There are endless rumours and speculations about what happens behind the curtains of the political stage. Usually, the ordinary citizen labels the ordinary politician as corrupt, disloyal and treacherous; politics is often seen as a ‘big game’. The reasons for these unfavourable views are manifold: dissatisfaction with policy or election outcomes, drawing analogies to own politicians from negative portrayal of foreign politicians, little perceivable improvements in everyday life and many more. Next to these long-term causes, there are also moments when these negative notions are amplified. When scandals become public, the general public reacts negatively; scandals damage the reputation of politicians, nations and add to unfavourable views on politics. But is it all just a game? How much do we know about the nature of politics? What causes grave breaches of fundamental norms and principles? Where is the ordinary citizen’s place in all this?

Of course, politicians do not gather and discuss how they can harm someone – may it be another nation, politician or even their own people. Politicians are no different from ordinary citizens. However, they are subject to different structures and, consequently, also subject to different dynamics that result from these structures. On the most fundamental level, states are all, legally seen, equal – no state is inferior or superior to another. A citizen can be held accountable for his actions in front of a court, but who can hold a state accountable? There is no higher authority than the state. It is not possible for a state to hold another state accountable, because there is no higher authority that could authorise the state to do so. If done unilaterally, the other state simply will not react to it. Even if a state breaches treaties it has signed, there is no mechanism to punish the state for doing so. Of course, it does not mean that there are no consequences, since there is always the danger that another state uses violent, economic or political means of coercion to retaliate – or often simply in the first place to have its way. Therefore, the structure of the political stage is very different from the structures that ordinary citizens are subject to and states need to behave accordingly.

Politics is defined as the effective and efficient allocation of scarce resources for achieving societal advancement. Hence, the political arena is characterised by an eternal struggle to balance this goal against the interests of domestic and foreign interests. Because there are only a few legal boundaries (except for the European Union member states) on the state level, the politicians have far more instruments at their disposal than citizens, when pursuing their interests. For example, a person who wants to become rich cannot simply rob a bank without fearing prosecution. On the other hand, a state, if strong enough, can invade another state and exploit its resources or impose its ideology. There are endless examples for unethical inter-state and inter-societal conduct: the enslavement and deportation of Africans to North America by Europeans, the Gulf Wars, the Annexation of Crimea, the genocide of Uygur Turks in China or the genocide of the Herero and Nama in Namibia by the Germans. Of course, this violates our understanding of justice and is highly unethical, but it happens all the time. There are no consequences for the acting states, because they are simply too powerful. Punishment only happened after the aggressor lost its position of power; examples are Napoleon, Germany after the Second World War or the Soviet Union after its collapse. Another factor that influences decisions on the state-level is that politicians do not make their decisions alone. There are many people involved in state-level decision-making and the discrepancies between their views are usually very little. In one of his articles (“Groupthink and the Gulf Crisis”, 2003), Steve A. Yetiv examines the decision-making process by the former president of the United States of America (short: USA), George W. Bush, and his advisory circle. Basically, Yetiv’s results showed that the socio-economic and socio-ideological proximity of the group predetermined the outcome before the decision-making process concluded. This groupthink dynamic is characteristic for political decision-making and can lead to dangerous outcomes. Accordingly, Friedrich Nietzsche’s quote turns out to be very close to reality: ““In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule”.

Jamal Khashoggi

How does that relate to political scandals? When we think about the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, the work of WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange, the publication of the Panama Papers, Edward Snowden’s publication of internal intelligence, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the resignation of former head of state in Germany Horst Köhler and many many more moments in just the recent history, we can identify these kinds of portholes through which we can see just a fraction of what is happening in the world of politics. In all of the above-mentioned cases, insiders revealed information from within the system and were harshly punished – two of them paid with their lives. Many more people lost their lives, because they revealed information about unethical conduct or challenged this order. Therefore, the public’s mistrust does not come by surprise and all the myths and conspiracy theories are actually grounded in long-term observations of incidents that suggest a larger system of unethical behaviour. Now, politicians are neither trained to behave unethically, nor are exceptionally ruthless people put in positions of power on purpose. Politicians, as long as they are no autocrats, are primarily driven by a desire to improve their nation (may it be economically, scientifically, socially or in any other way) in relation to the rest of the world; autocrats, too, have this desire to some degree, but put their personal interest first or mix up their personal interest with the population’s interest. Mostly, there is a deep attachment to the core values of the nation and/or the ethnicity that they represent; no matter how educated and polished such a person is, the nation and/or ethnicity remains their weak spot. In a basketball league, for example, there are rules that all teams and players abide by. Politics, however, is governed by principles, norms, values and interests. Compared to rules, they can be stretched at times when necessary, because they are matters of interpretation. Further, they are unilateral, because every nation determines their own norms and values. Finally, these change fluidly over time; what is accepted at one point in time maybe unthinkable at another.

Edward Snowden

All these factors lead to unethical behaviour in politics. However, the main reason is that there are different structural circumstances of politicians, compared to citizens. Speaking about citizens, where are they to be placed in this chain of thought? Well, we all know why Litvinenko was killed and who did it, we know many of the things Snowden never talked about, we know who murdered Khashoggi, we also know why France’s and half of the European Union’s military forces are stationed in Mali, Afghanistan and Congo – we know it all. Yet, we acted as if we were surprised when the news surfaced. Often, we were reluctant to speak it out, because there was a final piece of evidence missing. However, we know all of it, because it is crystal clear. Why do we not talk about it? Because we also know that we would behave in the exact same way, when we are subject to the specific dynamics of inter-statism. Ontologically, I do not defend that the human being is evil by nature. Rather, I defend that structures predetermine a great deal of our behaviour, which is driven by the instinct of survival and the desire to survive in the most convenient way that is possible. Consequently, the answer to conflict resolution, state-building, scientific development and sustainable design of the societal future lays in proper crafting and shaping of structures.

In the end, we are just products of our environment (here, structure), but we must not forget that we have the power to form it according to our needs. Properly understanding the interplay between human behaviour and institutional, procedural and legal structures will be the single most important challenge for the coming century.