Table of Contents

1. Personal Background

I have no personal skills or background in this topic. However, given that I am a voting citizen of the United States of America, it is my duty to learn, and to share what I have learned with others. I look forward to hearing from those more learned where this essay can be improved.

2. Context

2.1. Ethology

At the biological/ethological level, humans are obligate model builders, communicators, and social-bonders. With these inherent capabilities we form family (parent-child, child-parent, sibling, extended family) and tribal bonds.

Humans are physically capable of killing human-sized creatures. That capability includes physical strength, agility, cunning, and a flight-or-fight fear/rage response. Like many species with such capabilities, (e.g., canines), we have genetically-determined threat posturing, pecking order negotiation, and submissive gestures. These behaviors operate reasonably well to establish and maintain interpersonal relationships in small, stable, isolated communities.

2.2. Emergent Behavior

Very few humans since the neolithic revolution have lived in such isolated communities. At least since 3,000 BCE, we have been crowded enough that those evolved behaviors are inadequate. Within a tribe, or tribe-to-tribe, we repeatedly get into situations where the rage response is triggered without time or mechanism for carrying out interpersonal negotiation. Given biologically-evolved capability to kill, enhanced with culturally-evolved tools (e.g., weapons), slaughter of fear-inducing "others" is a high-probability emergent behavior.

2.3. Cultural Inventions

Given that slaughter is a possibility, a model-building creature will evolve cultural models which:

  1. Detect increased risk of attack
  2. Warn the home team of the risk
  3. Prepare defensive mechanisms to thwart or slow the attack
  4. Prepare offensive mechanisms to so injure the enemy that its attack cannot proceed.

This leads to shifting social resources into an arms race (weapons, armies, hate-speech to demonize the enemy into a killable beast instead of a possible friend). This is a tremendous burden on the community, which may be hard-pressed to feed and clothe itself even in peaceful times.

Since any such shifting of resources can be gamed by the unscrupulous, "warn the home team" can mean hyping the threat even where there is none. War-mongering and war-profiteering go back to pre-history right along with war itself.

Very early on, intelligent people everywhere noticed these patterns, and looked for cultural alternatives to war. Ritual warfare, counting coup, vision quests for the "young and restless", peace parlays, treaties, and inter-tribal marriages have been used to deflect the path to war.

Notice that war is an emergent behavior based on fear/rage, while peace is a cultural invention typically requiring mature consideration of the alternatives. If peace depends on mature consideration in the council of elders, it will fail when:

  • The enemy really is attacking too quickly to give peace a chance.
  • War-mongers convince the community that the enemy is attacking too quickly, even though this is not the case.
  • The council of elders, selected from the community, are themselves war-mongers (and probably war-profiteers) eager to go to war without giving peace a chance.

The evolved response to these conditions is a religious prohibition against war. Thus the cultural response is avoid war until the facts are so self-evident that even religious leaders agree war is inevitable. Of course, if the dominant religious leaders are themselves swept up into the war-mongering process, the community is in for a tough life.

2.4. Illustrations

To illustrate these points:

"Fast Runner" is an Inuit movie about intra-tribal trouble. This is at the level of personal actions, not warfare.

"PathFinder" is a Lapp movie about inter-tribal trouble. Even though the number of people involved is similar to that in "Fast Runner", the dynamics are of formal warfare. There are in the nameless "others", an attack on peaceful people, a desperate flight, and then willingness to fight and kill.

"South Pacific" is a musical which addresses the acculturation of war-mongering: "You have to be carefully taught to hate".

In ancient Greece, Athens spent its social resources on democracy, learning, arts, and "the good life", but its citizenry was ready to fight if truly needed. Sparta spent its capital to become an army. The unifying religious invention of Olympian gods and goddesses allowed these and other city states to co-exist, and provided (via cryptic oracles) a mechanism for cooling off. The Olympic games provided a hard-fought venue for the young-and-restless in lieu of full to-the-death war.

When Jesus told the story of the "Good Samaritan", he was speaking to Galatians, who hated and vilified Samaritans. His message was that the nameless "others" were potentially decent people.

3. Statecraft

3.1. Origin of States

See also Guns, Germs, Steel

States are cultural inventions which address the problem of high-density populations. Notice that we say "address", not "solve". When population density grows beyond the capacity of family, extended-family, and tribal mechanisms, the emergent behavior is warfare among gangs which are small enough for the genetically-based mechanisms to operate.

If a collection of people want to make their way through the chaos without being mugged at every turn, something has to be invented (and funded, and passed along to the next generation). Throughout history we've seen this step taken many times. Often a few strong families or tribes take the lead. Compromises are reached, laws are passed, law enforcers are staffed, and punishments are meted out.

To ensure compliance with the laws, children are taught to believe in the goodness of the state and its laws. Secular and religious teachers are funded to carry this out. Assuming reasonably fair laws, the result is a population which willingly accepts dominance by the rulers. They also accept that the rulers may punish or exterminate those who are unruly enough to threaten those rulers.

In return the population expects domestic tranquility and general welfare. It also expects the state to protect the citizens from external attack and perhaps to gain additional resources for the citizens at the expense of "others".

If the others are unorganized, a state can readily take their resources from them (land, gold, slaves, etc.). A cultural evolution rapidly moves all players into states.

Notice that the biological mechanisms have not been erased. There are still family and tribal ties. A common treatment is to collect the children of the competing families and acculturate them in the ways of the ruler rather than the biological family. Given standard human bonding patterns, this is an effective way to quiet competitors, and to turn their biological offspring against them. (NOTE: See Ivy League and Rhodes Scholarships).

Non-state gangs can still exist, if:

  • The gang does not threaten the ruler. Or alternatively the gang is the ruling party.

  • The gang gives some positive feedback to the ruler. Perhaps bribes, or a cut of the illegal profits, or carrying out extra-legal actions.

  • The gang is so powerful that the ruler can't afford to take them on.

States historically began as city-states. This is a fairly stable format, assuming nearby resources can clothe and feed the population. However, it is common for cities to outgrow local resources, and then depend on trade. Also, cities can be besieged and starved out by large armies.

Multi-city states have an edge in that there are more resources to sustain the cities, and there can be someone to break the siege.

Multi-city states work fine for warfare where personal strength, life-long training, and valor are important. But when technology moves to guns then the size of armies matters. At this point nation-states become both viable and necessary.

As the state grows in size, it becomes harder and harder to acculturate the children into believing in the state. Biological mechanisms are still at work. Families, tribes, and gangs still operate, including at the ruling levels of the community. Yet the state must claim in its formal teachings that it is even-handed and fair-minded, or else no one would grant it power.

The question is whether the child is acculturated to the "real" world or to the official teachings. Often this splits the community into those with less book-learning but a more coherent understanding of the "real world", vs a highly-educated group who are shocked when they finally discover that reality isn't quite what Civics 101 claimed.

Of course, a highly diligent scholar can penetrate the official smokescreen and learn the "street smarts". But so few do so that it is simple for the state ruler to destroy them if/when they arise.

3.2. Strategy

So here we have a state, run by a coalition of powerful families/tribes/gangs. Each family/tribe/gang has internal cohesion and loyalty borne of deep bonding experiences. E.g., childhood spent in private boarding schools, summers at the family compound, and membership in secret societies. Each family/tribe/gang must look out for its near-term and longterm welfare, in the face of efforts by others (each seeking to gain advantage). Even worse, the whole state may be threatened by a real external enemy (as compared to a threat concocted for war-profiteering purposes).

Under these circumstances, the families/tribes/gangs must think and act strategically. Mathematically, this is covered by game theory (dixit91). However, the realities are so complex and nuanced that one can seldom get adequate information to lay out the decision trees. Therefore, formal analysis is supplemented with rules of thumb and anecdotal observations. Machiavelli's "The Prince" (machiavelli) is of this ilk. In general, the Renaissance Italians (living in a near chaotic world of city-states) were considered masters of this process. These insights are also supplemented with studying History.

The first problem in strategic thinking is to decide your goal. Since all else is trumped by power, the easy answer is to collect power. But that begs the issue. Assuming absolute power, what would you do with it?

The answer in successful (i.e., long-lived) states seems to be: Provide for the general welfare, domestic tranquility, and defense against internal and external enemies. Otherwise, let the biological mechanisms play out their roles in family/tribal/gang contexts. Do this with enough honestly and fair-mindedness that citizens can trust the rulers and get on with their lives.

Of course, the ruler and his family/tribe/gang want do this without losing power. One way to lose power is to so outrage your citizens that they rise up and throw you out (or cut off your head). Given reasonably competent domestic spies, internal police, and torturers, this can be thwarted for decades at a time. If your official laws don't allow torture, then create a prison system in which other prisoners do the job. Or ship prisoners off to locales where torture is accepted. Or declare horrific acts to be non-torture.

Another way to lose power is to lose to another faction. In some states there is a distinction between losing to an outside enemy and losing to an internal competitor. The distinction is that the internal competition has rules of fair play, whereas the external war has no such rules. Of course, a faction may decide to declare all-out war on internal competitors, and in doing so gain advantage until everyone catches on that the rules have changed.

4. Mechanics of Statecraft

4.1. Diplomacy

Diplomacy is getting your competitors to do what you want, by any means. You may convince them with arguments, trick them with lies, or conquer them with warfare. You do so while they attempt the same on you.

4.2. Information Gathering

Humans are complex creatures, Getting them to do what you want is always mediated by their own perceptions and goals. A successful diplomat must understand what power each player has or can obtain, his/her willingness to use that power, and the objectives toward which he/she will use that power. The players include self, friends, foes, and bystanders.

Information gathering takes many forms. They can be grouped by the prosecutor's triad: Motive, Means, Opportunity.

  • Motive: Build a general sense of the cultural and emotional drivers which shape the player's strategies. Travel, talk to typical citizens, read books, watch films, etc. It is difficult for the "other player" to deliberately disguise this. After all, this is the acculturation he/she depends on to keep his/her team intact. But it is remarkably easy to fool ones-self into believing you understand the "other player's" drivers. It is all too easy to assume "they" are "just like us, only demented". As a practical matter, assume every gang or state worthy of the name is successfully meeting its (ruling) citizens' biological needs. Everything else is nuance.

  • Means: Determine what resources are available to the player (whether or not they will in fact be used). This can come from library and intenet research, satellite photos, counts of troops/tanks/ships, estimates of food and water supplies, etc. Opponents will disguise this information by deception operations (camoflage, psyops, "Potemkin villages")

  • Opportunity: Determine if in fact the player is moving resources into position where they can be used against you. Often resource movements are shaped to be dual purpose (peaceful and warlike). Thus to determine true intent by the leaders, you must have access to their inner planning. They, realizing your interest, will use codes, cyphers, deception, initiation rites, and family bonds to assure your spies and phone taps cannot glean this information.

See Intelligence

4.3. War

War is the process of convincing others that they must do as you wish, because the alternatives are too painful. A prodigious amount of human energy has gone into this process. It requires strategic and tactical information about yourself and others. It requires preparation for actual war, and deceptions about how strong your preparations have been.

If you can convince others to surrender without a fight, because they fear the consequences, that is excellent. This requires credible power (ability and willingness to use it). Thus, every once in a while you have to go to war to maintain "street cred".

See War

4.4. Peace

Peace is the process of working with "others" to find a mutually advantageous path; a net positive for all players. This is not merely the absence of war. It is a pro-active form of statecraft.

Olympic Games, Royal inter-marriage, Catholic Church, Democracies, League of Nations, United Nations, and WTO are such mechanisms. Of course, there is no guarantee that *all* people will be represented. There are still family/trib/gang issues to consider. And the peace may merely free up resources to wage war on others.

See Peace

5. Specific States and Gangs

6. References

See also History


Avinash K. Dixit, Barry J. Nalebuff. "Thinking Strategically" W. W. Norton, 1991. ISBN 0-393-31035-3.


Niccolo Machiavelli. "The Prince". Edited by T. G. Bergin. F.S. Crofts, 1947.


Karen A. Mingst, Jack L. Snyder. "Essential Readings in World Politics", 2nd ed. The Norton Series in World Politics. ISBN 0-395-92406-8.

A sourcebook of essays and papers. Some of the articles are hardly "essential", but I trust Norton to get it approximately right. Also, remember that these are sometimes abstracted from much more substantial works. It usually pays to see the full version. E.g., if you are going to quote Clausewitz, it is best to do so from a fuller understanding of his work (see annotations).

Typically one uses a sourcebook as a reference, but I read it cover-to-cover. My overall impression is that the editors stayed within traditional (nation-state) paradigms in their selections. Within a few of the selections are the barest hints of the rise of multinational corporations, usually mentioned in order to argue against the notion. E.g.:

  • Krasner, "State Power and the Structure of International Trade", pp 410-421. (Complaining that students of international relations have overstated the role of nultinationals) "This perspective is at best profoundly misleading" pg411. There is no effort to demonstrate that the perspective is actually wrong (profoundly or otherwise). The remainder of the article is an attempt to show that nation-states still are in control. No hint that nation-states might themselves be in the control of multinationals.

  • Stiglitz, "The Way Ahead", pp437-460. His basic argument is that the IMF and WTO have gone slightly astray, and need to be brought back to the standards of competent economics. Yet the paper is strewn with observations which don't jibe with that paradigm.

    (Re reform efforts at WTO and IMF) "Today there are huge costs to borrowing, especially when things go badly, but only a fraction of these costs are borne by the borrower" pg 449 -- or by the lender, we might add.

    (Re bailouts) "exchange rates have been manitained at overvalued levels longer than they otherwise would have been (allowing the rich inside the country to get most of their money out at more favorable rates, but leaving the country more indebted.)" pg 450.

    (Re debt forgiveness) "To many, it doesn't seem fair for ordinary taxpayers in countries with corrupt governments to have to repay loans that were made to leaders who did not represent them" pg 454. One might add that US taxpayers who did not vote for Bush et al should stand by while Republicans pay off the trillions in debt racked up by the CEO-in-Chief.

  • Friedman, "The Backlash", 471-476. [Thomas Friedman in an "Essential Readings" collection??] "Like all revolutions, globalization involves a shift in power from one group to another. In most countries it involves a shift from the state and its bureaucrats to the private sector and entrepreneurs." pg 473. He then goes on to list the aflicted (e.g., labor unions, workers in state-owned factories, the unemployed, ... But somehow he fails to add to the list "Citizens and voters in democratic nation-states", or to call US elected officials' complicity in this power shift what it is: Treason.


Malcolm N. Shaw. "International Law", 5th ed. Cambridge University Press, 2003. ISBN 0-521-53183-7.

A well-respected tome providing a survey of international law. Heavily footnoted, with suggestions for further reading.

My overall impression is this: As the Athenians told the Melians, the nicities of international law are for near equals in power. In all other cases might makes right. Because law evolves by accretion, we have remnants of Europe's age of discover and colonization, the subsequent struggles for decolonization, and the more recent rise of multinational corporations as masters of the universe.

Creator: Harry George
Updated/Created: 2009-11-09