Opinion: How conflict drives intolerance and irrationality – lessons from history

From the invasion of Iraq to the escalation of the intervention in Libya, many decisions taken by Western war-time leaders this century seem to contradict basic strategic logic. However, a potential explanation behind this apparent irrationality lies in the impact of perceived threat on people’s tolerance levels. As the war in Ukraine deepens we must remind ourselves of how fear can affect human psychology, in order to prevent a repetition of the mistakes of the past.

This idea of human tolerance levels altering in times of conflict comes from the work of Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler, who, in their 2009 book Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics, argue that ordinary people become more intolerant towards out-groups in response to perceived threats. Through this transition towards intolerance, Hetherington and Weiler argue that individuals increasingly rely on emotion and instinct over cognition to compute threats, making them more likely to advocate for authoritarian and hawkish policy positions. Likewise, whilst these authors argue that the threshold at which threat generates intolerant behaviour is much lower for more naturally authoritarian individuals, they also conclude that even libertarian individuals can become intolerant when the perceived threat is significant enough to evoke an emotive response.

For Hetherington, this theory perfectly explains the widespread intolerance in America following the September 11th terror attacks, with the threat posed by the aggression generating huge public support for the Bush administration’s illiberal counter-terrorism policies, including torture and pre-emptive war. Likewise, more recent Jihadist terror attacks, have arguably helped generated a climate of fear that has enabled political elites to stir up intolerance towards Muslims in contemporary American and European society.

However, the impacts of intolerance can go beyond support for authoritarian policies and isolated acts of racism: it can also affect the strategic decisions of war-time leaders, decisions that can mean the difference between life and death for thousands of people. To illustrate this point, we go back to November 2001, when Taliban leaders sought an amnesty agreement with the US, after being pulled towards the jaws of defeat by the US-led invasion. The Bush administration, however, spurred on by the support of a population understandably fuelled by revenge and fear, refused such a peace deal, and instead continued with its policy of attempting to wipe the Taliban off the map, a policy that many commentators argue helped fuel the rebirth of the Taliban. No one can know for sure whether the war would have ended differently if the US had been more willing to compromise, but the effect of a population and president fuelled by an intense intolerance of the Taliban undoubtedly played a part in the White House’s refusal to do so.

What is to say that in the current conflict in Ukraine, if by some miracle the Ukrainian people can outlast the Russian war machine, NATO won’t eventually end up in a similar situation, with a Russian government more willing to negotiate a peace agreement that is at least somewhat acceptable to Ukraine? I’m not for one minute suggesting that the Russian government’s position will ever be as tenuous as the Taliban’s was, nor implying what Russia’s terms would include, but in a complex geopolitical arena very little seems truly impossible these days. If the world somehow found itself in a position where the Kremlin was willing to compromise, could all parties really go into such negotiations with a level head, or would intolerance and a need for revenge against Russian atrocities potentially cost even more lives?

In Europe, there are already signs of growing intolerance against Russians amongst certain segments of the population, with an evident sharp rise in the hatred directed towards ordinary Russians because of the conflict. Thankfully, however, most political leaders (with the exception of Liz Truss provoking the Kremlin into raising Russia’s nuclear alert) thus far seemed to have escaped this dissent into intolerance and irrationality, with NATO leaders rejecting Ukraine’s understandable plea for a No-Fly Zone, which would risk a massive escalation of the conflict. Perhaps this war simply will not have same the psychological effects on most European populations that Afghanistan and others have had; after all, whilst many European countries have a stake in the conflict, only Ukraine have troops on the ground. However, war itself is an inherently unpredictable phenomenon, and who knows where we’ll be months and years from now. Whatever the situation, as a population we must remain vigilant of the possible effects of war on our minds and our attitudes, to prevent the natural cycle into intolerance that fear so often creates, in order to prevent further suffering.

Image: Flag of Ukraine, UP9 (2009)//CC BY-SA 3.0

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