Hobbes Revisited: The Commitment Problem, Trust and Preemption

63 Pages Posted: 1 Aug 2011 Last revised: 14 Aug 2011

See all articles by Philip Roessler

Philip Roessler

College of William and Mary - Department of Government

Harry Verhoeven

University of Oxford - Department of Politics and International Relations

Date Written: 2011

Abstract

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

Suggested Citation

Roessler, Philip and Verhoeven, Harry, Hobbes Revisited: The Commitment Problem, Trust and Preemption (2011). APSA 2011 Annual Meeting Paper, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1900459

Philip Roessler (Contact Author)

College of William and Mary - Department of Government ( email )

Government Dept, College of William & Mary
Post Office Box 8795
Williamsburg, VA 23186
United States

Harry Verhoeven

University of Oxford - Department of Politics and International Relations ( email )

Manor Road
Oxford, OX1 3UQ
United Kingdom

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