Why Hawks Win


Elizabeth Glassanos/FOREIGN POLICY

Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon wrote an interesting article for Foreign Policy called Why Hawks Win.

National leaders get all sorts of advice in times of tension and conflict. But often the competing counsel can be broken down into two basic categories. On one side are the hawks: They tend to favor coercive action, are more willing to use military force, and are more likely to doubt the value of offering concessions. When they look at adversaries overseas, they often see unremittingly hostile regimes who only understand the language of force. On the other side are the doves, skeptical about the usefulness of force and more inclined to contemplate political solutions. Where hawks see little in their adversaries but hostility, doves often point to subtle openings for dialogue.

As the hawks and doves thrust and parry, one hopes that the decision makers will hear their arguments on the merits and weigh them judiciously before choosing a course of action. Don’t count on it. Modern psychology suggests that policymakers come to the debate predisposed to believe their hawkish advisors more than the doves. There are numerous reasons for the burden of persuasion that doves carry, and some of them have nothing to do with politics or strategy. In fact, a bias in favor of hawkish beliefs and preferences is built into the fabric of the human mind.

Social and cognitive psychologists have identified a number of predictable errors (psychologists call them biases) in the ways that humans judge situations and evaluate risks. Biases have been documented both in the laboratory and in the real world, mostly in situations that have no connection to international politics. For example, people are prone to exaggerating their strengths: About 80 percent of us believe that our driving skills are better than average. In situations of potential conflict, the same optimistic bias makes politicians and generals receptive to advisors who offer highly favorable estimates of the outcomes of war. Such a predisposition, often shared by leaders on both sides of a conflict, is likely to produce a disaster. And this is not an isolated example.

In fact, when we constructed a list of the biases uncovered in 40 years of psychological research, we were startled by what we found: All the biases in our list favor hawks. These psychological impulses—only a few of which we discuss here—incline national leaders to exaggerate the evil intentions of adversaries, to misjudge how adversaries perceive them, to be overly sanguine when hostilities start, and overly reluctant to make necessary concessions in negotiations. In short, these biases have the effect of making wars more likely to begin and more difficult to end.

The authors also point out that all of this doesn’t mean that hawks are (always) wrong. The example they give is British hawks just before WW2.

More:

Several well-known laboratory demonstrations have examined the way people assess their adversary’s intelligence, willingness to negotiate, and hostility, as well as the way they view their own position. The results are sobering. Even when people are aware of the context and possible constraints on another party’s behavior, they often do not factor it in when assessing the other side’s motives. Yet, people still assume that outside observers grasp the constraints on their own behavior. With armies on high alert, it’s an instinct that leaders can ill afford to ignore.

Imagine, for example, that you have been placed in a room and asked to watch a series of student speeches on the policies of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez. You’ve been told in advance that the students were assigned the task of either attacking or supporting Chávez and had no choice in the matter. Now, suppose that you are then asked to assess the political leanings of these students. Shrewd observers, of course, would factor in the context and adjust their assessments accordingly. A student who gave an enthusiastic pro-Chávez speech was merely doing what she was told, not revealing anything about her true attitudes. In fact, many experiments suggest that people would overwhelmingly rate the pro-Chávez speakers as more leftist. Even when alerted to context that should affect their judgment, people tend to ignore it. Instead, they attribute the behavior they see to the person’s nature, character, or persistent motives. This bias is so robust and common that social psychologists have given it a lofty title: They call it the fundamental attribution error.

It really is a fascinating read. One that should be read by all who are interested in politics.

One of the mistakes that have possibly been made due to this bias, according to Kahneman and Renshon is the Korean War in which the U.S. government did not want to threaten China, and thought that – because they knew that they would not attack China – China would know [understand] that as well. Nowadays, many experts believe that China, in fact, did feel threatened.

Another potentially fatal bias is excessive optimism. People tend to “believe themselves to be smarter, more attractive, and more talented than average, and they commonly overestimate their future success.” They also believe that they have a lot of control over outcomes, they really don’t have any (or not a lot) control over.
Makes one think of Iraq.

Combine that ‘excessive optimism’ with that “gloom usually prevails when evaluating another side’s concessions” and it is clear that people naturally tend to choose war over diplomatic solutions.

There is much more, so I suggest you all read the entire article.

They finish their article by emphasizing that all of it doesn’t mean that hawks are always wrong, for instance with Iran and North Korea. Hawks might very well be right in certain cases, but it is important – so they write – to keep in mind the biases at work in the human mind when talking about foreign policy and dealing with so-called hostile nations.

As all of you know, I am a foreign policy hawk myself. I do not believe that Ahmadinejad and others are truly willing to compromise. In fact, I would say, they will use negotiations to buy time to develop nuclear weapons. Iran with nuclear weapons could develop into a disaster and / or – at least – will change the balance in the region tremendously. I do not quite see how there is use in negotiating with extremists. Extremists don’t care about life or death, they care about the ‘higher cause’. Of course, some people within the Iranian government might be less extreme than others, but the ones currently leading the country seem to be just about the most extreme of extremes.

All of that being said, the biases as described in the article at Foreign Policy is something I have to keep in mind. All the above (what I wrote about Iran) makes a lot of sense to me, but assuming that we all seem to have biases in favor of military action and that – in our minds – we make the ‘enemy’ more hostile than the enemy might actually be and that we favor our own position far more positive than it – objectively spoken – is, should force me to challenge my own views more (aggressively), as to expose my own biases more effectively.

Of course there is also criticism possible on this article. Chicago Boyz:

What the authors don’t acknowledge is how those biases helped earlier generations protect their own. That we tend not to trust the “other� may at times have to do with the nature of the “other� (Arafat’s reign did little to lead Israelis to find Palestinians trustworthy), but the biological truth remains: we trust our own.

Daniel Drezner:

However, I love it in part because it’s simultaneously clear, provocative, and way overblown as a hypothesis. That is to say, even if one acknowledges the individual-level cognitive biases discussed in the piece, it’s a stretch to then conclude that foreign policies are more belligerent than they should be because of hawk bias.

I have more time today, I’ll try to fill out these cryptic points, but for now, here are my issues with the argument…

Drezner wrote down some great points. The first one, just to give you a taste:

1) Definitional squabbles: I don’t like the “hawk” and “dove” labels. Individuals can be hawkish in some situations but dovish in others. Indeed, there might be ideologies or operational codes that countermand the crude hawk/dove dichotomy.

Matthew Yglesias writes that “the editors of the FP website asked Matt Continetti and [him] (aka “the Matt Continetti of the left”) to write responses. You can see Continetti’s take here and [Matthew Yglesias'] here. A second round should emerge online soon.”

Also blogging: The Washington Wire.

Cross posted at my own blog.

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Author: michaelvdg

  • BeYourGuest

    Execllent summary, with some good insights added. This is one of your best posts. And thanks for all the links.

  • http://rising-hegemon.blogspot.com/ Attaturk

    There is, in fact, a ton of historical analogies on this situation that become rather overpowering that military agression is far more awarded than passivity. Christ may have said “blessed are the peacemakers” but in practice all nations, including Christian ones praise the military hero and only on reflection seem to acknowledge the merits of the peacemaker. When the Iraq War started many could not get enough of Bush in a flightsuit and even today, the war critics, who are right, are decried as appeasers and still find it hard to get equal time on the news chat shows — no, the people that get the time are those that want to surge and those who want the status quo.

    While Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Jean Jaures all merit discussion and are praised in bromides, at the time they were often shouted down and abused and in the case of all three men, gunned down.

    The MacArthurs & Pattons of the world, however, have one enabler after another deifying them writ large while apologizing for their shortcomings.

  • CStanley

    Great post on a very interesting article.

    I’ve always felt that there is a great distinction between the behavior of individuals and that of nations, though of course there are some commonalities. Since individuals are hard wired to see danger to enable their survival, it certainly makes sense that the individuals who lead nations (and in democracies, those that elect them) would be biased toward seeing threats from other nations or groups. And a survival instinct is at work here: it’s not just a matter of whether the assessment of risk is accurate, it’s partly a matter of what the stakes are if one is wrong. Err on the side of seeing a threat and yes, you may be creating more conflict and missing opportunities for peaceful coexistence, but err on the side of missing a real threat and you may allow your nation to be attacked or destroyed.

    Trust rarely comes easily even in interpersonal relationships so it’s no shock that it is so rare in international ones.

    As far as the argument made by Attaturk that Christian nations don’t usually act in a Christian manner (not turning the other cheek, so to speak), I agree but again I attribute this to the difference in individual vs. group mentality (a group or nation does not have a soul or a conscience unto itself), as well as differences in group dynamics. My reflection on geopolitical history shows that it is only the weaker side that can have Ghandi or MLK moments of passive resistance (note: resistance, as in resistance to a stronger force). Why? Because of how a powerful group or nation is perceived by the less powerful. Power always creates a sense of fear and resentment in those it is directed toward, even if the power is directed in a benevolent way. The burden of proof is on the powerful nation to always act benevolently and eventually earn more trust.

    But if the more powerful attempts to subdue it’s own power in an attempt to earn trust, the reaction is always for the less powerful to view this as weakness and take the opportunity to gain stronger footing. I suppose this is because the previous powerful stance is has already been viewed with distrust, so that any lowering of the threshold becomes a chink in the armor rather than an opportunity for friendship.

    So, my view is that being a powerful nation carries a very grave responsibility. I don’t believe that such nations can successfully yield their power (which is what a pure dove position would have it do). Rather, the nation should continue to ‘use’ it’s power, but always in a benevolent way. It should always be the example of a nation deserving of that power. I believe the US has failed to do so, many times over, and I think this is where corrections should be made. For example, I don’t believe the US is wrong to be coercive when it is attempting to create better conditions for citizens of another country (whether that be through military fighting or through incentives for other governments to reform). But I do believe we’re wrong when we conduct foreign policy only according to our own interests at the expense of the people of other nations. Then we lose the moral high ground and give reasons for other countries to distrust us.

  • http://mvdg.wordpress.com Michael van der Galien

    Execllent summary, with some good insights added. This is one of your best posts. And thanks for all the links.

    BYG: thank you very much, and no problem of course: glad you enjoyed reading this post.

    C.S.:

    Err on the side of seeing a threat and yes, you may be creating more conflict and missing opportunities for peaceful coexistence, but err on the side of missing a real threat and you may allow your nation to be attacked or destroyed.

    Very true. I think that it was Chicago Boyz who pointed that out: one could very well reason that it is a survival skill.

    You also write:

    But if the more powerful attempts to subdue it’s own power in an attempt to earn trust, the reaction is always for the less powerful to view this as weakness and take the opportunity to gain stronger footing. I suppose this is because the previous powerful stance is has already been viewed with distrust, so that any lowering of the threshold becomes a chink in the armor rather than an opportunity for friendship.

    I think that you are making a tragic mistake here. Sure, in some instance your assumptions might be right (for instance with Hitler), but I dare to say that in the majority of instances, you’re wrong. Thinking like you do, is thinking like a hawk (so I can – to a degree recognize myself in it), but you have to be careful: generalizations seldom are best when dealing with hundreds of nations with completely different cultures and regimes.

    Also, I am tired, so perhaps I’m missing something, but you seem to be contradicting yourself: the last paragraph almost states the opposite of the former. To me at least. Perhaps I’m wrong, and if so I apologize (again, I’m exhausted), but…

    Ataturk:

    While Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Jean Jaures all merit discussion and are praised in bromides, at the time they were often shouted down and abused and in the case of all three men, gunned down.

    The MacArthurs & Pattons of the world, however, have one enabler after another deifying them writ large while apologizing for their shortcomings.

    To a degree at least, you’re right. Again, an argument in favor of the article at Foreign Policy.

    Highly interesting material imo.

  • CStanley

    MvdG: Hmm, I understand your criticism but I think you’re somewhat misinterpreting me, which might be from your fatigue or it could be that I just didn’t explain myself well…so I’ll try again.

    First, I’m saying that a powerful nation inherently arouses concern, fear, and resentment among the less powerful (independent of anything that nation actually does: just simply due to the fact of it’s powerful status and that it COULD do things that aren’t in the interest of the little guys). It may be an overgeneralization to say that’s 100% true, but I think it’s pretty close (not sure if you disagree with this part?)

    Next, I’m saying that this means that the powerful nation has a difficult task if it wants to be seen as a benevolent giant. And I’m saying that I feel the US has failed pretty badly on that (actually, that it hasn’t even tried very hard).

    Then I’m trying to make a distinction between two different ways that a powerful nation can conceivably try to convince the less powerful that it has good intentions. One way is what I would consider appeasement: making concessions to others that are not in its own best interest. Generally, I’m not a fan of this method (though it may have it’s place) because generally I think it results in the less powerful nation simply trying to take advantage (the chink in the armor theory). Generally I think that such demands for concessions aren’t always what they appear to be on the surface: instead of actually wanting this or that, the demands are often more like power plays and the less powerful group will use concessions as an opportunity to further erode the powerful one’s status and to continue to ask for more (any argument that this isn’t the modus operandi of Hamas, for example?)

    Contrasted with that, though, is the approach whereby the powerful nation doesn’t shun it’s power or make concessions, but it does pursue it’s own interests in ways as much as possible that tend to also provide the common good for other countries that are peaceful, democratic, and mindful of human rights for their citizens. I’m advocating that the US should take that approach. We wouldn’t get it right 100% of the time (sometimes giants have big footsteps and can’t help but cause damage even when intentions are good) but I think we could do a heck of a lot better than we have in the past, particularly in Central/South America and in the Middle East.

  • http://www.myspace.com/steeltowncrew Chuck Prez

    Actually the Hawks are having a bad season (only 9-20 in the ’06-’07)

    http://www.nba.com/standings/team_record_comparison/conferenceNew_Std_Div.html

  • http://mvdg.wordpress.com Michael van der Galien

    Contrasted with that, though, is the approach whereby the powerful nation doesn’t shun it’s power or make concessions, but it does pursue it’s own interests in ways as much as possible that tend to also provide the common good for other countries that are peaceful, democratic, and mindful of human rights for their citizens. I’m advocating that the US should take that approach.

    I think that whatever you do, foreign policy wise, one has to compromise, or “making concessions”. Furthermore, I am quite sure that no body would want the U.S. to do concessions that are not in its own interest. To ask that would be stupid.

    My approach, however, is that what might not – at first glance – appear to be in one’s own interest in the short run, might be in one’s interesting in the long run nonetheless.

    C.Prez… heh. Yeah, different kind of Hawks of course. ;)

  • CStanley

    Furthermore, I am quite sure that no body would want the U.S. to do concessions that are not in its own interest. To ask that would be stupid.

    I agree with you on the stupidity part, but on your first statement, I think you really must be very tired and not thinking clearly LOL. How about these examples: those who think the US shouldn’t support Israel because it enflames the Palestinians and inspires terrorism, or Iran and NK’s assertion that they should be allowed to have nuclear power and the opinion of some doves that the US ought not to say that this option is off the table in any negotiations? Or those who feel that our entire response to 9/11 should have been to seek out the root causes of terrorism such as Bin Laden’s complaint about US intervention in the first Gulf War?

    I’d say there are numerous examples of this “stupidity”. And that’s sort of my point: doves might “win” arguments more often if they proposed policies that make sense, to support the US interests even if they also want to be more careful in avoiding aggression.