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«The role of reason in international relations has been contested since the eighteenth century. The construction of a sphere of calculated state ...»

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Rationality in International Relations

Miles Kahler

The role of reason in international relations has been contested since the eighteenth

century. The construction of a sphere of calculated state action, raison d’etat, and an


image of the balance of power suggested an Enlightenment equilibrium as comprehensible to human reason as a clockwork. Even at the time, however, the obsessive

and often self-defeating war-making of Louis XIV and Frederick the Great illustrated

the irrationality of collective outcomes and the failure of self-imposed limits in a world grounded in raison d’etat.1 During the nineteenth century, advancing industrial ´ capitalism promised to overcome passions in the interest of human progress, and modern political economy reinforced the belief that individual calculations of interest could lead to bene cial social outcomes. International politics, however, was only partially captured by the force of reason.

The questioning of reason deepened in the twentieth century as modern psychology undermined the image of a uni ed and rational self. Democratic politics meant that the phantom of an elitist and state-centered rationality would remain elusive.

Disastrous international outcomes—the failure of cooperation in the 1930s, the monumental carnage of two world wars—produced pessimism regarding the power of human reason to comprehend the realm of international competition and to contain the passions of ideology and nationalism.

Reason, Rationality, and American International Relations As the study of international relations took shape in the United States after World War I, however, these shocks to reason in all of its guises—a model of individual psychology, an avenue for comprehending international reality, and an instrument of The author wishes to thank Alexander Thompson and the other participants in the University of Chicago PIPES seminar, Arthur Stein, John McMillan, and the special editors of this issue for their comments on earlier drafts.

1. Kissinger 1994, 66.

International Organization 52, 4, Autumn 1998, pp. 919–941 r 1998 by The IO Foundation and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology 920 International Organization progress—were felt only faintly. A perspective that was broadly liberal and materialist assumed a central place. Incorrectly labeled idealist, human reason in this view continued to offer the possibility of collective mastery over the forces that had precipitated world war.2 At the same time, international relations was de ned in social scienti c terms, as subject to the same regularities as other spheres of social life. By the 1930s, pioneers in the new eld had begun to adopt the model of natural science for their research;

like the liberal materialists, Charles Merriam, Harold Lasswell, and Quincy Wright assumed that human reason could illuminate international relations in the same way that it had comprehended the economy and political behavior. They embedded the study of world politics in a broader political analysis that stretched from individuals to national governments to the interaction among those governments.

Two events shook the rationalist faith of this liberal and nascent social scienti c enterprise. The cataclysm of World War II produced progressive hopes for a world in which rational planning and institutional design would play a larger role. Those hopes were not entirely disappointed in the postwar management of international economic relations, but the onset of the Cold War undermined lingering hopes that collective reason could overcome the force of ideology. Political persecution and war also produced an emigration of European scholars whose realist tenets were far more pessimistic regarding the abilities of reason to comprehend and to curb the violent tendencies of world politics. Those beliefs were in sharp con ict with the prevailing consensus in American international relations.

The roots of realism lay in currents of European thought that had undermined the reign of reason. Realism injected an awareness drawn from European social theory and philosophy that the image of a uni ed and rational self had been overturned.

Although these strands, particularly Freudian psychoanalysis, were not foreign to postwar American social science, the attack launched by realism against what it regarded as naive liberalism and a misconceived positivist scienti c enterprise was deeper. At the time of its entry into American intellectual life, the relationship between realism and rationalism in politics was more confrontational than complementary.

In Scienti c Man Versus Power Politics, published immediately after World War II, Hans Morgenthau drew intellectual ammunition from the European cataclysm for a realist attack on prevailing liberal ideology. He assailed the current intellectual consensus as ‘‘a repudiation of politics,’’ offering a false hope of meliorating a social world driven by irrationality. Morgenthau declared that ‘‘our civilization assumes that the social world is susceptible to rational control conceived after the model of the natural sciences, while the experiences, domestic and international, of the age contradict this assumption.’’3 He was not alone among realists in questioning the dominant liberal embrace of reason. In early formulations of the security dilemma, a core concept of realism, John Herz also pointed to an underlying irrationality in the

2. This account of interwar international relations in the United States is drawn from Kahler 1997.

3. Morgenthau 1946, 71, 2.

Rationality in International Relations interdependence of human beings and the simultaneous ‘‘necessity for distrusting and possibly destroying’’ those same fellow beings.4 Realists engaged in the practice of diplomacy, such as George Kennan, were intellectual allies, skeptical of claims for a scienti c study of politics.5 Realist skepticism toward the power of reason, grounded in European intellectual life, was soon purged in its new American home. American policymakers may have deployed realist tenets in their contest with the Soviet Union, but domestic politics demanded a public attachment to liberal aspirations for international improvement.

More important, international relations and realism absorbed what Dorothy Ross has called the ‘‘individualistic and ahistorical premises of liberal exceptionalism,’’ best

represented in neoclassical economics.6 Running counter to this forceful but temporary European insertion in American international relations were more powerful countervailing tendencies that reinforced rationalist approaches to international relations:

economic analysis exploited the assumption of utility maximization to construct a research program that was the envy of the other social sciences; strategic interaction began to yield to the power of game theory and its international relations offshoot, deterrence theory.

Rationality and Contemporary International Relations

Since the domestication of realism, the controversies surrounding rationality in postwar American international relations have been much more narrowly de ned. The principal contenders have limited their disputation to the relative power of rational and nonrational models as behavioral foundations for international relations. On the one hand, rational and individualist models seem to t the frequent delegation of authoritative foreign policy decisions to a relatively small elite, the smaller role of norms when compared to domestic politics, and the high costs of cognitive failure in international interaction. On the other hand, cognitive inadequacy, the barriers to a consistent pursuit of national interests imposed by domestic politics, and the intrusion of emotion-laden issues of identity suggest that rationalist models must be substantially modi ed or abandoned.

Other, larger controversies surrounding reason’s powers and possibilities— whether constructing a science of international relations or serving as a progressive means for ameliorating the international realm—were set aside. Although some recent challenges to rationalist explanations call into question the social scienti c enterprise and its philosophical underpinnings, this account will exclude those who seek to ‘‘dethrone’’ reason (using Jon Elster’s term) and radically undermine the research enterprise in which most international relations scholars participate. Epistemological issues continue to divide the social sciences, but most of those considered

4. Herz 1951, 16. 5. Stephanson 1989, 180–81. 6. Ross 1991, 473.922 International Organization

here, from rational choice to social constructivist, pragmatically deploy their theories in order to understand the substance of international relations. Whether the eld has reached agreement on the meaning of ‘‘understanding’’ is an issue too large to consider here; my own belief is that broad canons of evidence and argument in the social sciences are widely shared.7 On the narrower ground of whether rationality and rationalist models provide a basis for constructing (or reconstructing) the eld of international relations, an alleged affinity between rational choice models and traditional state-centric views of international politics as well as a long-standing embrace of game theory has until recently insulated international relations from an increasingly acrimonious con ict between proponents of rational choice and their critics in other social sciences.8 Nevertheless, the current tendency to set up rational choice models as imperialistic targets risks yet another fruitless and time-consuming ‘‘great debate’’ in international relations. Previous great debates, whether maxi- (realism versus idealism) or minineorealism versus neoliberalism), have seldom advanced a coherent research program for the eld.9 Another intellectual tournament of this kind might be preempted by demonstrating the value of a competitive exchange between those endorsing rationalist models and their critics, rather than an all-or-nothing contest producing victory or defeat for one side. Rationalist treatments have already been challenged to extend their scope and re ne their modeling; those who are skeptical of such accounts (from a number of perspectives) have been pressed to reinforce the rigor of their arguments and to de ne domains in which rational choice and the proposed alternatives carry the most explanatory weight. Given the waves of ‘‘bashing’’ that too often occur on either side, it would be premature to argue for convergence between rational choice and its principal competitors. One feasible outcome, however, can already be discerned in particular elds of research: a willingness by either side to emphasize problemfocused research, permitting explanatory power rather than theoretical polemic to decide the contest.

Two additional and equally important observations serve to obscure the lines in the sand that are often drawn on either side. Rational and nonrational accounts share methodological shortcomings. One problem, considered at greater length later, is a too-easy aggregation from individual to collectivity. Confronting such shared methodological problems could also contribute to intellectual exchange between rational and nonrational modes of explanation.

Careful scrutiny of the criticisms leveled by either side also demonstrates that differences between rational and nonrational often revolve around questions of de nition. In accepting the narrower terms of controversy, reason and rationality are de ned here in broadly instrumental terms. Still, the variety of rationalist accounts is a target for critics, who see in diversity a slippery unwillingness to confront empirical

7. For a different view of the importance of epistemologica l concerns, see Smith, Booth, and Zalewski, 1996; and Ruggie, this issue.

8. See Green and Shapiro 1994; and Friedman 1996.

9. Kahler 1997.

924 International Organization rational choice can be traced to Freud; contemporary criticisms share the individualist premises of rational choice models but dispute its claims regarding the informationprocessing powers of agents. Both rationalist and psychological models share a third hurdle in explaining international outcomes: constructing a plausible model of action for entities beyond the individual level, whether bureaucratic organizations, interest groups, or states. Finally, the rationality and the individualism of beliefs is questioned by theories that stress culture, identity, and norms as independent sources of action.

Reason and Neorealism

An elective affinity between international relations and rationalist models has often been based on the assumptions of realism, which has claimed a dominant place in the American study of international relations since 1945. The relationship of classical realism to rational models of state behavior is more tenuous than latter-day realists care to admit, however. The domestication of realism by the American study of international relations obscured the earlier history of realism and rendered it less subversive of rational choice models. In Politics Among Nations, Morgenthau himself adopted rational reconstruction from the viewpoint of actors as a means of comprehending foreign policy. This marriage of realist tenets and rationalist models took place most clearly in the evolution of deterrence theory, but taming realism and rendering it scienti c has also been the program of structural realism (or neorealism).

Kenneth Waltz’s neorealism represented the nal domestication of realism by American social science.13 Waltz self-consciously aimed to produce a social scienti c version of realism far removed from the anti-scienti c model of power politics endorsed by the younger Morgenthau. Whether Waltz’s neorealism also represented a nal incorporation of realism within a rational choice paradigm is far more uncertain. Although Robert O. Keohane attributed a rationality assumption to both classical realism and Waltz’s structural variant, the microfoundations of both are unclear.14 Morgenthau’s critical stance toward rationalism has already been described. Normative prescriptions of calculation and prudence suggested that realism understood rational behavior as far from universal in international politics.

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