Military actions and the invisible hand

Imagine this hypothetical scenario. A guerilla Communist movement has established camps in the wilderness of southern Guatemala, and intelligence reveals tha the movement has its sights set on neighboring Honduras. The two nations, along with Belize, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, form a coalition to root out the camps.
Who has the strongest motivation to affect the outcome of the operation?


The insurgents would naturally rise to the top of the list. Honduras faces the most immediate threat. Considering the imperialistic nature of Communism, the other four (especially El Salvador and Nicaragua, given their somewhat recent histories) know that if the movement succeeds any one of them could be next.
Other Central American countries (and Mexico) may perceive this as an albeit distant threat to their security. The US (at times) vigorously fights Communism through hot or cold war. Fidel Castro has always fanatically supported Marxist insurgents in Latin America. Belize is a member of the British Commonwealth; any threats to its sovereignty would naturally attract the attention of the UK.
But allies are not threatened by extinction as are the five principals. The damage they face is purely political. Their motivation rests on the ally’s degree of fanaticism (which in Castro’s case is quite extraordinary) or the degree to which the military outcome threatens the continued power of the ally’s dominant party (which explains the fate of South Vietnam: neither of the American political parties had anything to lose if Saigon would fall – and Watergate had doomed the more hawkish Republicans, anyway).
Who has the least motivation to military success? The United Nations. None of the quagmires into which it inserts itself threatens its existence, and failure never has political repercussions. It has no interest in such situations whatsoever; it is purely a “benevolence” organization. Perhaps this explains why it never seeks victory in the true sense. Its modus operandi has always been to send in troops and maintain the status quo between rival factions, not to militarily defeat the antagonist. And it suffers the delusion that it can accomplish its mission while being outnumbered by more than 150 to one. Even Custer had better odds.
What Adam Smith said about commerce also applies to war – people are motivated primarily by their personal welfare, not by benevolence. Or as Robert A. Heinlein put it: “Never appeal to a mans better nature. He may not have one. Invoking his self interest gives you more leverage.” Free markets succeed because success is wholly dependent on meeting demand. Regarding warfare, because political interest is far less tangible than survival interest, alliances with nations not facing the same immediate threats always involve a strong dose of the ally’s “better nature.” Placing too many eggs in the benevolence basket is never a good idea.

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2 comments

  1. Al Maviva

    Alan,
    That’s a truly profound insight. I don’t know if I would characterize it as a free-market mechanism, as much as a human nature mechanism: acting in accordance with one’s own self-interest. Notwithstanding my quibble, I think you’ve correctly identified both the mechanism that is at work in UN politics, and the flaw in altruistic combinations – the combination is only as strong as the altruism (the willingness to bear not-necessarily repayable costs for another) of the members.
    I’d never thought of it that way. Thank you for the enlightenment. That’s a beer on me, if ever we cross paths.
    Al