Conflicts can stop escalating even without deliberate agreement

Friday, June 8th, 2018

The most important lesson from micro level conflics that we can apply to the geopolitical level of nuclear war, is this:

Conflicts can stop escalating even without deliberate agreement, without negotiating, apologizing, or offering concessions.

In the world of international politics, the issue is generally posed as either taking a tough stance, or else turning to negotiations. But what do you do when the other side refuses to negotiate? Or when they make it clear that one thing that is not negotiable is building nuclear weapons that can wipe you out? This is a terrible dilemma. It makes advocates of negotiation look like they are shying away from a frightening reality through acts of blind faith. But micro-level conflicts show that there is another way out: threats of violence, even with the strongest expressions of hostility between the sides, nevertheless can arrive at an equilibrium that stops short of the brink. And this happens without negotiating, without making an explicit agreement.

When and how does this happen? Micro conflict shows it is a matter of shared emotional moods shifting over time. It is a minute-by-minute process, or day-by-day, even month-by-month. De facto de-escalation occurs with the sheer passage of time, avoiding irretrievable steps along the way, and keeping the sides in emotional equilibrium.

Look at the timing of how shooting wars break out — the timing of daily events that preceded the actual fighting.

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In all these wars, the escalation of force — and the difficulty of de-escalating or extricating oneself– became locked in through a territorial incursion, when boots hit the ground.

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Is this a conundrum, or an opportunity for violence to abort?

If neither side attempts a territorial incursion, we are in the same situation as a demonstration that doesn’t turn into a riot while the emotional danger-zone ticks by; in the same situation as gang members showing off their guns while trash-talking but only pointing them in the air. It looks dangerous, but it is survivable.

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I am not saying that these leaders (or conceivably others) will decide not to strike, out of consideration for casualties of this scale. But they are feeling the emotional pressure. This adds one more force for delaying the moment, in the usual fashion of violence that does not come about because the “emotional moment that is ripe for violence” has not yet arrived.

Leaders will tend to prolong the decision. And waiting is itself a possible path to emotional de-escalation, perhaps the only path we have.

Comments

  1. Bob Sykes says:

    The US Navy is conducting FONOPs in China’s claimed territorial waters in the South China Sea. Looks ripe for escalation.

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