Zbigniew Brzezinski is a well known political scientist and the media often gives him opportunities to voice opinions on foreign policy. How deserving is this accorded credibility? Well, though I have not read much from him, from the looks of this article he wrote in foreignpolicy it would appear that his competence as a expert on international affairs is grossly inadequate and, moreover, because that incompetence is combined with influence, it makes him very dangerous too.
So I will only criticize that article. It is about the dangers of a declining US and the rise of China. (Anyone who is more familiar with his writing and views, please disabuse me of my ignorance if I am shown to misunderstand him.)
My criticisms are two fold: First a hermeneutic critique and then a theoretical one. On the one hand, he seems to have made severely deficient errors in interpreting and applying the ideas in the Leviathan of Thomas Hobbes. The theoretical critique relies on findings in modern social science.
In Brzezinski’s article, he argues that the decline of the US and the rise of China posses a great threat to the security of the world. He gives almost no explicit support for this pessimistic view except for a brief reference to an ominous “Hobbessian world,” an allusion to the thoughts of the 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes.
While a sudden, massive crisis of the American system — for instance, another financial crisis — would produce a fast-moving chain reaction leading to global political and economic disorder, a steady drift by America into increasingly pervasive decay or endlessly widening warfare with Islam would be unlikely to produce, even by 2025, an effective global successor. No single power will be ready by then to exercise the role that the world, upon the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, expected the United States to play: the leader of a new, globally cooperative world order. More probable would be a protracted phase of rather inconclusive realignments of both global and regional power, with no grand winners and many more losers, in a setting of international uncertainty and even of potentially fatal risks to global well-being. Rather than a world where dreams of democracy flourish, a Hobbesian world of enhanced national security based on varying fusions of authoritarianism, nationalism, and religion could ensue.
Perhaps we can reconstruct the argument he has in mind from this suggestion.
Brzezinski may be construing states as similar to what Hobbes viewed people. Hobbes thought, famously and overly pessimistically, that life was “nasty, brutish and short” in a state of nature for human beings. The only way to establish civil society was for everyone to give up much of the freedoms they have in that state of nature (such as the freedom to kill and rob one another) and to submit to an all powerful sovereign (usually a king) who will use force and coercion to enforce cooperation among all for the benefit of all. This sovereign has many powers including life and death over his subjects. Why would anyone submit to this? Because there are clear benefits to living in a civilized society. One gives up certain freedoms from the state of nature in order to achieve some peace-of-mind and more opportunities for cooperative relationships and hence mutual benefit. This is why Hobbessian political philosophy is often termed a kind of “social contract theory.”
In order for Hobbes to get his argument off the ground, he had to rely on several criteria and premises. 1. that everyone in a state of nature is roughly equal in strength, intelligence, cunning, etc. and mostly care about themselves and thus there will be a perpetual state of “war of all against all.” 2. An absolute sovereign needs to be all powerful. 3. He or she has the implicit or explicit consent of all governed and 4. He or she is disinterested between his subjects and applies the rule of law fairly to insure the benefit of all.
Brzezinski seems to suggest that the US is analogous to such an absolute sovereign and the other states of the world are analogous to people in Hobbes’s world. He also assumes that without an absolute sovereign the world would devolve into something analogous to people in the state of nature, a state of war of all against all. How accurate is this?
Hobbes’s argument requires that all premises set out above are true (it’s complicated why his argument requires all these premises). Not only do states not satisfy all of Hobbes’ premises for his argument which is aimed at individual people and an absolute sovereign, they seem to satisfy none so there is a glaring disanalogy between states and people. Some non-absolute sovereign states are far more powerful than others and thus is not analogous to Hobbes’s first premise. China, for example, can obliterate the tiny state of San Marino quite literally in seconds by pressing one button.
The US does not behave in the way an absolute sovereign behaves in a Hobbesian world. It constantly undermines international law and is itself a partisan actor. It is not impartial but unquestioningly biased for its own interests and those of its allies. Its unilateral military actions are not meant to enforce international law but constantly undermines it and it does so for its own interests to the detriment of everyone else. Besides that, other states likely would not consent to absolute rule by the US even if the US does have absolute power over everyone which, of course, is certainly untrue. There are already some world powers that are close in military might to that of the US and under the right circumstances may defeat it in a war (US wars in Vietnam, Korea and Afghanistan are just a few examples).
So there appears to be few similarities between people and states and between an absolute Hobbessian sovereign and the US in the scheme of a Hobbesian framework. Brzezinski’s analogy breaks down on those two fronts.
But his folly does not end there. He assumes that without an absolute Hobbessian sovereign there cannot or is unlikely to evolve peaceful cooperation in a multipolar world with many roughly equally powerful states without an absolute sovereign. For the sake of argument, assume that Brzezinski is right that the US is currently such an absolute sovereign. Is he then also correct that as China matches the US in power there cannot evolve peaceful cooperation between states and that international affairs will likely devolve into a “state of nature” where all is against all because the optimal strategy would be not cooperating?
That is pure rubbish.
First of all, why did Hobbes think that in a state of nature people will devolve into such a state of war of all against all? Some modern philosophers have argued that Hobbes was thinking of a scenario similar to a one-off prisoner’s dilemma game. In this game, it is always rational not to cooperate with another player for defecting is the optimal choice (it strictly dominates in the jargon).
Cooperate Defect Cooperate 3, 3 0, 5 Defect 5, 0 1, 1
Thus one can argue that players ought to devolve into a Hobbessian State of Nature in situations that are modeled by this game and when there is no absolute sovereign to coerce or enforce rules to cooperate.
But one-off prisoner dilemma games often do not model situations in the real world. Rather relevant situations in the real world are more accurately modeled by iterated prisoner dilemma games (with memory). Here many games are repeated one after another with indefinite (or unknown) number of games. That seems far more like reality because we don’t only play only a single “game” with other players (other people or other states for that matter) in the world and just “go home” afterward. Rather we are stuck with each other for good or bad, doomed to either cooperate or defect in many repeated situations. Moreover, we remember how each behaved in previous games and update our future decision accordingly to take into account that information.
So lets say that in the future, there is relative decline of the US and that is balanced by an ascending China such that there is now a bipolar world with two roughly equally powerful superpowers and thus no one “absolute sovereign” (I’m abstracting from the more likely scenario that it will likely turn into a multipolar world with more than two equally powerful superpowers). Does that mean it is rational for both countries to not cooperate (to defect) such as in one-off prisoner’s dilemma games? No.
The optimal strategy for iterated prisoner’s dilemma games is the famous tit-for-tat strategy. In this game, cooperation can spontaneously evolve and it is completely rational to cooperate. The best strategy is to cooperate at first then play tit-for-tat with random (or actually pseudo-random) forgiveness if the other player keeps defecting. The basic strategy is that one ought to always cooperate unless provoked (this is called a “nice” strategy) and once in a while forgiving non cooperative behavior by cooperating which stops “death spirals” that is, repeated, alternating revenge tactics. Such a strategy is optimal and do not require an absolute sovereign to enforce cooperation.
The success of the tit for tat strategy, which is largely cooperative despite that its name emphasizes an adversarial nature, took many by surprise. In successive competitions various teams produced complex strategies which attempted to “cheat” in a variety of cunning ways, but tit for tat eventually prevailed in every competition.
This result may give insight into how groups of animals (and particularly human societies) have come to live in largely (or entirely) cooperative societies, rather than the individualistic “red in tooth and claw” way that might be expected from individuals engaged in a Hobbesian state of nature.
The more cooperative players are to begin with the quicker and more beneficial the strategy will work to the benefit of all players. However, as many game theorists are also quick to point out, trust is asymmetric: it is far easier to break than to build back up once it is broken. Distrust or broken trust also has multiplier effects and is contagious. Rather than consent to be ruled by an absolute sovereign, in situations modeled by iterated prisoner’s dilemma, it is most rational to instead build trust from the beginning. The US has consistently undermined trust in international affairs by its capricious unilateral actions, military, political and economic. But the faster people start building trust and cooperating, the more beneficial this strategy will be for everyone. Even the iterated prisoner’s dilemmas underscores the actual situation in the world for these games assume that all players are only interested in themselves. In the real world, interests often overlap and, moreover, there exists some instances of empathy, altruism, friendship and alliances across nations (some sense of cosmopolitanism and the brotherhood of mankind).
We can excuse Hobbes’s ignorance for he lived 300 years before the development of modern game theory. Brzezinski cannot rely on such an excuse. His argument seems to be dependent on the assumption that states in the world takes on a Hobbessian structure with the US as absolute sovereign and furthermore the world needs such a structure to maintain peaceful cooperation. Not only is he wrong, and furthermore, wrong, but he is dangerously wrong. He has likely misunderstood and misapplied Hobbes’s ideas which are themselves deeply flawed. By arguing that the world needs an absolute sovereign and, hence, presumably promoting international support for continued American hegemony instead of embracing and promoting a multipolar world with rational and trustworthy actors, Brzezinski may be undermining the possibility of peaceful global cooperation.