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Democracies and their Search for Enemies

Posted by / 17th January 2012 / Categories: Opinion / Tags: , / -

In an interesting fusion of international relations and developmental psychology, the Enemy System Theory (EST) has been used since the Cold War to explain conflicts between human tribes. Its main premise is that the human mind requires the identification of both antagonistic as well as friendly groups that validate one’s own existence. In other words, we need enemies in order to feel good about ourselves. From an evolutionary human need’s perspective, it allows our psychology to show loyalty to our surroundings by sharing a common foe. If no such foe exists, we artificially create one. Needless to say, this urge seems to be alive and well in our modern day societies. In Europe and the United States, especially, there seems to be a continuous search for potential enemies to identify and hunt down. And if we cannot find them, we invent them.

An often heard misconception about our world is that democracies are more peaceful than dictatorships or other types of regimes. Even though there is some evidence to suggest that among themselves democracies tend to be peaceful, democracies have proven to be ferociously violent towards non-democratic regimes. This is true even if one leaves the United States out of the equation on the basis of being unrivalled- and therefore almost unavoidably irresponsible- in its military superiority. European democracies have been heavily involved in, and shared responsibility for, most of the violent and diplomatic conflicts this century so far.

To continue to insist that this is because democratic nations are more vested in spreading their self-perceived enlightenment around the globe- and thus accelerating Fukuyama’s now infamous End of History- seems unsustainable. Too many inconsistencies in Western behaviour undermine that thesis. Yet to argue that it is all down to realist, self-interested behaviour fuelled by oil and other geostrategic concerns, is also missing the mark. The large conflicts of our time (Iraq, Afghanistan, the War on Terror in general) have been too self-destructive, too badly calculated, to have been born solely out of such sinister motives.

Our perceived need for enemies as explained by the EST seems to be a more appropriate explanation. In a time that natural enemies are increasingly hard to find, we actively seek them out. In many cases, we even encourage them. Reading the newspapers, one would almost get the false impression that times are particularly dangerous for the West right now. Our tribal instincts do not seem to be comfortable in a globalized world in which we can no longer define good or evil according to Cold War parameters. Hence, over the past twenty years or so, democracies have been actively searching for new targets.

During the hopeful and idealistic 1990s, the targets were particularly hard to come by. Those that were found- in the Balkans, for example- tended to be portrayed as enemies of humanity and human rights, rather than as enemies of democratic populations specifically. The first decade of the new century, however, saw the rise of terrorism as an all encompassing foe ready to be applied to our darkest nightmares. It led to wars with hundreds of thousands of civilians killed by democratic forces.

Now, with the fear and anger towards faceless terrorist on the decline, democratic aggression has turned back to more value driven targets, such as Libya and Syria. Iran seems to be the only constant throughout the ages, with Teheran making an appetising and useful target for continual rhetoric and sanctions. The North Korean regime has proven too extreme and too cartoonish in Western eyes to be useful as true antagonists, despite the human suffering among the Korean population.

It is hard to overestimate the psychological power of enemies in our collective conscious. British and American comedy shows still seem incapable to even mention Germany without some distasteful reference to Hitler or its Nazi past. Immigrants are increasingly perceived as a fifth column for unspecified rivals. Irrational fear of Iran’s nuclear program is shared by both the political right as well as the left throughout the West. The mere mention of terrorist plots continue to open political paths unimaginable in any rational society.

The level of enthusiasm for our own societal arrangements is inversely related to the relationship with our surroundings. Even internally, within democratic societies, the artificiality of much of the political discourse against the other side is obvious, of course. Railing against the other political side makes us feel good about ourselves and those who agree with us. Being a victim, potential or actual, of forces that are perceived to be against us, is a powerful sedative. It liberates us from introspection and self-assessment.

The fact that politicians gladly use the EST to their advantage is nothing new, and they will undoubtedly continue to do so. Yet it would be a mistake to automatically interpret this as wilful abuse on their part. Besides the irony of such attitudes towards them, proving the EST itself (making political leaders our perceived enemies), it is likely that they themselves are victims of their own human frailty. Just like all of us.

By any reasonable standard (mortal victims, economic destruction, geopolitical manipulation), democracies have proven the most aggressive actors in violent conflicts worldwide over the past decades. And yet we continue to see ourselves as the good side, righteous and generally well-behaved, albeit perhaps error prone in the practical application of our ideals.

Next time that the political right and the left come together to overthrow a regime in Libya, or impose tougher sanctions on Iran, or suggest intervention in Syria, perhaps should have a look at how that has worked out for us in the past. Maybe some modesty in both our admiration for our own moral superiority as well as restraint in our anger towards unpleasant regimes would be appropriate. It certainly would have benefited the Iraqi and Afghani populations over the past decade or so. After all, who needs enemies with friends like us?

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