Operation Christmas 1914: Selection by lot and international relations


These soldiers are at war. The Western Front, Christmas day, 1914.

Selection by lot is a simple idea, so it’s not surprising that it can be useful in many situations. Whenever I see institutional dysfunction or idiocy, I think “how could selection by lot improve things?” In a discussion last week with the Lowy Institute’s Sam Roggeveen – a person of unusually good judgement and thoughtfulness it seems to me – my mind naturally turned to the question of how selection by lot might be useful in international relations.

Imagine a treaty between two countries in which either side could bring about diplomatic mediation by way of a citizens congress. That citizens’ congress would take place between two groups of citizens, one from each country with all appropriate support from translators and if necessary meeting in an independent country etc. They would be chosen according to some methodology utilising randomness subject to any requirements of representativeness of the national citizenry – for instance as to gender, age, regional location etc – as supervised by some trusted third party country or supra-national body such as the UN or the ICJ.  They would then deliberate on any diplomatic matters at hand. I wonder if Australian citizens would have been as ungenerous with Timor Oil as our government has been, though it’s nice to see that there’s an end in sight for that business.1

Imagine the possibilities in the worst possible situation – that of war. Wars are so terrible, so horrible that my guess is that most are just a mistake. Sometimes they flare up when there are big, difficult things to resolve. And some of the worst we’ve known flare up as the result of poor diplomacy and/or unstable international institutions – like WWI. In both situations various toxic forces powerfully reinforce each other: Human beings’ physical and cultural ‘fight or flight’ mechanisms, their groupishness – their preparedness to their own and other groups behaviour with very different levels of understanding and empathy – and structures of political and economic power.

Rearrange the architecture of the way these groups become a group negotiating on its future and that future could be much brighter, much less pockmarked by horrific events brought on by accidents that foreclosed the necessary amount of goodwill being developed. As we saw most tantalisingly, most movingly in the Christmas truce, 1914 when the picture above was taken.

Almost invariably in the modern world, the decisions to wage wars are made by people with little skin in the game and then executed by ‘the people’ who, though they are often highly supportive at first, soon learn the ghastliness of what they’ve gotten into. So in some ways the kind of structure I’m suggesting is much more incentive compatible with the interests of the people.

But I’d go a little further. As I wrote in correspondence with Yanis Varoufakis:

Perform this thought experiment. Imagine that, whilst you were negotiating with the Eurozone – though I think the experiment would still be worth running today – you did it alongside a deliberative body comprising 99 Germans and 99 Greeks all chosen by lot. They would be supported by translators and diplomatic expertise from some neutral party and paid to meet one day each weekend to deliberate, advise and propose any of their own plans as Greece negotiated with the Eurozone.

The Greeks and the Germans have some hard talking to do!! But as we saw, the equivalent negotiations between those peoples’ elected representatives broke down into increased polarisation and recrimination as each of the representatives headed for their own media to ’spin’ their story and the media reported it all according to its values of entertainment, arousal and combat.

Reading this column by Roger Cohen, I’d love to find a way to get 100 randomly selected Israelis and Palestinians together to work on a peace deal.

 Image result for Christmas 1914

  1. 1. Declaration of (relative) ignorance. I don’t know a lot about this, so may need to revise my view as to our ungenerousness in the presence of any pesky facts.[]
This entry was posted in History, Political theory, Politics - international. Bookmark the permalink.
Notify of

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Moz of Yarramulla
Moz of Yarramulla
6 years ago

I fear you’ve misunderstood where wars come from. IMO they’re mostly imposed on subjects by rulers, rather than being a response to popular demand. It’s not just the Australian invasions of Iraq or Afghanistan that were wildly unpopular, historically a lot more effort has been spent trying to get people to accept wars than trying to restrain them. The whole history of propaganda is of governments trying to get their subjects to go to war. I suspect more rulers have been murdered by their subjects in an effort to stop or prevent wars than start them.

In a way so-called “civil wars” (now *there’s* an oxymoron) are the exception. Ireland, Palestine, Crimea, Tibet, Lebanon, all seem to have had considerable popular support. And at least in some of those that support was not because the different groups didn’t interact with each other or have friends in one of the other groups, but precisely the opposite. And as we see in Ireland, persuading the invader to go home after the war is often the cause of the next one.

Once things do wind up and the popular support is there, I’m not convinced that just putting people into a nice calm room together will help. It’s not just the “one unreasonable juror” problem, it’s having a jury with no power of enforcement delivering a verdict to a hostile judge. I doubt it would matter what 20 or 200 Israelis said to Bibi, he’d still favour genocide. Much like Australia’s Stalin did to popular acclaim in 2007.

(also, as you can tell, I still can’t get over Howard accepting that moniker. My mind just boggles)

Moz of Yarramulla
Moz of Yarramulla
6 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas Gruen

Nick, I apologise for cutting down a thousand word answer to a few hundred.

I’m questioning the link from “what a random selection of citizens think should be done” to “the government obeys those citizens”, using the recent Australian wars as examples. The only recent war that had popular support was the civil war against some of our first nations people (“The Intervention” featuring a suspension of Australian law to enable sending in the army against Australian citizens) and I suspect even that support was more a result of propaganda than a genuine desire to wipe out more aboriginal communities. I would like to think so, anyway.

Supporting your point, though, we see the various SBS series where they take ordinary people and show them “the other side” (first nations, refugees etc) they do tend to become more sympathetic. Whether you could get that effect in a more formal setting with the government controlling proceedings I am not sure, but I fear not.

Similarly, Netanyahu has resisted everything from peace protests by Jewish Israelis to international condemnation and conviction for war crimes, the idea that he’d give more weight to a random selection of Israeli citizens than to Obama seems farcical. Would he even let a process involving arabs get started?

There’s also the question of timing: by the time the public is aware that a war is on the cards it’s often far too late for the government to back down, let alone put everything on hold for weeks or months while the jury come to a decision.

I expect practical problems with the jury making enquiries. Do they just read the paper and talk to the citizens from the other side(s) of the proposed war? As we saw with Iraq, to be effective the jury might well need the power to compel hostile witnesses at very high levels of all governments involved, which would probably mean getting security clearances from everyone. Otherwise they’d be worse off than the civilian oversight of military intelligence… which would be a key part of what the citizen’s jury would actually need to do. Or do they just take the “sexed up” dossiers at face value because they wouldn’t be allowed to question anyone involved?

Given the almost complete lack of political support for citizen’s juries even in overtly democratic countries, how does anyone we get to a point where a pre-war jury could be created, let alone affect the decisions of even just two countries about going to war?

Bush the Lessor called Howard his “Man of Steel”, something Howard apparently found positive. A few people made the historical link but it never got much attention. To my mind it’s up there with “crusade against terrorism” in the gaffe stakes. http://www.smh.com.au/news/world/bush-honours-his-man-of-steel/2009/01/14/1231608744461.html

Sam Roggeveen
6 years ago

Nicholas, thanks for your generous words. I enjoyed our discussion a lot.

It feels like playing against the rules of this thought-experiment to introduce practical, real-world objections, but it’s the only way I can think of to contribute to the discussion, so here goes.

A treaty arrangement of the kind you are proposing would require each government to, firstly, surrender authority to a group of random citizens from its own side. That seems unlikely enough. But each government would also have to accept the decisions of the jury as a whole, so that means also surrendering power to the foreign half of the jury, and the international third-party supervisor.

All of that is extremely unlikely, though not impossible. After all, nations do cede authority to international bodies, and abide by their decisions, for the sake of what they regard as a greater good (eg. the WTO dispute settlement mechanism). Adding a jury element is a leap but not beyond the realm of imagination.

But on questions of war and peace, the practical roadblocks to your idea are higher again, because in situations where states or groups are on the verge of war, we can assume that trust between them is extremely low, and the authority of the international institution arbitrating the case is likely to be weak. Because the stakes are so high (possibly existential), and because neither side trusts the other side to stick to agreements, each state is more likely to rely on themselves to achieve security (ie. through military means) than to leave it to an international body.

andrew beesley
andrew beesley
6 years ago

Increase trust?

The evolution of trust. An interactive guide to the game theory of why and how we trust each other…
“”It was Christmas 1914 on the Western Front.
Despite strict orders not to chillax with the enemy, British and German soldiers left their trenches, crossed No Man’s Land, and gathered to bury their dead, exchange gifts, and play games. 
Meanwhile: it’s 2017, the West has been at peace for decades, and wow, we suck at trust. Surveys show that, over the past forty years, fewer and fewer people say they trust each other. So here’s our puzzle:  Why, even in peacetime, do friends become enemies? And why, even in wartime, do enemies become friends? 
I think game theory can help explain our epidemic of distrust – and how we can fix it! So, to understand all this…””
Enjoy. Tell us your choices.
Mine: in initial round I ‘cooperated’ instead of cheated every turn for every character and scored 26 out of 49… did i narrowly avoid war?