James Holmes

Not All Conflict Is Irrational

Were states to get into a tussle over the Arctic someday, they wouldn’t necessarily be irrational.

James R. Holmes
Not All Conflict Is Irrational
Credit: Wikimedia

When classes convene for the winter term, the Naval Diplomat’s thoughts turn to … rationality. That comes with studying the strategic theorists, as we do this opening week. It’s an important topic. Anecdote #1: During the conference gathering that dare not speak its name two Fridays ago, one of the papers on the panel I chaired explored the concept of “bounded rationality” in states’ behavior.

Bounded rationality is the brainchild of the late economist Herbert Simon. To oversimplify, Simon maintains that individuals can’t make fully rational decisions because we can never have all the information we need and our faculties are too limited to process it anyway. Ergo, we “satisfice,” doing enough to get by rather than hold out for perfection.

Anecdote #2: In Berlin last month, we heard a panelist hold forth on the future of the Arctic Ocean. After examining the likely changes to the polar region – most prominently the prospect of ice-free navigation – he averred that an expanse ringed by mature nation-states should be a natural zone of peace. Such states, that is, can sort out their differences without taking up arms. (Shades of Clausewitz’s dichotomy between civilized states, which act rationally, and savage states, which let passion rule them. But then, Clausewitz was a favorite son of Prussia, site of the conference colloquium. Maybe it’s in the air.) But then he closed by voicing the fear that the Arctic states will act “irrationally.” Conflict could ensue despite their joint interest in peace.

These views of rationality aren’t exact opposites, but close. Simon works from the assumption, common in economics and political science, that people are rational actors. We tally up data, evaluate them by objective criteria, and make decisions. For him, it’s the limits on our ability to gather and quantify information that drive us away from rationality. Simon’s doubtlessly on to something. Our doughty Arctic strategist, on the other hand, suggests that decision-makers in capitals like Ottawa or Moscow may fling cost/benefit logic to the wind, and act solely on emotion. There’s some truth here as well. Passions shape human conduct. It’s not unknown for them to escape control.

But in the end, more than mindless passion, a shortfall of information, or a shortfall of cognitive capacity bounds rationality. Clausewitzian cost/benefit logic mandates that the value of the political object govern the magnitude and duration of the effort that goes into obtaining it. That sounds rational in the best Enlightenment sense. But what is the objective value of any given political goal? It’s tough – nay, impossible – to quantify such things. That’s doubly true in the realm of human competition, where the paradoxical logic of interaction renders all variables fleeting while demanding continual reassessment.

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Because key variables are subjective in value, not-strictly-rational forces like fear and honor shape the value people assign them. One combatant, accordingly, may prove willing to expend more resources for longer than the next to achieve the same political gain. No amount of information or information-processing capacity can reduce competition or combat to an algorithm. So the Arctic states could get in a tussle someday. That doesn’t necessarily make them irrational. Let’s not reduce people and states to caricatures.