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‘Nobody’s ever fighting with just one rival’: Christopher Blattman on why we fight (but mostly achieve peace)

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Podcast & Video

This episode of Hub Dialogues features Sean Speer in conversation with Christopher Blattman, professor at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy, about his must-read book, Why We Fight: The Roots of War and the Paths to Peace.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on AcastAmazonAppleGoogle, and Spotify. The episodes are generously supported by The Ira Gluskin And Maxine Granovsky Gluskin Charitable Foundation and The Linda Frum & Howard Sokolowski Charitable Foundation.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host, Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Christopher Blattman, a professor at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy and author of the must-read 2022 book, Why We Fight: The Roots of War and the Paths to Peace. The book is now out in paperback, and I’m grateful to speak with him about it, including the factors that influence war and conflict. Christopher, thanks for joining us at Hub Dialogues, and congratulations on the book.

CHRISTOPHER BLATTMAN: Thank you.

SEAN SPEER: Let’s start with a personal bio, if that’s okay. You grew up in Canada and did your undergraduate degree at the University of Waterloo. How did someone who grew up in Canada become so interested in gangs, violence, and war, and how have your Canadian roots shaped the way you think about conflict, development, and global progress?

CHRISTOPHER BLATTMAN: I think every step has been completely by accident. We never really left the country or travelled when I was a kid, so working abroad was never something that occurred to me growing up. I mean, I think we went to Disney World, if that counts as an international trip, when I was maybe 12. Then, as a college student, I was working in business and doing a business undergraduate at Waterloo, and I became really interested in issues of poverty and inequality and what you’d do about that. I thought I’d work on it in Canada, but the more I looked at it, the more it seemed like, “My gosh, there’s so many people working on it, and that last mile is so hard.” Somewhat ignorantly—I think, in the end, this was actually correct. Most of my intuitions were not correct at that point, but the one that was correct was the idea that actually—maybe not the first mile—but that fourth or fifth mile, contributing towards something abroad, especially in a low-income country, was going to be a lot more straightforward and maybe needs more help.

And that’s certainly been confirmed because then subsequently, lots of accidents took me towards working, first, in Africa and then on issues of conflict and then issues of gangs. But everywhere I’ve worked, I’ve often been the only person of my social science persuasion and sometimes the only researcher for 100 miles working on that issue. And so the idea that you could actually have more impact working abroad, I think, was borne out.

SEAN SPEER: Let’s turn to the latest book, which uses a mix of economics and political science approaches to understand the factors that lead to war and conflict. You told Russ Roberts in your May 2022 appearance on EconTalk that, “The principal-agent problem is really at the centre of this book.” Why don’t you explain the principal-agent problem and its relevance to understanding why we have war?

CHRISTOPHER BLATTMAN: Right. Well, the first thing I should say is it’s not really a book about my ideas; it was my attempt to take 50 years of social science on this topic, so economics, political science with some game theory, but actually it’s a lot of psychology and sociology and give them equal measure. And the thing is, we’re all really good armchair psychologists, and I think our news and our journalism, and our social science has given us lots of psychological reasons why individuals and leaders would be violent. And that’s true if you’re talking about a kid on the streets of Chicago who joins a gang or Vladimir Putin. We have all of these psychological narratives that are probably true in part. And then we don’t always think about the strategic parts of war. Some people have said, “Oh, you’ve written a book that’s about game theory in war.” I’m like, “No, no, no. I’ve written a book about all the drivers of war. It’s just that you haven’t heard the strategic ones before, so you should probably consider both.”

One of the three, I guess, strategic causes of conflict is a really simple one. It says, “Look, the people who are deciding on war might not be accountable for all the costs that have to be paid.” They might actually place costs and risks on their population that they might not if they were held properly accountable. And that can be true in democracies, but democracies, we’ve partly, not mostly, solved that problem, which is one reason I think they’re relatively not always, but relatively peaceful. But I think autocracies—or also just smaller groups, gangs and rebel groups, places where they’re not accountable to the local population—will be more likely to carry us to war because they’re going to basically ignore a lot of the costs and they’re going to prioritize a lot of the benefits. And then there’s other reasons, and that’s what economists—we’ll call it an agency problem. We’re the agents, we’re the people, and we elect, or we have a leader who’s the principal who makes choices, and—oh, sorry, that’s not true. We’re the principals. We want our agent, the politician or the rebel leader, to do our bidding, but that person often doesn’t because they’re unconstrained. And that’s our starting point for, I think, why we go to war so often.

SEAN SPEER: The book argues that we have a collective bias towards peace, but there are generally five conditions which can tilt against such a bias. Why don’t you unpack them? And how do they interact with one another?

CHRISTOPHER BLATTMAN: Well, I mean, before we get into Why We Fight, the book probably—if my editor had let me, I would’ve called it Why We Don’t Fight, but no one wants to buy a book called Why We Don’t Fight. But it’s kind of a book about why we don’t fight. And maybe that first point in the book is to say, “Well, actually, you might think we fight all the time.” And you hear this sort of thing, you hear like, “Oh, humanity’s natural state is war, and we’re innately aggressive creatures.” And without denying that there’s an awful lot of conflict, because I study it, right? Our starting point is that’s not true. That actually 999 times out of 1,000, enemies prefer to loathe one another in peace and do so.

So I’d like to point out, for example, last year, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been on everyone’s minds, obviously. But two weeks into the Russian invasion, India accidentally launched a cruise missile at Pakistan, and nothing happened. And most of us—I almost missed the story entirely; it was barely reported. But peace broke out that day, just as it’s broken out most days for the last few decades between India and Pakistan, these nuclear-armed powers. Now, if India and Pakistan had started a conflict at that moment, of course we’d all write the story about, “Oh, it was inevitable.” And we’d have all these—the causes would be obvious. But they didn’t fight, and so we didn’t write that story, and we didn’t pay attention to it. So these moments of quieter compromise slipped from our attention.

So that’s the first thing I just pointed to. And that’s true for gangs; that’s true for ethnic groups; that’s true for religious rivals; that’s true for countries. It’s just too costly to contemplate, and so they find some other way. And so the book is then saying, “Well, actually, what that means is war is—well, it’s not simple, but war is simple in the sense that every explanation for war comes down to one side or the other, either overlooking those costs or being willing to pay them.” And that’s basically it. And then every story you’ve ever heard about war, that I think is correct, is some version of that. And I just told you one, right? I said, “Well, one way is when people who are deciding don’t take those costs into account when they’re unchecked.” And so that’s one of the main ways that peace breaks down.

And the book is about how there’s five ways. And one of them is this agency problem, this unchecked leader problem. Then, there’s two psychological problems. One is when we either—there’s ideological or intangible things that we stand to gain from war that we can’t get through compromise, so we fight because it’s valuable in and of itself. The other is when we make mistakes, when we have all the systematic misperceptions we have, and there’re many. And then the other two also come from game theory or design strategy. And they say war comes out of either uncertainty or war comes out of basically, the strategic unreliability of our opponents. In certain circumstances, nothing necessarily about our opponent, but in certain circumstances, sudden anticipated changes in power can come about. And so the book’s saying, “There’s a reason for every war and a war for every reason.” And actually, most of those reasons fit into one of these five categories.

SEAN SPEER: How much of these conditions or factors are typically accounted for by political actors in a conscious way versus a more subconscious way? That is to say, do you think people are cognizant of the fact that they may be motivated by pride, or honour, or whatever? Or do they tend to self-rationalize those factors away in favour of more concrete or defensible explanations for war and conflict?

CHRISTOPHER BLATTMAN: Great question. So the answer for individuals and individuals deciding whether or not to engage in conflict, I think we’re very often acting in the moment; in a hot, reactive way. This is actually not a book about inter-individual conflict. Most books about violence are about our instinctual and other psychological issues as individuals. But once you’re in groups, it’s one thing to explain a skirmish or a border invasion, or a clash with me being ignorant or my entire administration being prideful and ignorant of our pride. It’s another thing to explain year six of that conflict, right? With this stubborn ignorance. So we have to be really careful.

That’s why I think we have to be a little bit cautious and suspicious of these psychological stories because a lot of short wars or a lot of clashes might be due to these errors, but the average civil war is about 10 years long. Certainly, some stubborn misperceptions matter a lot, but maybe we should also be looking for other deeper roots that actually make this not the best thing we can do but maybe optimal under the circumstances for two enemies to decide to use arms.

SEAN SPEER: There’s been some debate over the years in international relations and political science about rational choice theory. I recall a friend of mine years ago did a doctoral dissertation about whether dictatorial regimes such as the Taliban or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, or the North Korean dictatorship ought to be understood as rational actors. How does that scholarship interact with your own work?

CHRISTOPHER BLATTMAN: Yeah. I mean, the game theoretical parts like—let me take uncertainty as an example, “Well, what if we’re rational, could we still find ourselves at war?” That doesn’t mean that our adversary is rational; it just means to say—so let’s think about someone like Saddam Hussein. Right? You might say that Saddam Hussein is a madman. You might say that Saddam Hussein is an autocrat and is totally insulated from the truth, and has bad information. You might say all sorts of things. But the thing is the thing that’s true for Saddam Hussein, that’s true for Vladimir Putin, it’s true for NATO, that’s true for a gang leader here on the streets of Chicago, is that they have lots of enemies. And the fight today with this rival—so if someone’s threatening me, I have to not just worry about what sort of signal that sends to this one rival in that one moment, but I’ve got 12 other opponents who are looking on, and they might even be more threatening to me.

I have to worry about sending a signal because it’s fundamentally uncertain. So this is where uncertainty plays a role. It’s fundamentally uncertain how strong I’m and how resolved I am. And if I can pull off, if I can bluff with one opponent, then that’s going to pay off with all of these other opponents in the future. And, of course, if I lose that bluff or if I actually appear weak because I give in, right? If I let everyone in, if I tell you our weapons of mass destruction, if I make it really crystal clear, then I worry actually what that’s going to do to my next interaction.

So there’s an argument that Iraq’s enemy number one, two, or three was not the United States back in 2003; they were thinking about Iran and Israel, and Saddam Hussein, most of all, was thinking about his own population, and rest of ethnic groups, and his generals. And so the United States was enemy number four or five. So you don’t have to believe that that’s the only reason for this long con and this long bluff that was only given up at the very last minute, and even then with a lot of uncertainty, but you have to recognize that that was a big part of the story. And you have to recognize that on the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the West’s resolve was uncertain, and Russia’s resolve and capabilities were uncertain. And each of them were playing a long game with many enemies, and they have strategic incentives to be thinking, because nobody’s ever fighting with just one rival. And so you don’t have to say that maybe that’s not primary every time but to ignore that, which I think we mostly do. To ignore that is just deeply faulty.

SEAN SPEER: What about the so-called “Starbucks thesis?” Is it true that having two Starbucks in two countries correlates with a much lower likelihood of conflict?

CHRISTOPHER BLATTMAN: That’s interesting. I’ve never heard of the Starbucks thesis, but look, you could find—I guess I could see a way in which Starbucks CEOs are just very good at saying, “Well, let’s just not go to these risky places.” So that’s possible, and “Let’s just work in places where we think there’s a wealthy population.” So I think that’s probably just very chance or not serious. That’s not a chance at all; it’s spurious. They’re just basically conditioning in all the things that make for stable, growing places, which most of us can pick out, because that’s where they’re going to make their money. If anything, it’s why most places don’t go to war; it helps us point out like, “Look, a lot of people can make a lot of money if we don’t fight.” And so there’s this huge incentive. Peace has this gravitational pull because then you get—not only are you wealthy in your trading, but then you also get to pay $4 for a cup of flavoured hot water.

SEAN SPEER: As you’ve alluded to a couple of times, Chris, you also compare street gangs and their decision-making about turf wars with interstate conflict. What are the similarities and differences?

CHRISTOPHER BLATTMAN: So the differences are pretty obvious, I think, in that a street gang is going to be a little bit more individualistic, it’s going to be a little bit more de-syncratic than a government, it’s going to be less deliberative. They’re a group of young men typically, so they’re probably more subject to biases than, say, an entire military and intelligence apparatus. But the point is that they have a lot in common, and that at any group level, these same five factors come up. So I’ve worked a lot on this in West Africa and here in Chicago, and in Latin America. Here’s an example—you hear three stories about violence in American cities, especially cities like Chicago. One story you hear is young men: these hot, reactive emotions to something, often to a perceived slight. And that’s true. And we know that’s true because I’ve run some programs where you help people deal with their hot, reactive emotions, and then they’re less violent. They’re really less violent. So that matters.

The second story you hear is one of vengeance. Vengeance is this intangible incentive for violence, right? You don’t get vengeance through compromise. And so vengeance is a reason why you’re willing to—it’s not that you’re ignoring the cost of war—when you have this hot, reactive emotion, you’re not making a mistake; you’re choosing violence because it’s intrinsically rewarding, and so you’re willing to pay some cost. And that explains a certain amount of violence. There’s a whole—they don’t call them gangs anymore, they call them mobs and crews, and cliques because they’re smaller, less organized than the gangs of yesteryear, but a lot of the mobs they’re named after a brother or an uncle or a father, or a friend who was killed, right?

So the whole existence of this ‘gang’ is somehow predicated on the whole idea of vengeance. The story that’s also true, maybe more true, but you don’t hear as often, goes back to this reputational and uncertainty story. The fact is that if someone looks at me sideways or hits on my girlfriend, this perceived slight, like, why do I react to that? Is it because I’m hot reactive and making a mistake? Well, maybe. Is it because I’m vengeance and I just want to eke out some sort of satisfaction? Well, maybe. Or maybe what matters is that there’s 14 gangs around me, and if I look weak, it’s going to be open season. And so I am compelled, as a gang member or as a gang leader, to respond violently and strategically because I need to send the signal that I’m tough because if I do that, then people will leave me alone. And that is the code of the streets. That is maybe the fundamental driver of a lot of behaviour, just as it was for United States and Iraq or the United States and NATO and Russia. And so I think we overlooked that appeal.

SEAN SPEER: The comparison got me thinking about forms of conflict that aren’t interstate, that involve players like Al-Qaeda or Boko Haram, or whatever. How should we understand their motivations relative to the government of a nation-state? And what role does religion play in your analysis?

CHRISTOPHER BLATTMAN: So you get this phenomenon of, let’s call it, very small extremist groups. And I’m not going to say terrorist groups, I’ll say groups that use terror tactics, because terror tactics are just tactics. It’s a weapon of the weak. Terror is something you do when you can’t really mobilize a conventional war. You commit violence not because you care about the target itself, but because you’re trying to send a message and create fear. Now, it’s true that many of these—I think a large popular revolution would maybe be less prone to ideologies and religious—not necessarily, we can think of lots of religious wars—that there seems to be that these small extremist groups sometimes have these extremist religious motivations. So that would be one of these ideological, intangible motives.

So that’s true, but if we stop thinking about it there, I think we would mistake why they’re using violence. Because there’s actually lots of small ideological groups that don’t use violence all the time because it’s actually not in their interest, okay? So we once again would make this mistake of what social science calls ‘selecting on the independent variable.’ So what sets these groups apart? Well, it might be their ideology. It could be the unchecked list of their leaders. So again, this agency problem—the fact that the leaders aren’t internalizing the costs. It could be that they may have these other strategic incentives. Like if they have a temporary advantage, they may have—and they fear that it’s going away and there’s a way to lock in their advantage. So there’s lots of reasons. So I think there’s a whole literature that’s looking at the strategic logic of terror groups so that we don’t ignore it because it’s too easy to see this sort of religious extremism and stop thinking there.

SEAN SPEER: As part of your research, did you discern any relationship between the propensity for war and conflict and a society’s age distribution? Do you think that aging demographics, particularly in advanced economies, reduce the likelihood of war?

CHRISTOPHER BLATTMAN: So people made this claim—I think the evidence is pretty unpersuasive. It’s not really clear to me what it is of—look, I could see an argument whereby a very youthful population might be prone to more sporadic individualized violence. But in terms of organized civil war and sustained violence between powerful rivals, there are really, really strong incentives both for those young men, mostly, and for the people who are leading them to find some other way. And so at the end of the day, simply having a youthful population doesn’t make you more unchecked; simply having a youthful population doesn’t necessarily make you more ideological or more prone to misperceptions or things less certain, or create these sorts of reliability and commitment problems. And so, for me, it’s one of these false causes.

SEAN SPEER: As you’ve mentioned, Chris, you wrote the book before Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. How has the invasion, and increasingly protracted conflict, affirmed or challenged your thesis?

CHRISTOPHER BLATTMAN: So prior to the war, I’m on record as saying, I don’t think it’s going to happen. I was privy to no special intelligence. I think I merely said that because at the time it was quite transparent as it might happen, but most of the time your best bet is it’s not, that it’s so unwise and so costly as we’ve seen, right? In some ways, it was such a bad move for Russia and, arguably ex-post, even for Putin in that it seemed like the wrong choice. And so, therefore, most of the time, we should expect leaders to rattle their sabres and then stop. Obviously, I was wrong, and I’m wrong every time a war does break out. So why did it happen? Ex-post rationalization—again, one, we’ve heard these—I mean, Putin is a highly unchecked leader. I think I underestimated the extent to which he saw the preservation of his regime as hinging on the subjugation of Ukraine.

I think the argument for that basically is that, look, he fears probably some kind of democratic revolution just as much as any other autocrat. Right here on his border is a reasonably successful democracy of Russian-speaking peoples that Russians identify with more than anybody else. Well, it was never in the interest of Russia to gamble on this war. You can see how it was in the interest of Putin to gamble in order to extinguish this democratic threat because the Ukrainians had tossed out two Russian-facing dictators in the previous 20 years—not dictators, I would say two Russian-facing Presidents in the previous 20 years.

And then there’s, of course, the ideological and the psychological stories we hear about Putin’s misperceptions, which are partly true. What certainly seems to be true is that the classic problem of most autocrats is not a story of psychological biases and misperceptions but of institutional ones. Autocrats tend to get bad information because no one wants to speak truth to power, especially if they get punished. And so this is the classic problem of autocracy. So it seems like Putin was getting bad estimates of his probability of winning. But then again, it goes back to uncertainty. At the end of the day, it was hugely uncertain. And you go back to a year-and-a-half ago, and you think about how uncertain it was, like Russia’s military power, Ukrainian resolve and resistance, and then Western unity and resolve. And the idea that Russia would get a bad draw on all three—I mean, nobody predicted it, right?

And most people thought that it would be over in a few weeks or a few months and that Russia would emerge, if not holding all of Ukraine and holding the capital, at least holding a significant component. And then, who knows? If we reran the world in the universe a thousand times, how many of those universes does he capture Kyiv in the first month? And how many of those universes does Zelenskyy get on the plane? So we always have to be really, really careful about judging what was the right decision beforehand—not right, but I mean, maybe the strategically optimal, however selfish, decision was beforehand to basing it solely on its result.

SEAN SPEER: In light of that outcome, though, there’s increasing commentary and debate about what a settlement or resolution looks like. How can your framework, Chris, help to inform those decisions?

CHRISTOPHER BLATTMAN: Sure. So one is just to say that if this were only about misperceptions and mistakes and not about either ideology or not about the regime’s incentives and not about uncertainty and reputation, this war probably would’ve been one of the very short ones, right? Because, “Oh, we are wrong, information was bad; let’s pull back.” That didn’t happen, and it probably didn’t happen because of the regime incentives, because of this need for reputation and thinking about their other enemies, and because of the ideology. So then the question is if any of those things fundamentally changed on either side, and if anything, I think they have gotten worse. So Russia has become even less checked and more autocratic. There’s much less freedom than there was in an already relatively unfree and centralized place two years ago.

So the regime’s incentives for self-preservation are greater than ever. The ideologies have arguably been hardened on both sides. So, whereas there seems to have been a lot of willingness for compromise on the Ukrainian side before the war and in the early days. I think the ideological intransigence of liberty and independence, and things I admire, many of us admire, but nonetheless, that has hardened on the Ukrainian side. And the uncertainty is getting resolved, but pretty slowly, right? There’s still a lot of uncertainty.

What is this counteroffensive going to yield? What is Ukraine’s strength and resolve? Could they push Russia back? On that, people have wild disagreements. So it’s amazing how that uncertainty persists. So until that uncertainty is resolved, as it probably will be in the next two or three months, it’s hard to say. But after that, whatever counteroffensive Ukraine is able to wield and accomplish. Things may move not at all or things may move a great deal. People really don’t know. Once that’s over, I think a lot of the uncertainty will be resolved. And at that point, my best prediction is it becomes a frozen conflict where neither side really has an incentive to have a formal, an official peace or treaty, but that the fighting will be so costly and accomplish not so much that I think it’ll slow down. That’s often what happens in these cases. I wouldn’t call that very stable, but I’d call that—it lasts so longer than you’d think.

SEAN SPEER: I won’t ask for a prediction, Chris, but how does your framework help us think about the possibility of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan?

CHRISTOPHER BLATTMAN: Once again, just to stress, this makes it sound like my framework. It’s more like a way of thinking about everybody’s theories and how to make sense of them all. And so it’s like, how to basically start to organize all of the stories you’ve heard out there and what the different—and how to pay attention to maybe the things people aren’t talking enough about.

SEAN SPEER: How very Canadian of you.

CHRISTOPHER BLATTMAN: Yes. Well, that may be true. Okay, you know what? Let’s walk through this. The uncheckedness of the Chinese leadership is—actually, the Communist Party’s relatively checked and balanced machine has constrained the power of its leaders, and they are so tightly entwined in the economy and tied towards economic growth that China’s this very institutionalized, constrained dictatorship. I think that’s part of why it has not been a force for instability in the world. That is changing under Xi Jinping. And so the fact that power is further centralizing and personalizing under him; this is something that Putin attempted 20 years ago unsuccessfully in taking a relatively checked and balanced quasi-democratic place and then turning it into a personalized autocracy.

So the thing that worries me most about China, just as in general, not just with respect to Taiwan, is this personalization of power that should just keep everybody up at night, especially the Chinese. That makes, I think, an invasion of Taiwan potentially more likely because it means Xi Jinping’s not internalizing most of the costs or isn’t compelled to. If he ever finds it in his interest to preserve not just China and China’s welfare but his regime and his personalized power, that is maybe the greatest risk. So in some ways, I would say that, and then I would leave everything else blank for a few spots before I talk about other things that worry me with respect to this framework because it’s just so overwhelming for me.

The other thing I think we have to think about, besides—people talk a lot about the ideology, but not just of Xi Jinping and his elite, but of the whole populace. I mean, to some extent that this ideological intransigence between Taiwan and China about what is an appropriate division of this sovereignty is worrisome, right? And it’s not getting any better. The thing that would precipitate a conflict, the thing we should be aware of, and I think the United States and its allies should be very wary of, is anything that makes China think, “Oh, it makes sense to invade now before we lose the advantage we have.” That’s this classic—what I lay out in the book is a classic commitment problem. Anything that says, “Oh—Any anticipated sudden rapid change in the status quo would potentially precipitate an invasion.” And so a lot of people say, “Well, why is this United States pursue this policy of strategic ambiguity towards China?”

Uncertainty is bad. We just talked about why uncertainty leads towards surely ambiguity. Wouldn’t you want to be certain? Wouldn’t you want China to know that the United States has Taiwan’s back? I think the answer to that is strategic ambiguity is not aimed at the Chinese; strategic ambiguity is aimed at Taiwan. It’s to keep some President or political movement in Taiwan that decides to suddenly change the status quo and declare independence guessing about whether or not the United States would have its back. I think it’s to say that there are circumstances in which, if you’re too provocative, we’re not going to have your back. I think a lot of people would say that is the purpose of strategic ambiguity; it’s to avoid precipitating and giving China an incentive to invade while it can.

SEAN SPEER: That’s a fascinating answer. Final question, Chris. You call war a “wicked problem.” I should say that The Hub, incidentally, has launched a public policy prize called The Hunter Prize to tackle wicked problems. The inaugural prize this year is focused on healthcare reform, but maybe we ought to target war in the future. Why is war a wicked problem? And more importantly, based on your research, how can we avoid them?

CHRISTOPHER BLATTMAN: So this is something that lept out at me when I started teaching a few years ago a class called “How to Save the World”, which is about why so many public policy programs are so hard and why things go wrong, but also why there’s some real victories too, like eliminating smallpox or almost eliminating measles, or cash transfers to millions of people. There’s lots of simple solutions. And I think what I learned teaching that course and reading all these thinkers was that actually we need to learn to diagnose—some problems are super complex, and they’re many players, and there’s no playbook. And you often don’t know what the diagnosis is, and it’s really locally subjective, and logistically complex, and others are the opposite. Others are actually relatively straightforward, they don’t have all those issues.

And so it’s these wicked problems that have all these complexities and other issues. There are some kinds of violence that are not wicked. I think the issue of the fact that a lot of young men are impulsive and shortsighted, and prone to emotion, and combine that with the easy availability of guns, and you get a lot of shootings. Well, I think it turns out there’s some very simple solutions. You can provide certain types of early childhood and late adulthood interventions that addresses that, and you can reduce a lot of violence. So not all violence is wicked, but the simple solutions end there. So we need this complex framework of five different factors, and we need to analyze every single conflict carefully. And we need to pay attention precisely because every conflict is its own complex animal, and we don’t know what the diagnosis is, and therefore we don’t know what the right intervention is.

We’ll actually never really have a proper diagnosis, and you’ll never really get there. And you have to accept that. We don’t know how to solve this problem with Russia and Ukraine. It’s almost unsolvable. The best we can do is have a less bad diagnosis and have less bad interventions over time. And have some realistic expectations, and not subscribe to any simplistic narratives. So that’s maybe what it comes down to is recognizing that your first enemy in any of these things is to avoid succumbing to simplistic narratives about peacebuilding, because if you do, it’s almost certainly going to lead you astray.

SEAN SPEER: Well, that’s a key message and an important book. It’s called Why We Fight: The Roots of War and the Paths to Peace. Christopher Blattman, thank you so much for joining us at Hub Dialogues.

CHRISTOPHER BLATTMAN: Thank you.

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