The human species has a long record of Us vs Them conflict. Indeed, our species of Homo sapiens is the only surviving one from a long period in which various other kinds of humans shared the evolutionary record. For whatever reason, we emerged the sole survivor. We had various advantages. Deprived of in-built weapons such as claws and saber teeth, we evolved as especially inventive and effective tool-using killers. Our social organization – depending very much on our ability to use symbols and language to reaffirm in-group bonds and work effectively in coordinated activities – plus our advancing toolset made us formidable hunters and gatherers. While some of these advantages may have characterized the other members of the Homo genus, we did them better. Even our closest relative, Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, may not have had our full capacity for the advanced suite. After coexisting with us for some 160,000 years, the Neanderthals joined the long list of the extinct other humans.
Since our arriving on the scene some 200 thousand years ago, we have succeeded in eliminating, replacing and enslaving Them. Recent discoveries have pushed back the known origins of warfare within our own species to 10,000 years ago. The University of Cambridge anthropologist who discovered the evidence suggested that “lethal raids by competing groups were part of life for hunter-gatherer communities at the time.” A recent excavation in France of 6000 year old remains provides signs of violence including against women and children and perhaps ritual dismemberment. But it would be surprising if we were not already – and since the beginning – omni-predators of anything not Us.
We have come up with various reasons and motives for using violence against others. We want their food, water, land, gold, women, men. But these have often been overlaid or supplemented by the simple desire to rid ourselves of Them. We tend, all too frequently, to establish who we are by defining who we are not. Attacking Them reaffirms our identity. In the Hobbesian state of nature, nothing prevents the war of all against all. Within a society, a stable governing order – the Leviathan – can regularize this war. (Regularize, not end. Witness the current political conflict between Red and Blue in America or the current wave of xenophobia sweeping through the EU.) Between societies in conflict, or when internal order breaks down, the simplest way to distinguish the enemy is to focus on Them.
The conflicts of the last 100 years have been mainly of this Us vs Them kind, primarily over identity: ethnic, tribal or religious. They have spun from control when the regimes that ruled over multi-ethnic states have fallen or been seized or overthrown. Once identity conflicts begin, they quickly turn zero-sum. Violence begets violence and the possibility of achieving a political solution recedes beyond the horizon. In the globalized and technologically complex 21st Century, these conflicts tend to produce regional and global insecurity.
It should seem obvious that international relations requires a version of the Leviathan, an internationally acceptable way to manage conflict between and within states and address the tensions that allow conflict to emerge along identity lines. The UN provides a mechanism to do both. Seems that our choice may be to use it better and act more multi-laterally or perhaps see that we have all become the universal Them on the way to our own demise.