The power of fear and the power of cooperation

Once upon a time there was a tribe (which we shall call Tribe A) which saw itself as the only tribe in the world. The people of the tribe had never met anybody outside their group and they knew of nobody living outside of their territory. One day, a group of hunters went out on a hunting expedition and suddenly sighted another group of humans several feet ahead of them in the woods. They both stood still, facing each other and weighing their options. Who were the others? What were they going to do?, both of the groups wondered. The first men didn’t know what to expect of those strangers they’d never seen before. What were their intentions? They were armed with spears and hunting knives too. Would they attack them? Should they be perceived as a threat? For a while, none of the groups knew what to do in front of the unknown. But eventually some of the tribesmen moved forward and started communicating. They realised that both groups were hunting and, by means of dialogue, they reached the conclusion that they would have better chances of successfully catching their prey if they worked together. The hunters from the unknown tribe (which we shall call Tribe B) suggested this: while men from group B chased the deer or boar they found, two men from group A would stand behind some bushes and ambush the prey. Then, the tribes would divide the meat among them: 50% for each. Tribe A agreed.

The men from Tribe B left in search of their prey and the two men from Tribe A went to their hiding place and hid there. Soon, however, they saw that there were two rabbits sleeping in a small burrow near where they were, and they started thinking. “Well”, one of them said, “these two rabbits would certainly feed our families. Maybe we could even share them with our entire community”. The other one added: “We don’t really know those strangers, do we? How can we be sure that they are honest and their intentions are as true as they have told us?”. The first man agreed. “Maybe they were lying to us. Maybe they will hunt down the deer and then tells us that they did all the work, and so we only deserve 10% of the share. Maybe they will take the other 90% with them because they are more than us and might be stronger”. The two men then started thinking. “Perhaps we should take these two rabbits and leave right now”, one of them eventually said. And so they did. They went back to their village with the two little animals they had caught and the entire plan of Tribe B failed, since the two men who were supposed to ambush the deer were not where they should be.

Back at the village, the two men from Tribe A were sharing their meal with their families when they started feeling uncertain and afraid. “What if the other men are angry at us because we broke the agreement?”, one of them asked. “I imagine that they will be angry at us, yes. The plan failed because we left… Although, of course, we didn’t know their true intentions”. The other man became even more afraid. “But now they know where we live! They know that we live somewhere in this territory and they can come and attack us! Maybe they will send spies to find our village and then attack”. So the two men went to see the tribe leaders and told them of their fear. The leaders ordered the tribesmen to start taking defensive measures and to build more weapons. What they didn’t know was that the two hunters were right: Tribe B had indeed sent out spies to find the location of Tribe A and to know what they had gained from breaking their agreement. But when the spies found the village and saw that the tribesmen were getting armed, they thought: “Look! Those tribesmen are arming themselves! They are planning on attacking us! We must race back to our village and prepare to defend ourselves”. So they went back to their village and started taking their own defensive measures. In the meanwhile, the leaders from Tribe A sent out some spies to confirm the intentions of Tribe B. When their spies found the other village, they saw the tribesmen arming themselves and said: “Look, our hunters were right! These men are really going to attack us! Maybe we should attack first to gain advantage!”. And so a war started between the two tribes, which only led to many deaths.

Now let us see these two groups of people not as tribes, but as two different nations. Our story gains a whole new dimension. In fact, misunderstandings and more or less rational fears are common when it comes to a community of people (or a nation, in this case) interacting with other communities of different cultures, habits, politics, et cetera. There is always a risk in interacting with others – the risk of never knowing the other’s true intentions for sure. In our story, Tribe A doubted Tribe B’s real goals, and there were two possible alternatives: either Tribe B was being honest and really intended to share 50% of its profit with Tribe A, or it was lying to Tribe A and planned on taking 90% for itself. So, in dealing with others, there must always be a degree of mutual confidence that perhaps can never be 100% assured. It is in this underlying uncertainty that lie potential fear and misunderstandings. And fear has often been described as one of the strongest, if not the strongest catalyst in international relations. Fear is often likely to lead to irrational responses and a nation that believes itself to be threatened by another nation (even if by mistake) can take the initiative to declare war against that other nation first.

In the time of monarchies, during the Ancien Régime and until the rise of republics, the decision of going into war with another nation was mostly personal. Such decision was made by the King or a prince. It could come out of a whim. But with the res publica, the “public thing”, the power to make such decisions supposedly belonged (or belongs) to the people. It was no longer a matter of a king sending his servants to die, but of fathers and mothers to send their children, parents or siblings to die. And so nations started thinking more about the risks and consequences of war, especially after the catastrophic World War I. Never had the world seen a Total War, one so devastating and irrational. In the trenches, thousands of soldiers would die trying to move a couple of feet foward in less than a day, for example.

After World War I, a great fear emerged in the nations of the world: the fear of other General Wars. It was imperative to build and maintain peace, and forging one or more alliances between nations began to be seen as a powerful way to stop more wars from happening. Imagine this: nation A has a longstanding rivalry with nation B and, after fealing threatened by it (either rightly or wrongly), it decides to declare war on nation B. However, A and B have been part of a common aliance of States for a couple of years now, an alliance which includes many other nations. If A and B were totally independent, it would be easier for A to declare war on B. But now, A faces certain scenarios that it must consider, such as: 1) nation B has an economic pact with nation C, which could encourage C to stand up for nation B if A were to declare war on B; or 2) all nations have agreed to pass sanctions on any State that declares war on another one without attempting strong diplomatic negotiations first. It now becomes clearer that forming an alliance of nations is an easier way to avoid Anarchy (in its International Relations meaning*) and to encourage cooperation (and eventually union) between different States.

Fear, lack of strategic information or a wrong perception of the “other” are several factors that can lead to conflict. But cooperation among different nations is politically, economically, socially, culturally and environmentally beneficial. This is what international organizations were essentially created for – to promote cooperation, unity and mutual understanding among different nations. To have a representative of each country, for instance, to converse and to negotiate in a common stage with representatives of every other country involved in a certain international organization is a strong ground for achieving common goals and greater accordance and peace. Obviously, there will always be the risk of dishonesty in others’ intentions and plans. There is, then, a risk we must take. But countries must ask themselves: are we willing to take this risk if it means that we can be one step closer to achieving global peace and security, or do we prefer not to take this risk and to stand alone and independent in a heavily armed world where securitarianism is a growing concern?

Going even further, one can ask if in a world that currently faces so many challenges it is truly possible to achieve something like global peace or global security. The threats of intolerance, terrorism, environmental issues and much more are indeed threats to the balance of international relations and to our globalized world. Each of us as individuals must therefore weight our priorities and decide how we want to be represented in the international stage and how we can thrive to be better represented, if we feel that our priorities are not being respected and adequatelly expressed. Sometimes, the people of a certain nation wish for greater peace than their own political leaders. If this is the case, then it is up to the people to make sure that they send out the right message. Political leaders are only meant to express their people’s will – and we must educate the people in order to show citizens of each of our nations that Peace is the ultimate way to prosperity (whatever kind of prosperity; in my point of view, for instance, economic prosperity is not even the most important or desirable kind).


*Anarchy in the vocabulary of International Relations refers to the absence of a supranational authority which can guarantee international cooperation in the following of certain norms and standards.

Note: the story I presented above is based on Rousseau’s Parable of the Tribes.