Summary of "Reasons to Kill: Why Americans Choose War"

Summary of

Reasons to Kill: Why Americans Choose War

By Richard Rubenstein

This Book Intepretation was written by Nhina Le, School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution (S-CAR), George Mason University, in September 2012.

This piece was prepared as part of the S-CAR / Beyond Intractability Collaborative. Borislava Manojlovic is Associate Editor of that project, and helped to edit this piece in that capacity.

Citation: Richard Rubenstein. Reasons to Kill: Why Americans Choose War. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Press. 2010.

Interpreting* Richard Rubenstein's (2010) Reasons to Kill: Why Americans Choose War

Note: Although this is located in our "Book Summary" section, this document is more than a book summary. It is, instead, a "book interpretation" -- meaning that the author of this piece, Nhina Le, expanded and reflected critically upon many of the ideas in Richard Rubenstein's book. Drawing on other literature (which is listed and linked at the end), Le compares Rubenstein's assertions with other relevant theory and practical knowledge in the field. The goal was to "locate" conflict analysis and resolution theories in the book, "clarify" the way those theories are used, and generally "interpret" how the book's key ideas fit into the wider web of conflict knowledge.


Richard Rubenstein, in his book Reasons to Kill: Why Americans Choose War (2010), addresses two key questions. First, what are the reasons behind why Americans approve and disapprove of wars? Second, how can the field of conflict analysis and resolution (CAR) help the state and society make better choices on issues related to war and peace? Rubenstein does not see himself as an anti-war or pro-war scholar. Instead, he views himself as an independent thinker of the politics of war and peace. As a CAR scholar, he challenges and rejects narrowly-defined mainstream war rhetoric, which is not based on sound political, socio-economical and morally legitimate reasons.

Rubenstein's main argument is that in the Realpolitik-embedded international relations, the state still plays a significant role in forming policies on war and peace; yet, the people's voices are equally important. War is not possible unless Americans are convinced that it is right to choose war. Americans are compelled to support wars based on justifications for self-defense, humanitarian interventions, patriotism, and wars as a last resort. In addition to this, the people's choices, as Rubenstein observes, are increasingly impacted by the moral overtones, cultural images and even "sacred" languages which are (over-)attached to almost all mainstream war stories. Should American leaders know how to strategically and emotionally frame their threat narratives, these leaders may be able to mobilize or manipulate more people to approve their wars.

This socio-political phenomenon is not new. In fact, it has occurred and re-occurred in the wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Over time, such 'moral-realist' wars may be taken for granted, and become under-scrutinized. One of the main reasons for the development of this pattern is that leaders' threat narratives increasingly colonize the public sphere justifying or rationalizing their wars and the consequences of these wars. Leaders' narratives are intended to make the public feel that the costs of approving, or not approving, particular wars are irreversible. In order to legitimize their wars, leaders find it important to over-state that the survival, moral standards, and good values of Americans and the entire world will be threatened if the US does, or does not, intervene in a particular war.

Rubenstein argues that this situation cannot be turned around unless CAR is utilized. Thanks to CAR "neutrality" commitments and "problem-solving" skills, its members are able to constructively facilitate states and societies in obtaining the best choices which could fit their circumstances. By bringing together experts of diverse backgrounds and insights, CAR members are able to help all stakeholders to map their conflicts calmly and realistically and eventually realize their goals and choices.

Rubenstein promotes ideas and practices of critical thinking about realism (realist, zero-sum wars), and psychological analysis of social identity (new emerging 'moral-realist' war rhetoric and mobilized identities). These ideas and practices are key for articulating his claims. Although he tackles a very difficult subject matter of war and peace, he is able to creatively and playfully use popular American historical-cultural folktales and personal encounters with American elites making the book an interesting read. His reflections and assessments of the conventional and non-conventional Realpolitik patterns in the mainstream war narratives represent an invaluable contribution to the studies of American foreign policy.

Overall, the strengths of the book are located in its first four chapters, in which Rubenstein examines the transformation of Realpolitik in public discourse from strictly rational towards emotional overtones, and the role this changing paradigm plays in contemporary policy-making. Some controversies can be found in the last chapter of the book, where the author declares the ways in which CAR is able to help all stakeholders resolve their conflict problems.

Traditional Realism and Functionalism

Rubenstein acknowledges that war is very much part of any society. This is primarily because Realpolitik as well as zero-sum perceptions and behaviours are still predominant in the realm of foreign policy-making. The Realpolitik worldview refers to traditional ways of thinking about the notion of power. This paradigm views coercion as the means necessary for maintaining state survival in a hostile international relations system (Morgenthau 2005).

Conventional Realpolitik worldview towards war and peace is in part rooted in functionalism. This school of thought states that conflict has a social function (Coser 1964). For instance, conflict serves the function of reinforcing and strengthening group loyalty and identities. In times of socio-economic and political crisis, and over time, leaders tend to utilize conflict as an instrument for preventing ingroup members from developing ingroup rivalries and dissociation (Clausewitz 1982; Machiavelli 1984). Conflict resolution, whether or not it is perceived as negative or positive, is traditionally understood as a situation in which social institutions or/and the society and individuals adjust and adapt in such a way that a sustainable peace and community equilibrium are possible. There are always diverse and even contradictory approaches to understanding and resolving social conflict. International relations scholars, including realists, put emphasis on the role of institutions (Waltz 1979); post-structuralists or post-modernists emphasize agency of individuals in a society dealing with conflict problems (Foucault 2009). According to Rubenstein, in the studies of international politics, realism is still predominant.

Rubenstein highlights that there is a strong perception or expectation that the state alone is, and should be, in charge of all matters related to peace and security. Over and over again, the people are told that all "decisions are for us (states and social structures), not you (the public) to make." On war and peace, "trust your government to do what is right." (Rubenstein 2010, 144-148). Under the leadership of President Barack Obama, the current American policies might look different. In principle, the Obama administration is committed to promoting transparency and state-society consultation on policy-making. In practice, however, this idea has not yet been effectively actualized. From Rubenstein's perspective, fundamentally, the justifications and operations of Obama's wars, including Afghanistan-Pakistan, are as highly controversial as those of the previous president(s). There are novel promises of "deterring" all evil enemies and "wining" the war quickly or/and economically. Yet, in fact, elites are unable to materialize their claims. In times of crisis, questions about the discrepancy between what the elites claim and what they can actually do on the ground receive lesser attention from the top decision-makers, and might not be encouraged. Simultaneously, the realist voices resonate again "the state alone will resolve policy problems, and its decisions should be right" (Rubenstein 2010, 147-148). Many individuals come to internalize those assumptions as the absolute truth, such that over time they do not see the necessity and possibility of questioning or even rejecting these controversial narratives. This habit in part permits the (over-)dominance of states, realism and pessimistic functionalism in policy-making.

Transforming Realpolitik, 'Realist-Moral' Wars

While international relations scholars examine the visible aspects of Realpolitik, i.e. geo-political and geo-economic dimensions, Rubenstein explores its invisible, lesser-known aspects, i.e. moral and sacred identity meanings (Rubenstein 2010, 19-28).

The author argues that for the purpose of winning the public's consent, American leaders tend to make their threat narratives and war justifications "morally compelling" in the eyes of their constituents. Rather than merely focusing on pragmatic gains, i.e. American strategic-economic interests and primacy in the contemporary international politics, these leaders (over-)emphasize the all-American value-belief system, which is the basis of American outstanding support for rights and democracies all over the world. From a psychological perspective, on the one hand, the enemy should be radically exaggerated or stereotyped as the "not us", or someone who is directly opposed to our positive self-image. The enemy reflects the deep desires of ourselves that we want to get rid of, supress, and deny (Rubenstein 2010, 134). Hence, our group members are seen as absolutely positive, theirs as absolutely negative. Rubenstein's understanding of the construction of the enemy seems to be in line with the notion of "metacontrast", which explains a phenomenon in which ingroup members tend to locate or exaggerate all good things in themselves, and bad things in outgroup members (Rothbart and Korostelina 2007). In all contexts, there is, as psychologists explain, hardly an objective comparison between us and them. We may at times consciously and unconsciously attribute unwanted traits and negative goals to the Other (Rubenstein 2010, 67-74; Volkan 1998). We play a significant role in insecuritizing the Other by presenting "them" as a threat to our group's survival and salient values.

For instance, there is still a common perception that in the post-9/11 era, should the US not launch pre-emptive campaigns 'out there', the threats will come back to haunt all Americans. Without clear evidence, many constituents are convinced that a decisive action must be taken against those countries that either possess or are developing weapons of mass destruction, and that these weapons would be used against all Americans and the entire world. This way of understanding is significantly enabled by American elites and institutions' myths about the US and the Other. These myths strategically portray the US as the sole global stabilizing force, or morally good, whereas the Other as the de-stabilizing force, or morally Evil (Rubenstein 2010, 155). This framing or positioning of "us" above "them" is dominant in the public domain. Indeed, this positioning on its own does not automatically lead to physical violence or war. Yet, it provides a condition for mistrusts, distrusts, and negative engagements between Americans and the Other. In particular, a deep sense of the Other might block opportunities for confidence-building, information sharing, and negotiation which are significant steps in conflict resolution process. In sum, in Rubenstein's eyes, the mythologization and psychologization of threats in moral terms, coupled with the primacy of the state in policy-making as discussed in the previous part, are major contributing factors to the Realpolitik-as-usual.

The Limits of Realpolitik-as-Usual

While discussing the important aspects of realism, Rubenstein also explores the limitations of this still predominant political paradigm. First, the continued pursuit of realism is likely to complicate the issue of ethics and the relationship between the elites and their followers (Rubenstein 2010, 144-148). In war and peace, in order to justify and protect their self-interests, leaders do tell "lies" to their competitors, collaborators, and constituents. While misinforming the public, these elites position themselves higher and smarter than the masses. They quite often presume that their people do not, and should not, get involved in policy-making (Mearsheimer 2011). This tendency apparently might last as far as the masses still trust, or tolerate what their leaders say and do. Yet, when the masses come to understand their leaders' "strategic lies," as well as the fact that they are objectified and misguided by these leaders, the masses may develop and intensify their resentments. At some point, the people might see the necessity of challenging the status quo (Fanon 1965). If tensions between leaders and their followers are not handled carefully, these tensions may transform into run-away conflicts. This scenario is dangerous for all.

Second, Realpolitik, as Rubenstein highlights, does not resolve all war problems. In fact, this paradigm might reinforce and strengthen wars (Burton, 1972). With its primary focus on coercive means, and hostile and mistrust relationships between adversaries, Realpolitik can lead parties to tit-for-tat and "security dilemma" traps. The notion of security dilemma represents one of the most essential characteristics of international politics describing a situation in which the more we and the perceived enemy fight, the less secure our group and the perceived adversary feel (Jeong 2008, 70-71). The Cold War arms race between the US and the Soviet Union is a clear illustration of this notion. In their competition, neither Washington nor Moscow trusted each other. One state built up its military strength as a consequence of its feelings of threat. Decision-makers in both capitals calculated that through enhancing their military power, they should be able to prevent the opponents or competitors from developing a first strike capability, which would likely cause dire consequences for their survival and the entire world. Paradoxically, this approach was counter-productive. In fact, it prompted the other to further build up their own military strength. Individual countries' military build-ups eventually made all feel a lot more insecure. Both the US and the Soviet Union camps were trapped in protracted and costly conflict escalation, re-escalation, or impasse for a long time. This classic example illustrates that there is a discrepancy between the actual outcome (escalation, re-escalation, or impasse) of Realpolitik and its preferred state of affairs (des-escalation, or negative peace). In sum, from Rubenstein's perspective, Realpolitik sustains war, not peace, as realists might claim.

Re-Learning Rubenstein's CAR Model

Despite his thick description of realism's evolution and constraints, Rubenstein's way of promoting conflict resolution as an alternative to realism is not entirely convincing. Two contested assumptions can be found in the last chapter of his book.

First, in Rubenstein's eyes, CAR can resolve all conflicts as CAR interveners are committed to "neutrality" and "objectivity" (Rubenstein 2010, 148-157) . CAR is entrusted by others as its members do not take side and cause harm. Yet, Rubenstein fails to acknowledge that these principles and norms actually do not exist in CAR practices. From a constructivist perspective, CAR members and conflict parties do not have the same way of understanding and responding to conflicts (Kuhn 1996). There is, in fact, always a paradox which no parties can really resolve. While CAR interveners might proclaim that they do not take sides, the parties that they are working with might believe they do exactly that (Sandole 2007). Furthermore, parties, as highlighted by reflective practice scholars, are not "fixed" people. Their priorities, concerns, and problem-solving tactics are shaping, and are shaped by, conflict dynamics and particular contexts (Cheldelin, Warfield, and Makamba 2004). Due to dynamic interactions and interdependence among parties, problems as well as solutions are co-generated, rather than unilaterally generated by any single party. Boundaries between problem-makers and problem-solvers, or between biased and neutral parties, are blurred. In addition, a paradox in need of recognition is that CAR experts may not see themselves as partisan interveners, yet non-CAR stakeholders may see them as such (Sandole 2007). With all these matters in view, Rubenstein's argument about CAR's abilities to resolve conflicts, as well as its commitment to neutrality and objectivity is controversial.

Second, the way the author understands CAR vis-à-vis the exiting approaches to war and peace is counter-productive. His book seems to generate a rigid categorization as well as an asymmetric relationship between CAR, war, and peace due to his framing. CAR is successful in resolving war problems, while other approaches, i.e. Realpolitik?, are not. The author guarantees that if utilized, CAR can help turn the situations in Afghanistan and Iraq around. He uses CAR's past experiences and successes in other places, i.e. the Balkans, South Africa, East Timor, and Northern Ireland, as primary instruments to buttress this point (Rubenstein 2010, 154-157). Yet, past stories alone are not sufficient enough in supporting the author's optimistic claim. This is particularly true since some of those places -- particularly the Balkans -- are not clear success stories, nor are they solely the result of CAR (ICG 2011). The author also does not take into account of issues of diversity, particularity, and context. In fact, conflict situations, environments, and parties are not identical across times and places. Neither are conflict solution attempts. CAR interventions can be seen as successes in specific times and places. But they might be seen and evaluated differently in other contexts (Avruch and Black 1991). In addition, by over-questioning "have you tried CAR experts?" while at the same time criticizing the US existing policies in Afghanistan and Iraq, Rubenstein's intention might not be about finding an answer to this question merely. Instead, his asking and telling possibly implies that CAR experts are imperative, such that without them the US policies in these wars will continue falling apart (Rubenstein 2010, 148-157). His way of framing displays two assumptions and judgements. First, CAR, in the author's eyes, is a unique community and has never been connected with US policy-making. Second, even though there might be constructive problem-solving mechanisms in the US government, these mechanisms are still incomplete and thinner compared to CAR. These assumptions are contested as they are supported by no clear evidence in Rubenstein's book. It also remains to be seen if, indeed, CAR ever operates as an independent entity entirely distancing itself from other parties. While representing CAR vis-à-vis others, including the US government, the author falls short in clarifying several important puzzles: 1) is CAR a united group in which all members have the same way of thinking about and addressing conflicts, 2) which specific CAR club is it that Rubenstein's book is referring to?, and 3) who are, and are not, included, in this club, and what are the foundations for his categorization? Unless these puzzles are tackled, Rubenstein's positioning of CAR as an alternative to, or above, the existing models is not entirely constructive.

In conclusion, Rubenstein's (2010) Reasons to Kill: Why American Choose War is a valuable and timely contribution to the CAR field. The book generates a list of reasons for Americans to approve wars, utilizing both top-down and bottom-up perspectives. The book is published in the post-9/11 context in which Realpolitik is increasingly challenged by new emerging paradigms. The author's ultimate goal of promoting CAR as an alternative, or even a solution, to realism is understandable. His goal, however, could have been better obtained, if the author acknowledged the complexities and diversity of the CAR field, recognized and addressed all the controversies discussed above.

Selected References

Avruch, Kevin, and Peter Black. 1991. "The Culture Question and Conflict Resolution." Peace & Change 16(1): 22-45.

Cheldelin, Sandra, Wallace Warfield, and January Makamba. 2004. "Reflections on Reflective Practice." In Research Frontiers in Conflict Analysis and Resolution, GMU: Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, p. 63-78.

Clausewitz, Carl von. 1982. On War. Abridged. Penguin Classics.

Coser, Lewis A. 1964. The Functions of Social Conflict: An Examination of the Concept of Social Conflict and Its Use in Empirical Sociological Research. Free Press.

Fanon, Frantz. 1965. The Wretched of the Earth. Grove Pr.

Foucault, Michel. 2009. "11 January 1978." In Security, Territory, Population: Lectures At the College De France 1977-1978, USA: Macmillan, p. 1-27.

ICG. 2011. "Bosnia: State Institutions under Attack - International Crisis Group." International Crisis Group. (Accessed September 1, 2012).

Jeong, Ho-Won. 2008. Understanding Conflict and Conflict Analysis. Sage Publications Ltd.

Kuhn, Thomas S. 1996. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 3rd ed. University Of Chicago Press.

Machiavelli, Niccolò. 1984. The Prince. Bantam Classics.

Mearsheimer, John J. 2011. Why Leaders Lie: The Truth About Lying in International Politics. Oxford University Press, USA.

Morgenthau, Hans. 2005. "Ch 1: A Realist Theory of International Politics." In Politics Among Nations: the Struggle for Power and Peace, USA: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, p. 3-16.

Rothbart, Daniel, and Karina Korostelina. 2007. "Ch.3: Moral Denigration of the Other." In Identity, Morality, and Threat: Studies in Violent Conflict, USA: Lexington Books, p. 29-57.

Rubenstein, Richard E. 2010. Reasons to Kill: Why Americans Choose War. Bloomsbury Press.

Sandole, Dennis. 2007. Peace and Security in the Postmodern World: The OSCE and Conflict Resolution. 1st ed. Routledge.

Volkan, Vamik. 1998. Bloodlines: From Ethnic Pride To Ethnic Terrorism. Basic Books.

Waltz, Kenneth N. 1979. Theory of International Politics. 1st ed. McGraw-Hill.