Why Hobbes still reigns supreme

In contemporary academia liberalism has gained the upper hand, including in the field of international relations. This has led to a vehement rejection of the ideas of the influential British philosopher Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes is generally associated in international relations theory with realist principles that ostensibly define the international arena as being driven by the interests of the national state. The security system is inherently anarchic, and peace is best served by maintaining a balance of power, argues Hobbes. These concepts are hard to swallow for many idealists who suggest that ideas such as cooperation and mutual trust can put an end to the anarchy and conflict that have raged throughout history.

First, we must dispel some misconceptions. Contrary to the common perception, at least politically Hobbes is a liberal – he is a social contract theoretician. This ipso facto implies a level of sociability in his ideas on humankind, and although Hobbes believed human life may have been brutish in the state of nature, it is man’s quest for security that compelled him to contract with others in society. This for Hobbes meant giving up absolute freedom and submitting to a higher authority that ensured order and the greatest protection from the callous state of nature.

The social contract he envisioned enables the development of civilized societies, law and authority that guarantees the best option for our self-preservation (driven by the ultimate motivation: fear) and by which to maintain order. No doubt there are strong currents of mutual aid and not everything is the result of what Hobbes believed to be merely self- interest, but the general premise and the Hobbesian (realist) analysis of the world are irrevocably dominant.

Throughout history societies have evolved in which people were ruled by a king, a chieftain or another authoritarian sovereign. What are kings and emperors if not Leviathans? Large national states were not created by people who social contract by forming liberal direct democracies. This development shows that Hobbes in terms of the development of law and the state is correct. That civilized states continue to develop towards more democratic form of governments does not show that Hobbes was wrong, because it is about why people contracted in the first place.

Why Hobbes remains correct today

Hobbes is still eminently relevant today. Wherever we see power vacuums and failed states we see chaos and disorder and a picture that resembles the Hobbesian vision of the dark nasty state of nature. In the international arena too, where we see a lack of a sovereign or a higher authority than the state there is anarchy. States, irrespective of the UN, the EU, the OSCE and other transnational bodies, are dependent on themselves for their own survival, for their own protection. This is the reason why militaries exist, and this is a reality irrespective of the establishment of liberal institutions on a variety of strata.

With this in mind, alternative anti-Hobbesian theories concerning the development of the state are irrelevant, history has made this very clear. No institutions or agreements, be that the concert of Europe, the League of Nations, the UN, the Triple Entente or the EU, have been able to alter this reality. No institution has been able to prevent the unilateral actions of nation states when it comes to real power politics. That is not to say that institutions are entirely useless, but when a state is determined there is no authority and hence no law that can constrain that state actor. This clearly vindicates Austin’s hypothesis that international law is merely positive morality and that law without enforcement is not law at all.

In order to make Hobbes irrelevant his detractors must unravel a key component that makes Hobbes the indispensable theoretician in security matters. This is known as the security dilemma or, very fittingly, the Hobbesian trap.

The security dilemma can be described as a viscous circle which explains why states arm themselves and why this can at times lead to war. Then while states may have innocent intentions in seeking to protect themselves by procuring arms, this may be interpreted as hostile by other nation states or cause disequilibrium in the balance of power. Other nations then may choose to arm themselves as a consequence and at worst choose to preemptively strike that nation out of fear leading to war.
Key elements that must be overcome are:

1. Every state is dependent on itself and cannot be certain of the actions of other states
This implies mistrust born of not knowing another’s intentions.

2. A lack of guarantees. No state can be certain that any guarantees it is given can be taken seriously. Is a guarantee eternal? What if a president changes, or interests change? How can we be certain, are they trying to cheat us? An example how the Russian federation was cheated by the West when being promised there would be no expansion of NATO eastwards. Now the rhetoric has changed and NATO and the media and think tank apparatus argue that there was never any such promise because nothing was ever written down but this does not change the reality of the guarantees that multiple witnesses say were given to Gorbachev.

3. A constant uncertainty that generates anxiety and means that self-preservation is the primal need.

4. The security dilemma is driven by fear, the most developed and powerful human emotion.

Psychologically the Hobbesian viewpoint is spot on. It is driven not only by the uncertainties of the future which make it impossible to discard, but by being informed by history. History has seen eternal bloodshed. Russia saw 28 million lives lost in the second world war. All theories to date promising peace have failed. Of course one could always say that this time is different from the hundreds of times before but it would be naïve to expect to come along with what look like utopian fantasies on how to change the world when there is no guarantee they will work in practice or in the long term.

“Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for”

The psychology of fear can be easily surmised thus. There are three options when faced with a threat:

  • fight
  • negotiate
  • flight

If an argument ensues and escalates to a certain level of aggressiveness the first of these options which is made redundant is negotiate. Negotiate has a smaller remit and at a certain point and danger it is no longer viable. Rational negotiation and assurances are no match for fear of the unknown. And since a country cannot flee, it has only the option to fight for its self-preservation. This means it needs arms and power, this means the inescapable continuation of the security dilemma. This issue can be curtailed with institutions somewhat. However, it would be wise not to expect at any point in our lifetime that all nations will suddenly abandon their arms. hence the security dilemma will remain very much intact.

Education, developmental psychology, assurances of mutual trust are no match for the freight or flight dynamic which is our primordial default setting. It is a dynamic infinitely more powerful than any rational or cognitive framework. Sure, good relationships can be built, trust can grow stronger, but one should not expect this in absolute terms to the point that the security dilemma and Hobbes become obsolete. You cannot replace the most powerful innate psychological hardware developed over millions of years with an entirely imperfect and abstract concept you dreamed up last month.

In an incredibly complex and multifaceted world one cannot account for long term outcomes or changes in one’s own society, let alone the world. In this very void the security dilemma and the spectre of Hobbes loom large. Speculative theories have no place in a world where hardcore guarantees are required. Equally, isolating nations such as Iceland or Norway upon which to establish an anti-Hobbesian pro liberal theorem are not only reductionist in what is a global security competition, but irrefutably naive. Remember the security complex is an integrated issue from which no one is exempt.
It is important to realize that the modern civilized state (as envisioned by Hobbes) does not provide an argument against his hypothesis, after all the civilized state is the natural outcome of his social contract. It is in the development of the state we see his mark and everywhere in the world system where there is no effective Leviathan.

It becomes key to reiterate the point by which people contract and submit to a sovereign, as Hobbes explains: It is to escape the horrors of the state of nature. Implying that for Hobbes the first law of nature is indeed peace.

Liberal delusions

The misplaced optimism of western liberal institutionalists is found above all in their hubris. For most consider that the western liberal both on an individual or national state footing is the leading light of advancement. All the rest are simply lagging behind, but invariably will discover the western-centric values and design by which they will become “modern, developed, rational, secular states”.

Some liberals are so beholden by their philosophies, by their ideas of the enlightenment that they cannot even begin to consider that the cultural, religious and social underpinnings in other corners of the globe will invariably influence the development of different states, or that their western liberal tenets would be swiftly rejected. The fact that after twenty years of occupation the Taliban blatantly rejected liberalism appears to be inconsequential for many. And yet it is vital to understand not only the reasons why, but also to understand a variety of mindsets, especially if one considers oneself to be the beholder of some universal truth.

At this point the liberal should be confronted with an ulterior universalist blueprint. Sayyid Qutb’s book Milestones provides such a thesis. It shows why Muslims must live according to Sharia law alone and that they must “submit to God”, that no man, parliament or government can create law “for they are outside of God’s religion”, that everything non Islamic must be fought against and how jihad must also use force, because there can only be one truth on earth and this must be protected at any cost. Equally it demands that all concepts from the Western rubbish heap must be dismissed.

Millions of people are brought up from the moment they are born to accept these concepts unequivocally. Naturally this leaves no space for the secular, liberal vision. Certainly liberals believe you can interject and bring them on the right path, yet to suggest that one can manipulate the cultural, social and religious identities of whole nations and peoples is simply another delusion. Even the attempt to do so invariably leads to ontological insecurity and probable catastrophe, see the Arab Spring for the latest example.

This reality explains why western nation building and developmental projects have proven so ineffective when attempting to address issues such as rule of law, governance, education or corruption, yet in non-idealistic, technological sectors such as mobile networks or currency stabilisation progress has been achieved. It is precisely the social, cultural, tribal, political and even historical fabric of the relevant states that separates the former failures from the successes.

Perhaps the greatest irony and undoubtedly the scariest part of all of this is the radical liberal universalists who reject the Western historical knowledge of how states evolved, and the Western science of the psychology pertaining to inner and outer groups and the psychological dynamics which constitute the Hobbesian trap. Science, otherwise universally praised as part of the “liberal” credo, is in this case dismissed in a desperate attempt to hang on to their established universalist view. For without the universalist component, the entire construct of the “liberal” philosophy shows worrying signs of crumbling on itself. Understanding this key point can save the world from misplaced liberal crusades that have damaged the standing of the West and above all of the USA.

Western Europeans too are detached from the material world in a spectacular way, failing to realize that it is because they have outsourced their security to the North American Leviathan that they are able to indulge themselves in their quaint fantasies about trust and purely rational and frictionless cooperation not dictated by power. The very real presence of a foreign occupation force in Europe and hence the theoretical impossibility of a hot conflict between the occupied states that are being kept in check by the presence of a foreign army is the single most important factor that made the postmodern post national European Union even possible. Europeans, blinded by fantasies about values and unity, are prone to forget that.

It should be conscionable to all that, in a world comprising an infinite number of contingencies, the Hobbesian trap born of the deepest fear and the greatest potential risks cannot be made redundant by highly permeable, unsubstantiated, and generally weak hypothesis.

One comment

  1. Key here is that first principles matter!. A fundamental part of the liberal delusion is centered on the idea that listening and engagement can create universal inclusivity (on liberal terms). In reality this is mere condescension and is seen as such. It is a world view ignorant of the fact that way of life matters, especially where this is regarded as divine.


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