There is increasingly growing concern of mutual distrust between Italian and Germans (should I say Germans and Italians?) leaking finally in the press since Italian Prime Minister Monti mentioned it. It was about time the issue came to the forefront of the debate. In the end, no divergence of competitiveness will ever bring about the collapse of the euro: it is the mutual distrust that comes with the lack of political willingness to tackle divergent growth paths that will. A hugely vast political project with some non minor economic defects like the euro will die for lack of a major political answer, not an economic one.
Mutual trust across societies can be hugely beneficial but also temporary. 2 economists at MIT and Stanford University, Daron Acemoglu and Alexander Wolitzk, have tried to model the functioning of what they observe as a frequent pattern in the History of civilizations: perverse spirals of conflict. Let me give the floor to their words:
“In his study of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides traces the origins of conflict as much to fear and distrust as to other factors such as greed and honor. He argues that the Peloponnesian War became inevitable precisely because each side saw war as inevitable and did not want to relinquish the first mover advantage to the other. This view of conflict, sometimes referred as the Hobbesian view or spiral model, has a clear dynamic implication: if Group A’s actions look aggressive, Group B infers that Group A is likely to be aggressive and acts aggressively itself. Moreover, unless Group A can fully understand that Group B is acting aggressively in response to its own actions, it will take this response as evidence that Group B is aggressive. As a result, conflict spirals. The ubiquity of conflict spirals throughout history provides prima facie support for this view. A leading example is ethnic conflict: .. the fear of ethnic domination and suppression is a motivating force for the acquisition of power as an end … such fear of ethnic domination was the primary cause of the rise in ethnic violence following the withdrawal of colonial powers.”
The issue of colonial power retreat is also interesting as it reminds us that it is precisely moments of more or less gradual transfer of power away from the nation-state that can trigger the initial flame of conflict. Just as it may seem to be happening now in Europe with the possible cession of parts of national sovereignty.
Both authors claim that “this classical view of conflict and distrust is incomplete, however, because it only explains how conflict starts and not how it stops, even though most conflict spirals come to an end sooner or later. For example, …. the historical Franco-German distrust and animosity has made way to vibrant trade and economic and diplomatic cooperation.”
They provide an explanation for why spirals end, in a setting where generations that come after the ones that ignited the conflict have no memory nor any way to understand when and why mutual aggressiveness was started in the past and by whom: “the basic idea of our approach is simple: once Groups A and B get into a phase in which they are both acting aggressively, the likelihood that a conflict spiral has been triggered by mistake at some point increases over time. This implies that aggressive actions. which are typically informative about how aggressive the other side is eventually become uninformative. Once this happens, one group will find it beneficial to experiment with cooperation and, unless the other group is truly aggressive, cooperation will resume, until the next conflict spiral begins.”
Now, back to Europe, where the issue is rather the other flip of the coin compared to the one described by the 2 authors: a conflict that has gone on for centuries, the Franco-German one, that has subsided for more than 50 years with mutual satisfaction and cooperation, is about to be re-ignited again.
So imagine that new current European generations have lost memory of why, when and how cooperation in Europe ensued from the ashes of WWII. Now let a sudden event, like an economic crisis which in addition divides creditors from debtors with a perfect drawing of the pen on a map, arise. One group of countries (no matter whether the so called Southern or the Northern ones, let’s call it group A) suddenly perceives the other group of countries (group B) as a potential aggressive threat. It thus becomes aggressive too, in a defensive manner. That defensive aggressiveness is taken badly by group B which itself becomes defensively aggressive, confirming the initial misperception of A as a true. A spiral conflict arises.
A conflict that will be hard to stop, as it is today in Europe. Divided Europe.
Still, one could try. How?
Obviously not with the continuation of dialogue the way it has been led so far, giving weight to closed door meetings only, and to the aggressive-defensive declarations of national bodies or persons with little interest in European compromises.
National Parliaments matter indeed, as it has been stated today by German authorities. So do all the other national Parliaments. It is time actually national parliaments come back to the forefront of the debate, that so far has seen them as mediocre signers of agreements written elsewhere. And so should the European Parliament.
Otherwise, it will be the job of future generations, maybe 50 years from now, generations that will not have any memory of why a conflict started in 2012, destroying what was left of a European dream born over the ashes of a terrifying nightmare that became reality for millions of people, to try again to re-ignite the only game that matters: the one of compromise and cooperation.