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Humans, like other primates, are tribal animals. We need to belong to groups, which is why we love clubs and teams. Once people connect with a group, their identities can become powerfully bound to it. They will seek to benefit members of their group even when they gain nothing personally. They will penalize outsiders, seemingly gratuitously. They will sacrifice, and even kill and die, for their group.
This may seem like common sense. And yet the power of tribalism rarely factors into high-level discussions of politics and international affairs, especially in the United States. In seeking to explain global politics, U.S. analysts and policymakers usually focus on the role of ideology and economics and tend to see nation-states as the most important units of organization. In doing so, they underestimate the role that group identification plays in shaping human behavior. They also overlook the fact that, in many places, the identities that matter most—the ones people will lay down their lives for—are not national but ethnic, regional, religious, sectarian, or clan-based. A recurring failure to grasp this truth has contributed to some of the worst debacles of U.S. foreign policy in the past 50 years: most obviously in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also in Vietnam.
This blindness to the power of tribalism affects not only how Americans see the rest of the world but also how they understand their own society. It’s easy for people in developed countries, especially cosmopolitan elites, to imagine that they live in a post-tribal world. The very term “tribe” seems to denote something primitive and backward, far removed from the sophistication of the West, where people have supposedly shed atavistic impulses in favor of capitalistic individualism and democratic citizenship. But tribalism remains a powerful force everywhere; indeed, in recent years, it has begun to tear at the fabric of liberal democracies in the developed world, and even at the postwar liberal international order. To truly understand today’s world and where it
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