The Political Psychology of
International Security and conflict
Throughout history, people have seemingly been embroiled almost constantly in violence, conflict, and war. And, for an equally long period of time, writers from numerous disciplines have sought to understand the causes of such strife (Brown, 1987; Nieburg, 1969). Although a discussion of this subject could reasonably be seen to require a review of the voluminous research into violence and aggression that has been conducted in psychology and sociology, that is really beyond the limited scope of this chapter. In fact, much of this literature is already discussed in our other chapters dealing with ethnic nationalism, violence, and genocide. Instead, this chapter seeks to use international security and conflict as an example, in order to illustrate how political psychological approaches have been applied by political scientists to better understand such problems as the causes of war, the security dilemma, and deterrence. In doing so, it is hoped that students will better appreciate how psychological concepts can be usefully applied to real-world political problems. The portions of the Political Being focused upon in this chapter are cognition, emotion, and perceptions of them.
There have been many competing explanations for violence and war proposed over time, by scholars across numerous disciplines (Brown, 1987). Some, for example, looked to biology, to suggest that humankind was genetically predisposed to be innately violent (Freud, 1932/1951, 1920/1950, 1930/1962; Lorenz, 1966; Scott, 1969; Shaw & Wong, 1989; Wilson, 1978) Others have suggested that human aggression was more of a socially learned response (Bandura, 1973, 1977, 1986; Skinner, 1971, 1974). In time, a general consensus has emerged, in which, as Brown (1987) notes, “most serious students of human violence recognize some mixture of innate predisposition (which may vary with individuals) and situational conditions” (pp. 8–9). Often, explanations of conflict in political science have suggested psychological factors as a key component. For example, the role of perception and misperception between the leaders of states, in causing or avoiding international conflict, has been described at length across historical crisis cases (Jervis, 1976; Lebow, 1981). Similarly, problems of successful crisis management, given leader psychology or organizational limitations as a factor in avoidance of war, have been discussed by a number of scholars (Allison & Zelikow, 1999; George, 1991). The dynamics and composition of policy-making groups themselves have been suggested to play a major role in averting or causing conflict (Janis, 1972; Janis & Mann, 1977). Finally, the personalities and characteristics of leaders have also been suggested to play a role in causing or preventing conflicts (Birt, 1993; Post, 1991; Stoessinger, 1985).
One of the earliest expositions of the causes of political violence is found in Thucydide's History of the Peloponnesian War, which chronicles the events surrounding the bloody conflict between the neighboring Greek city-states of Sparta and Athens, over 2,400 years ago.