April 1, 2014


The surprising power of peace (Simon Kuper, 3/28/14, Financial Times)

The great theorist of this trend is Steven Pinker, professor of psychology at Harvard. His book The Better Angels of Our Nature says that annual deaths in battle dropped by more than 90 per cent from the late 1940s through the early 2000s. "The decline of violence," Pinker writes, "may be the most significant and least appreciated development in the history of our species." (Syria is the great current exception, accounting for most of the world's deaths in conflict last year.)

I phoned Pinker for his take on the Crimean crisis. First, he said, it confirmed his view that conflicts are more often caused by nationalism or narcissistic leaders than by states pursuing their rational interests.

Certainly, Russia isn't on some hard-headed quest for resources. Crimea offers little more than a warm-water port, and Ukraine let Russia use that anyway. Occupying more territory gives Russia no security, because nobody will ever attempt a land war against it again.

Rather, said Pinker, "Putin has the classic symptoms of a narcissistic leader: dreams of greatness, desire to be worshipped and lack of empathy." Indeed, Pinker wrote in 2012: "Perhaps an ageing Putin will seek historical immortality and restore Russian greatness by swallowing a former Soviet republic or two."

Putin's recent narcissistic self-tribute, the Sochi Olympics, may even have precipitated this conflict. Ukrainian protesters presumably bet that Putin wouldn't spoil his own party by crushing them mid-Games. The Dutch sports historian Jurryt van de Vooren recalls the Moscow Olympics of 1980, when the USSR tolerated Polish workers' strikes because it wanted to preserve its Games. The upshot: Poland's Solidarity trade union emerged.

This time, Ukraine's president Viktor Yanukovich tried poorly calibrated violence: he murdered about 100 protesters, too few to crush the uprising, but enough to force him to flee. Yanukovich broke 21st-century political rules: you can steal, but don't kill. [...]

Most Russians oppose war with Ukraine partly for the very reason they think Crimea is "theirs": they consider Ukraine a kindred territory, almost like Russia. Many Russians have Ukrainian relatives. Many Ukrainians have mixed Russian-Ukrainian heritage, or aren't sure what they are. Marc Bennetts, author of Kicking the Kremlin, says: "An actual conflict with Ukraine is unthinkable to the vast majority of Russians. It would be like England fighting Wales, or the US fighting Texas. There is no popular support for a protracted war with Ukraine. And Putin very rarely goes against public opinion."

Posted by at April 1, 2014 4:52 AM

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