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Up with international relations theory, down with the -isms, and down with the certainty - Chris Blattman

Chris Blattman

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Up with international relations theory, down with the -isms, and down with the certainty

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has rekindled another, potentially more bitter conflict: the long-running war between international relations school of thought.

You may have read the Mearshimer interview in the New Yorker that roiled so many, defending his version of realism. Maybe you read Stathis Kalyvas’ defense of constructivism. Or one of a thousand tweets, raging against or loving an IR take.

If you’re like most people, however, you’re just confused. If so, forgive yourself. I spent years taking IR classes, reading the books, studying conflict, and I still found the terminology and ideas murky. Even once you sort it out, as I (sort of) eventually did, the jargon is slippery and hard to hold onto.

My view: embrace the theory, hate the labels, and push for more precision. As a profession, I think it’s time to move on from isms.


The first reason is that each school of thought is a bundle of empirical claims about the way the world works. Some of these are about how rational states are, or what they are striving to obtain. Others are assumptions about how much internal politics or international institutions shape a government’s decisions. For example, realism usually means you approach a rivalry believing that states are (to a first approximation) rational and calculating, and are trying to maximize their power. Also, domestic constituents and constraints don’t matter so much, and international institutions are mostly powerless to shape states’ incentives. Only other powerful states can change the calculus.

So… what if you don’t like this particular bundle—you prefer to accept some assumptions but not others? One answer has been: “Congratulations, you have just invented a whole new school of thought, and get your own -ism.” You can see how this quickly gets crowded and confusing.

Another problem is that sometimes these schools of thought mix claims about the way the world does work with the way the world should work. Proponents blur the line between what’s the strategic versus the appropriate thing to do. This is important. It’s the difference between saying states do pursue their own self-interest, and that they should pursue their own self-interest. This, to my mind, is what a lot of people didn’t like about Mearshimer’s take. It seemed like he was proscribing an approach to politics, and some people have hopes for a gentler alternative.

A third problem is that isms, like a lot of jargon, sometimes obscure more that they elucidate. Often technical terms are needed to convey complex ideas clearly and quickly. But I don’t think that’s the case here. Labels like “realism” aren’t very descriptive, and the bundles are a bit arbitrary. In the end, I worry they only do what jargon does best: help insiders keep outsiders out of the conversation, and ensure the decision-making stays elite.

In this case, I think the jargon is also unnecessary. With advances in game theory, political psychology, and behavioral sciences, social scientists have a pretty good language and set of tools for describing and modeling how decision-makers choose and what that means for their strategic interactions. Yes, this approach is jargony too. But the ideas are better defined and precise; I think they’re more intuitive and easier to explain; and a wider range of people grasp them. Also, you get to pick and choose your assumptions in a more transparent way, and do away with the ad hoc bundles.

If this is your background, then let me try to translate a few isms into your language.

Thinking in strategic and psychological terms

The realist view of conflict grew out of the early formalization of economic and political theory—the so-called neoclassical revolution (another unhelpful and jargony term) as well as the application of game theory to warfare (such a nuclear deterrence). The approach started by treating states as coherent, strategic actors pursuing their own self interest (which to a first approximation is a pretty good starting point). It tried to express arguments in game theoretic terms—the science of strategy. Eventually, that line of thinking generated some important insights, like the idea that hostile competition is normal, but doing so peacefully is efficient, while fighting is not. In this view, a prolonged violent conflict is akin to a market failure—we shouldn’t observe them in an efficient world.

Of course, we do see market failures, and we do observe conflict, because the world isn’t always efficient. You can get there several ways, usually by assuming something about the strategic interaction is different than the standard approach.

For example, you could reasonably argue that groups are a collection of interests, and they don’t behave like a unitary whole. Thus, you must consider their internal politics. In game theoretic terms, this is akin to saying that there are principal-agent problems between leaders and the populace. This is hardly a crazy statement, especially when we are talking about autocrats. It’s not clear we need to define a whole school of thought around whether or not you believe that to be true. It’s obviously correct, to some degree, and the empirical question is merely whether it tends to be important or not over time and many cases, and what kinds of international incentives or domestic political checks and balances make them better.

Likewise, you could pose the idea that groups and their leaders have a wider range of values, ideals, and preferences beyond simply maximizing wealth or “power” (whatever that means). The idea that societies construct their values (like a nationalist ideal, or a desire for dominance) is usually associated with a school of thought called constructivism rather than realism. Again, it’s not clear why we need a whole ism merely to ask whether (some of the time) one side or the other values something ethereal. Obviously they do. Ukrainians refusing to compromise on their sovereignty is the latest example, as are any delusions of imperial grandeur possessed by Putin and his nationalist cabal. All serious people ought to be doing is arguing whether they are more or less influential in explaining what’s going on. It’s unsettled, as far as I’m concerned, and no academician ought to wrap their social and intellectual identity in a firm claim one way or the other.

Finally, one of the most puzzling parts of the bundles (to me) is that they usually include assumptions about the effectiveness of institutions. From our earliest history, humanity has tried to build cultures, rules, organizations, and norms that shape people’s incentives, reduce political market failures, and push groups to bargain peacefully. We know this to be true. Some of these institutions work, at least a little. We now have lots of empirical evidence showing this to be true.

There should be no surprise here. If you change the expected payoffs to a set of strategies, you will probably change optimal behavior. If you change the rules to bargaining, or make it easier or harder for two rivals to cut a deal, you’ll affect the outcome too.

Even so, the view that it is possible to build strong institutions of cooperation is associated with a school of thought called liberalism. To me, any reasonable person would say that some institutions work to a degree, some are terrible, and (maybe) they have gotten better over time. It depends. We can have a reasonable discussion where and when and how much. The days are past when we need a school of thought that proscribes a blanker belief for its followers.

Getting out of our ideological bunkers

Stepping back, I want people to become more self aware of their assumptions, and skeptical about their world view. Getting rid of isms is only a small part of that.

Take the current conflict:

  • Too many people have been quick to assume that Putin is hellbent on personal glory, nationalist ideals, and becoming the next Catherine the Great. Maybe. This is completely plausible. Maybe even likely. But they sound suspiciously confident. I think that leads them to overlook some of the more subtle strategic motives. Just like the Mearshimers of the world seem too reluctant to recognize these ethereal goals, the rest need to become more reluctant.
  • Too many people have also been quick to blame Russia’s mediocre invasion on Putin’s miscalculation or self-delusion. There seems to be collective amnesia about the way a lot of the same people talked about Putin for the past 10 years, as a political genius, playing 20-dimensional chess. More importantly, what people quickly forgot is how incredibly uncertain all these outcome were just a few weeks ago. Who knew the West’s sanctions would be so coherent and unified? Who wasn’t surprised by the pluckiness and social media savvy of the Ukrainians, or the supply difficulties of the Russians? Misperception is extremely different (and rarer) from uncertainty. Everyone could benefit from going back to the strategic logic on conflict (meaning game theory) and understanding why fighting happens amidst poor information.
  • The same is true of the adherents of so-called liberalism (including me). A lot of people have an almost ideological and instinctual faith in international institutions, and don’t seem to grapple with their very real limitations. And even if they do, many overestimate how important these institutions are. Because a lot of what makes them effective is that powerful states are working through them. Arguably it’s the US or EU strength that matters, rather than the institution itself. This is another classic and underrated Mearshimer insight, and one of the most valuable things I’ve learned from him.

In short: let’s all be a little humbler, and a little more analytical and strategic.

Learning more

If you’re interested in learning more, here are some things I found helpful.

  • Ways of War and Peace by Michael Doyle is a nice intellectual history of international relations, going back to classical thinkers
  • This World Politics textbook by Frieden, Lake, and Schultz is a fabulous introduction to almost every question in IR
  • If, despite my entreaties to avoid the isms, you feel you simply must understand what these eggheads are talking about, there is no better translator than Dan Drezner, who applies the ideas to the Zombie apocalypse
  • Rose McDermott on political psychology and international relations is the best volume I read on that topic
  • If you want everything that psychology and game theory and other social sciences have learned, laid out in a straightforward way, free of jargon, and encapsulating all the logical ways that rivals turn to war, that is why I wrote Why We Fight
Why We Fight - Book Cover

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