Friday 17 Aug 2018 | 13:48 | SYDNEY
Friday 17 Aug 2018 | 13:48 | SYDNEY

In war, reason trumps emotion


Michael Wesley


This post is part of the Globalisation and war debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

1 June 2010 13:50

This post is part of the Globalisation and war debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

Hugh White makes a very good point about the importance of factoring in emotion to our thinking about strategic affairs. In both strategy and economics, we Anglos are blinded by a rationalist bias that will become a greater and greater impediment as the Anglo world order passes.

As an aside, I've been fascinated for a long time by how deep the antipathies and rivalries are in Asia – whereas they seem to moderate with time elsewhere. I think the answer is that Chinese, Japanese, Indian and other Asian societies are fundamentally hierarchic, and their hierarchies are based around culture. The consequence is a tendency to view international affairs hierarchically.

This is why European colonialism, backed by an ideology of racial hierarchy, was such a profound shock to Asia, and why Asia's international relations will remain imbued with a culturalist rivalry (it's also why David Kang is wrong to predict that the states of Asia will willingly settle into a hierarchy with China at the top).

But I part ways with Hugh on the role of emotion in war. I can't think of a war in the past 200 years that was triggered by emotion overriding rationality. As Geoffrey Blainey so beautifully argues, modern wars are a product not of emotion but of belief – either justified or mistaken – that one's own country (either alone or in coalition) will prevail or that the other side will back off.

This can be either a general belief ('we can beat them on any given day') or specific ('something has given us a brief opportunity to beat them'). I know of no power that enters a war it is sure it will lose – or that it can win but at terrible cost.

So wars happen because of split-second decisions made by groups and with more than a bit of emotion thrown in – but all based on the general feeling that they can be won at acceptable cost. And here's the nub: there's plenty of emotion around in our region on any given day (some of it even whipped up by governments) but there's not much evidence it's being acted on. And I think the reason is that governments are well aware of how fragile the structures underpinning their stability and prosperity are.

Some may argue that it's precisely the changing power relativities that will contribute to an evolution of beliefs that wars can be won at acceptable cost. I'm not so sure. Even with the enormous power lead the US enjoyed in Asia in the early '50s and late '60s, Washington was unprepared to wage total war, even as the risks of losing the limited war mounted.

In the years ahead, there's no prospect of any one country building that sort of power lead. And with each passing month, the great rivals in Asia become a bigger and bigger part of each other's success. The likelihood of winning is going south, while the costs of fighting are heading north. This looks to me like a calculus of bounded competition, not war.

Photo by Flickr user DazT, used under a Creative Commons license.