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For example, take this recent question. The question is "Why are non-Western countries siding with China in the UN?", and the asker assumes that China has some kind of influence over non-Western countries that is making them side with China in the UN. In other words, these countries are siding with the UN in return for some kind benefit.

Why can't these other countries genuinely think whatever motion is under debate is just/unjust and vote accordingly? That seems like the obvious null hypothesis, yet people in general seem to reject that null hypothesis without a second thought. The linked question is just an example; there are many other examples around (example, example).

The only explanation I can think of is something I vaguely remember reading about in the context of magic tricks - that people need to be able to tell what the motivation of something is, or they get suspicious. For example, when the magician raises a hand to their ear, people are uncomfortable; when the magician uses that same hand to scratch their ear, then suddenly everything "makes sense" and the act ceases to be suspicious. Magicians exploit this effect to deceive their audiences.

However, I 1) can't find where I read that anymore, and 2) it doesn't explain why "these countries think [motion] is just/unjust" isn't also an explanation that makes sense.

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    I can't understand the framing of the question. Why would anyone ever vote for anything without a deep motivation? Mar 3, 2023 at 4:45
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    @KarlKnechtel you mean, other than "I think that something I'm voting for is right"?
    – Allure
    Mar 3, 2023 at 5:15
  • It seems to me a question (mainly) for psychology.stackexchange.com I very much doubt that there are studies about this in particular, i.e. ascribing motives for votes, but there are almost certainly for related issues, but getting into those here might be (more) off-topic. Mar 3, 2023 at 8:59
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    @Allure I think that is a deep motivation. Did you mean a hidden motivation? Anyway, I think the other question doesn't really require that framing. It perfectly admits an answer along the lines of "non-Western countries simply happen to agree with China on the policies being voted on, and their consequent 'siding with' China is purely coincidental" - and if you believe that, feel free to write that answer. Mar 3, 2023 at 14:19
  • @KarlKnechtel if I knew the answer, I wouldn't be asking the question.
    – Allure
    Mar 3, 2023 at 14:29

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I think the phenomenon you are describing can be largely explained via two observations:

  1. It is "well-known" that people (natural persons or otherwise) sometimes act in bad faith. Almost every adult has experienced someone acting in bad faith; in many cases they themselves have operated on the basis of ulterior motives.

  2. Almost every human has, to some extent, an egocentric tendency. I'm using Encyclopædia Britannica's definition of egocentrism as:

"the failure, in both children and adults, to recognize the idiosyncratic nature of one’s knowledge or the subjective nature of one’s perceptions."

These two phenomena explain why a person might attribute "deeper motivation" to someone else's actions, even in the absence of any particular evidence to support such a view. Consider the following scenario: Alice wants a cup of tea and she offers to make Bob a cup of tea too. Bob declines the offer. If Alice is an adult with normal development, she will probably conclude that Bob isn't thirsty, doesn't like tea etc. If, however, she has extreme egocentrism, she will reason differently: Bob must want a cup of tea (because she does), so his refusal is clearly motivated by some hidden factor.

The question then becomes, why do we so often indulge in egocentric reasoning when trying to understand the behaviour of countries in international relations, when we would resist such a tendency in other situations. I wasn't able to find any literature on this, but it seems like something that should exist, so perhaps someone else will have better luck. Nonetheless, I would suggest that there are at least two factors that contribute:

  • Most people are relatively poorly "socialised", when it comes to international relations. A child looses much of their egocentrism through socialisation with others. It is much more difficult to socialise in the same way with other countries, especially if they use an unknown language or have a completely separate media.
  • The, at times, adversarial nature of international relations may well promote egocentrism as people try to protect their own conception of self. A similar phenomenon was observed in American college students, who seemed to exhibit greater egocentrism than younger high school students. A phenomenon that the authors attributed to the novel social environment, which also plays into the prior point (although the study seemed of a somewhat low quality to me).

As a final note, I would point out that the above discussion does not exclude the possibility that a country really is voting in bad faith. It is simply an attempt to explain why many people are prone to believing, rightly or wrongly, that that is the case.

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  • I think assigning this to a kind of xenophobia is rather wrong. Not entirely, but mostly. Many people barely trust their own government. And you expect them to trust a foreign government like if it were a person. Besides, between countries with rather poor relations, the media does exactly the opposite: in each country it's more likely to say the other government is lying etc. So I have no idea how you expect that build trust. I'd rather compare that with children being taught not to take gifts from strangers on the street. Mar 3, 2023 at 23:22
  • BTW, it looks like people do learn "justified cheating" from their governments/society science.org/content/article/corrupt-societies-encourage-lying And yeah "UN Secretary-General: "Governments are lying"" carbonindependent.org/136.html Mar 3, 2023 at 23:35
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Representatives are expected to rationally weigh the consequences of their decisions, and act in the best strategic interest of the entity they are representing. Of course, they do not always succeed - they may occasionally misjudge, be overwhelmed by their emotions, or they may act out of selfish motivations instead (also called 'corruption').

Their actions are usually based on the input of experts, and they attempt to take the anticipated reactions of other relevant actors into account. Very few political decisions are clear-cut choices between right and wrong. Wording and context matters a lot.

E.g. China talking about respecting territorial integrity can mean a lot of things, when considering Hongkong or Taiwan.

Supporting a proposal for a resolution means a lot more than just agreement to the literal text. Similarly, the way in which a proposal is rejected can also be a means of communication.

Therefore, ascribing deeper (as in: more complex) motivations to the way countries vote should not be surprising.

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The relevant term in the law and politics is the conflict of interest. A judgement is not expected to be completely neutral and unbiased if the deciding individual has significant interest (material gain, strong personal views) in making some decision, and not alternative.

Conflict of interest is the real issue, but like everything it can also be used for unfair attack, emphasizing it where there is none significant enough to make a difference. "Deeper motivations" you talk about are the search of the possible conflict of interest.

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It's a particularly weird example. The U.N. is an organization dedicated to world peace and has passed a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is at least in part ratified by all countries.

So, the null hypothesis of members of such an organization would be that they are against war and for human rights. Therefore, when countries vote against condemning wars and against questioning human rights violations, that is somewhat unexpected.

Now, for context, the U.N. is an organization in which almost every state on earth is a member, and as such includes both victims and perpetrators. To keep up the dialogue, it rarely passes binding legislation, so it is often more diplomatic, mutual, or symbolic.

However, especially because it is mostly symbolic and between nations, the topics end up being of a certain magnitude and importance. Therefore, regardless of what anybody votes for, others are interested in terms of why they choose to do so, what interests or dependencies they have, and where they generally stand on that issue.

It is therefore vitally important for all diplomats of any country to know what the rest are up to and why.

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    "includes both victims and perpetrators". Well, non-state victims are not directly represented at the UN (the same is true for perpetrators of a similar nature). So if you're just some minority in a country or a terrorist group... Mar 3, 2023 at 15:18
  • Therefore, when countries vote against condemning wars and against questioning human rights violations, that is somewhat unexpected That's surprising, I can think of obvious confounding factors such as "the war is just" (it seems everyone agrees a just war is worth fighting) and "that is not a human rights violation".
    – Allure
    Mar 4, 2023 at 1:12
  • @Allure Under the most unreasonably gracious definition Russia's invasion of Ukraine would have been a "pre-emptive war" to which the U.N. part of the "just war theory" wiki article say: "Therefore, engaging in a preventive war without clear proof that an attack is imminent cannot fail to raise serious moral and juridical questions." And China apparently has placed millions of people in internment camps without stating reason, which alone is a violation of this provision of the Universal Declaration of Human rights: "no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile"
    – haxor789
    Mar 4, 2023 at 10:34
  • @haxor789 yeah, but then that becomes a dispute over facts, which is not something people think about when they speculate as described in the OP.
    – Allure
    Mar 4, 2023 at 10:48
  • @Allure As far as I know both events are pretty well documented. The existence of these camps is official and a global audience witnessed the Russian invasion of Ukraine. There's no dispute about these facts and they are already problematic, rape, torture and war crimes would come on top of that. So if what's in plain sight is disputed, then it's more of a denial than a dispute and then question arises why that is the case.
    – haxor789
    Mar 4, 2023 at 11:59
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This is a good political question related to international politics and foreign policy.

To the question you linked, indeed both the questioner and some of the answerers (including me) made a generalisation that all the countries voted keeping their own political interest in mind. When so many nation-state actors are involved, sometimes we do make common sweeping judgements to understand something, despite knowing that it may not be applicable for everyone. There will definitely be some who are outliers with different political motivations.

But then, the question why that particular generalisation of states acting selfishly? Why wasn't the generalisation based on benevolent politics of good ethics and moral? Why didn't any answer say it was because all these nation-states genuinely believe that China was not committing any human rights abuses against the Ugyhurs?

The answer to that, partly, is public perception. When it comes to political players, the public in nearly all the countries look at them cynically. Sure, one may shed the cynicism for the political leader they admire, but the general public perception are that politicians are self-serving creatures who prioritise their own self-interest first.

Thus, when it comes to nation-states behaviours too, we tend to project these same cynicism.

That's one part of it.

The other is a political theory called the Rational Actor Model that can be used to determine how a nation-state made / makes a political decision, especially on foreign policy. Basically, this theory assumes that the leader of a state always acts rationally to achieve a particular, or a set of, goal(s).

The formal way of laying out the Rational Actor Model is by using four key concepts:

To determine the cause of a nations actions, one must analyze:

(1) the Goals and Objectives of the Nation,
(2) the Alternatives,
(3) the Consequences, and
(4) the Choice the nation made.

With these four concepts, one can analyse the nations leaders development of making a decision by using the RAM.

Now, what was the motion that China defeated?

The U.N. rights council on Thursday voted down a Western-led motion to hold a debate about alleged human rights abuses by China against Uyghurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang in a victory for Beijing as it seeks to avoid further scrutiny.

If we apply the RAM model individually to all the countries that voted in favour of China, what do you believe was their own goals and objectives for defeating this motion? Do you genuinely believe that some of them believe that China hasn't committed any human rights abuses against the Uyghurs or Muslims? That isn't really in question because even China knows it is acting in excess and some of their political actions are indeed abusive. But, the Chinese believe that it is necessary and justified to protect Chinese interests. Now that stand is more easy to accept for many non-western states that supported China because they too know that sometimes when states act violently against some group in the national interest, human rights violations do happen. And it is of course, in their best interest not to have this scrutinised by the world.

That's one of looking at it.

Another is perhaps China threatened some of them, and so they again voted to preserve their own economic and political interests over that of issues of Ugyhurs or Muslims that may not have any political impact on their own country.

And so on.

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Why can't these other countries genuinely think whatever motion is under debate is just/unjust and vote accordingly? That seems like the obvious null hypothesis.

Well, if you consider that countries do try to persuade others of their righteousness, including at the UN, this is like asking:

Why does anyone assume that advertisements influence consumer behavior? The null hypothesis is that everyone just buys what they think is best for them.

The fallacy here being (1) that "best for them" is hardly a simple matter to decide in many instances, and (2) that billions (if not trillions) would be spent on advertisements [or lobbying & propaganda for the political equivalent] if it made no difference, and (3) once advertisement is internalized ("I think Pepsi is better than Coke, I really do"), you've made your reasoning circular/trivial if you stop at "everyone just buys what they think is best for them" without trying to figure out how they came up with that (Did they just taste both in a blind test? Did see any ads that maybe just told them that? Or maybe it was the packaging that had some influence? Or the price? Were they promised a rebate if they just say that? Or just given a free cookie [a.k.a. aid between countries] by one of manufacturers beforehand?)

(And yeah "what is just" in politics is not like in math.)


I don't feel like this topic needs that much more elaboration, but this headline/quote is prolly worth dropping here

UN Secretary-General: "Governments are lying"

[...] "Some government and business leaders are saying one thing - but doing another. Simply put, they are lying."

(Full speech here, FWTW.)

And of course governments that are at odds with each openly accuse each other of lying [for ulterior motives] much more often than the UNSG breaks the taboo on that. So the public hears it often enough.

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