The Illogic of Violence

January 10th, 2020   |   Conflict transformation, Peacebuilding, SIT Graduate Institute

By Dr. Bruce W. Dayton

Escalation of conflict between the United States and Iran has laid bare the tragic and self-defeating assumption by many leaders that only violence will persuade an adversary to change course. Apply enough pressure, so the logic goes, and surely one’s enemy will capitulate.

Certainly, violent coercion sometimes does seem to do the trick. After all, repressive political regimes have long used it as the go-to tool to stifle dissent. But more often, the use of violence to achieve national interests has the opposite effect. There are three reasons for this.

First, violence holds no promise of changing minds or creating new understanding that can de-escalate conflict, it only concretizes hatred, fear and bigotry.

Second, violence has a shelf-life problem. Capitulation by a weaker party lasts only if the pressure is maintained.

Third violence increases in-group solidarity among those who are attacked, especially in cases where issues of identity, national pride, or existential values are at stake. Rather than capitulating or giving up, those who have been victims of violence often experience a heightened devotion to each other and the cause, solidifying their willingness to fight on, even at terrible odds.   

Violence has a shelf-life problem. Capitulation by a weaker party lasts only if the pressure is maintained.

A simple thought experiment can demonstrate this point. Consider how most individuals would react if a powerful and hostile force entered their town, killed all people of fighting age, including members of their own family, and demanded all the townspeople yield to their rule. Would they rationally conclude that capitulation is the only pathway that makes sense, or would they mobilize their community to fight, clandestinely or otherwise, even at great personal risk and likely defeat?   

In nearly every realm of social relations -- families, schools, and workplaces -- human communities have discovered these simple truths about violence, concluding that it should be the last vehicle used to settle disputes, not the first. So why do states rely on it so often in foreign policy? 

To begin with, states are not “people” who calculate a rational course of action to maximize gain. Rather, a state is a cacophony of competing stakeholders, bureaucracies, demanding publics, standard operating procedures, and legal norms. Atop this structure are individuals who see foreign policy through their own imperfect prism of personal experience, ideology, cultural assumptions, and often personal wounds, fears and grievances. As such, decisions related to war, security and peace are rarely optimal.

Second, game theory has shown that it can appear rational for adversaries to escalate their conflict even when that escalation may cause significant injury to the self.  This is because the worst outcome for either side would be if they chose to de-escalate a conflict situation while the other side escalates. For instance, if the United States decided to disengage in military pressure against Iran and pursue a diplomatic accommodation, but Iran pursued an opposite strategy, the United States would be the “loser.” Meanwhile, Iran is making the same calculation. Queue the conflict spiral.

A long history of hostility has eroded most channels for meaningful interaction including diplomacy, travel, economic interaction, and cultural or educational exchange.

Finally, use of violence to achieve one’s interests is more likely to occur when opponents lack functional interdependence; that is, webs of economic, social, and cultural exchange to connect them. Functional interdependence is more prevalent in small communities, such as workplaces and towns, but less prevalent large communities, such as the international political system. Relations between Iran and the United States is illustrative. A long history of hostility has eroded most channels for meaningful interaction including diplomacy, travel, economic interaction, and cultural or educational exchange.   

So where do we go from here? The march toward war will be stopped only when both sides conclude that they stand to gain more through mutual problem-solving than they do through the unilateral exercise of power.  This realization is the cornerstone of diplomacy. It requires a tremendous leap of faith by both sides, significant confidence-building efforts, and often the assistance of a mediator with credibility within both opposing camps. It also requires recognition that the ultimate interests of both sides are often aligned. After all, beneath the surface incompatibilities separating the U.S. and Iran are deeper shared needs for security, economic progress, and human well-being. Such interests are not zero-sum.

The 2015 nuclear agreement was a first step by the United States and Iran to establish a diplomatic pathway to de-escalation. An imperfect and fragile instrument, it nevertheless established some degree of trust upon which further steps toward political normalization could be taken. The restart of such efforts is hard to imagine under present circumstances. The U.S. reneged on its commitments under that agreement; proxy conflicts between Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States in Yemen, Syria and Lebanon continue unabated; General Suleimani was assassinated by U.S. forces; and Iran has launched missiles against U.S. bases in Iraq. Nothing can change these facts.

Beneath the surface incompatibilities separating the U.S. and Iran are deeper shared needs for security, economic progress, and human well-being. Such interests are not zero-sum.

However, when governments can’t or won’t talk together citizens, businesses, and non-governmental organizations still can. Indeed, moments such as these are too important to leave to governments. Over the past years, I’ve run citizens diplomacy programs at the School for International Training where people interested in peacebuilding and conflict transformation from around the world gather, confront their fears about each other, and forge new relationships and ideas for more enduring forms of conflict management. In 2017, for the first time, an Iranian was able to join our discussions. Such interactions help to create ripe moments for conflict transformation at the grassroots. They also represent an opportunity for citizens to take diplomacy into their own hands, a slim cause for hope in a frightening time.

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Dr. Bruce W. Dayton has been a practitioner, researcher, and educator in the field of conflict transformation, crisis management and leadership training for more than 20 years. His books include Perspectives on Waging Conflicts Constructively: Principles, Cases and PracticeConstructive Conflicts: From Escalation to Resolution, and Conflict Transformation and Peacebuilding: Moving from Violence to Sustainable Peace. He currently chairs conflict and diplomacy master’s degree programs at School for International Training.