Monday, 28 April 2014


by Dirk Helbing (ETH Zurich)

Like many of us, I have been raised in a period of cold war. Military threats were serious and real, but the third world war did not happen – so far. This is generally considered to be a success of the “balance of threat” (or “balance of terror”): if one side were to attack the other, there would still be time to launch enough intercontinental nuclear warheads to eradicate the attacker. With no side crazy enough to risk eliminating itself, nobody would start such a war. 

However, what if this calculus is fundamentally flawed? There were at least three instances within a 60 year period, where the world came dauntingly close to a third world war. The Cuban missile crisis is just the most well-known, but there were others that most of us did not hear about (see Perhaps, we survived the strategy of nuclear deterrence just by chance?

The worrisome misconception is that only shifts in relative power can destabilize a “balance of threat”. This falsely assumes that balanced situations, called equilibria, are inherently stable, which is actually often not the case. For illustration, consider the simple experiment of a circular vehicle flow (see although it is apparently not difficult to drive a car at constant speed together with other cars, the equilibrium traffic flow will break down sooner or later. If only the density on the traffic circle is higher than a certain value, a so-called "phantom traffic jam" will form without any particular reason – no accident, no obstacles, nothing. The lesson here is that dynamical systems can easily get out of control even if everyone has good information, the latest technology and best intentions.

What if this is similarly true for the balance of threat? What if this equilibrium is unstable? Then, it could suddenly and unexpectedly break down. I would content that, in fact, a global-scale war may start for two fundamentally different reasons. Consider, as a simple analogue from physics, a metal plate that is pushed from two opposite sides. In the first situation, if either of the two sides holding the plate becomes stronger than the other, the metal plate will move. Hence, the spheres of influence will shift. The second possibility is that both sides are pushing equally strong, but they are pushing so much that the metal plate suddenly bends and eventually breaks.

The current news on the Ukrainian crisis do not make me confident that we are faced with a stable equilibrium. We rather see the metal plate aching.

A push from one side triggers a counter-push from the other side. One sanction is answered by something else and vice versa. In this escalating chain of events, everyone is pushing harder and harder without any chance for either side to gain the upper hand. In the end, the metal plate may bend or break. In practical terms, the nerves of a political leader or army general, for example, may not be infinitely strong. Furthermore, not all events are under their control. Thus, under enormous pressure, things might keep escalating and suddenly get out of control, even if nobody wants this to happen, if everyone just wants to save face. And this is still the most optimistic scenario, one in which all actors act rationally, for which there is no guarantee.

In recent years, evidence has accumulated that, in human history, many wars happened due to either of the instabilities discussed above. Recent books about World War I have revealed that it resulted from an eventual loss of control, which was the outcome of a long chain of events – a domino effect that probably resulted from the second kind of instability. Let us not make the same mistake again[1] (see Information Box below). Conflict in the Middle East has lasted for many decades, and it taught us one thing: Winning every battle does not necessarily win a war. Similar lessons had to be learned from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. My question is, when do we finally start to change our thinking?

While sanctioning may create social order in some cases, it may cause instability and escalation in others. Punishing someone is only successful, if the punished accepts the punishment, which often requires one to share the same values and culture. If the punished doesn't accept the punishment and is strong enough, he will strike back. Hence, a cycle of escalation will ensue, where each side further drives the escalation while feeling to be right. In such a situation deterrence is clearly not an effective solution. In the Ukrainian crisis, we have seen that sanctions did not have the desired effect, and there is actually no reason to believe that ever more sanctions would. In the case of Iran, for example, sanctions took years to show a substantial effect. In fact, trying to weaken a strong adversary may not be wise at all. It may even lead to desperate efforts to overcome a threatening situation, and this by itself may quickly lead to further escalation and, possibly, to war. 

Therefore, in a situation where we are faced with a potentially unstable “balance of threat”, we would be well advised to consider other strategies. It is not worth risking a World War III just for the sake of maintaining a “balance of threat”. Given the finite probability that such a balance may become unstable, we must find ways for both opponents to get out of the current situation without losing face. In this context, it is good to remember that there are always bigger challenges than what any side can solve by itself. A jointly faced threat, for example, might unify opponents and justify for both sides to put their weapons down. It really does not matter whether this threat is called “global warming”, “global pandemics”, “global economic crisis”, “global energy crisis,” or "global war" – we are faced with enough such challenges, which can only be successfully addressed by a united global effort.

If we need a war, than we need a war on wars. It might be true that, in history, war accelerated cultural exchange and progress, but we must recognize that cultural diversity was always the true driver of innovation and cultural evolution, not war. In times of a multi-polar world with global conflicts, cyberthreats and nuclear weapon arsenals on the one hand, but global exchange of people, goods and ideas on the other hand, it is dangerous to consider war to be the mother of civilization – it could rather be the end of it.

In the past decades, we have made much progress in developing collaborative structures that allow for diversity. Falling back to a thinking that stresses a “balance of threat” rather than constructive, cooperative interactions is a very dangerous step in the wrong direction. In fact, creating a new security architecture to master (global) diversity without deadly conflict is a worthwhile challenge for us all.

INFORMATION BOX: War as a result of systemic instability

We must realize that many large-scale conflicts, revolutions, and wars must be interpreted as result of systemic instabilities. Interpreting them as deeds of historical figures personalizes these phenomena in a way that distracts from their true, systemic nature. It is important to recognize that complex systems such as our society or economy usually resist attempts to change them, namely when they are close to a stable equilibrium. This is also known as Goodhart's law, principle of Le Chatelier, or the "illusion of control." Individual factors and randomness can have a large impact on the path taken by the system only, when a complex system is driven to a tipping point. In other words, instability is a precondition for individuals to have a historical impact. For example, World War II was preceded by a financial crisis and recession, which had destabilized the economic, social, and political system. This eventually made it possible that an individual could become influential enough to drive the world to the edge.

Unfortunately, civilization is vulnerable, and large-scale wars may happen again. A typical evolutionary path towards war looks as follows: The resource situation deteriorates (e.g. because of a serious economic crisis). The fierce competition for insufficient resources lets violence, crime, and corruption rise, while solidarity and tolerance go down, so that society is fragmented into groups. This causes further dissatisfaction and social turmoil. People get frustrated about the system, calling for leadership and order. Political extremism emerges, scapegoats are searched, and minorities are suppressed. Socio-diversity gets lost, and the well-balanced social ecosystem collapses, such that the resource situation (the apparent "carrying capacity") deteriorates further. This destabilizes the situation further, such that an external enemy is needed for a stabilization of the country. As a consequence, nationalism rises, and war may seem to be the only 'solution'.

[1] At least since 2010, I am worried that the final outcome of the global financial and economic crisis might be political instabilities, the rise of nationalism, and war. Let us stop this domino effect before it is too late.

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