Daniel W. Drezner

What does Passover tell us about international relations?

What does Passover tell us about international relations?

A few months ago Steve Walt provided a useful guide for how IR theory can provide insights into Valentine’s Day. In light of tonight being the first night of Passover, this post reverses the question — what can this holiday teach us about international relations?   

This question is impossible to avoid for someone who attends a Seder and thinks about international relations. The essence of the seder is to answer the Four Questions — i.e., to tell the story of how the Jews escaped from enslavement in Egypt.  And while international relations scholars tend to be more fond of using ancient Greek history to inform their theories, the Passover story reveals at least four relevant lessons about politics: 

1)  Minority rights in an autocratic regime are a fragile thing. As the story begins, the Jews are treated well in Egypt, what with Joseph having been a successful prime minister and all. Eventually, however, a new Pharaoh emerges, and then there’s trouble

[T]here arose a new king over Egypt who feared the Jews because they were different. And he said to his people, “Look at how rich and how powerful are these children of Israel. If war comes, they may join themselves to our enemies and fight against us.”

Autocratic leaders can ignore institutional restrictions, and are more likely to exploit ethnic tensions if they perceive a minority group as increasing in power and influence. 

2)  Sanctions against an autocratic regime will rarely yield significant concessions. To get the Pharaoh to let the Jews go, God imposes an escalating series of sanctions against Egypt. These sanctions crippled Egyptian agriculture, health, sanitation and, er, sunlight, inflicting great suffering against the Egyptian people. Not until the first-born male children are killed, however, does Pharaoh relent for a sufficiently long time for the Egyptians to make their escape. Not coincidentally, that plague is the only one to truly hurt the autocrat personally, as his son was killed in the plague as well. Compellence strategies would seem to have a greater chance of success if they target autocratic elites. 

3)  God was not that good at bargaining. For each of the ten plagues, the following pattern recurs:

  • Plague descends upon Egypt
  • Pharaoh begs Moses to get God to end the plague, promising freedom for the Jews if it happens
  • God lifts the plague
  • Pharaoh’s heart hardens, and he reneges on the deal. 

Pharaoh does this nine — count ’em, nine times — before God resorts to the grisly tenth plague. No wonder the Egyptian leader kept reneging — if anything, the Pharaoh’s resolve should have increased over time, because he discovered that cheap talk could get God to stop what he was doing.* 

4)  America’s idiotic sugar quotas are particularly bad for the Jews.  During Passover, Jews are not supposed to eat anything that contains yeast, rice, millet, corn, legumes, wheat, rye, oats, barley, and spelt (quinoa is apparently kosher).

All well and good, except that because of America’s prohibitively high barriers to most sugar imports, a lot of food manufacturers use corn sweeteners — i.e., high fructose corn syrup — as a substitute for sugar.  Which means that for observant Jews, an entire category of goods that in other countries would be Kashrut is off the edible list for the next eight days. 

*Yes, yes, God was the one who hardens Pharaoh’s heart, but that just makes the story sound like a seven-year old boy playing both sides of a checkers game. 

For a book-length treatment of how to think about the Old Testament from a strategic perspective, I warmly recommend Steven Brams’ Biblical Games: Game Theory and the Hebrew Bible.

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