I think one of the most interesting findings in all of international relations scholarship is that the disproportionate share of conflict in the international system is comprised of a few dyads fighting over and over, what are known as “enduring rivalries.” These are highly emotional conflicts in which countries are found to fight because they have fought before, not because of the presence of some tangible and intractable conflict of interest.
I avoided this work for a long, long time for a number of reasons. First, “rivalries” is a terrible, terrible moniker for what is being described and it made me not take it seriously. Rivalries sounds like Yankees-Red Sox. In reality these are at the very least like Manchester City/Manchester United in which fans actually hurt each other. Second, the enduring rivalries crowd does a really bad job drawing the consequences of their findings for international relations theory, I suspect due to the research tradition’s roots in peace research in which numbers and pushing the research agenda step by step are favored over grand theoretical statements. That is unfortunate because there is an enormous implication here. The international system is not conflict-prone due to anarchy. The international system does not really have a character at all. If it does it is mostly peaceful. Realists draw excessive conclusions from micro-level conflicts that have their own unique origins.
I think readers will be sad to hear, therefore, that I think I am in enduring rivalry with my next-door neighbors. Or if they do rational choice work or study Africa, perhaps they will be happy. Either way, let me explain.
Four years ago my family moved into a lovely house in a lovely neighborhood. I was, however, warned that my neighbors were very, very prickly and had engaged in a longstanding series of lawsuits, screaming matches and police calls with their other neighbors. Also, they were both federal prosecutors and were not to be fucked with. We vowed to be cautious and solicitous and found them to be receptive. Our kids would play outside in the front yard with theirs. We hosted the wife’s mother-in-law when she was locked outside. They lent us a patio table. We gave them a house key. Everything seemed fine.
Then two things happened. First, I started playing the drums again after almost a decade. I restricted practice to the daytime during the workweek but one Monday holiday (which all federal employees receive) I woke one of their kids up from a nap. The wife came aggressively to my door. I promised I would text them in the future to make sure I was not disturbing anyone. That didn’t appease them. Second, my son started playing with the son of their other neighbors. They started shielding their kids from our kids and shepherding them into the house. They felt like Wilhelmine Germany. When they yelled at my kids through the window one day for running around our house yelling, otherwise known as being kids, I confronted the wife angrily. Police were called. A decision was made that the men of the house would meet from time to time to smooth over problems. Cigars would be smoked. Penises would be compared. It was the Concert of South Pasadena.
On Super Bowl Sunday, after having called the police on their other neighbors for having a party at 1pm, the husband appeared at my door asking me if I could redirect our sprinklers away from our common backyard fence and to trim the vines growing from our side as it was damaging their wood. I asked our gardener to fix the problem, who did so promptly. A week later, they decided to reach over the fence and cut down the wires we had strung to facilitate the vines. That struck me as a stupid, spiteful act, a declaration of war. Perhaps surprisingly to all of you, I did not go to Defcon Five. I wrote the husband a letter, in which I explained that I was still willing to work frictions out face to face, but that I expected reciprocity and reasonable behavior from them. The next morning, I found that they had put up a makeshift “fence” composed of stakes and ribbon in the front yard. That was their answer to my gesture, a big ‘fuck you.’ So what was I to do?
I did what anyone else would do. I constructed outdoor tableaus that exposed the absurdity of their behavior. First, I put up a sign of Reagan chiseling away at the Berlin Wall asking them to tear down this fence, using Mega Blocks to construct a guard tower. Signs pointed to West Berlin (us) and East Berlin (them). The neighborhood loved it. And as you can see, I have excellent grass.
It was at this point that, when playing the drums on a Thursday afternoon, the husband opens my garage door and asks me if I wouldn’t mind refraining as they are all home with the stomach flu. I tell him that I normally would think nothing of this request but that his recent dickish behavior convinced me that I didn’t owe him much. He promised to still be willing to reach an accommodation, as someone in a position of vomit-induced weakness might do. Trying to be the big man, I put the sticks down, which did impress my Mrs. Two days later, now recovered, his wife though made a point of saying loudly to her children that they needed to stay away from me, the “bad man.” Cease fire broken.
I escalated, immediately setting up a demilitarized zone with North and South Korean flags and a sign in Korean warning pedestrians of the danger. Using the wires they had cut I made a fence that demarcated the DMZ, behind which stood the American (toy soldier) forces and their (nerf) missles.
So I think I am now in an enduring rivalry. I dislike them greatly but have no idea what I am fighting about except the fact that I have been fighting. I would probably choose to perpetuate the conflict rather than resolve it at this point as a result of my accumulated sense of grievance. And the status quo serves me better than the previous one because I can play the drums whenever I feel like it without any sense that I owe them anything.
Seeing as I must be armed for further escalation, I would therefore appreciate suggestions for future tableaus. I have in mind an Indian-Pakistan themed one, which is even better because my wife’s father was Indian. Wish me luck.