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Do states “strive to attain as many resources as possible?”

Published on 16 January 2016
Updated on 05 April 2024

Ubi fracassorium, ibi figgitorium



This view of the acquisitive “group” or state (as from quote in 350) would seem– at first sight to originate in auto-referential arcade games, where scoring maximum points is the aim. Are states relentless maximizers or rather optimizers? This question warrants closer inspection.

I am somewhat puzzled that a “realist” theory would assert that “states strive to attain as many resources as possible.” “Realism” after all aims to establish a relation between the actor and the social and material context. Any relation implies a balance, a weighing of advantages and disadvantages yielding a reflective choice, or equilibrium.

Boulders careening down mountains aim for maximum speed, following the force of gravity blindly. Animals and plants, however, all strive for equilibrium rather than maximum. And so do states.

The issue of surrender of individuals and states may be raised to elucidate my case. Interestingly, surrender (and the concomitant peacemaking) has not been much studied in the context of International Relations, even though it is the flip side of war. Clausewitz and Machiavelli are long on why and when to declare war; they are curiously subdued or silent on when to sue for peace and how to build a durable settlement.[2]

We may see this scarcity of interest in peace in the history literature. The orgy of studies about the origins of WWI is not matched by an equivalent interest in the botched agreements that concluded it – from Brest-Litovsk to Sèvres and Lausanne. The origins of WWII are found here, rather than in Hitler’s dreams of world conquest.[3]

A theory purporting to explain and predict the outbreak of war, but which treats the outbreak of peace as a “just so story” is not worth much.

While the outbreak of war may be either reflective or reactive, surrender and peace are always reflective. To hit or hit back may be instinctive at first. No sooner are the combatants locked in combat, however, that reflection – benefit- cost assessments – move center stage. Each participant will assess the pros and cons of the fight-flight posture.

In combat, reciprocity seems to prevail – an eye for an eye.[4] When the losses top a threshold, revenge becomes the dominant factor.[5] At that point, no quarter is given. Prevention – avoiding of recurrences – may be a further consideration, leading to deterrence.[6]

Each side may waver opportunistically. The losing side must calculate the “right moment” to surrender. The aim is somehow to convince the opponent that he has more to gain from peace than victory in combat. Under these circumstances, achieving peace is the most challenging, possibly the ultimate diplomatic challenge. Circumstances have discredited the principal (the regime). Diplomatic agents come into their own. Diplomats may even betray the regime to save the state – Talleyrand docet. Diplomats may have to scuttle the state to save the nation – this happened with Prussia.

Originally, the winner acquired the power of life and death on the loser. It was in his interest to have slaves and added territory. Losers were res nullius – like game – which the winner acquired by right of capture. Who surrendered could hope, at best, for his naked life.

The rules of surrender changed dramatically with Wilson’s 14 points: losers had a baseline of universal rights on which they could rely as they laid down arms. Germany asked for an armistice on the basis of Wilson’s 14 points. It was a smart move, for these principles circumvented the dismemberment of Germany. It is regrettable that France and the UK did not apply Wilson’s principles at Sèvres: we still live with the botched outcome of this imperialist treaty.

The principle of nationality (consent of the governed) cleaved the regime from the nation and the state. In terms of the “realist” theory, the regime, not the state, was now the principal. This evolution gave the lie to point 4 of “realist” theory: The primary concern of all states is survival. The state could endure while the regime may be subject to change. A regime better behave if it wants to survive.

Pulcinella has described how a theory should be: “Leggio comme a ‘nu piatto ‘e maccarune primma ca t’ ‘o magne.” (As light as a dish of macaroni[7] before one eats it).

___________ [1] “Where there is a disaster, there is a way out.” See: Giorgio Agamben (2015): Pulcinella ovvero Divertimento per ragazzi. Nottetempo, Roma [2] See Holger AFFLERBACH (2013): Die Kunst der Niederlage. Eine Geschichte der Kapitulation. Beck, München. [3] See: A. J. P. TAYLOR (1962): The origins of WWII. Hamish Hamilton, London. The combination of Depression and wounded nationalism allowed the emergence of Nazism. [4] See William James MILLER (2007): An eye for an eye. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. [5] The threshold may be both quantitative and qualitative. In the latter case, the circumstances of the loss (e.g. after breaking “laws of war”) may weigh in. [6] Elites tend to mete out exemplary punishment in order to deter uprisings by their subjects. [7] I shall avoid giving recipes of this delightful dish.

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