Why Humanity Can't Move Past War

Bioethicist Jonathan Glover argues that tribal psychology — based on nationality, ethnicity or shared belief — can erupt into war, followed by the cycle of violence and revenge that often follows defeat for either side. (1 hr., 3 min.)

In June 1940, after German troops swept through France and defeated Allied forces after just six weeks, Adolf Hitler very deliberately chose the location for signing the armistice deal that would begin Nazi occupation of the country: an old railway car in the French forest of Compiègne.

The Compiègne Wagon, as it was called, was where Germany had been forced to sign the 1918 ceasefire ending combat in the first World War — the prelude to the humiliating Treaty of Versailles that forced Germany to accept full responsibility for the war, cede territory, and pay crippling reparations. The terms of the agreement fostered simmering anger among Germans, a force that enabled Hitler’s rise to power and fueled his military ambitions. The Fuhrer's insistence on signing the 1940 armistice in the very same wagon marked just another chapter in an ongoing contest for vengeance between the two countries stretching back more than a century.

“[This is] the cycle of tribal violence, when people are defeated in war, followed by a backlash, which leads to the next round of conflict,” said bioethicist Jonathan Glover of King’s College London.

Glover was speaking recently at Asia Society in Hong Kong on human beings’ inclination toward war, and how even the mechanisms and international institutions designed to prevent it since World War II have “spectacularly failed” to rid humanity of armed conflict. “One view is that war is something very deep in human nature,” he said. “... Possibly biologically programmed into us from an earlier stage of humanity’s participation in the Darwinian struggle for survival.”

He noted that while there are many seemingly rational reasons for war-like conflicts over resources and territory, there are two traps that humans fall into that lead to armed conflict: the trap of mutual fear, and the cycle of violence and backlash.

The trap of mutual fear alludes to the so-called “Thucydides Trap” — when a rising power causes fear and insecurity within an established superpower. The term was coined in reference to the rise of Athens and the fear it caused in Sparta but has more recently been used to describe the precarious situation emerging from China’s rise and its challenge to the United States.

Glover pointed to examples of the “cycle of violence and backlash,” like Slobodan Milošević invoking historic humiliation to rile up Serbian nationalism that precipitated the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s; or how the American presence in the Middle East inspired events like the 9/11 terror attacks, which then prompted U.S. retaliation in the region. “Memories last, resentments fester, and people want to hit back,” Glover said, adding that “In the long run, it seems if we want to escape the scourge of war we need some way of policing the world which doesn't involve one country dominating and other people feeling humiliated.”

He said that this would necessitate world powers genuinely ceding their military power to an international federation — something the United Nations was meant to accomplish but has fallen short of. Another measure he proposed was educational projects that chip away at “the illusion of collective responsibility” — the idea that all members of a given “tribe” (like a country, religion, or ethnic group) are collectively responsible for past atrocities.

Glover pointed to the preamble to the constitution of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which says, "Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed."

Watch Glover’s complete presentation in the above video.

About the Author

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Eric Fish is a Content Producer at Asia Society New York and author of the book China's Millennials: The Want Generation.