We Know War Is Awful, So Why Is It Making a Comeback?

The two bloodiest wars of the past two years have been results of tragic miscalculations. A third war, which has dominated the news lately, might also have been set in motion by a costly mistake, as I’ll explain. To economists, this raises a question: If wars are so awful, why do we keep blundering into them?

First, the data. The wars that cost the most lives in 2022 were in Ethiopia and Ukraine. Battle-related deaths exceeded 100,000 in the Tigray region of Ethiopia and 81,000 in Ukraine, according to the Peace Research Institute Oslo. Those conflicts drove battle-related deaths for the world as a whole to a 28-year high of 237,000, the institute says. Believe it or not, 2023 is peaceful by comparison.

The war that’s in the news now is the Hamas terror attack on Israelis on Oct. 7 and the Israel Defense Forces counterattack, which it says is necessary to root Hamas out of Gaza. Hamas murdered about 1,200 Israelis in the first attack. Nearly 400 Israeli soldiers, officers and reservists have been killed then and in subsequent fighting, according to the I.D.F. Gazan officials estimate that more than 14,000 people have died in the counterattack, of whom they say about 10,000 were women and children. (That’s a lower bound for the estimated number of civilian deaths.) There’s also been deadly fighting in the West Bank.

There’s a plausible argument that each war would not have occurred but for someone’s terrible miscalculation. In the contested Tigray region of Ethiopia, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front attacked an Ethiopian Army post in 2020, “probably in an attempt to negotiate a better deal” with the central government, Eli Berman, an economist who studies war at the University of California, San Diego, told me. If that’s the case, things didn’t go as planned. Instead of negotiating, the government chose to fight it out. There were spasms of heavy fighting from November 2020 to November 2022, charges of war crimes by both sides and famine.

I won’t spend time on the well-known miscalculations of President Vladimir Putin of Russia, who thought President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine and the Ukrainian people lacked the strength and will to resist a Russian invasion. The war has weakened Russia and turned Putin into a pariah in the West.

As for Hamas, one theory going around is that the surprise attack was more successful than the terrorist group ever imagined — which turned out to be a bad thing, because it provoked Israel to retaliate far harder than it has in the past. Not just to brush Hamas back, but to eradicate it once and for all. “It’s like the ‘oops’ theory of Oct. 7,” Berman said. Another theory, to be sure, is that Hamas got just what it wanted. “We succeeded in putting the Palestinian issue back on the table, and now no one in the region is experiencing calm,” Khalil al-Hayya, a member of Hamas’s top leadership body, told The Times this month.

Economists and political scientists used to believe that miscalculation was perfectly consistent with rationality. They thought that political leaders who were fully rational could nevertheless commonly make mistakes based on incorrect information about their opponents’ power or resolve.

But in an influential article in 1995, James Fearon, a Stanford political scientist, then at the University of Chicago, showed that in most cases (not all), a rational leader should be able to clear up confusion and make decisions with sound information. Given how destructive and deadly wars are, political leaders have a strong incentive to use “diplomacy or other forms of communication to avoid such costly miscommunications,” Fearon wrote in “Rationalist Explanations for War,” which was published in the journal International Organization.

“To give a concrete example,” Fearon wrote, “why did German leaders in 1914 not simply ask their British and Russian counterparts what they would do if Austria were to attack Serbia? If they could have done so and if the answers could have been believed, the Germans might not have miscalculated concerning Russian and, more importantly, British willingness to fight. In consequence they might have avoided the horrendous costs of World War I.”

Still, Fearon specified three cases where leaders might miscalculate even while behaving rationally. One is where one side or the other has private information about its power or resolve and incentives to misrepresent such information to the other side. Bluffing, for example. Another is where one or both parties can’t reliably commit to an agreement to keep the peace because they have an incentive to renege on the terms. A third is where the parties can’t compromise by splitting the prize down the middle because the prize is indivisible — say, a throne that two princes are vying to occupy.

The second of the problems that Fearon highlighted, the commitment problem, comes up again and again in diplomacy, Berman told me. Combatants do battle for years because neither trusts the other to abide by a peace agreement — and there’s no third party that has the power or motivation to force them to do so. The United Nations is too weak. The United States has lost interest in serving as the world’s policeman.

The decades-long failure to reach a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine is a classic example of a commitment problem. Israel resists the formation of Palestine as an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza out of fear that it would become a base for attacking and destroying Israel. And to many, attacks like the one by Hamas on Oct. 7 justify those concerns, pushing the prospect for peace even further into the distance. Each side believes that the other understands only force.

Fearon’s classic 1995 article mainly covers situations where political leaders are presumed rational. As Fearon wrote, it’s even easier to explain wars that break out under emotional, overconfident or otherwise irrational leaders.

I also asked Siri Aas Rustad, a research professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo, why she thinks violence is so prevalent again. “It’s hard to explain,” she said. “Maybe it’s just too long since the Second World War. We’re forgetting what it was like to have a world war and we’re going back to more conflict.” That, I suppose, would fit under Fearon’s definition of “irrational.”

Outlook: David Kotok

“The flow of new data suggests that rising Fed policy interest rates are becoming less and less likely,” David Kotok, a co-founder and the chief investment officer of Cumberland Advisors in Sarasota, Fla., wrote in a note to clients on Sunday. Federal Reserve policymakers can’t afford to “ease off the rhetoric too soon,” Kotok wrote. “But I have always believed that the correct way to interpret the Fed is to look at what they do and not at what they say.”

Quote of the Day

“I think they’ve seriously painted themselves into a corner. What they’ve been doing is demanding that everyone adopt their imaginary bill that can’t pass because it has bigger cuts than everyone else’s imaginary bill that also can’t pass.”
— Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform (quoted in The Washington Post, Nov. 21, 2023)

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