Pictured: UK – Friday 24th June?


David Cameron invited plenty of ridicule again the other day by mentioning the increased risk of war between the UK and other European countries in the event of Brexit. As much as I’d like to join in just for the sake of Tory bashing (it’s hard enough for me to admit that I agree with him about staying in the EU) I just can’t. He’s not exactly wrong even Brexit is unlikely to result in the sort of immediate war that his critics thought he was claiming it would.

The basic issue is that the international system is anarchy. In international terms all this means is that there is no overarching force to keep states in line when they behave aggressively. This anarchical structure means that, if a state wants to ensure it’s own survival, then it must make sure that it is capable of defending itself against any other state. Even a state which appears friendly may, in fact, be plotting to attack. International cooperation is limited as this uncertainty means that states are in a condition which Hobbes described as consisting of “continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. Due to the constant danger of war states only pursue relative gains. Similar to the nuclear arms race of the Cold War, where each side believed that the only way to prevent an attack by the other was to ensure that their offensive capabilities were at least as extensive as their enemy’s. The same logic holds whether it’s the USA vs the USSR, Pakistan vs India, or the UK vs the EU.

While we remain members of the EU, the level of integration makes war all but unthinkable between its members (the prevention of war in this way was the explicit goal of the predecessor to the EU, The European Coal and Steel Community). Attacking another member would have significantly greater costs than attacking any non-member. All the smaller areas where the various EU members work together add to this both by providing a mechanism for us to pursue mutually advantageous policies, such as freedom of movement, and encouraging a spirit of cooperation.

So, the fear that Cameron is expressing is that leaving the EU drops us straight back into Hobbes’s world. If the only reason such cooperation was possible was due to our membership of the EU then he’d be absolutely right.

In reality, there is more at play than simple membership of an institution. For example, democratic peace theory claims that democracies just don’t tend to go to war with each other. Any elected government which causes its citizens to suffer from an avoidable war would be destroyed at the next election. From this point of view we should be far more concerned about the way in which the distortions and misrepresentations of truth given by the media and populist politicians undermines democracy than whether we are members of the EU or not.

The second issue is that Hobbes’s presentation was rather more dramatic than the world actually is (although to be fair, he was writing during the English civil war and so his everyday life was rather more dramatic than life is in the UK today). The reality is that “anarchy is what states make of it”. Meaning that, even if it is always prudent to be prepared for the possibility that another state could attack it doesn’t follow that you should always act as if they will. In the same way even though we take precautions against other people attacking us on an individual level, such as not waving expensive things around while alone at night in an unfamiliar area, we don’t treat all people as if they may attack at any time. We have shared ideas and understandings of our terms of association and of who we are which mean that violence is not the norm. Beyond even the shared understandings we expect to have with strangers, we also get to know people. I am almost certain that my friends will never attack me. The exception would be if some dispute soured our relationship and we ended up with a series of escalating and seemingly irresolvable disputes. If we ended up in this situation then, I should not be terribly surprised if my former friend attacks me when our disputes get too severe but, if our relationship had deteriorated to a point where this was possible, it is unlikely that I would still consider him my friend.

The same idea holds for international relations. States have characters and can get to know each other. War is rare without a build up of some sort. The problem is that, as a democratic state, our state’s character is a reflection of its citizens and at least some sections of our media and politicians have been stuck in a feedback loop with some citizens where the citizens are fiercely opposed to cooperation with other states and the media has been fuelling this. If we do vote to leave the EU then we will be sending a very strong signal that we are hostile to the idea of cooperation or that we think that we should get special treatment of some sort. This won’t be enough to spark war on its own of course but it’s another step on a dangerous path. If other European countries are also going down a similar path, and it seems like they might be, then it could be a very dangerous path indeed.


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