What comes first, war or diplomacy?

Posted on April 2, 2011 by

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What comes first, war or diplomacy?

by Aldo Matteucci

This question is, of course, rhetorical. No one was there to take notes and the “there” is wherever – so we may have different answers in different places, at different times.

This did not stop HOBBES from arguing “homo homini lupus”, and a lot of political scientists from bleating the same arm-chair based assumption ever since. Only Leviathan can bring order to the world of national and international relations.

The ghost of HOBBES is alive and well, sprightly roaming the corridors of international conferences – now dressed up in modern social science garb. The most recent apparition is dubbed the “tragedy of the commons” – the belief that only a global and coercive agreement can bring humanity to tackle a global problem (fill in your choice of “tragedy”).

It is spring, here in Switzerland, so rather than ponderously argue this nonsense, let me ask facetiously: what came first: war or diplomacy?

I just came across a small piece of ancient history, which I was not taught (an oversight, I’m sure), despite the many hours spent learning about the Punic Wars. As early as 509 BC Rome and Carthage signed a treaty defining their respective spheres of influence, and outlining what was “permissible” (provisioning), and what was “forbidden” (trade and settlement) on each other’s territories. This agreement lasted until 264 BC, when the First Punic War broke out[1].

It would seem that, at least in this case, diplomacy well antedated warfare.

An exception that tests the rule? Let’s look elsewhere: say the inland Niger delta. The ecology of the place is so complex that in the past specialization was necessary for survival – fishermen, herders, and cultivators lived next to each other, relying on obligatory cooperation. How did it work? In a surprisingly simple fashion: “What distinguishes the delta throughout its 1,600 years of archeologically recorded history is not the frequency of conflict, but the maintenance of peaceful and reciprocal relations[2].” It may be mentioned in passing that these were acephalous social structures i.e. without kings or high priests.

Let’s go back to “hunter-gatherer” societies, from whom we all diverged eons ago. Recent genetic studies indicate that these groups are not a band of close male relatives together with females from other groups that have migrated into them (like with chimpanzees). Both female and male move and mix in a pattern of residency so variable that it counts as a pattern in itself, one that the researchers say is not known for any species of ape or monkey[3]. In other words, fierce aggression between groups may not be typical of early human groups as it is for chimps. This would fit in well with our unprecedented ability to colonize new ecological niches or territories: with so many territories at our disposal, the territorial instinct need not be as strong. And “flight – fight – or negotiate” would be the three main options open to a group.

In other words, conflict is never preordained – each outcome is contingent, but often a “path-dependent outcome”.

So next time some negotiator pontificates about the natural “aggressiveness of mankind” and the need for coercion in international relations – for voluntary cooperation will necessarily fail – look out through the window… and whistle softly, gently, but with a touch of impish humour.


[1] Barry CUNLIFFE (2008): Europe between the oceans 9000 AD – AD 1000. Yale University Press; pg. 335.

[2] John READER (2005): Africa – A biography of the continent. Vintage, New York; pg. 232.

[3] Nicolas WADE (2011): New View of How Humans Moved Away From Apes. New York Times, 11th March. For a more in depth treatment of the subject area see: Bernard CHAPAIS (2008): Primeval kinship. How pair-bonding gave birth to human society. Harvard University Press. Cambridge Mass.

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Posted in: diplomacy