Feature

Why Hawks Win

Why are hawks so influential? The answer may lie deep in the human mind. People have dozens of decision-making biases, and almost all favor conflict rather than concession. A look at why the tough guys win more than they should.

National leaders get all sorts of advice in times of tension and conflict. But often the competing counsel can be broken down into two basic categories. On one side are the hawks: They tend to favor coercive action, are more willing to use military force, and are more likely to doubt the value of offering concessions. When they look at adversaries overseas, they often see unremittingly hostile regimes who only understand the language of force. On the other side are the doves, skeptical about the usefulness of force and more inclined to contemplate political solutions. Where hawks see little in their adversaries but hostility, doves often point to subtle openings for dialogue.

As the hawks and doves thrust and parry, one hopes that the decision makers will hear their arguments on the merits and weigh them judiciously before choosing a course of action. Don't count on it. Modern psychology suggests that policymakers come to the debate predisposed to believe their hawkish advisors more than the doves. There are numerous reasons for the burden of persuasion that doves carry, and some of them have nothing to do with politics or strategy. In fact, a bias in favor of hawkish beliefs and preferences is built into the fabric of the human mind.

Social and cognitive psychologists have identified a number of predictable errors (psychologists call them biases) in the ways that humans judge situations and evaluate risks. Biases have been documented both in the laboratory and in the real world, mostly in situations that have no connection to international politics. For example, people are prone to exaggerating their strengths: About 80 percent of us believe that our driving skills are better than average. In situations of potential conflict, the same optimistic bias makes politicians and generals receptive to advisors who offer highly favorable estimates of the outcomes of war. Such a predisposition, often shared by leaders on both sides of a conflict, is likely to produce a disaster. And this is not an isolated example.

In fact, when we constructed a list of the biases uncovered in 40 years of psychological research, we were startled by what we found: All the biases in our list favor hawks. These psychological impulses -- only a few of which we discuss here -- incline national leaders to exaggerate the evil intentions of adversaries, to misjudge how adversaries perceive them, to be overly sanguine when hostilities start, and overly reluctant to make necessary concessions in negotiations. In short, these biases have the effect of making wars more likely to begin and more difficult to end.

None of this means that hawks are always wrong. One need only recall the debates between British hawks and doves before World War II to remember that doves can easily find themselves on the wrong side of history. More generally, there are some strong arguments for deliberately instituting a hawkish bias. It is perfectly reasonable, for example, to demand far more than a 50-50 chance of being right before we accept the promises of a dangerous adversary. The biases that we have examined, however, operate over and beyond such rules of prudence and are not the product of thoughtful consideration. Our conclusion is not that hawkish advisors are necessarily wrong, only that they are likely to be more persuasive than they deserve to be.

VISION PROBLEMS

Several well-known laboratory demonstrations have examined the way people assess their adversary's intelligence, willingness to negotiate, and hostility, as well as the way they view their own position. The results are sobering. Even when people are aware of the context and possible constraints on another party's behavior, they often do not factor it in when assessing the other side's motives. Yet, people still assume that outside observers grasp the constraints on their own behavior. With armies on high alert, it's an instinct that leaders can ill afford to ignore.

Imagine, for example, that you have been placed in a room and asked to watch a series of student speeches on the policies of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez. You've been told in advance that the students were assigned the task of either attacking or supporting Chávez and had no choice in the matter. Now, suppose that you are then asked to assess the political leanings of these students. Shrewd observers, of course, would factor in the context and adjust their assessments accordingly. A student who gave an enthusiastic pro-Chávez speech was merely doing what she was told, not revealing anything about her true attitudes. In fact, many experiments suggest that people would overwhelmingly rate the pro-Chávez speakers as more leftist. Even when alerted to context that should affect their judgment, people tend to ignore it. Instead, they attribute the behavior they see to the person's nature, character, or persistent motives. This bias is so robust and common that social psychologists have given it a lofty title: They call it the fundamental attribution error.

The effect of this failure in conflict situations can be pernicious. A policymaker or diplomat involved in a tense exchange with a foreign government is likely to observe a great deal of hostile behavior by that country's representatives. Some of that behavior may indeed be the result of deep hostility. But some of it is simply a response to the current situation as it is perceived by the other side. What is ironic is that individuals who attribute others' behavior to deep hostility are quite likely to explain away their own behavior as a result of being "pushed into a corner" by an adversary. The tendency of both sides of a dispute to view themselves as reacting to the other's provocative behavior is a familiar feature of marital quarrels, and it is found as well in international conflicts. During the run-up to World War I, the leaders of every one of the nations that would soon be at war perceived themselves as significantly less hostile than their adversaries.

If people are often poorly equipped to explain the behavior of their adversaries, they are also bad at understanding how they appear to others. This bias can manifest itself at critical stages in international crises, when signals are rarely as clear as diplomats and generals believe them to be. Consider the Korean War, just one example of how misperception and a failure to appreciate an adversary's assessment of intentions can lead to hawkish outcomes. In October 1950, as coalition forces were moving rapidly up the Korean Peninsula, policymakers in Washington were debating how far to advance and attempting to predict China's response. U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson was convinced that "no possible shred of evidence could have existed in the minds of the Chinese Communists about the non-threatening intentions of the forces of the United Nations." Because U.S. leaders knew that their intentions toward China were not hostile, they assumed that the Chinese knew this as well. Washington was, therefore, incapable of interpreting the Chinese intervention as a reaction to a threat. Instead, the Americans interpreted the Chinese reaction as an expression of fundamental hostility toward the United States. Some historians now believe that Chinese leaders may in fact have seen advancing Allied forces as a threat to their regime.

CARELESSLY OPTIMISTIC

Excessive optimism is one of the most significant biases that psychologists have identified. Psychological research has shown that a large majority of people believe themselves to be smarter, more attractive, and more talented than average, and they commonly overestimate their future success. People are also prone to an "illusion of control": They consistently exaggerate the amount of control they have over outcomes that are important to them -- even when the outcomes are in fact random or determined by other forces. It is not difficult to see that this error may have led American policymakers astray as they laid the groundwork for the ongoing war in Iraq.

Indeed, the optimistic bias and the illusion of control are particularly rampant in the run-up to conflict. A hawk's preference for military action over diplomatic measures is often built upon the assumption that victory will come easily and swiftly. Predictions that the Iraq war would be a "cakewalk," offered up by some supporters of that conflict, are just the latest in a long string of bad hawkish predictions. After all, Washington elites treated the first major battle of the Civil War as a social outing, so sure were they that federal troops would rout rebel forces. General Noel de Castelnau, chief of staff for the French Army at the outset of World War I, declared, "Give me 700,000 men and I will conquer Europe." In fact, almost every decision maker involved in what would become the most destructive war in history up to that point predicted not only victory for his side, but a relatively quick and easy victory. These delusions and exaggerations cannot be explained away as a product of incomplete or incorrect information. Optimistic generals will be found, usually on both sides, before the beginning of every military conflict.

If optimism is the order of the day when it comes to assessing one's own chances in armed conflict, however, gloom usually prevails when evaluating another side’s concessions. Psychologically, we are receptive not only to hawks' arguments for war but also to their case against negotiated solutions. The intuition that something is worth less simply because the other side has offered it is referred to in academic circles as "reactive devaluation." The very fact that a concession is offered by somebody perceived as hostile undermines the content of the proposal. What was said matters less than who said it. And so, for example, American policymakers would likely look very skeptically on any concessions made by the regime in Tehran. Some of that skepticism could be the rational product of past experience, but some of it may also result from unconscious -- and not necessarily rational -- devaluation.

Evidence suggests that this bias is a significant stumbling block in negotiations between adversaries. In one experiment, Israeli Jews evaluated an actual Israeli-authored peace plan less favorably when it was attributed to the Palestinians than when it was attributed to their own government. Pro-Israel Americans saw a hypothetical peace proposal as biased in favor of Palestinians when authorship was attributed to Palestinians, but as "evenhanded" when they were told it was authored by Israelis.

DOUBLE OR NOTHING

It is apparent that hawks often have the upper hand as decision makers wrestle with questions of war and peace. And those advantages do not disappear as soon as the first bullets have flown. As the strategic calculus shifts to territory won or lost and casualties suffered, a new idiosyncrasy in human decision making appears: our deep-seated aversion to cutting our losses. Imagine, for example, the choice between:

Option A: A sure loss of $890

Option B: A 90 percent chance to lose $1,000 and a 10 percent chance to lose nothing.

In this situation, a large majority of decision makers will prefer the gamble in Option B, even though the other choice is statistically superior. People prefer to avoid a certain loss in favor of a potential loss, even if they risk losing significantly more. When things are going badly in a conflict, the aversion to cutting one's losses, often compounded by wishful thinking, is likely to dominate the calculus of the losing side. This brew of psychological factors tends to cause conflicts to endure long beyond the point where a reasonable observer would see the outcome as a near certainty. Many other factors pull in the same direction, notably the fact that for the leaders who have led their nation to the brink of defeat, the consequences of giving up will usually not be worse if the conflict is prolonged, even if they are worse for the citizens they lead.

U.S. policymakers faced this dilemma at many points in Vietnam and today in Iraq. To withdraw now is to accept a sure loss, and that option is deeply unattractive. The option of hanging on will therefore be relatively attractive, even if the chances of success are small and the cost of delaying failure is high.

Hawks, of course, can cite many moments in recent history when adversaries actually were unremittingly hostile and when force produced the desired result or should have been applied much earlier. The clear evidence of a psychological bias in favor of aggressive outcomes cannot decide the perennial debates between the hawks and the doves. It won't point the international community in a clear direction on Iran or North Korea. But understanding the biases that most of us harbor can at least help ensure that the hawks don’t win more arguments than they should.

Feature

The Failed States Index 2007

The world's weakest states aren't just a danger to themselves. They can threaten the progress and stability of countries half a world away. In the third annual Failed States Index, Foreign Policy and The Fund for Peace rank the countries where the risk of failure is running high.

It is an accepted axiom of the modern age that distance no longer matters. Sectarian carnage can sway stock markets on the other side of the planet. Anarchic cities that host open-air arms bazaars imperil the security of the world's superpower. A hermit leader's erratic behavior not only makes life miserable for the impoverished millions he rules but also upends the world's nuclear nonproliferation regime. The threats of weak states, in other words, ripple far beyond their borders and endanger the development and security of nations that are their political and economic opposites.

Few encouraging signs emerged in 2006 to suggest the world is on a path to greater peace and stability. The year began with violent protests that erupted from Indonesia to Nigeria over the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. February brought the destruction of Samarra's golden-domed mosque, one of Shiite Islam's holiest shrines, unleashing a convulsion of violence across Iraq that continues unabated. After Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers last July, southern Lebanon was bombarded for a month by air strikes, sending hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing into neighboring states. And in October, the repressive North Korean regime stormed its way into the world's nuclear club.

What makes these alarming headlines all the more troubling is that their origins lie in weak and failing states. World leaders and the heads of multilateral institutions routinely take to lecterns to reiterate their commitment to pulling vulnerable states back from the brink, but it can be difficult to translate damage control into viable, long-term solutions that correct state weaknesses. Aid is often misspent. Reforms are too many or too few. Security needs overwhelm international peacekeepers, or chaos reigns in their absence.

The complex phenomenon of state failure may be much discussed, but it remains little understood. The problems that plague failing states are generally all too similar: rampant corruption, predatory elites who have long monopolized power, an absence of the rule of law, and severe ethnic or religious divisions. But that does not mean that the responses to their problems should be cut from the same cloth. Failing states are a diverse lot. Burma and Haiti are two of the most corrupt countries in the world, according to Transparency International, and yet Burma's repressive junta persecutes ethnic minorities and subjects its population to forced resettlement, while Haiti is wracked by extreme poverty, lawlessness, and urban violence. For a decade, Equatorial Guinea has posted some of the highest economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa, yet its riches have padded the bank accounts of an elite few. And in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the inability of the government to police its borders effectively or manage its vast mineral wealth has left the country dependent on foreign aid.

To provide a clearer picture of the world's weakest states, The Fund for Peace, an independent research organization, and Foreign Policy present the third annual Failed States Index. Using 12 social, economic, political, and military indicators, we ranked 177 states in order of their vulnerability to violent internal conflict and societal deterioration. The index scores are based on data from more than 12,000 publicly available sources collected from May to December 2006. The 60 most vulnerable states are listed in the rankings, and full results are available here and www.fundforpeace.org.

For the second year in a row, Sudan tops the rankings as the state most at risk of failure. The primary cause of its instability, violence in the country's western region of Darfur, is as well known as it is tragic. At least 200,000 people -- and perhaps as many as 400,000 -- have been killed in the past four years by janjaweed militias armed by the government, and 2 to 3 million people have fled their torched villages for squalid camps as the violence has spilled into the Central African Republic and Chad. These countries were hardly pictures of stability prior to the influx of refugees and rebels across their borders; the Central African Republic plays host to a modern-day slave trade, and rebels attacked Chad's capital in April 2006 in a failed coup attempt. But the spillover effects from Sudan have a great deal to do with the countries' tumble in the rankings, demonstrating that the dangers of failing states often bleed across borders. That is especially worrying for a few select regions. This year, eight of the world's 10 most vulnerable states are in sub-Saharan Africa, up from six last year and seven in 2005

That is not to say that all failing states suffer from international neglect. Iraq and Afghanistan, the two main fronts in the global war on terror, both suffered over the past year. Their experiences show that billions of dollars in development and security aid may be futile unless accompanied by a functioning government, trustworthy leaders, and realistic plans to keep the peace and develop the economy. Just as there are many paths to success, there are many paths to failure for states on the edge.

The year wasn't all bad news, though. Two vulnerable giants, China and Russia, improved their scores sufficiently to move out of the 60 worst states. That is in part due to the fact that 31 additional countries were assessed this year. But some credit must be paid to the countries themselves. China's economic engine continues to propel the country forward at a breakneck pace, but the growing divide between urban and rural, as well as continued protests in the countryside, reveals pockets of frailty that the central government is only just beginning to address. Russia's growing economy and a lull in the violence in Chechnya have had stabilizing effects, despite fresh concerns about the country's democratic future.

The vast majority of the states listed in the index have not yet failed; they exhibit severe weaknesses that leave them vulnerable, especially to shocks such as natural disasters, war, and economic deprivation. The power of such events should not be underestimated. The war in Lebanon last summer helped undo nearly two decades of economic and political progress. But Lebanon was vulnerable because its political and security structures lacked integrity and remained tensely divided by factionalized elites. Those vulnerabilities not only helped turn the clock back on the country's development, but they reverberated across the region -- into Israel, Jordan, and Syria. It shows again that a country's problems are never simply its own.

That conclusion becomes especially worrisome when the weak states in question possess nuclear weapons. Today, two countries among the world's 15 most vulnerable, North Korea and Pakistan, are members of the nuclear club. Their profiles could hardly be less similar: The former faces the very real prospect of economic collapse, followed by massive human flight, while the latter presides over a lawless frontier country and a disenchanted Islamist opposition whose ranks grow by the day.

But while these states' failings may be frequent fodder for headlines around the world, it is obvious that there are few easy answers to their troubles. In highlighting which states are at the greatest risk of failure, we can only hope that more effective and long-term solutions emerge over time as we compare the index from year to year. In that way, positive reversals of fortune can occur for the world's most vulnerable nations and, in the process, improve the security and prosperity of everyone.