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My Article on Aeon: To understand Crimea, we need an evolutionary theory of national honour

When Russia annexed Crimea in March, American policymakers were taken by surprise. They shouldn’t have been, argued the political theorist John J Mearsheimer in a New York Times op-ed. After all: ‘Mr Putin’s behaviour is motivated by the same geopolitical considerations that influence all great powers, including the United States.’

Mearsheimer is one of the leading exponents of offensive realism, the theory that international politics has always been, and will presumably remain, ‘a ruthless and dangerous business’. In the absence of a world government that could protect the weak from the strong, all states seek as much power as possible: there is no better way to ensure their own survival. So says the offensive realist.

There are, of course, other ideas in the marketplace of international relations theory (which might itself explain the general confusion over Russia’s recent activity). Liberal theories, for example, tend to downplay the quest for strategic advantage, focusing instead on such internal characteristics of states as their form of government. But, strange as it might seem, such distinctions do not make much difference on the international stage. Democracies and dictatorships appear similarly jealous of power.

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So offensive realism enjoys better empirical support than other theories of international relations. At the same time, it is clear that more is at stake in international politics than naked geopolitical calculus. One limitation common to most realist theories is their assumption that states act as purely rational agents, coldly calculating the course of action that would yield the highest material advantage. In fact, state policy is often influenced by seemingly irrational considerations. No truly rational utility-maximiser could take something such as ‘national honour’ seriously, yet states frequently do.

An injection of evolutionary thinking might help to explain why.

Read the rest of the article on Aeon Magazine

The background of the billboard is provided by a famous painting by Alexander Deyneka, Defense of Sevastopol, which I have already discussed in a previous blog, Economic Sanctions against “Sacred Values”: Why Sanctions Will Not Deter Russia. The message, then, is that NATO is equated with the German Nazis.

As I wrote in the Aeon article:

In another little-noticed part of his address, Putin evoked the image of NATO establishing a naval base in Sevastopol should Crimea slip out of Russian control. There is a suspicion among Russian policymakers that the real motive of the US in detaching Ukraine from Russia is to expel the Black Sea Fleet from Sevastopol and replace it with a NATO military base. It doesn’t matter whether this is really the US goal; what matters is that the thought of NATO boots on Sevastopol’s hallowed soil is intolerable to many Russians. As Putin remarked: ‘I simply cannot imagine that we would travel to Sevastopol to visit NATO sailors.’


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  1. jukkaaakula says:

    Nice analysis. Just commenting/asking about one minor technical detail.

    How big is the role of peer punishment in the conservation of the “culture of honor”.

    I assume even if the origin – as you defined it – is about the individual selection of the “protect your honor by not allowing anyone take yout property” strategy, the reason why the “honour strategy” is ESS is partly because those who are not honorable are punished by the peer.

    I refer to “Nisbett, Richard E., and Dov Cohen. Culture of Honor: The Psychology of Violence in the South. Westview.”

    • Peter Turchin says:

      Actually, you don’t need punishment by peers. Those who are not honorable are ‘punished’ by predators – rustlers, in the herding case.

  2. Edward says:

    Excellent article. If it is an evolutionary theory of international relations it is also an evolutionary theory of state. as long as we first admit the state is not a binary life form that exists or it does not exist, there are degrees to which a state exists, like there are degrees to which a sky is cloudy or a rainbow is bright. State borders are imagined lines that matter only if a real, walking talking agent cares enough to take them dead seriously (and can convince others to agree) on the basis of a sacred value. The more agents within a territory agree, the more the state becomes a reality. The less they agree, the more competing sacred values disrupts the “space” of what an external viewer might call a state. The degree to which the constituent agents within a particular region of space are of like mind over “sacred values” concerning that space is the degree to which a state exists. When this corresponds with all agents, you get a strong, vibrant state. If the elites and commoners have different sacred values they are willing to die for to protect then the “state” does not exist quite so much in that region. This would be an asabiya problem. Conflict, like Ukraine.

    • Peter Turchin says:

      I agree, Edward. However, it is possible for a state not to have any Sacred Values, I think. Later today I hope to post about historical states that had no Sacred Land.

  3. radek says:

    I think whether the “if you mess with me, you’ll regret it” strategy can be considered “irrational” depends on how you define “rationality”. In a repeated game, it is a “sub-game perfect Nash equilibrium”, which means that it does satisfy the basic axioms of rationality underlying the theory of repeated games. Generally, more or less, sub-game perfect Nash equilibria correspond to ESSs (there’s some qualifications here). In that sense, adopting the “don’t mess with me” strategy is no more irrational than undertaking a risky investment in the present, in the hope that it pays off in the future.

    There is a bit of a problem with this. In repeated games it’s very possible to wind up with a result that “almost” any strategy, from “ok you can mess with me” to “if you mess with me I’ll devote every second of my life to getting back at you” can be sustained as a sub-game perfect equilibrium, depending on how much the people involved discount the future (this is the famous “Folk Theorem” of game theory). It’s sort of the dead end alley (or maybe an over abundance of forking paths) that applications of game theory to social phenomenon ran into in the past 20 years.

    A different way to think of this problem is that the details of a particular situation – historical and institutional – which in some way “choose” among the different possible outcomes, are of central importance. But that’s something you cannot really generalize into an abstract model.

    • Peter Turchin says:

      Hi Radek –

      I had a similar comment from Herb Gintis, which is why I put ‘irrational’ in quotes. Basically, you guys are arguing that anything that can evolve is in some sense rational. That’s fine, but I am using a much more narrow definition of rationality, and I don’t really want to enter into a definitional debate. Also, my article is not directed at the Economists steeped in Game Theory. The original blog was prompted by someone asking why Putin was behaving so irrationally with Crimea, and what he was hoping to gain.