Peace: Neither Ink nor Blood

by | May 1, 2017


One of the problems of the interventionista – wanting to get involved in other people’s affairs “in order to help”, while genuinely wanting to do good, results in disrupting some of the peace-making mechanisms that are inherent in human’s affairs, a combination of collaboration and strategic hostility. As we saw in the prologue, the error continues because someone else is paying the price.

I speculate that had IYIs (intellectuals yet idiots) and their friends not gotten involved, problems such as the Israeli-Palestinian one would have been solved, sort of – and both parties, especially the Palestinians would have felt to be better off. As I am writing these lines the problem has lasted seventy years, with too way many cooks in the same tiny kitchen, most of whom never have to taste the food. I conjecture that when you leave people alone, they tend to settle for practical reasons.

People on the ground, those with skin in the game are not too interested in geopolitics or grand abstract principles, but rather in having bread on the table, beer (or, for some, nonalcoholic beverages such as yoghurt drinks) in the refrigerator, and good weather at outdoors family picnics. Also they don’t want to be humiliated in their human contact with others.

For imagine the absurdity of Arab States prodding the Palestinians to fight for their principles while the potentates are sitting in carpeted alcohol-free palaces (with well-stocked refrigerators full of nonalcoholic fermented yoghurt) and the recipient of the advice living in refugee camps. Had the Palestinians settled in 1947, they would have been better off. But the idea was to throw the Jews and neo-crusaders in the Mediterranean; Arab rhetoric came from Arab parties who were hundreds, thousands of miles away arguing for “principles” when Palestinians were displaced, living in tents. Then came the war of 1948. Had Palestinians settled then, things would have worked out. But, no, there were “principles”. But came the war of 1967. Now they feel they would be lucky if they recovered the territory lost in 1967. Then in 1992 came the Oslo peace treaty, from the top. No peace works under bureaucratic ink, with all these cooks who never have to live with the food. If you want peace, make people trade, as they did for millennia. They will be eventually forced to work out something.

We are largely collaborative –except when institutions get in the way. I surmise if we put those “people wanting to help” in the State Department on paid vacation to do ceramics, pottery or whatever low-testosterone people do when they take a sabbatical, it would be great for peace.

Further, these people tend to see everything as geopolitics, as if the world had two big players, not a collection of people with diverse interests. To spite Russia, the State Department is urged to perpetuate the war in Syria which in fact just punishes Syrians.

Peace from the top differs from real peace, as does the institutional differ from the true version: consider that today’s Morocco, Egypt, (and to some extent Saudi Arabia)) with more or less overtly pro-Israeli governments (with well-stocked refrigerators full of nonalcoholic fermented yoghurt) have local populations conspicuously hostile to Jews. Compare to Iran with a local population squarely pro-Western and tolerant of Jews. Yet some people with no skin in the game who read too much literature on the Treatise of Westphalia (and not enough on complex systems) still insist on conflating relations between countries with relations between governments.

Let us now examine history as it runs by itself and the one seen in the eyes of “intellectuals” and institutions.

Where are the Lions?

As I was writing Antifragile, I spent some time in South Africa in a wild reserve, doing Safari-style tours during part of the day and tinkering with the book in the afternoons. I went to the reserve to “see the lions”. In an entire week I only saw one lion and it was such a big event that it caused a traffic jam of tourists coming from all the neighboring camp-style resorts. People kept shouting “Kuru” in Zulu as if they had found gold. Meanwhile, on the twice-daily failed tours to find the lions, I saw giraffes, elephants, zebras, wild boars, elks, more elks, even more elks. Everyone else was like me looking for Kurus and getting peaceful animals: a South African fellow we encountered on another car in the middle of the Savannah cracked the joke while pointing his finger at a hill: “look we saw two giraffes and three elks over there”.

It turned out that I had squarely made the error that I warn against, of mistaking the lurid for the empirical: there are very, very few predators compared to what one can call collaborative animals. The camp in the wild reserve was next to a watering hole, and in the afternoon it got crowded with hundreds of animals of different species who apparently got along rather well with one another. But of the thousands of animals that I spotted cumulatively, the image of the lion in a state of majestic calm dominates my memory. It may make sense from a risk management point of view to overestimate the role of the lion –but not in our scientific interpretation of world affairs.

If the “law of the jungle” is about anything, it is mostly collaboration with a few perceptional distortions caused by our otherwise well-functioning risk management intuitions. Even predators end up in some type of arrangement with their prey.

History Seen From the Emergency Room

History is largely peace punctuated by wars, rather than wars punctuated by peace.

When you read historical accounts, you are under the illusion that history is mostly wars, that states like to fight as a default condition, whenever they have the chance, and that the only coordination between entities takes place when two countries have a “strategic” alliance against a common danger. (Or some unification under some top-down bureaucratic structure. Peace among European states is attributed to the rule of verbose bureaucrats devoid of “toxic masculinity”, some of whom are Marathon runners, rather than the American and Soviet occupation hence Pax Americana and its equivalent.) We will be fed by tomes of histories of wars.

As a trader, I was trained to look for the first question people forget to put:who wrote the history book? Well, historians did. Are historians idiots? Let’s be polite and say that they are in the majority no rocket scientists and operate under a structural bias. It looks like an empirically rigorous view on historiography is missing.

First, historians are mostly motivated by stories of wars, not organic collaboration on the ground between a broader set of non-institutional players, merchants, barbers, prostitutes, and others. Peace and commerce might be of some interest to them, but it’s not quite their job –and while the French Annales school brought some awareness that history is the life of an organism, not episodes of lurid wars, they failed to change much. Even myself, while aware of the point and writing a chapter on it, tend to find accounts of real life boring.[1]

Journalism is about “events” not absence of events and most historians are nothing but glorified journalists with high fact-checking standards who just try to be a little boring to be taken seriously. But being boring doesn’t make them scientists, nor does “fact checking” make them empirical as they miss the notion of absence of facts. Reading a history book offers a similar bias to reading an account of life in New York seen from an emergency room employee at Bellevue Hospital.

Remember that historians are selected among people who derive their knowledge from books, not real life and business. Likewise for State Department employees since these are not hired among traders but students of these historians.

Let us take for example the standard account of Arabs in Spain, Turks in parts of the Byzantine Empire, or Arabs and Byzantines. You would see it from the geopolitics standpoint, as a tug of war. Yes, there is a tug or war, but not in the sense that you suspect. Merchants were doing business very actively during that period. My own existence as Greek-Orthodox of Byzantine rite living under Islam is witness to such collaboration.

Second, historians, as non-rocket scientists, fail to get a central mathematical property, confusing intensity and frequency. Wars should be seen in intensity, not frequency. In the five centuries preceding the unification of Italy, there was supposed to be “a lot of warfare” ravaging the place. Therefore, historians insist, unification “brought peace”. But more than six hundred thousand Italians died in the Great War, the “period of stability”, one order of magnitude higher than all the cumulative fatalities in the five hundred years preceding it. Many of the “conflicts” that took place between states or statelings were between professional soldiers, often mercenaries, and much of the population was unaware of the “wars”. Now, in my experience, after presenting these facts, I am almost always confronted with “still there was more wars and instability”. This is the same Robert Rubin trade argument that trades that lose money infrequently are more stable, even if they end up eventually wiping you out.

I have myself witnessed episodes of the civil war in Lebanon. Except for areas near the Green Line, it didn’t feel like war. But those reading about it in history books will not get my experience. And I doubt the numbers of victims, as we see next.

Third, accounts of past wars are fraught with overestimation biases. What Captain Weisenborn, Pasquale Cirillo, and I discovered, when we tried doing a systematic study of violence (debunking a confabulatory thesis by the science journalist Steven Pinker), was that war numbers have been historically inflated… by both sides. Both the Mongols and their panicky victims had an incentive to exaggerate, which acted as a deterrent. Mongols weren’t interested in killing everybody; they just wanted submission, which came cheaply though terror. Further, having spent some time perusing the genetic imprints of invaded populations, it is clear that if the warriors coming from the Eastern steppes left a cultural imprint, they certainly left their genes at home. Gene transfer between areas by happens by group migrations, inclement climate, unaccommodating soil rather than war.

More connected to recent events, I discovered that the Hama “massacre” of Syrian Jihadis by Assad senior was at least an order of magnitude lower than what was reported; the rest came from inflation –numbers swelling over time from 2,000 to close to 40,000 without significant information. Simply, Assad wanted, at the time, to intimidate and his enemies, the Islamist and their journalist sympathizers, former U.S. president Obama’s wanted to aggrandize the event.

[1] What to read? So instead of studying Roman History in terms of Caesar and Pompey, study instead the daily life and body of laws and customs. I accidentally discovered the book “A History of Daily Life” (4 vol. in English) 30 years ago and Vol 1 (Ancient Romans) has been near my bed since. Another representative book for the approach is Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s “Montaillou Village Occitan”. And, for our beloved Mediterranean, take Braudel’s magnificent opus. It is in a way more pleasant to read as an account of Venice based on trade rather than abstract geopolitical BS. Some books make you smell the spices. Since the discovery of the works of Duby, Braudel, Bloch, Aries, et al. I have been unable to read conventional history books of, say, one on the Ottoman Empire that focuses on the Sultans, without irritation. It feels like historians across the board are playing the repulsive “narrative nonfiction” style of the New Yorker.

Other Books: *Courtesans and Fishcakes* instead of some BS about the Peloponnesian wars, where you see how the Greeks ate bread with the left hand. Or The Identity of France which inform you the French spoke no French in 1914, etc.

Reprinted with author’s permission. Visit Mr. Taleb’s website here.


  • Nassim Nicholas Taleb

    Nassim Nicholas Taleb is a Lebanese-American essayist, mathematical statistician, former option trader, risk analyst, and aphorist whose work concerns problems of randomness, probability, and uncertainty.

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