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War: It's a guy thing
As the world waits to see what Vladimir Putin's next move in Ukraine will be, it's natural to look at other moments when the world has hung on the decisions of powerful leaders. One doesn’t have to look very far to observe that in the overwhelming majority of such cases, the leaders have been men.
Why is this so?
An easy answer is that men historically have arrogated to themselves political power and the military power that goes with it. Women have been pushed aside by custom, law and occasionally force.
This is true as far as it goes. But it leaves the question: Why have men done so? And what has enabled them to get away with it?
Two other questions arise. One is whether the original question puts things backwards. Perhaps men arrogated military power to themselves first, and political power flowed from that. The second question is whether men as a group sought power or had power thrust upon them.
In the long course of history, ruling regimes more often acquired power by military force than by political argument. And given the nature of sexual dimorphism in the human species, males had an advantage in martial endeavors. Even in our technologically advanced age, men still do have an advantage in most cases. Data on crime and dangerous activities indicate that men are more inclined to violence and risk-taking than women. In other words, they display characteristics valued in soldiers.
If it’s true that military power preceded political power, then the traditional predominance of men in politics is understandable, even predictable. Moreover, men prone to violent assertions of power were those most likely to establish new regimes. Thus violence was built into the structure of politics, at least to a degree.
Did men as a group seek power? Some men did, but others were dragged into the contest. The chieftains of the clans and the generals of the armies doubtless possessed a penchant for power, but their footsoldiers often had to be persuaded. The soldiers would be shamed if they didn't fight; they might even be imprisoned or executed for failing to join the battle. And when whole societies, women as well as men, celebrated the chieftains and the generals—as protectors if not necessarily as conquerors—the footsoldiers had an incentive to emulate them.
At times like the present, when Putin's will to power is wreaking havoc in Ukraine and threatening the international order, it’s tempting to imagine a world ruled by women. If men are the cause of war, are women the cure?
Possibly. Women might solve international problems more often by diplomacy than by force. But there isn’t enough evidence—of women being in power at moments of crisis—to speak with confidence on the matter.
And it’s not impossible that women would find themselves under the same compulsions as men. In the present world, as in every previous version of the world, power is the ultimate arbiter of the fate of nations. Those persons, men or women, able and willing to use power tend to prevail over those not able or willing. This is what the struggle in Ukraine is all about.
Even so, over time a world in which more women held high office might become a world in which power recedes and persuasiveness advances. Wars begin in politics and end in politics; one can imagine a world that prefers methods besides war to get from beginning to end.
Those still willing to resort to power, though, might have an advantage over the diffident. Visions of a world without nuclear weapons have always failed upon the realization that a leader who hides even a few nukes could dictate terms to the disarmed. In the end, even if peace-minded women predominated, the few belligerent folks could undo their work and throw us back to where we started.
As historically practiced, war is a guy thing. But at a deeper level it might simply be a human thing.