Rational leaders can still resort to war

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 February, 2017, 4:55pm

Plato likens reason to a charioteer driving two opposing horses, one unruly and base, and the other spirited and bold. Spinoza thinks violence occurs when passion overwhelms reason. In our own time, EQ or emotional quotient, tells a similar story. Suppose they say something true about humans, do also they apply to nations?

Dennis Sandole, an eminent US scholar in conflict resolution and international relations, thinks they do. In particular, he argues this is actually happening in the row between Japan and China over the Diaoyu Islands. How else, he asks in a letter to the Financial Times this week, would "otherwise rational political leaders in Japan and China have allowed their conflict in the East China Sea to escalate in a surreal, potentially catastrophic trajectory, with implications for even the US to be drawn in on Japan's side?"

You can see where he is going with this, but is he right? It does seem absurd to risk a war that would result in detriment for all the parties over an island chain with limited or undetermined value. Using the language of EQ, the professor argues that Chinese and Japanese political leaders must be letting the limbic part of their brains overwhelm and overtake the neocortical, or thinking, part. This sort of neurological "hijacking" often occurs when the organism is under intense stress.

It's not clear whether the professor is using the language of EQ and passion as a metaphor or that he seriously thinks our leaders have lost it. But if he is right, we need calmer heads to prevail if conflict is to be avoided.

However, it seems he has overlooked a far scarier, but more likely, scenario: the actors are actually rational but are locked into a game of power and national prestige whose logic may inexorably lead to an armed conflict. Commentators have pointed to how the Great Powers in 1914 were led by leaders who were rational and did not want war. Yet the logic of treaty obligations and power relationships made that likely, if not inevitable. Rising China has been likened to rising Germany at the turn of the last century, as has the defence obligation of the US towards Japan with the pre-first world war alliance system.

We expect rational actors to produce rational outcomes. History has taught otherwise.