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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 approaches against more austere rationalist models becomes crucial in designing research strategy. As Arthur Stein has argued, even the direction of psychological effects on international outcomes is uncertain: plentiful and unbiased information may not lead to greater cooperation or to other desired outcomes.31 Recent discussions of prospect theory have produced widely divergent conclusions regarding the overall effect of its decision heuristics on international politics. Timothy McKeown argues that prospect theory predicts ‘‘bland foreign policies’’; Robert Jervis and Jack S. Levy perceive a status quo bias that might be upset by risk-acceptant propensities in the domain of losses.32 A great deal hinges on the reference point deployed in a particular choice situation, and prospect theory provides no theory of reference points.

If even the sign of these psychological effects is uncertain, then nonrational models of this kind may add little power to existing explanations.

Using an expected utility framework, Woosang Kim and Bruce Bueno de Mesquita have attempted to measure the importance of misperception—de ned as differences in perception regarding the probability of crisis escalation.33 This line of research sidesteps the methodological difficulty in demonstrating misperception, a counterfactual that Kim and Bueno de Mesquita claim is unobservable in nearly all historical cases. Such a concentration on shared or dissimilar beliefs and the existence of common knowledge provides one rationalist response to the criticisms of psychologists. A second strategy in the face of evidence that rationalist models do not capture decision making in an array of cases is to relax the assumptions of the rationalist model. Evolutionary game theory and models incorporating bounded rationality have pursued this approach.

Both psychological and rational choice approaches share an individualist orientation. Both have tended to evade the crucial question of aggregation: whether assumptions regarding individual decision-making processes, rational or nonrational, can be transformed into plausible assumptions about the behavior of collectivities.

That shared theoretical problem has been a stimulus to incorporating rational and nonrational models of organization and institutions into theories of national behavior.

Reason and Collectivities: The Issue of Aggregation

Deterrence theory represents one of the most sophisticated and highly elaborated uses of rational actor modeling in international relations. It has also been an intellectual testing ground for both rational actor (subjective expected utility) models and those deploying psychological models. Much of the debate has centered on methodological issues, particularly the use of deductive models rather than case studies.

Participants on either side, however, have admitted that the contenders share an inStein 1990, chap. 3.

32. See McKeown 1993, 217; Jervis 1992b, 190–91; and Levy 1992, 286.

33. Kim and Bueno de Mesquita 1995.

930 International Organization ability to offer convincing models that aggregate individual choices and behavior.

Jervis has pointed out that units composed of many individuals appear more irrational than individual decision makers for several reasons: governments or coalitions that pursue contradictory goals, organizational or institutional incapacity in strategy choice, alternation of different groups (with different preference orderings) in power, and the possibility of cycling.34 George Downs, who has urged a positive symbiosis between rationalist and psychological approaches to decision making in order to produce a ‘‘strong’’ model of deterrence, also remarks on a less positive attribute on the part of both rational deterrence theorists and psychological modelers to transfer their assumptions about individual choice to states and organizations.35 Elster notes that treating the polity ‘‘as a unitary actor, with coherent and stable values, well-grounded beliefs, and a capacity to carry out its decisions’’ is most widespread in international relations and in the theory of economic planning.36 Given its unhappy consequences in economic planning, it is surprising that this assumption, which he labels potentially ‘‘treacherous and misleading,’’ has been so easily accepted as an adequate microfoundation for much of international relations. Realist assumptions of state rationality depended on an implicit selection argument, as described in the case of Waltz: states that were unable to behave in at least a crudely rational manner would be selected out through intense international competition.

Although a model of international selection may give some purchase on the differential survival of units, the link between rational action and survival has not been made.

In fact, much of the psychological literature suggests precisely the opposite: that distortions in decision making and deviations from a rational model occur frequently in international politics, with mixed survival consequences for the units in question.

Building on early decision-making models, Graham Allison’s Essence of Decision was one of the rst efforts to challenge unitary and rational actor assumptions on the basis of political process.37 Allison described a rational actor model of governmental decision making (model I) and then proposed two alternatives that heavily quali ed the model. In choosing the Cuban Missile Crisis, the most threatening case of superpower crisis bargaining during the Cold War, Allison deliberately selected a case in which the international environment should have reinforced pressures toward unitary and rational decision making. Instead, Allison found substantial deviations from such a model, which he explained through two alternatives, an organizational process model (model II) and a bureaucratic politics model (model III).





Critics of Allison’s approach focused initially on the descriptive accuracy of his account of the foreign policy process. More recently, however, his speci cation of the models and particularly his tilt against his candidate for a rational choice model have become a target. Jonathan Bendor and Thomas H. Hammond argue that Allison creates a rational actor model without a dimension of strategic behavior. Omitting a test of the insights of game theory is odd in a study of crisis bargaining. They contend

34. Jervis 1989b, 204–205.

35. Downs 1989, 236.

36. Elster 1989b, 177.

37. Allison 1971.

Rationality in International Relations that Allison sets a benchmark for individual rationality that makes easier his promotion of boundedly rational or nonrational models.38 Allison’s second and third models, whatever their shortcomings, trace two paths by which political and social units and organizations could be portrayed as rational.

The rst avenue is increasing circumscription of rationality as aggregation increases.

Model II assumed that large organizations constrained individual rationality and behaved according to highly simpli ed decision rules. John Steinbruner’s cybernetic theory of decision, published soon after Allison’s work appeared, elaborated a similar model of simpli ed organizational behavior that relied on simple and nonrational decision-making processes.39 In both cases, rationality was held to become more bounded and imperfect as one moved from individual choice to organizational routine. Despite the widely held view that organizations are less rational and ‘‘dumber’’ than the individuals who compose them, Bendor and Hammond argue that large organizations may, on the contrary, enhance the decision-making capacities of individuals rather than constrain them. Allison’s view of institutional rationality is founded on an optimistic view of individual rationality embodied in model I.40 If limitations on rationality are one route toward aggregation (the whole is less rational than its parts), Allison’s model of bureaucratic bargaining points toward another. Policy outcome may be seen as the equilibrium of two-level or linked games.

In other words, bargaining among rational agents within an institutional setting adds a degree of speci cation and rigor missing in Allison’s bureaucratic politics model, as well as captures the dimension of external bargaining. Helen Milner’s contribution to this issue of IO describes at greater length the positive bene ts of relaxing the assumption that states are units. She provides a particularly telling critique of the realist assumption that states are unitary actors. Less attention will be given here to the modeling of internal political processes. Aggregation conceived as bargaining among rational domestic actors in what Milner terms polyarchic settings has its own risks and limits, however. Allison’s early bureaucratic politics model appears to assume that little hierarchy exists in foreign policy organizations.41 Two-level game models sometimes evade this issue by positing a ‘‘chief of government’’ or other authoritative decision maker who bargains with other political actors, typically legislators (or the legislature). Whether that chief executive must also bargain with bureaucratic subordinates or cabinet colleagues (other than coalition partners in a parliamentary regime) can be unclear in simpler game-theoretic models of two-level games.

Modeling the in uence and points of intervention of interest groups raises similar issues. Although on many international economic issues, a likely route for in uencing foreign policy will be the legislature, many interest groups forge strong bonds with bureaucracies in order to in uence policy implementation. How such in uence lters into the preferences of the chief executive or head of government should also be incorporated in the modeling of foreign policymaking. Principal-agent models

38. Bendor and Hammond 1992, 313, 319.

39. Steinbruner 1974.

40. Bendor and Hammond 1992, 312.

41. Ibid., 316–17.

932 International Organization and delegation regimes provide one avenue of institutional analysis that can incorporate diverse domestic actors within hierarchical settings.42 Another potential weakness of rational institutionalist analysis is its treatment of the institutional rules of the game. Robert Bates’s recent study of the International Coffee Organization is an excellent exemplar of building from rational social and economic actors toward institutions at the domestic and the international level.43 His treatment of political institutions is squarely within the frame of positive political economy, ‘‘the study of rational decisions in a context of political and economic institutions,’’ or, as Bates puts it, institutions ‘‘de ning political games in which interests compete for in uence over public policy.’’44 Building foreign policy actions from individual rational actors constrained by institutions leaves open the question of whether institutions are exogenous or endogenous, however. Positive political economy ultimately regards institutional change as explicable through the same rational choice means as equilibrium outcomes within a given institutional setting. However, most studies, like that of Bates, accept domestic institutions as xed and play out the domestic political games (interacting with international strategic bargaining) within that context. In assessing the stability of national preferences in a more elaborated institutionalist analysis of foreign policy, as described by Milner, stability of domestic political institutions and the games that they de ne is crucial. Unfortunately, determining when political actors will opt for institutional change rather than change within institutions is rarely speci ed clearly.

If one can assume relatively xed preferences on the part of key individuals (or representatives of interests) and xed institutional rules of the game, treating national preferences and behavior within a rationalist framework is far more convincing than under circumstances in which institutional rules change frequently and unpredictably.

Despite their weaknesses, Allison’s alternative models stood at the beginning of two broad avenues for creating uni ed, if not unitary, rational actors from organizational and national collectivities. One route produces actors embedded in and constrained by organizational context. Whether that context bounds or ampli es their rational decision making remains open to argument. The second route carefully species domestic bargaining games that are then linked to international bargaining behavior and strategic interaction. Those games may vary according to domestic institutions, information environment, and type of international interaction.45 This second avenue produces outcomes that may serve as proxies for a uni ed national interest.

Both routes force close attention to the simple, conventional assumptions within international relations that have produced unitary and rational actors from the complexities of domestic political and bureaucratic competition.

42. For an introduction to agency problems and their solutions in a political context, see Kiewiet and McCubbins 1991, chap. 2.

43. Bates 1997a.

44. See Ibid., 164; and Alt and Shepsle 1990, 2.

45. For a representative and rigorous array of models linking international and domestic politics, see Pahre and Papayoano u 1997.

Rationality in International Relations

Culture, Norms, and Identity: Supplements and Alternativesto Rational Models



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