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Addressing Resilience in the Western Alliance Against Fragmentation

PI: Scott Atran, Pembroke College

Year selected for award: 2018

Addressing Resilience in the Western Alliance Against Fragmentation: Willingness to Sacrifice and the Spiritual Dimension of Intergroup Cooperation and Conflict

Principal Investigator: Scott Atran, Pembroke College, University of Oxford

Co-Principal Investigators: Richard Davis, Artis International; Jeremy Ginges, Artis International; Robert Johnson, University of Oxford

Years of Award: 2018-2023

Funding and Managing Organization: Air Force Office of Scientific Research

Project Description:
The overriding theoretical goal is to determine the relative contributions of material interests, cultural values, and group identities in sustaining or undermining collective security arrangements between nations.

Research Problem:
Prevailing paradigms in academic studies of politics and international relations, and in foreign policymaking and military strategy, focus on the establishment, dissolution, and management of cooperative alliances based on material interests (e.g., economic conditions and goals, physical security of persons and territory), whether as an end in itself or as the necessary first step to facilitate a convergence of values and identities. Yet, evidence from our previous DoD-supported historical research, cultural surveys, behavioral studies and neuroimaging experiments in conflict-related situations suggest that commitment to cherished values or deep attachment to group identities can override material interests from the outset, or lead to recalibration of interests in conformity with devotion to values and identity (e.g., as when mistaken beliefs about the material costs imposed by immigration are unresponsive to available evidence because of explicit or implicit beliefs about immigrant values and identity attachments).

We examine the interaction of interests, values and identities in maintaining collective security through a combination of ethnographic fieldwork, cross-cultural surveys and behavioral experiments involving new dynamic measures and hypotheses, concentrating specifically on issues of resilience and value-driven resistance associated with different groups and value sets, and how resilience may be affected (and possibly even strengthened) by high profile terrorist events.

Our empirical focus is the Transatlantic Alliance and EU (henceforth the “Western alliance”), whose current and prior forms (e.g., Common Market) have been the strategic focal points of American foreign policy since WWII. The demise or serious weakening of these collective ties would upend decades of US policy to establish a security bulwark against internecine conflict and outside aggression. The risk is much international instability, and great cost in US treasure and the lives of war fighters to meet new security challenges. Thus, our main defense-related thrust is to help bolster resilience against psychological and cultural processes that drive increasingly successful attempts from within and without the alliance to undermine consensus on core values and group commitments to which the US and principal allies are expressly dedicated (representative government, individual rights, rule of law, independent judiciary, protection of civil and political liberties, free and vigilant press, competitive elections, collective defense). 

Owl in the Olive Tree post:
It Takes Social Science to Counter the Power of Russia's Malign Influence Campaign

Select Publications:
Feldman, Emily, and Malia Poltzer. 2020. "The Dangerous Quest To Understand The Minds Of Extremists". Time.