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International Affairs Forum

Around the World, Across the Political Spectrum

Human nature, international hierarchies and ISIS


By A.C. Beyer

We can apply Maslow’s theory of needs also to states. States, like people, have needs that they must satisfy. The drive to life (according to Freud this is understood as the life instinct) means they will try to satisfy these needs to survive and be content (i.e., not in upheaval, civil war or revolution, but stable). However, as the resources to satisfy these needs are usually limited, they are at least sometimes in competition with each other. This leads to the prospect of failure and to failure (which results in fear), as well as to success and the prospect of success (which might lead to aggression). This fear and aggression also determine that other phenomena arise, such as security dilemma, deterrence and such. As states vary in their success and failure, they will establish hierarchies. Security dilemmas and deterrence might keep them stable in the short term. But hierarchies and structures are not stable in the long term.  They are usually long-term mobile. Sometimes, they are medium-term mobile, as we have seen with the case of Germany over the past century. Sometimes they are in constant turmoil, as we currently see in various crises around the world. This depends first on intervening factors, factors that are outside of the control of states, such as nature, the environment, unintended consequences of actions, and varied human ingenuity.

These all might lead to increasing or decreasing capacities of states, and this might lead some states or sub-state actors to be able to rise and others to be challenged and in the extreme possibly to decline. The general assumption is that leading powers vigorously defend the status quo. However, leading powers are not necessarily pure status quo powers. They might be interested in keeping their security and their dominance. But they might as well be interested in improving the situation of the lesser powers. How else would we describe attempts at widespread democratization and the spread of development? Leading powers realize that their security and dominance depends on growth and survival of lesser ones. Otherwise, they will be challenged by those who can afford it. This can be observed with the current case of the US hegemony, which is extremely interested in pushing democracy and a certain economic system, which it genuinely believes brings progress and prosperity. Although the current US President publicized his determination to keep the United States the leading military state, nowhere is an indication to be found that growth, and therefore change, is not desired. And even in military sphere cooperation, training and calls to Europe to increase its capabilities in this sphere were repeatedly made. Therefore, we need to take the idea of status quo oriented states not too literally.

Psychologists also claim that we all have a prejudiced view of ourselves. We think ourselves right even in the face of opposition and rather assume the other side wrong than to doubt our own standpoint. This kind of egocentric prejudice is common amongst nearly all humans. If we apply this to states it means that it is difficult to overcome conflict as it is difficult to come to a mutual understanding, which is thought by psychologists to be the basis of harmony. Real efforts need to be made to take in the other side’s point of view, which might seem difficult, painful or even counterintuitive.

Examples can be given in current affairs. Trying to put ourselves in the shoes of Russia or the Islamic fighters might be counterintuitive and seem foolish and dangerous. But it might mean we have to consider options otherwise not seen, such as thinking about including Russia in the worlds important institutions, such as in particular thinking about opening up the doors of NATO, which Russia sees as a substantial threat to its sphere of influence and security, particularly with repeated enlargements. Likewise, we have to listen to Islamist fighters and understand what motivates them. And apart from religious rhetoric they very often do have political reasons and goals they cite. Not all of them might be attainable, as real conflicts of interest might not be there to solve. However, as we have seen from the past, if a conflict cannot be won by force, then in the long term we need to include negotiations to provide a resolution. I’m not suggesting that the current conflict with ISIS can be won by bringing them to the table. As terrorist researchers rightly state, sometimes terrorists want to destroy the table instead of sitting at it. But in the long term, different means need to be taken and different avenues explored at least in addition to the fighting. We have seen that a total elimination of the Islamist threat is not possible. Therefore, the only other option, when the situation has stabilized somewhat, is to engage in dialogue and to see where compromises can be made.

The violence of ISIS probably also stems from certain needs and striving to fulfill them. If we do, or not, apply the idea of life or death force here (according to Freud) it does not matter as much as understanding that there are motivations behind this violence. Failure might lead to fear, which might lead to the willingness to accept compromise. But compromise also means we need to be able to give something in return. The only way out of this form of violence is substantial development in the broader Middle East and Africa. Stability and democracy will only come when these areas are no longer a gap in our globalized, integrated and developing world.

Dr. AC Beyer is Senior Lecturer at the University of Hull. Her main publications include: Inequality and Violence (2014 Ashgate) and Violent Globalisms (2010 Ashgate). More information atwww.corneliabeyer.net.

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Tue, December 09, 2014 05:24 AM (about 77089 hours ago)
How else would we describe attempts at widespread democratization and the spread of development?

There are many things that can be critiqued in th
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