Hobbes Revisited: The Commitment Problem, Trust and Preemption
63 Pages Posted: 1 Aug 2011 Last revised: 14 Aug 2011
Date Written: 2011
Few ideas in political science enjoy more prominence than Hobbes’ claim that the state of nature is the state of war of all against all. Hobbesian war is most often invoked in the study of international politics, yet finds limited empirical support. Paradoxically, Hobbes’ thesis is rarely applied systematically to intrastate conflict. In this paper we aim to fill this gap in the literature and revisit his seminal hypothesis that anarchy fosters the use of anticipatory force. Focusing on the anarchical domains that emerge after forcible seizures of power in sub-Saharan Africa, we demonstrate that nearly half of these irregular regimes experience what we call co-conspirator rupture, in which the same individuals who collaborated to seize power end up violently turning on each other. Consistent with Hobbes’ expectation, most co-conspirator ruptures take the form of preemption as comrades maneuver to eliminate their brothers-in-arms out of fear they themselves face imminent elimination. After demonstrating the regularity of this phenomenon cross-nationally, we undertake an in-depth case study based on original field research of the irregular regime that comes to power after the overthrow of Mobutu Sese Seko in former Zaire. The case study illustrates how the commitment problem and erosion of trust - the key mechanisms that we argue drive co-conspirator preemption - contribute to the collapse of the post-Mobutu order and the outbreak of Africa’s Great War.
Keywords: preemption, commitment problem, Hobbes, Congo, regime instability
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