not transformation.
In this interview, I speak to Professor Christopher Blattman about why we fight, the root causes of war, and how we can effectively move to peace. We talk about how to build resilient societies, how best to detect fragility, and the remedies that shift incentives away from violence and get parties back to dealmaking.
Q: Has war been the story of our civilisation?
[Christopher Blattman]: We do fight a lot of the time. The United States has been at war with somebody (in an active, intensive, pitched-battling sense) for many years of its existence but- importantly- not with most of its potential adversaries. In some sense, the interesting fact is that there has been this amazing level of peace in the Americas between the US and its’ neighbours. The nature of hegemonic power is a strong incentive for that. Peace is not so unusual, and perhaps we should also not overestimate the frequency and likelihood of war.
A reminder of this came a couple of weeks into the Russian invasion of Ukraine when India accidentally launched a cruise missile at Pakistan. That incident was dealt with diplomatically and did not result in war, even with the extreme tension between those countries. We don’t want to lose sight of that. Where we have tension, we have the potential for war and brinksmanship. The Cold War was long, uncomfortable, and miserable. It was not, however, a hot war.
Q: How do unchecked interests lead to conflict?
[Christopher Blattman]: Every reason why we fight reveals a cost that our society ignored. The grisly, terrible costs of fighting are often ‘nil’ where, for example in the case of a dictator, the leadership is not held to account. However, this even holds true for some democratic leaders. There is a study that looks at every vote in Congress over the last 150 years – where officials had male children between the 18-24, they were quite anti-conscription. Where they had daughters instead, or no children, they were happier to vote for war.
Q: How can uncertainty about strength contribute towards war?
[Christopher Blattman]: There are subtle, strategic moves that cause (and prolong) war. Everybody who’s ever played poker grasps these moves on some level. We are all strategists or game theorists at heart – it took several decades of people writing-down models and articles before we recognised what we know from playing poker; we don’t know our opponent’s hand. If they’re playing aggressively, is it because they have a strong hand? Or because they’re bluffing? The optimal strategy is never to just fold because you may need to play that opponent again, and everyone is watching you. The proper strategy is also not to raise the pot and call every time. It’s very similar in warfare, except the costs of calling are much more costly. That is the logic of uncertainty.
Russia didn’t know how strong and resolved the Ukrainians were. There was genuine uncertainty. Even the rest of the world couldn’t have anticipated the resolve and strength of Ukraine. Russia also didn’t anticipate some of its own strengths and weaknesses!
Uncertainty creates a strategic incentive for a rational man to go to war. That’s not necessarily a mistake as, at the moment, people may wish they had better information, but they may also realise they’ve made the optimal choice. There’s also a bucket of things we can call misperceptions which are actually when- because of uncertainty- we get probabilities wrong, are overconfident, have underestimated our enemy, or demonise them. These distinctions may seem subtle, but they are conceptually different.
We approach uncertainty in an unbiased way and try to act optimally. We approach misperception in a biased way, and that is what our leaders are very prone to doing.
Q: How do commitment issues relate to conflict?
[Christopher Blattman]: There is a famous Iraqi idiom which states that if you think your opponents can eat you for dinner, then you’d better eat them for lunch. If your opponent is too big and powerful to eat you right-now, you’d better eat them for lunch before they eat you. Commitment problems from our opponents lead us to act, and that’s another reason why rational man can go to war. Irrational leaders do take us to war, but it’s important to understand why war could be strategically optimal.
Commitment problems are deep and important, but perhaps the least recognised and understood. People use commitment problems to explain every major war of the last few centuries. If we look at World War One or the US Invasion of Iraq, the logic of ‘I have to eat them for lunch before they eat me for dinner…’ makes much more sense when you think of Germany facing a rising Russia, or the US worried about Saddam Hussein getting a nuclear weapon. It’s a little harder to think about the Russia x Ukraine war in terms of commitment problems. Ukraine doesn’t feel like it was the big bear that would eat Russia for dinner yet, Russia ate it for lunch anyway.
The subtler story here is Russia being at peak leverage vis-à-vis Ukraine. Not now, but certainly six months ago. Russia’s economy was stagnating, Ukraine was acquiring more defensive assets, growing closer to the west, and was potentially becoming more democratic. This was potentially threatening to Putin’s regime, he clearly didn’t want such an example of democracy on his doorstep. There was, I think, a mild commitment problem here as Ukraine couldn’t commit to defend itself or to move towards democracy earlier. It wasn’t that Ukraine was going to eat Russia, but that Russia had an opportunity to lock in an advantage and didn’t take it early. They failed to commit.
Q: How do intangible incentives relate to war?
[Christopher Blattman]: We go to war not because we ignore the costs, but because we know there are costs, but we are willing to pay those costs because we get something from the war which we wouldn’t get otherwise. If we look at the Russia x Ukraine war… People say that this is Putin’s pursuit of glory or some nationalist ideal of reclaiming the empire. They say it’s about him coming back from the humiliation of the last three decades. These are all intangible incentives that come at a cost. For Ukraine, they chose to not roll over which came at a cost. It was not at all obvious they would choose this path – Belarus subjugated itself, as did Kazhakstan (who let peacekeepers in). Historically, Russia has thrown its weight around a lot when it comes to neighbouring nations, and most have not said no the way that the Ukrainians did. The ideological incentive for Ukraine is to protect its liberty, their territorial sovereignty. They are so willing to do this, that they are prepared to pay the price of fighting. In my judgment, Putin’s intangible incentive is ignoble and the Ukrainian one is noble. I support one and I don’t support the other, but that’s how I explain it and I think that’s crucial to understanding why this war could go on for a very long time.
Q: How are the theatres of cyber-conflict impacting war?
[Christopher Blattman]: Economic sanctions were invented about a century ago in their modern form. When they were first used, people did wonder whether sanctions, when levied, would be treated the same way as a military incursion or declaration of war. It makes sense that we perceive that a legitimate response to economic sanctions might be military, but our international norms and laws have evolved to treat them as separate. If I sanction you, it is not okay for you to attack me physically. It took time and effort to get to this position, and with cyber warfare we have not yet had that ‘real’ test.
I think cyber warfare is likely to be treated more like economic sanctions. It’s less costly, in terms of human loss than mechanical physical warfare, but also does create costs to the other side. We will most likely use cyber against enemies who don’t have that capacity to hurt us back with cyber because we can. It’s just another way for us to exert bargaining power over our adversaries without going to war.
Q: What have been some of your key learnings around the use of peacekeepers?
[Christopher Blattman]: One of the main commitment problems of peacebuilding is the uncertainty around how willing the other side is to fight, or not, and how willing they are to put down their arms if ‘we’ do. Peacekeeping forces reduce a lot of the uncertainty around this commitment problem – they help to monitor both sides, and to ensure that both have put down weapons, and maintain that position. Putting down your weapons in civil conflict is very risky and it’s one of the reasons wars continue. It’s important to create structures that mean that if one side puts down weapons, the other side doesn’t use it as an opportunity to attack. Peacekeeping functions also therefore will extend to constructing political institutions to settle disputes through negotiation and dialogue. It is better to battle it out in parliament, rather than on the battlefield.
Q: What have you learned about resilience from studying conflict?
[Christopher Blattman]: A resilient position means that you are not always on the brink of war.
The cost of war is so great that being on the brink (as we see with India and Pakistan) is a deeply uncomfortable place to be. We have to make leaders and societies pay more attention to the costs of conflict, and that’s one of the most effective ways to build resilience. The fact that India is more-or-less a democracy helps to preserve peace. The fact that Pakistan is a reasonably checked autocracy helps to maintain peace to the extent that it’s not a personal dictatorship and has a degree of checks and balances. It would help more if Pakistan were moving towards decentralised power, with more checks and balances, but that’s for Pakistan to decide. Increased economic interaction between these two nations- anything that promotes trade and exchange- also creates dependencies which reduce fragility.
Q: Will we ever be free of war?
[Christopher Blattman]: It’s quite far-fetched to assume we will ever be free of war, but I don’t see any reason why we couldn’t have drastically less conflict. One of the key things to look out for is the centralisation of power – in most of the places we see conflict, there is highly centralised power, and often few checks and balances on whoever is in control. Unchecked interests can lead people to ignore the costs of war, and personalised autocracies can be vulnerable to ideological misperceptions. Dictators and elite cabals have no real moral need to make credible commitments, who will hold them to account?
Anything that moves the world toward more checks and balances will be pacifying. It has been the overarching trend for the past century, but there are no guarantees it will keep going, it will require effort.
Africa is a great example. It has been growing more peaceful. There are fewer, and less intense, civil wars. The fundamental reason has been an increase in the number of checks and balances. England and France decolonised very quickly and left countries with hyper-centralised power. Presidents came in and simply substituted the old colonial power for themselves. It was a deeply unstable political situation that led to repeated coups and civil wars. Power was so concentrated that it was a prize to capture. In the past 70 years, many of these nations are broadening power, and finding more peace as a result.