What causes war? Many scholars have spent their careers attempting to study the psychology of leaders to understand what incentivizes them to undertake the human and financial costs of conflict, but economist and political scientist Chris Blattman takes a different approach to understanding interstate violence. He returns for his second appearance on Conversations with Tyler to discuss his research into the political and institutional causes of conflict, the topic of his new book Why We Fight: The Roots of War and The Path to Peace.
Chris and Tyler also cover why he doesn’t think demographics are a good predictor of a country’s willingness to go to war, the informal norms that restrain nations, the dangers of responding to cyberattacks, the breakdown of elite bargains in Ethiopia, the relationship between high state capacity and war, the greatest threats to peace in Ireland, why political speech isn’t usually a reliable indicator of future action, Vladimir Putin’s centralized motives for invading Ukraine, why he’s long on Colombia democratically — but not economically, why more money won’t necessarily help the Mexican government curb cartel violence, the single-mindedness necessary for bouldering, how Harold Innis’s insights about commodities led Chris to start studying war, how the University of Chicago has maintained a culture of free inquiry, and more.
Listen to the full conversation
Recorded March 1st, 2022
You can also watch a video of the conversation here.
Read the full transcript
TYLER COWEN: Hello, everyone, and welcome back to Conversations with Tyler. Today, I am sitting down — yes, sitting down — with Chris Blattman once again. There’s an earlier conversation with Chris. If you don’t remember, Chris is both an economist and a political scientist. He does not let either discipline claim him. He is a professor at the University of Chicago, and, most importantly for our purposes, he has a new and wonderful book out, which I have blurbed. It is called Why We Fight: The Roots of War and the Paths to Peace. Chris, welcome.
CHRIS BLATTMAN: Great to be back.
COWEN: I have many questions about war. Let’s start with demographics. Richard Hanania made the argument recently in his Substack that countries where there was only one child per family were going to be much less likely or willing or interested to fight wars. Do you agree?
BLATTMAN: Because they’d put their children at risk, and they —
COWEN: But also, it’s a sign they don’t care that much about the future, that they’re complacent. They’re not going to disrupt their lives just to have three kids. If they’re not going to disrupt their comfortable lives for three kids, they won’t disrupt it for a war either.
BLATTMAN: That doesn’t resonate with me. I don’t think that the average person’s weight on the future and the quality of their life is a first-order determinant. If it is, it’s the kind of a political system that I’m not too worried about going into war.
COWEN: Why isn’t how they feel about their lives, their future, their country —
BLATTMAN: The way I think about this is that there’s usually a narrow set of people who decide whether or not to go to war, and those people are either accountable or not accountable to lots of people. In the places where they’re accountable to everybody else, people have an enormous amount of stake not to go to war, and so, small gradations as to whether or not they have one child or two children or a little bit more weight on the future . . .
War is just so hugely painful that, I think, if you give those people a lot of influence, they’re going to press their leaders not to go to war, in general. I just don’t see this perturbation or this trend as fundamentally shaping that calculus, just because there’s already this overwhelming incentive not to have their leaders invade somebody.
COWEN: If you look at the marginal cases — since there are some wars — there’s a bunch of cases, even if unusual, where someone is right at the margin. At the margin, what are the factors that are most likely to account for the explanatory variation in whether or not a country goes to war?
BLATTMAN: For me, the one that people talk the least about that strikes me as the most important is how concentrated is power in the country. What’s holding back someone from considering all of the implications of their actions on other people, should they decide to take their society to war?
It’s maybe the most important margin in history, and it’s maybe the one that no one of my tribes — which are political economists — think and talk the least about. It’s the one that — in journalism, people leap to psychological explanations, and they try to understand the psychology of leaders, but they don’t try to understand the way in which they’re constrained. So, it’s this combination of the most important and the most ignored.
COWEN: So federal societies are less likely to go to war?
BLATTMAN: The word I both loathe and love is polycentric, which is this word from Vincent and Elinor Ostrom, and it’s this idea where there are many centers of power. In the US, we’re programmed to think in terms of federalism, which is a great example, but I think there’re lots of other ways.
We can be polycentric in the sense of having lots of super-national powers, so we can delegate a lot of authority and bind our hands through international treaties and agreements and alliances. We focus a little bit too much, I think, on downward and federalist polycentrism in the United States.
COWEN: I know it’s a small country, and it’s not near many other countries, but New Zealand is very non-polycentric. If we put them somewhere else, made them bigger, would you think they would be more likely to go to war than, say, Canada?
BLATTMAN: Well, it’s funny because I think of Canada as a not very polycentric place in, at least, a formal institutional sense. Reasonably, they’re in a place where they don’t have a lot of temptation to go to war. I’ve never been to New Zealand, so I’m more projecting from other places I know, including Canada, onto it.
They are polycentric in the sense that the country’s, in some ways, governed and restrained by informal norms and an understanding of what is acceptable behavior and what people would or would not accept. In that sense, I think it’s a very decentralized place. But even the power, in the formal decision-making power, isn’t very decentralized.
COWEN: It seems to me the United States launches a lot of military actions. You may or may not want to call them wars, but something blows up. Russia, pre-Ukraine, launched a very large number of cyberattacks. Your theory of what makes war more likely — how is it different for an actual physical, violent war versus major cyberattacks?
BLATTMAN: That’s a good question. In one sense, cyberattacks can be less attributable and less clear. One of my colleagues, Ethan Bueno de Mesquita, has thought about this. This makes the world a more dangerous place in the sense that there’s a lot of uncertainty about who’s attacking you. You’re always worried that somebody else is attacking you, and they’re cloaking it in this person, and you’ll be duped into a war.
This just leads to a lot more complex strategic calculations that might lead to worse responses, so we should be wary, and probably nations are wary about using it for that reason because it could spin out of control more easily. That’s probably top of my mind.
COWEN: If I had the hypothesis that the least responsible countries are most likely to do cyberattacks, and the sort of more responsible countries — even if you disagree with what they’re doing — are more likely to mount military actions. The earlier British Empire, in a way, may have done the wrong thing, but it proudly announced what it was doing. Does that make sense as a hypothesis?
BLATTMAN: It does, but then it also gives actors in those larger places incentives to appear to be one of these more rogue actors. The thing we have to be worried about in this context is when the ability to conduct cyberattacks is very disaggregated. The idea that — I don’t know — some CIA part-timer or consultant could potentially launch a cyberattack on his own if he was so aggrieved or vice versa in some other strategic . . . The United States — I think we can’t do that with warfare very easily.
COWEN: Let’s say we wanted a theory of which nations were most likely to mount a geoengineering war or attack, which, probably, we haven’t seen yet, but imagine dumping iron filings in the ocean, change the climate, change the climate of your rivals. How is a theory of a geoengineering attack different?
BLATTMAN: I guess it would depend a lot on the extent to which you’re able to. If I fire a missile at an enemy, I’m fairly confident that I’m going to only harm them, and I’m not going to harm me. Anytime anything you do is going to potentially blow back on you — for example, a nuclear bomb is one way to think about it — then it’s going to change your calculus because it’s going to be less attractive relative to the alternatives. There’s always going to be a selection of instruments that you could use.
I’ve never thought of these kinds of attacks before. It seems to me, their risk of blowback is actually much, much higher, and there’s just a lot of uncertainties. I’m not sure why somebody would want to use them vis-à-vis one of these other, more conventional things that are much easier.
COWEN: Well, they’re very cheap, and it might be hard to trace.
But in general, shouldn’t a theory of war be super technologically contingent? If I look who’s likely to launch a drone war, of course, I think the US, but not only. Who’s likely to launch a soldier’s war — it’s maybe negatively correlated. How can we have a general account of who’s likely to launch a war? Isn’t it always per technology?
BLATTMAN: There’s some cost-benefit calculus that is at the root of all of these. That, to me, is still going to be the first-order decision, so I’m struggling to think about . . . The technology’s going to change the cost, and it’s going to change the potential negative externalities, which is just another kind of cost and how much it blows back to you. Like a lot of economic theory, it’s always a good first-order principle for you to use to structure your thinking. The second-order elements just don’t seem to me to be particularly large.
COWEN: Say in your list of the five main factors that explain wars, as I understand it, technology isn’t one of them. Why shouldn’t technology be a clear number one? The US does a lot in Yemen that it probably wouldn’t do with soldiers, but it’s clearly willing to do with drones. We do drone attacks, I don’t know in how many countries, but it’s a large number: West Africa, Sahel. So why isn’t technology the number one factor?
BLATTMAN: Let me use a slightly different analogy. Let’s take Afghanistan and the US involvement in Afghanistan. I have no particular expertise in the region, but I try to understand it myself — why was that such a long war? I think it’s because it was not particularly expensive to the United States.
The United States was saying, “This is going to cost us tens of lives per year, and maybe 1 percent of GDP, and in return for that, we are going to buy reputation for not tolerating rogue states and terror attacks by rogue states. In return for that, we’re going to have some probability, diminishing over time, of victory over this particular rogue group. Given that this rogue group will not negotiate with us, and there doesn’t seem to be any ground where we can actually compromise because of our mutual intransigence, this is a cheap war and we’ll wage it.”
That’s not what they say to the public, but I think that’s, de facto, what happens. I think drones and technology doesn’t make war cheap. If war’s cheap, then you’re going to be more likely to use that as an instrument, and that’s the first order that I think technology gives us.
COWEN: How much does state capacity predict war? Should that be in your list of five main factors?
BLATTMAN: It’s really important to distinguish between the things that change your bargaining power vis-à-vis your rival, and things that actually change the probability of war. If I have state capacity, or if I have particularly cheap weapons, or if I have particularly effective weapons, then it changes what I can expect to get from my rival. It doesn’t necessarily have any effect on this basic intuition that we should actually be trying to find some solution that is going to avoid war, which most of the time we do.
As you know, this is one of the main themes in the book. I would just say, every time we say, “Does this cause war?” we have to say, “Am I talking about something that changes relative bargaining power, or am I talking about something that changes the incentives to avoid the cost of fighting?”
COWEN: Now, in our last conversation, we were both fairly bullish about Ethiopia on the grounds of its high state capacity. That now seems wrong. What do you think we got wrong or you got wrong or I got wrong?
BLATTMAN: Long run, I still have high expectations for Ethiopia. Short run, things have obviously gotten very bad. I have a couple of friends who work very closely there, and so, partly what I know is channeling them.
I think what was fundamentally problematic about that — like in a lot of African countries — is that, in spite of the state capacity, you have power that’s very concentrated in a handful of elite groups. These elite groups happen to be ethnic groups, the Tigray, the Amhara, and the Oromo. They’d cut a deal with one another. They’d cut a deal that for a long time heavily, heavily, heavily favored the Tigrayans, and that started to fray, and the other two groups began to demand more, and they fumbled that.
What surprises me, and I think surprises also the leaders of those three groups, is that they fumbled it. One thing I’ve heard is that the prime minister was surprised at the time that this suddenly turned into violence, and he continued to be surprised for some time. Maybe people just underestimated the chance that these concentrated elite bargains can go wrong.
That’s the thing that I always believed but I never really applied to that case. That, to me, goes back to the first thing I said. The fundamental thing we don’t pay enough attention to is concentrated power and how easy it is, then, for these deals to fall apart.
COWEN: Let me tell you my worry and my account of what I got wrong. I know this theory has only two data points, but I’m struck that Rwanda also has a reputation for high state capacity, which, whatever their failings, is in some sense true. Maybe high state capacity develops from a past where you had ethnic strife or war, and in part, you develop the high state capacity to keep some groups down or enforce some bargains. Maybe, on average, it’s a good thing, but it’s also increasing your variance of outcomes.
There’s this new piece by O’Reilly and Murphy in Economica that shows the best predictor of state capacity today is historical prevalence of war. So when you see high state capacity in Africa, you should also be getting nervous a bit intrinsically — and indeed anywhere — because it’s a sign it was needed. It doesn’t come from nowhere. Just like you needed a fragmented Europe to develop a lot of advances in capitalism, but that, too, had a high cost: 17th-century wars, and so on.
BLATTMAN: The two places we’ve picked here, which are Ethiopia and Rwanda, are places that have high state capacity and coherency today because they had high state capacity and coherency 400 years ago as well, relative to a lot of other places on the continent.
This is a little bit — not a false correlation; I think it’s true — but the thing that strong states have — and I think political scientists would talk about state systems — is that you have lots of competing states close to one another, reasonably strong competing states. And most of the thing that is generating the state capacity is that competition. Nine years out of 10 or 99 years out of a hundred it’s peaceful, and then sometimes it’s not.
COWEN: That’s the high variance point.
BLATTMAN: Right. The fundamental driver of that capacity are these competing state systems, and war is an occasional by-product of that. But when you run a regression — maybe they did; I don’t know this paper — of current state capacity and war, there’s just this omitted variable, which is the competitiveness of state systems. I think we just ascribe a lot of explanatory power to the fighting part that we should attribute to competition, and historians would agree. They would call this defensive modernization.
There are a lot of words and concepts like this that say, “Well, we actually revolutionized our society or technology in response to a competitive threat that never actually turned violent.” That’s first order. I’m not saying competition is unlikely, I’m just saying it’s the actual . . . there’s an inefficient way to do that competition, and sometimes we devolve into that. But we shouldn’t ignore the fact that most of the time that doesn’t happen.
COWEN: Why did the Irish Troubles heat up in 1968, ’69, and not earlier?
BLATTMAN: In those years in particular?
COWEN: Yes, because things seemed much better. A lot of the 1960s, there’s a sense the civil rights movement has come. This could be nonviolent resistance. We’ll work this out, and then it all explodes.
BLATTMAN: It’s hard to nail these things down to specifics. If I remember the case, well, ex post, I think this is when the British army came in.
COWEN: Which was also an unusual and somewhat surprising development, because they had not been coming in during a lot of earlier manifestations of trouble.
BLATTMAN: I think there was a genuinely fragile situation that could have been resolved different ways, and the decision to send the British army in, and then the decision to conduct themselves in the particular way that they conducted themselves, I think, helps start that actual violence. It’s a good question why it happened that year and not five years later or five years earlier. I don’t know.
COWEN: What are the greatest risks to peace in Ireland long term, or is it just all over?
BLATTMAN: I don’t think it’s all over. I’ve spent a total of six days in Ireland, so I would say I think Brexit, and people feel like there’s a very real . . . A decrease in integration with neighboring places, both if it finds itself caught between unable to integrate with Republic of Ireland and de-integrating with England, strikes me as really problematic. But that’s not the flashpoint I’m worried about in the near long term.
COWEN: What does a bad scenario look like then?
BLATTMAN: In Ireland?
COWEN: In Ireland. Northern Ireland, or the border, or wherever it’s going to happen.
BLATTMAN: My friend Richard English is a historian there, and what he and a lot of people think — which is what we were thinking before the pandemic, when I had lots of current knowledge about some of these things when I traveled — was this idea that in these fragile moments, where it’s not really in anyone’s interest to go to war, there will be some small splinter groups, essentially people who, for their own ideological reasons or mistakes or stupidity, will set in motion a series of events that it’s difficult to walk back from.
I think that does happen, and so people who are living in one of these border communities and want to protest violently against some change or lack of change — that’s what worried me.
COWEN: Nested games would be my phrase — that you have subgroups playing their own games, and they don’t care about how the whole game comes out. They want to optimize within their game, but what they do is a move in the larger game as well.
BLATTMAN: To me, this is just a special case of my whole centralization-of-power story, which is to say that there are some groups in societies that are just not accountable to anyone but themselves, and their own peculiar set of preferences can determine outcomes.
When I think about any splinter group, whether it’s some Northern Irish band of terrorists or a faction in Palestine or the Israeli government or wherever it may be, I think fundamentally it’s these groups who can act in their own self-interest because they have at least a temporary interest that can then push a situation into violence that was otherwise quite likely to be peaceful. It’s not just these macro autocrats are more likely to wage wars, which I think is true, but it’s also these little pockets of autocracy that we create in our own social movements that are really dangerous.
COWEN: Isn’t that, in a way, the opposite of centralized power? You have a lot of nested games. You have many autocracies. The problem is that they’re interrelated, and no one of them is making a move for the whole side or the whole team. You can have your allies drag you into war. World War I, in part, came about because smaller countries dragged in larger countries. It wasn’t very centralized. That’s one of the most destructive wars of all time, and that seems to fit the nested games worry as the main driver of a lot of wars.
BLATTMAN: Maybe not surprisingly, you very quickly brought us to the bleeding edge of conflict research and the thing we don’t understand very well. When I think about the one area I wish I understood better — the game theory, the strategic dynamics, the empirics — would be the difficulties of coalition formation and the fact that fragmenting coalitions and many decentralized actors with the means of violence is actually really destabilizing.
I think we need more — I don’t know how to think about it systematically because I don’t think we’ve had 20 people with their shoulder behind the boulder, pushing and trying to understand that.
COWEN: We’re talking today at the very beginning of March, and we don’t know what’s going to happen with Russia and Ukraine, but we know a lot has happened. There’s one group of people that very confidently predicted disaster — Kasparov would be one. Really, many other people — I would say the mainstream — that until the attack actually came, they just thought it would be some bizarre limited police action in the east and not amount to much. What difference in theoretical approach accounts for who got it right and who got it wrong?
BLATTMAN: Sometimes, any hugely confident prediction of a military action is more often wrong than not. I’m not sure that there’s something, theoretically, that drives the hugely confident predictions because, in those instances, some people are simply too confident. I think the only reasonable way to look at the situation three months ago or two months ago was that this is, at best, even odds. I speak also as someone who was less than even odds.
Then it’s very hard to evaluate these claims after the fact. Was the person who said it was 80 percent likely to happen correct? Was the person who said it was 20 percent likely to happen correct? We don’t know. I don’t think they differed theoretically. They may have differed in empirical beliefs and the things they weighed.
I think the more that you are convinced that Putin has a personal stake in this military action and in taking Ukraine at all costs, and the more that you believe he and his cabal and his military apparatus are capable of complete misjudgment, then the more likely you perceived a risk of war.
In retrospect, the thing I think people should have used to predict a risk of war, but that I very seldom heard anyone talk about, was the degree to which you thought the Ukrainians would be unflinchingly intransigent on any compromise, the degree to which you thought the US government would be intransigent on any compromise whatsoever. That’s mainly what I didn’t predict, but I don’t think anybody was talking about that, including me, a month ago.
COWEN: Let me tell you my sense. It may be close to yours, but tell me what you think. The people I know who took seriously the fact that Putin believed in his own stated ideas tended to predict this particular outcome better than the people who thought it was a game-theoretic calculation.
BLATTMAN: I don’t really think we should place a lot of value on speeches that politicians give as their actual intentions, as a general rule. I just don’t think that it’s going to lead us to accurate predictions. It might have been consistent with what happened in this case. I don’t think it’s a useful predictive tool.
COWEN: But there are clearly cases it applies to. Hitler more or less said what he wanted to do. In fact, he did it — or tried to do it. That would be a case where, if you pay attention to his ideas and speeches, you would do very well, but just in the abstract, you might think it’s crazy. What guy would ever do this? But he did it.
BLATTMAN: If we just took all the leaders and all the things they said, and then whether or not they did the things they said they were going to do, I guess my prediction is the correlation goes in the other direction, particularly with military exercises, but that might be wrong. I’ve never seen someone run that.
COWEN: I think of political speech as more informative. China is insisting that, within the hundred-year anniversary of the revolution, which would be 2049, it will bring Taiwan back into the fold. Now, they may not succeed in doing that, but I strongly believe that as a result of their words, that’s what they intend to do, and they will try very hard to do it.
Why is that a mistake in inference? Why would they say it? What’s wrong with the simple, they say it because they’re selling the idea to their public, and they believe it, and a lot of their public believes it, and they want to do it?
BLATTMAN: I’m not saying there’s no information. Most of the time you have two parties . . . We have the word brinksmanship for a reason because people bring it to the brink, and then they walk back. And the language that is necessary to establish a bargaining position . . .
Let’s put it in a totally different situation. You’re negotiating in a market for a carpet, and you have to stake out and say, “Oh, I could never pay that.” Our whole ability to get a deal is actually contingent on me knowing that you have an incentive to actually say something that’s false about your own intransigence because it strengthens your bargaining power.
Maybe that’s why I don’t believe political speech — because the whole act of bargaining with an adversary is it’s necessary for you to pretend that you will give less than you won’t. We all know this. We all do this instinctually, and it’s a ritual. More often than not, you find the deal. You don’t walk away, and eventually, you buy a carpet.
COWEN: But how’s this for a theory? Political speech really matters in cases where there’s no Solomonic solution where you can just split the baby. You can’t give Putin half of Ukraine. Taiwan can’t give China half of Taiwan. Then, in those cases, it actually indicates there might be a likely conflict. In other cases, there’s plenty of bargaining, right?
BLATTMAN: Right. I think the problem, though, is actually the fact that we create a set of institutional or ideological rigidities that keep us from compromising. That hasn’t happened in Hong Kong. There are all these gradations of Chinese control over Hong Kong because there aren’t as many bright red lines. That’s why I wouldn’t predict violence in the case of Hong Kong. To the extent that you’re right, I don’t think it’s the statements that are the problem. I’d look for these institutional rigidities that cannot adapt to changing relative bargaining power.
COWEN: Given your understanding of the psychology behind decisions to go to war, what can we do to lower that risk? Other than just make people nicer — sort of tautological answers, but substantively?
BLATTMAN: I think the answer is more organizational than psychological, in the sense that they’re related, but we make decisions as groups, and we make decisions as bureaucracies most of the time. Only in the most centralized countries do individuals make decisions, and even then, I don’t think it’s individuals. There’s still this apparatus.
So, I like to pay attention to the errors that we make as a result, that maybe accentuate our psychological problems or psychological tendencies to probably process too little information and to just succumb to something like availability bias, which is the opinions in the room. So, any type of organizational procedure.
I think a smart White House or a smart Kremlin or a smart military defense ministry would actually try to foster a way of reducing availability bias in the room and actually getting these red teams and these other types of ways of getting devil’s advocates into the room.
COWEN: What did Shakespeare understand about war that current social scientists do not?
BLATTMAN: I’m one of these people who didn’t really read books until I was at the end of my college career and missed the induction into Shakespeare, and so, I fear I might be the last person —
COWEN: But you talked about this in your book. You talk about Henry the IV, right?
BLATTMAN: Since I can’t name the particular insight that Shakespeare had, that to me is an instance of . . . and this was true of a lot. Again, I don’t want to beat this down because I do think there are a lot of other sources of instability. But that period of European history was a period of concentrated autocratic power and a set of monarchs who could indulge not just any private interest they have in war, but actually per ideological or glory-driven preferences for status and status competition amongst themselves.
That’s a reading of history that echoes, very, very loudly in my ears, some of the patterns I see today.
COWEN: What do you think of the Steven Pinker thesis that basically war’s diminishing over time, consistently and for structural reasons?
BLATTMAN: I think it’s a plausible hypothesis that seems not to be true, according to some of the people who have done the careful analysis of interstate and civil wars. Then, if you look at other types of violence, particularly violence within societies, within cities — you look at homicide — it’s unassailably true. You have to evaluate that depending on the type of violence.
Interpersonal violence that can be controlled by the state — definitely going down, partly because we have stronger states that control violence. Violence between strategic actors — different polities or factions within a polity — I would like the trend to be downwards, and it might go down, but I don’t think that’s where the evidence points.
COWEN: What do you think of the model where, maybe, there’s a downward trend for frequency, but there’s an upward ratchet in terms of destructiveness? From World War I to World War II — while it wasn’t that long, the second was more destructive. Now it’s been a long time since World War II. Weapons are much more powerful. If another world war happened again, the standard line, World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones, right? Is that the best model we have?
BLATTMAN: It’s not always true, but as a first-order prediction, thinking that war is going to become less frequent but more deadly than it is, especially when it involves nuclear powers — yes, I think that’s basically right.
COWEN: You’re a pessimist for your grandchildren?
COWEN: Because the next one will be a doozy, right? We don’t know when it’s coming, but under that hypothesis, there’s a great deal to worry about. You have to think it will be worse than World War II.
BLATTMAN: I think it will be, but worse than World War II and nuclear Armageddon are two very different things. The truth is going to be somewhere in between. I think the probability of limited use of nuclear weapons in the next 50 years is extremely high. The use of all-out mutually assured destruction is impossible to access. I don’t see any reason to think it’s particularly high, but the fact that it’s small and possible is a little bit terrifying.
COWEN: Where do you think is the most likely next target for a nuclear weapon?
BLATTMAN: Does this include dirty bombs?
COWEN: Not dirty bombs, but a major explosion.
BLATTMAN: So a state-sanctioned use of informal —
COWEN: It doesn’t have to be state-sanctioned but —
BLATTMAN: That’s a good question. I would be more worried about North Korea or using one of Pakistan or India than I am of Russia or the United States. I think we differ on this, but maybe not. In the next three weeks, anything’s possible, sadly, and so this will come — this will look very dated.
I think it’s unlikely, but we’re recording this — when it comes to Russia — at the moment of tremendous uncertainty. We’re just three days, four days, five days into an invasion, depending on when you want to count the beginning. Anyways, this is so, but ignoring that, which is impossible, it’s probably in one of these smaller countries.
COWEN: If Putin thinks he can survive, I certainly would infer from that, that the chance of him launching a nuclear attack is very small. But if he thinks he’s not going to survive, I would expect he would be willing to incur a strategy that just mixes up what’s happening, probably lowers his expected value, but boosts the variance. Then I would think a nuclear attack is at least a few percent, maybe more, maybe up to 10 percent.
Am I thinking about that wrong? Is that the right distinction — whether he expects he can survive or not? How would you think about that?
BLATTMAN: Even ignoring the nuclear calculus, in some sense, I think the whole basis for this war, or the whole basis for the aggression and the aggressive bargaining, is Putin’s desire to preserve and advance his control and his vision. Or maybe that network and that elite group’s control is my . . . not being a Russia expert.
What possible threat does NATO or capitalism or democracy have to the average Russian? I don’t see it, and even if it existed, I don’t see a threat that’s worth this kind of aggressive posturing and brinksmanship and invasion and possible use of nuclear weapons with Ukraine. It’s all predicated on the interests of this group that’s in power — all of the action. And how far will they go to preserve that? How far will people around him let him go, and how personalized his power, actually? I don’t think we really know, or at least I don’t know.
COWEN: Why is it you’re more likely to get randomly beat up on the street in England than, say, in Canada, America, or New Zealand?
BLATTMAN: Are you more randomly likely to get beat up in England?
COWEN: I think so. At times, I’m slightly afraid. Is it an alcohol issue, or how gangs are organized?
BLATTMAN: We live on different streets. You live in Virginia, and I live on the South Side of Chicago.
COWEN: Then it’s not true.
BLATTMAN: No one’s going to beat me up, but is someone going to come and knock me down and grab my phone? Maybe.
COWEN: That’s a very different kind of violence.
BLATTMAN: That’s a very different kind.
COWEN: In England, if you were beaten up, it might just be for sport.
BLATTMAN: By a bunch of . . . If there are bands of hooligans going around beating up people for sport, I would hypothesize that’s a social norm that exists in that society that somehow says, “We’re going to tolerate this particularly egregious set of behaviors.” We just tolerate different bad behavior in our own communities here.
Some communities, to some extent, will tolerate one kind of violence, maybe, on the South Side of Chicago, and we tolerate and have become accustomed to maybe something different in England. That would be my suggestion.
COWEN: We used to have generations of American men — they’d fight in wars, they went away, they came back home. Maybe they were hailed as heroes, but they probably had a lot of PTSD. That’s really not so much the case anymore. How has that changed American society?
BLATTMAN: They probably did have PTSD.
COWEN: Sure, a lot of them. Now there’s less of that. Obviously, some veterans coming back from Afghanistan, Iraq, but much smaller.
BLATTMAN: I would say the most important thing about this experience probably wasn’t the exposure to trauma and PTSD. I would’ve thought the organizational experience and the bonding. Maybe a small fraction would have PTSD, but everyone would’ve come back with the military socialization, for example, and maybe, depending on how that war conducted itself, potentially very poisonous and xenophobic views or, potentially, the opposite. I think that would be very idiosyncratic to that particular war.
I would say we’re probably a society that is less socialized into large bureaucracies and obedience. That would maybe be my first response.
COWEN: I would think we’re more socialized into large bureaucracies. More people work in big companies, government employment if you count contractors. Society, to me, feels much more bureaucratic than when I was a kid.
BLATTMAN: I see. I would say maybe it’s a particular group project. And maybe I’m just projecting my own experience because, even though I’m in a large institution, I’m this very autonomous individual, and so I’m not seeing that. I do think there’s something qualitatively different about being a, maybe, temporary member of a corporation for the next three years of my life to socialization into a mass war movement. Even if it’s also for three years, I think it’s probably a very different psychological experience.
COWEN: Especially for the younger members of Congress, is it a good thing that so few of them have served in the military? Or should we be concerned?
BLATTMAN: We shouldn’t make too much of these correlations. But it is interesting that if you look at some of the people who have run correlations of what kinds of leaders are most likely to end up taking their country to war, it’s ones who have been trained in the military but never fought in a war.
You can imagine that there’s an inverse U-shape, that no military experience or military experience with actually fighting a war both lead you to be averse, and then there’s that middle ground. That seems intuitively plausible to me. At the same time, I’m not sure that’s on my top-five list of things that would or would not make a congressperson go to war.
COWEN: Now, you’re doing quite a bit of work in Colombia recently. Would you go long or short on the country and why?
BLATTMAN: I go long on the country on democracy and civic participation and stability to a degree, which is to say, I think it’s unlikely to get worse than it is now, and it’s quite good. I don’t go long on economic development. I see them maybe getting stuck in the middle-income trap.
COWEN: What’s their problem there?
BLATTMAN: I keep asking people who are in government or in industry, and it’s striking to me that nobody has an answer, and people haven’t been thinking about it. The fact that it’s not an energetic topic of discussion and focus is, in itself, maybe a problem. I think that it’s also a country that faces some severe cost disadvantage at being either an industrial or service powerhouse.
My whole view is that most places in the world are doomed to be part of a middle-income trap. The lucky ones will find themselves in political union with a place that’s not. Newfoundland would be one of the poorer countries in the world if they didn’t have the good fortune of joining Canada 70 or 80 years ago. If Colombia was in a political union with Mexico, I would be much more bullish on Colombian economic prosperity because I think they would siphon off a lot of the success that I would predict for Mexico.
COWEN: Does Colombia have the problem that I associate with much of Central America? The market size is actually quite small. The country appears moderately populous, but the different parts of the country are not well connected. It’s a set of semi-isolated islands, and then their ideal major trading partner, the United States, is fairly far away.
Maybe the best scenario for Colombia is to think of Panama as part of Colombia, which, of course, it once was, and Panama’s doing great. The rest of Colombia is the hinterlands. You have the hinterlands with different cutoff parts, all with small market size and no great neighbor nearby at that.
BLATTMAN: I think it’s a general strategy for the Colombias and the Ugandas and all of the countries of the world that are not obviously going to be a center of agglomerations of industry or services or tech or ideas but are pretty good, would do better in the long run . . . They might not do better in other dimensions, but they would do better in terms of economic development by seeking more political union, maybe not with the Panamas, although Panama is important because of the trade networks and things. I would seek political union with the places with those agglomerations.
COWEN: For Colombia, there’s no natural partner. It’s certainly not Venezuela.
BLATTMAN: Yeah, the tragedy for Colombia is that Brazil doesn’t speak Spanish as their principal language. Otherwise, that would be the natural . . . No, Colombia is at a geographic disadvantage for long-run economic development.
COWEN: Why does the country have a relatively high-quality bureaucracy, given those problems?
BLATTMAN: Every single researcher who works there asks themselves why they have this good fortune of working with amazing technocrats. It’s a very unequal country in terms of access to education and in terms of access to these positions, but that’s also true of many other Latin American countries, so I’m not sure why Colombia seems better. I’m not sure that’s entirely it.
One self-serving hypothesis I have is that, in the United States, your path to political power and your generic degree is in law. In China, I’m told it’s engineering, and in Colombia, it’s political science and economics. It might just be that that idiosyncratically creates . . . It takes these great people who might have become engineers, who might have become lawyers in another system, and then teaches them technocratic science. That’s like the elite language.
COWEN: If someone has two weeks, and they want to take the perfect trip through Colombia, what is it?
BLATTMAN: I enjoy renting a car and doing my own road trips, which is something that very few people do, even though it’s perfectly safe. There are very few, if any, parts of the country where you would ever — that’s 10 or 20 years in the past — where you’d worry about that.
Then, my general strategy is to pick medium-size towns and sites. I avoid the big cities. You probably have to see Bogotá and Medellín, but I would actually try to just skip over them. I would pick a quarter of the country, and I would drive around that for two weeks. The ones I’ve chosen — we did a two-week road trip. Maybe one of my highlights is from Bucaramanga, through Colombia’s Grand Canyon, Villa de Leyva, Spanish colonial towns up in the mountains, down to Bogotá over two weeks. That was fabulous.
COWEN: Should I be optimistic about the future of violence in Mexico?
BLATTMAN: I am just starting to answer that question for myself. The few days that I dipped my toe into it in person — and now I’m going back — makes me, in this paradoxical way, very bullish on Mexico in general, but wondering how they will ever solve this problem. I’m not sure how they will ever solve the problem of violence because solving the problem of violence requires recognizing that these armed groups and criminal cartels have an immense amount of power, and that they have to find a way to live with them.
I’m not sure that’s the right choice. I think Mexicans have chosen. They’ve said, “That’s unacceptable. We refuse to do that, no matter the cost. We’re going to be engaged in a long, brutal, and possibly unwinnable war with these groups.”
COWEN: A lot of particular states will let the groups be.
BLATTMAN: I think you’re going to see a mix. You see that everywhere. You see that in any country, including the United States. Different municipal governments and different state governments agree to be conciliatory to their criminal gangs to different degrees. One of the challenges is that tends to be democratically unpopular, and that’s certainly been true in Colombia.
My first read is that might be what’s true, at least nationally, in Mexico. So, as soon as you have transitions of government, I think there’s just a risk every X years of that conciliatory nature and that peace between the state and the gang falling apart.
COWEN: What about Wagner’s law of catch-up hypothesis, that for a country of its per capita income, the Mexican government is relatively small, and that if the share of government in GDP went up, say, four percentage points, that over time, they would just have more resources and beat the gangs, and Mexico would still be violent but, more or less, converge to where a lot of other countries are at? Is it that simple? They just need more money?
BLATTMAN: Well, no. That’s like saying if we arm more, do we expect to have less violence? Once again, I think it’s about, we’re going to change the bargaining power. It’s one of these things — you’re not changing the probability of war. You’re changing the bargaining power of the Mexican state versus the gangs. What you might not have changed is the fact that they’re unwilling to compromise.
So, unless you are able to become overwhelmingly more powerful than these gangs and cartels, and thus, either concede very little or just have an incessant war, but on the margins, which is a little bit like the war on drugs in the United States. We’ve decided we’re just going to go to an incessant war against these almost-impossible-to-eliminate gangs. They’re now very small and confined because we have an immense amount of bargaining power vis-à-vis these very weak gangs.
I just don’t see Mexico ever getting there because they’re the principal channel for drugs in the United States. Now, if we develop other channels of drugs in the United States, or if we somehow discover how to grow coca in other regions that lead to different transport networks, that would totally change it. Otherwise, that’s the sense in which I’m not bullish on Mexico.
COWEN: You’re Canadian. Who predicted the Ottawa truckers convoy? What is it they saw that other people did not?
BLATTMAN: Well, I don’t know if anyone predicted it. I would say most Canadians — because I don’t think it’s nearly as polarized a place, although I haven’t lived there in something like 20, almost 25 years — recognize that there’s a strong conservative and anti-establishment sentiment in the country, slightly fewer than in the United States but not dramatically different.
Then, my distant view is that, because there are very few ICU beds, and because of the particular nature of the system — and for some reason they didn’t invest in them over the last two years — the government has to be super cautious and really had to crack down harder than in the United States, where we have many, many more ICU beds. They may have just overstepped what people were willing to tolerate.
I don’t think people were surprised at the movement. I think they might have been surprised that it emerged in this raucous, amateurish, violent way, and some of the weirdness at the fringes was extra weird for Canada.
COWEN: Why didn’t the Ottawa police just arrest the truckers? And as a follow-up to that, how much is the decision to arrest like the decision to fight?
BLATTMAN: I don’t know. I grew up in Ottawa, and that has given me precisely zero insight into the 21st-century policing in Ottawa, I would say. So the first part of your question, I don’t have an answer.
In general, violently disrupting or closing down protests is just an inherently risky political strategy, and if you don’t think you have to do it, you might just try to wait them out a little bit, especially if it’s –20 degrees. But is it like fighting? I think it is. In some sense, that’s the equivalent.
COWEN: The world of ideas. What did von Clausewitz get wrong?
BLATTMAN: The basic insight that we get from him, which is maybe the only one I’ve internalized and remember, I think is basically right and is the thing we often forget. I’m not answering your question because I actually don’t know. Presumably, we don’t talk about 99 percent of what else is in that book because it wasn’t particularly insightful, might be part of the answer. But I think this idea that politics and fighting are two sides of the same coin is a very deep insight that is surprisingly easy to never learn and to forget in spite of everyone being able to repeat his famous phrase.
COWEN: What special insight do you think you have into Hayek?
BLATTMAN: None whatsoever.
COWEN: But do people either overrate or underrate him? How’s your take on him different?
BLATTMAN: I have four volumes by Hayek. The thinnest one I read 25 years ago. So maybe I suspect a lot of people are like me in that they have bought the volumes and aspired to read but have not fully read, so probably underrated.
COWEN: What’s the thought of Albert Hirschman that’s influenced you most?
BLATTMAN: Development Projects Observed is probably like a whole set of volumes written by people of that generation and maybe the next generation. The idea I take from it is that development is a process of trial and error, or in some sense, it’s almost a process of creative destruction that requires lots of trial and error.
It’s unfortunate that our general attitude towards international development, or the general attitude in most development organizations, is to absolutely ignore and remain institutionally and individually ignorant of the importance of trial and error and creative destruction in policy for decades.
COWEN: Jeff Sachs as a development thinker — overrated or underrated?
BLATTMAN: Jeff Sachs was one of my teachers in letter writers and things. With great respect to Jeff Sachs, I think overrated only because there’s a handful of views . . . properly rated, but so many other ideas are just not read. Jeff had a popular book and a clear message, as do a handful of others. And all of those people — who are friends and I respect — are all overrated because it’s read too much, and everything else is read too little.
COWEN: For bouldering, what’s a special skill that you need that most people don’t appreciate?
BLATTMAN: I think it’s the fact that you have to not like other sports [laughs] because it’s the kind of thing that rewards intense focus and practice, practice, practice. So to the extent that you like other physical activities — maybe all sports do this, but bouldering, in particular, rewards single-mindedness. And so a lack of interest in other physical activities can be a benefit.
COWEN: You wrote some long while ago, maybe it was even 2007, that people who work for development agencies should not expect to fly business class. What’s your current view of that hypothesis?
BLATTMAN: I still live by that hypothesis, and I don’t know if I was at all influential on this. I’d like to think I get 2 percent or 3 percent of the credit, but within a few years, the World Bank did severely limit the amount of business class travel or the conditions in which it’s possible. Given how many of my World Bank friends, previous to and after this, were mad at me is why I’m conceited enough to think I might have had a tiny bit of influence. Mostly, I hope it was just good sense.
COWEN: You think it’s correct to save money? Or to remove the sense of entitlement or some other reason?
BLATTMAN: Listen, a lot of the development discourse and my own feelings are a little bit utilitarian in the sense that people are saying, “Listen, we can make choices here where we can spend $1,000 per person, or we can spend $500 on two people, and we’d like to decide which is better in terms of what can have more impact. Secondly, we’d like to find a bunch of innovations that really have low-cost impact so that we can take this limited — and sometimes increasingly limited — amount of development money and just do the most good with it.”
The antithesis of that is just paying four times more for a slightly more roomy seat so you get slightly better sleep when you could do the same thing with a 5-cent Valium pill.
COWEN: What’s important about the thought of Harold Innis?
BLATTMAN: I was really influenced as a college student by these economic historians of Canada and South America, particularly Southern Cone, of whom Innis was very important in the importance of specific commodities and the characteristics of those commodities in determining a country’s development path. I think it’s a really underrated view of understanding different countries’ development paths.
Innis would say, if we really want to understand why Canada looks the way it does today, we would have to look at cod, or we would have to look at furs. And in Argentina, you would have to look at cows. And in Colombia, you would think you have to look at coffee, but you actually have to look at all of the things that Colombia cycled through before they stumbled upon coffee as something where they had a global cost advantage.
It’s just the idea that if we want to understand the economic geography and political paths and political stability of a country, we need to understand what commodities they started out with. What this led me to do, and how I got started on the path of studying war, actually, is by realizing that some commodities are just hugely volatile in price for various circumstances, and some are not.
So, if we wanted to understand long-term paths of development and why some places weren’t prosperous, it’s because they lost the commodity lottery, and they got a volatile commodity rather than a stable one.
COWEN: Not unrelated to Russia, of course.
Last question. You teach at the University of Chicago. It still seems, to me, the place has a special ethos, a mix of seriousness, people teaching things to themselves, showing up meaning business, free speech, some cluster of ideas. How has the University of Chicago maintained that? What’s the secret there?
BLATTMAN: I selected this place six years ago. In large part, that was one of its chief attractions, and I’ve asked myself that question. There’s a cheap answer, which is cultural persistence, but then, the question is why?
COWEN: So many university cultures have changed, right?
BLATTMAN: Maybe I’m going to go back and contradict myself — the political speech point. I think the university built its social identity around being that, and the reason you can point out this thing is not . . . Even if you didn’t spend any time there, you would be able to say that is the identity of this university because that’s what they say they are, and they show up in the news because they’re the university that does that.
It shouldn’t be surprising that a university has done that. The question is, why haven’t more universities done that? I was faculty at Yale, and I was faculty at Columbia, and they were many great things, but they were not places that self-consciously define themselves as places to be about ideas and about ideas at all costs. So it’s only in retrospect that I wonder why not.
COWEN: Thank you very much, Chris. Again, Chris’s new book, Why We Fight: The Roots of War and the Path to Peace, is now out — highly recommended. It’s been a pleasure.
BLATTMAN: Thank you.