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Ending Deadly Conflict: A Naïve Dream?

Humanitas Visiting Professorship in Statecraft and Diplomacy 2013 Lecture by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC FASSA, University of Cambridge, 8 May 2013

To be an optimist about anything in international affairs is to run the risk of being branded ignorant, incorrigibly naïve or outright demented.  And to remain an optimist – a glass half-full kind of person – after twenty-five years of treading the boards as a national foreign minister, international NGO head, and participant in innumerable other commissions and campaigns trying to influence international policymaking, will be thought by many to be evidence of a mind simply incapable of learning from experience.

But I do remain a tenacious believer in our capacity to learn something from the past and not repeat its most awful mistakes. In these lectures – which I am very honoured to have been invited to deliver, and for which invitation I thank everyone involved at Cambridge and Humanitas, not least our donor Angelika Diekmann, for both their generosity and bravery – I will argue that this has been clearly demonstrated, first, in the context of deadly conflict generally, the subject of today’s lecture, and second, in the more specific context of genocide and other mass atrocity crimes, the subject of my next lecture. In my third lecture, I will suggest that it has been also demonstrated in the progress we are making towards eliminating nuclear weapons, although more problematically here because movement has been much slower.

I also have a belief based on my own experience, which I will spell out in today’s lecture, that distinguishing between the instinctive Optimists and Pessimists of this world is a rather more productive way of understanding the way in which real-world policymakers actually react to peace and security issues than trying to enrol them in any the familiar international-relations-theory schools, of Realism, Liberalism and Constructivism and all their innumerable variants. No doubt in taking this unashamedly simplistic view I will be setting myself up for a heavy counter-assault in the half-day scholarly symposium which will follow this lecture series. But as Lord Denning used to say in court, contemplating the prospect of finding himself alone in dissent yet again, “I must face that consequence with such fortitude as I can command”.


If we were hoping for peace in our time, the last year – like so many before – has certainly not delivered it. Conflict grew ever bloodier in Syria, continued to grind on in Afghanistan, and flared up periodically in West, Central, and East Africa. There were multiple episodes of ethnic, sectarian, and politically motivated violence in Myanmar/Burma, South Asia, and around the Middle East. Tensions between China and its neighbours have escalated in the South China Sea, and between China and Japan in the East China Sea. Concerns about North Korea’s and Iran’s nuclear programs and behaviour remain unresolved. As we read each day’s newspapers and look at each night’s television news, think about everything that is going wrong in the world, and start listing all the impossibly difficult issues with which UN Security Council is currently wrestling, it really is hard to believe that ending deadly conflict once and for all could ever be anything more than an impossibly naive dream.

If your taste is for gloom, there are other ways of compounding it. A great deal of published psychology research plays into the argument that there is something endemic and irreducible about the human instinct to violence. One of my favourite examples is a University College London study ten years ago showing just how easy it is for violence to rapidly escalate from small beginnings.[1] Measured pressure was applied to volunteers' fingers, and they were then asked to apply precisely the same amount of pressure to their partners, with the partners then responding in turn: the typical response was 40 per cent more force than actually experienced, with the result that within a couple of minutes what began as a game of soft touches quickly moved to moderate pokes and then hard prods. Each partner believed that the other was escalating: neither realized that what was really involved was a neurological quirk by which the pain we receive almost invariably seems worse than that which we inflict.

Then there are the long series of research findings, stretching back over 40 years, summarized in a 2006 Foreign Policy article, “Why Hawks Win”,[2] which suggest that when it comes to basic psychological impulses at work in issues of war and peace, there are built in biases which incline decision makers to make at least four basic errors. First, we exaggerate the evil intentions of adversaries: even when people are aware of constraints on another’s behaviour, they tend not to factor that in when assessing the other’s motives, while at the same time assuming that others grasp the constraints on their own. Second, we are overly optimistic when assessing the case for going to war: a large majority of people believe themselves to be smarter, more attractive and more talented than average, which commonly leads them to overestimate the amount of control they have over outcomes. Third, we are unduly pessimistic when evaluating the chances of peace: there is a reluctance to accept concessions on the intuition that they must be worth less simply because the other side has offered them. And fourth, we are deeply reluctant to cut losses, even when the risks of further loss by going on are very high, which clearly helps many conflicts to endure long beyond the point they should.

It doesn't need much imagination to see how these various factors might conceivably have had more than a little to do with the policy mistakes and roadblocks with which we are all too unhappily familiar in the context of escalating and intractable conflicts like Syria, just as we can see most of them clearly recurring in the conflicts of decades and centuries past.  It certainly requires a considerable feat of optimism to believe that these kinds of reflex reactions buried deep in the human psyche – not to mention all the rest of the mental furniture that plays a part in human conflict, including hatred, intolerance and greed – are ever going to be able to be sufficiently neutralized.

But there is something going on out there – an accumulation of data about what is actually happening in the real world of deadly conflict between and within states – that gives us some real grounds for optimism that hoping for an end once and for all to such conflict might not be a complete delusion.

What is now generally described as the “New Peace” phenomenon was first publicized by the Human Security Report Project, a team of scholars in Canada working under the direction of former UN adviser Professor Andrew Mack,supported in particular by the superb database of the Uppsala Conflict Data Program.[3] What those figures demonstrate, quite contrary to conventional wisdom, and perhaps to the instincts of all of us who think we follow international news pretty closely, is that over the last two decades, major wars and episodes of mass violence worldwide have become much less frequent and deadly. After a high point in the late 1980s and very early 1990s, there has been a decline of well over 50 per cent in the number of major conflicts both between and within states, in the number of genocidal and other mass atrocities, and in the number of people killed as a result of them. The bigger story has simply been concealed, as ever, by the media’s daily preoccupation with current bloodshed.

The decrease in the number of battle deaths has been particularly striking. Whereas most years from the 1940s through to the 1990s had over 100,000 such reported deaths — and sometimes as many as 500,000 — the average for the first years of this new century has been less than a third that, averaging around 30,000, on any view a very dramatic trend decline.

Of course violent battle deaths are only a small part of the whole story of the misery of war: a great many war-related deaths are indirect, due to disease and malnutrition rather than direct violence, as we have seen, for example, in the Congo and Darfur, and these can certainly sometimes substantially exceed direct battle-related deaths. But some of the most publicised, and alarming, calculations (in particular for the Congo) seem to have been inflated by challengeable statistical assumptions. And certainly there seems to be no foundation for the very commonly made claim that the overall ratio of civilian-to-military deaths has increased over the last century from 10 per cent to 90 per cent. The detailed analysis of the Human Security Project, while not for a moment downplaying the immensity of the collateral suffering associated with every war still waged, suggests that “indirect” deaths, of non-combatants have in fact declined to an even greater degree than violent deaths related to combat.

There have been a number of efforts to debunk this generally optimistic analysis of the conflict environment, but they have not been persuasive.[4] True, there has been a resurgence since 2004 of what statisticians (if not humanitarians) would call “minor armed conflicts”, and there has been a worrying increase in recent years of internal conflicts made more bloody by external-power involvement (as in Afghanistan, Iraq and the DRC – and now Syria as well, if one takes into account the increasing flood of externally-supplied arms now sustaining the conflict). But, looking at the overall figures on “high-intensity” conflicts or wars (defined as entailing 1,000 or more battle deaths in a year), the trend-line has been sloping unequivocally downward for the last 60 years, all the way back through the peaks – lower each time – of the Korean War in the 1950s, the Vietnam War in the 1970s, and the Iran-Iraq and Afghanistan wars in the 1980s, and certainly since the end of the Cold War.

This “New Peace” phenomenon is reinforced by a second one, that historians now call the “Long Peace” – the unprecedentedly long period in which there have been no wars at all between the great or major powers. Since 1945, not only did the long feared direct confrontation between the United States and Soviet Union never erupt, but no interstate wars at all have been fought between major developed countries, nor have there been any such wars in Western Europe – in contrast to the average, on one estimate, of around two new conflicts a year for the last six centuries.[5]


The crucial question is why is this all happening. Is it just a statistical quirk from which deadly business is bound to resume as usual sooner or later? Or are there real causal factors which can be identified which, between them, can give us some real confidence that, despite all the ups and downs and individual crises and conflicts that continue to haunt us, the world has actually passed a turning point, and really is getting safer and saner?

To focus first on the New Peace phenomenon – the evident dramatic decline in conflict generally between and within states over the last twenty years. A number of factors have manifestly contributed, including the end of the era of colonialism, which generated two-thirds or more of all wars from the 1950s to the 1980s; and of course the end of the Cold War, which meant no more proxy wars being fuelled by Washington or Moscow, and also, eventually, the end of the road for a number of authoritarian governments propped up by each side who had been provoking internal resistance.

But, as argued by Andrew Mack and his team, the best explanation is the one that stares us in the face, even if a great many don't want to acknowledge it. And that is the huge upsurge in activity in conflict prevention, conflict management, negotiated peacemaking and post-conflict peacebuilding activity that has occurred over the last decade and a half. Most of that has been spearheaded by the much-maligned UN, although there has been a great deal of additional input from governments and other organizations, including – if you’ll forgive me saying so – my own International Crisis Group, which from very small beginnings in 1995 has become a major source of information and advice on all these matters.

We are doing better at diplomatic peacemaking. Whereas in the Cold War years more wars were decided on the battlefield than ended in negotiation, in subsequent years    successes from Cambodia to the Balkans to Northern Ireland to West Africa to Nepal and Aceh have well outnumbered what remain so far the failures, for example in Sri Lanka and Darfur, and now Syria. Recent Uppsala figures do show that the number of new peace agreements has been falling, which may mean that that the low-hanging fruit has been plucked and the wars that persist are more intractable: but it could also simply be a consequence of there being fewer wars to make peace about. And while it is the case that as many as one third of all peace agreements break down in less than five years, the evidence is that when wars do recur in these circumstances they are on average 80 per cent less deadly than the first time around.[6]  Peacemaking effort really is worth it.

We are becoming ever more professional at peacekeeping, The Security Council currently mandates fifteen peacekeeping missions around the world with over 110,000 international military, police and civilian deployed. And peacekeeping goes on evolving to meet new needs, the most recent example being the mandating in March this year of an “Intervention Brigade” within the larger peacekeeping force in the Congo, explicitly tasked to mount offensive, not just reactive, operations  against those continuing to perpetrate violence there.

And we are certainly now doing much better at post-conflict peacebuilding, having finally learned – after the horrendous experiences of Angola, Rwanda, Afghanistan and Haiti – that the best single predictor of future conflict is past conflict in the same place, and that there is an absolutely critical need to put in sustained resources and commitment during the years that follow peace agreements to stop the whole horrible cycle of violence starting again.
There has been another major institutional development over the last twenty years which has changed the dynamics in favour of peace, viz. the emergence of an effective system of international criminal law, designed to overcome the sense of impunity from justice that so many warmongers and perpetrators of mass atrocity crimes have enjoyed for so long. There are specialist national courts created with international assistance, as in Sierra Leone and Cambodia; special tribunals to deal with war crimes committed in specific conflicts, in particular for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda; and, by far most importantly, the establishment of the International Criminal Court as a permanent court to hear cases of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes, with no time limitation on its ability to prosecute. While there has been some criticism of, among other things, the slow pace at which many of these proceedings have moved, all these courts have now delivered convictions, and the message is certainly getting out there to warlords and warmongers that things aren’t what they used to be.

Another factor in reducing the overall level of violence in the world, until recently under-noticed and under-documented, has been the rise in the level of non-violent resistance. A fascinating recent book by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan documents how over the course of the last century campaigns of non-violent resistance have been actually twice as effective as their violent counterparts in winning regime change. [7]  And every struggle that is resolved by such resistance is one that doesn’t enter into the database of armed conflict.

The remaining factor helping to explain the decline in violent conflict is in fact the other big global good news story: the dramatic and increasingly rapid decline in world poverty, not least in Africa, documented most recently in the 2013 UN Human Development Report, which makes the point that “Never in history have the living conditions and prospects of so many people changed so dramatically and so fast”. While there has never been a simple correlation between poverty and conflict, it is certainly possible to argue that as incomes rise states become better capable of addressing grievances, both peacefully and more robustly, and that the opportunity cost of joining rebellions increases: to be unemployed and living on the margin of existence is one thing, to have a job, house and prospects quite another.

In addition to all these institutional, political and economic explanations of the New Peace there is an important normative factor which comes into the equation: the dramatic change in the way the world is now thinking and acting about mass atrocity crimes – genocide, ethnic cleansing and other major crimes against humanity and war crimes – threatened or occurring inside state walls.  The story of the emergence and embrace of the concept of “the responsibility to protect” – and its likely future after the mid-life crisis it is currently experiencing in Syria – is one that I will be telling in the second lecture in this series. 

When we turn to the “Long Peace” between the great powers, and indeed the dramatic decline in interstate conflict generally, it is perhaps even more likely, although very hard to prove, that normative developments – changes in mindsets, the way in which policymakers and those who influence them think about these issues – have been centrally important. A credible argument can certainly be made that the decades since the end of World War II have seen the effective disappearance – after many centuries of flourishing life – of what the French call bellicisme, the ideology seeing virtue and nobility in war, and its replacement by the perception that, with today’s technology, the damage inflicted by any war would be unbelievably horrific, and far outweighing, in today’s economically interdependent world, any conceivable benefit to be derived. 

Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychologist, puts it this way in his brilliant recent book documenting the decline in violence over not just recent decades but the whole course of human history:

Norms among the influential constituencies in developed countries may have evolved to incorporate the conviction that war is inherently immoral because of its costs to human well-being, and that it can be justified only on the rare occasions when it is certain to prevent even greater costs to human well-being. If so, interstate war among developed countries would be going the way of customs such as slavery, serfdom, breaking on the wheel, disembowelling, bear-baiting, cat-burning, heretic-burning, witch-drowning, thief-hanging, public executions, the display of rotting corpses on gibbets, duelling, debtors prisons, flogging, keelhauling and other practices that passed from unexceptionable to controversial to immoral to unthinkable…[8]

Maybe this is far too optimistic a reading of where the world is now at, but it is certainly worth thinking about.

Also worth thinking about, and reinforcing my general disposition to be a little more optimistic about the underlying currents in human nature than some people think rational, is David Cannadine’s just published book, The Undivided Past,[9] based on his Trevelyan Lectures here at Cambridge a few years ago, which argues that the great signifiers of “otherness” – religion, nation, class, gender, race and civilization – have never been unbridgeable divides; that the whole course of human history has been at least as much about cooperation as conflict, and about kindness to strangers as much as about obsession with separate identity; and that there is a sense of common humanity that continues to bind us together.

Returning to the Long Peace, a more conventional, and sceptical, explanation than anything to do with human nature, evolving or otherwise, is that this has really been a  “Nuclear Peace”, the product of the balance of nuclear terror between the U.S. and the Soviet Union through the Cold War – and a balance maintained since then between other potential pairs of belligerents, including India and Pakistan, India and China, and China and the United States.

But while it is hard to argue that nuclear deterrence played no part at all in keeping the peace – at the very least it must have made policymakers more cautious ­­– there is good reason to think its role has been very much exaggerated.

I will develop this theme more in the third lecture of this series, but some of the relevant arguments are these. First, that the existence of weapons of mass destruction (including chemical and bacteriological weapons before 1939) has not stopped war between major powers in the past. Second, that the wars which have taken place since 1945 have often seen a non-nuclear-armed state, apparently unmoved by its rival’s capability in this respect, either provoking, or failing to surrender to, a nuclear-armed one (as with North Korea, Vietnam and Iraq against the U.S., Vietnam against China, Afghanistan against the Soviet Union, and Argentina against the U.K).

Another argument here is that the existence of nuclear weapons on both sides has not stopped, and may even be seen to have encouraged, a number of instances of military adventurism by one nuclear-armed state against another (most notably Pakistan’s Kargil incursion against India in 1999), although this one cuts both ways. On the one hand, it certainly does suggest that nuclear weapons on both sides are no guarantor of peace and security between potential belligerents. But on the other hand it does not stop nuclear deterrence enthusiasts saying that the only reason the adventurism in question did not lead to a full-scale war was a fear on both sides of nuclear holocaust.  

The real story in all of this – and the best way of explaining some of these apparent inconsistencies – may again be a normative one: in this case the existence of a profound international taboo against the deliberate use of nuclear weapons, at least in circumstances where the very survival of the state is not immediately in jeopardy. Since the early 1950s – when it began to sink in that their destructive capacity really was infinitely greater than anything previously seen – such deliberate use has been seen as inconceivable by the leaders of any country thinking of itself, as civilized, and wanting to be thought so by others. Presidents Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy rejected military advice to use nuclear weapons in the Korean War, the Taiwan Straits crisis, and the Cuban missile crisis, and the force of the taboo has if anything since grown. Even John Foster Dulles said that if the US had used nuclear weapons in Korea, Vietnam or against China over Taiwan, “we’d be finished as far as present-day world opinion was concerned”. [10]

There is some very recent published research[11] suggesting, a little alarmingly, that the nuclear taboo is nowadays not felt nearly as strongly as previously thought by the US public. But among policymakers worldwide, whatever may be the case with their publics, it is my own instinct that the taboo is as strong as ever. And it is confidence in the existence of that taboo – and the effective un-usability of nuclear weapons that goes with it – that may be thought to explain why so many military risks have been taken over the years in defiance of that supposed deterrent.

None of this means, for a moment, that we should be comfortable with the existence of nuclear weapons. So long as any are retained by anyone, the risk is all too real of stumbling into a nuclear exchange through accident, miscalculation, system error, or sabotage, and any such exchange would be potentially catastrophic for life on this planet as we know it. 


For all the better news that I have been describing and seeking to explain, there is absolutely no room for complacency that either the New Peace or the Long Peace will be self-sustaining, without much further effort to further strengthen international institutions and norms in support of sustainable peace. Whenever one feels the urge to such complacency it’s always useful to think back on Norman Angell’s “Grand Illusion” prophecy in 1909 – that the integration of the European economies was so complete that war was impossible. Or maybe to recall Viscount Cecil, speaking at the League of Nations in September 1931, just a week before Japan invaded Manchuria: “I do not believe there is anyone in this room who will contradict me when I say that there has scarcely been a period in the world’s history when war seemed less likely than it does at the present”.[12]

One crucial priority in this respect is to take far more effective action than the world has taken so far to eliminate the risks associated with the use and misuse of nuclear weapons, a theme I will take up in my third lecture. Another, which I will develop in my second, is to re-establish consensus, at the highest Security Council level, about the way in which we react to the worst and most urgent mass atrocity crimes, and in that context particularly, to develop agreed criteria for the use of coercive military force.

But the biggest priority of all – and I can’t do more now than sketch this with a very broad brush – must be to embed once and for all into the consciousness of the world’s policymakers that there is simply no substitute for totally embracing a cooperative approach to maintaining global peace and security.

It is simply not possible to respond effectively to security threats, whether global or regional or in many cases even local, and whether they come from state or non-state actors, without effective international cooperation, whether on early warning and intelligence, effective preventive strategies, conflict management and response strategies, or post conflict reconstruction. There are limits to any country’s capacity to do anything without allies, friends or supporters, or by extension, working through international and intergovernmental institutions, starting with the UN Security Council. It’s in every country’s national interest, not just small or medium sized countries like my own, to operate in a rule-based rather than raw power-based international order, and to be and be seen to be a good international citizen. And it’s in no country’s interest to try to achieve or maintain a position of unrivalled regional or global dominance.

An opportunity to make a giant stride in this direction was lost in the aftermath of the Cold War when, although they toyed with the idea, the U.S. and its European allies (and to some extent Russia itself) could not ultimately manage, intellectually or emotionally, to embrace the idea of including Russia in a new cooperative mechanism to prevent and settle conflict in the post bipolar era.[13] The problem with NATO’s expansion was never that it extended to Russia's borders: it was that it stopped there.

There will be many new tests for cooperative security in the years ahead, not least in the Middle East, but the greatest, unquestionably, is how China and the United States react to the dramatic shift now occurring in their relative economic, and eventually military, power. As to how China will behave, one of the best analyses I’ve seen, describing possible external scenarios for China over the next decade, is that given recently at the Brookings Institution by Kevin Rudd, [14] Australia’s Mandarin-speaking former prime minister and prime minister, now unhappy proof of the reality, to which I can testify, that Australian politics is a bloody and dangerous trade.

Those scenarios ranged from actively pursuing zero-sum power politics aimed at dominating the hemisphere and beyond, to engaging strategically with the US and other partners in Asia to sustain and enhance the existing rules-based international order. While suggesting that it would be prudent for countries to hedge against the worst-case scenario, Rudd made clear that he is an optimist, and I think he is right: provided the rest of the world maintains a policy of cooperative engagement with China, incoming President Xi Jinping and his team are likely to choose a non-confrontational path.

As to how the US will respond, President Barack Obama’s re-election offers reasonable hope that the US will give some strategic space to China through a policy of mutually accommodating cooperation. But the loudly heralded military “pivot” to Asia, and much continuing rhetoric of the  “dominance” and “primacy” kind coming out of Washington, suggests that this is a relationship that could end in tears unless very carefully handled indeed. The best expression I have ever heard of the mindset required, was a comment (which I haven’t seen him repeat publicly in quite such explicit terms)[15] by Bill Clinton at a private function I attended in Los Angeles in October 2002, after he had left the Presidency and acquired all the wisdom that comes with hindsight and removal from the daily front-line:

The U.S. has two choices about how we use the great and overwhelming military and economic power we now possess. We can try to use it to stay top dog on the global block in perpetuity. Or we can use it to try to create a world in which we will be comfortable living when we are no longer top dog on the global block.


In watching over the years how policymakers talk and act on international peace and security issues, and trying to gauge how they think – and contemplating how I have thought and talked and acted myself in different practitioner roles – it’s a matter of enduring mystery to me how little of it seems to have anything to do with the preoccupations and prescriptions of international relations theory. Practitioners very rarely talk in terms of any of the familiar academic school labels, and even more rarely act consistently with any one of them. There are some academic writers – and Christopher Hill here at Cambridge has an honourable place among them[16] – who have consistently tried to bridge the gap between international relations theory and foreign policy practice, but for the most part these seem to inhabit separate universes.

Part of the problem for non-afficionados is understanding exactly what the traditional theory labels mean.  While it’s not hard to grasp, or see the point, of the oldest and most familiar distinction in international relations theory – that between Realists and Idealists –this is regarded by theorists these days as kindergarten stuff. You can forget about a job in any university international relations department anywhere in the Western world unless you can confidently draw out the distinctions between classical, post-classical, neo-, defensive and offensive realists; and on the other side between idealists and liberals, and then between a miscellany of neo-, institutional and other-hyphened sub-species of the latter.

And then, cutting across the Idealist-Realist axis, is the division between Constructivists at one end of the scale – who are primarily moved by the notion that norms and ideas really matter – and Rationalists, who are not so persuaded. Beyond all that, out in a space of their own, are a miscellany of Post-Modernist and related worldviews of varying degrees of impenetrability, which my late and dear friend Tony Judt has sweepingly, but I suspect not entirely unfairly, described as “narcissistic obscurantism”.

The only schools which seem to get at all close to describing the way in which practitioners think and behave, are those which are more inclusive in their embrace. One such, I should say in deference to both my current location and its continued high standing, is the “English School”, which might be described as Liberal Realism with a dash of Constructivism thrown in. Even more multi-faceted is the recently established new school, I was delighted to discover, of  “Analytical Eclecticism”,[17] which seems at first sight an admirable home for those intellectually sluggish and disreputable types like me who are too academically ill-disciplined and ignorant to fit in anywhere else.

The trouble is that none of these labels, with the possible exception of the last, really do credibly describe the way in which those of us in this business actually behave, year in and year out, in all those situations where some kind of policy choices are open to us. Even the most adventurous of us, and most passionately committed to human rights and universal values and norms, know that in the real world that crowds in upon us, good ideas and values sometimes carry the day but often they don’t; realities constantly intrude, and compromises constantly have to be made.

I certainly felt these competing pressures very sharply during my own foreign ministerial career. I was hugely committed throughout to human rights ideals and multilateral institutions, and I know I pushed my diplomats’ tolerance to the limits requiring them, for example, to make endless representations in Beijing and other rather unreceptive capitals against executions and in support of Amnesty prisoners of conscience, and in making various Quixotic efforts to reform the UN personnel practices and restructure the Security Council.  But I also engaged in plenty of hard-nosed realism, not least in the boundary negotiations I conducted with Indonesia over the Timor Sea, or the peace negotiations in which I was involved with the Khmer Rouge. It is certainly discomfiting in the extreme to sit across the table from genocidaires, as I did in those Cambodian negotiations, generating howls of indignation from the John Pilgers of this world as a result. But engaging with those for some or all of whose behaviour you feel the utmost distaste is not the same as endorsing that behaviour, and without being able to draw that distinction diplomacy, and with it any kind of capacity to maintain stability in international relations, and find solutions to problems and conflicts, would grind to a halt.

One of the most interesting treatments I’ve seen of the way theory relates to practice in international policymaking was an article in International Security a few years ago entitled “The Future of US-China Relations: Is Conflict Inevitable” by the Princeton Academic Aaron Friedberg[17] who – I’m pleased to be able to report, in the interests of establishing my analytical objectivity – did a stint on the dark side, in Vice-President Cheney’s planning office during the George W. Bush administration. Taking as his starting point the three main camps in contemporary international relations theorizing – Realism, Liberalism, and Constructivism – he argues that what really matters most in determining their adherents’ attitudes and prescriptions on the China-US issue is a more fundamental, cross-cutting, division between Optimists and Pessimists.

So optimistic Liberals believe in the possibilities created by interdependence, institutions, and pressure for democratization; optimistic Realists believe that China’s power will remain relatively limited and its aims constrained, and play down the security dilemma its actions create for other players; and optimistic Constructivists believe that China’s engagement in international institutions of various kinds will lead to shifts in its strategic culture and in the norms of international behaviour accepted by its leaders.

On the other hand pessimistic Liberals see the Chinese leadership as struggling with political change and prone to hyper-nationalist assertiveness, and also see too much external pressure for democratization and human rights as potentially counter-productive; pessimistic Realists see China’s power as growing, its aims expanding, the security dilemma this poses as intense, and the need as a result for maintaining a strong competitive posture very strong; and pessimistic Constructivists worry that an excessively competitive approach by the US will result in a hardening of Chinese leadership mindsets.

Of course, given life’s complexity and variability, any classification of human instincts or behaviour in starkly bipolar terms does run the risk of sliding into parody. I can’t help remembering in this respect the solemn declaration by an Oxford philosophy tutor of mine long ago, absolutely incontestable as a matter of fact, that “there are two kinds of people in the world: those who wear nightcaps to bed, and those who don’t.”

But I also can’t help thinking, as I look out at the world around us, and certainly at the way in which policymakers and decision-makers address most of the public policy issues with which I have been concerned over my own professional life, including foreign policy, that there is something to be said for seeing the crucial difference in terms of optimism versus pessimism. There does seem to a mindset which is basically open, embracing inquisitive, adventurous and positive – and another which is narrow, confined, cautious, and negative. Most people do seem to line up, instinctively or intuitively, on one side of this line or the other. And when they are influential in policymaking, it really does matter which side that is.

The crucial point is that in foreign policy, as in life itself, outlooks can be self-reinforcing, and self-fulfilling. Pessimists see conflict of one kind or another as more or less inevitable, and adopt a highly wary and competitive approach to the conduct of international relations.

But for optimists of all stripes and colours, what matters rather is believing in and nurturing the instinct of cooperation in the hope, and expectation, that decent human values will ultimately prevail. And that’s where I come out. If we want to change the world for the better, we must start by believing that this is possible.

[1] “Two Eyes for an Eye: The Neuroscience of Force Escalation”, by S. Shergill, P. M. Bays, C. D. Frith and D. M. Wolpert, Science, July 2003

[2] “Why Hawks Win”, by Daniel Kahneman & Jonathan Renshon Foreign Policy, January-February 2007

[3] Human Security Report Project, http://www.hsrgroup.org : see in particular its flagship Human Security Reports, especially 2009-10 and 2012, published by Oxford University Press but available online; Uppsala Conflict Data Program, http://www.pcr.uu.se/research/UCDP .

[4] See especially John Arguilla, “The Big Kill”, Foreign Policy, 3 December 2012, and the replies by Steven Pinker,  and Andrew Mack and Sebastian Merz, “Hey, Foreign Policy, the World Really is Getting Safer”, Foreign Policy, 7 December 2012.

[5] Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and its Causes (London: Allen Lane, 2011),  p. 251

[6]  Human Security Report 2012, op. cit., pp 178-9

[7] Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Non-Violent Conflict (NY: Columbia University Press, 2011)

[8] Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and its Causes (London: Allen Lane, 2011), p.291. 

[9] David Cannadine, The Undivided Past: History Beyond Our Differences (Allen Lane, London, 2013)

[10] Quoted in Nina Tannenwald, The Nuclear Taboo (Cambridge University Press, 2007), p.173

[11] Daryl G Press, Scott D Sagan, Benjamin A Valentino, “Atomic Aversion: Experimental Evidence on Taboos, Traditions and the Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons”, American Political Science Review¸ February 2013

[12] Quoted by Peter Varghese, Secretary of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, “Australia and Asia: Building Stability by Building Institutions”, Asialink Address, 19 February 2013

[13] Compare Alexei Arbatov, “Real and Imaginary Threats”, Russia in Global Affairs, 13 April 2013, at http://eng.globalaffairs.ru/person/p_84

[14] “The Need for a New US-China Strategic Roadmap”, Brookings Institution, 17 December 2012, accessible at  http://www.kevinruddmp.com/2012/12/the-need-for-new-us-china-strategic.html

[15] The closest approximation seems to have been a speech at Yale on 31 October 2003: “We’re the biggest most powerful country in the world now, we’ve got the juice and we’re going to use it – and there’s a lot of respectable opinion arguing for this…But if you believe that we should be trying to create a world with rules and partnerships and habits of behavior that we would like to live in when we’re no longer the military, political, economic superpower in the world, then you wouldn’t do that.”(http://yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/transcript-global-challenges)

[16] Christopher Hill, The Changing Politics of Foreign Policy, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2003

[17] Katzenstein, Peter and Rudra Sil, Beyond Paradigms: Analytical Eclecticism in the Study of World Politics, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2010.

[18] Aaron L. Friedberg, “The Future of U.S.-China Relations: Is Conflict Inevitable?”, International Security, Vol. 30, No. 2 (Autumn, 2005), pp 7-45