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Are states ‘rational actors’?

Published on 02 January 2016
Updated on 16 July 2024

“Realism is a tradition of international theory centered upon four propositions:

  1. The international system is anarchic.
  • No actor exists above states, capable of regulating their interactions; states must arrive at relations with other states on their own, rather than it being dictated to them by some higher controlling entity.
  • The international system exists in a state of constant antagonism).
  1. States are the most important
  2. All states within the system are unitary, rational actors
  • States tend to pursue self-interest.
  • Groups strive to attain as many resources as possible.
  1. The primary concern of all states is survival.
  • States build up the military to survive, which may lead to a security dilemma.[1]

In 349, I have taken the first shot at the enthymeme that “states are rational.” I would like to revert to this assertion, for it is the lodestone of realism in International Relations.

In Western thought, rationality and truth are interconnected. Asserting a state’s “rationality” implies that, within its logical framework, it makes no mistakes. Such a state reminds me of Olympian deities, who fought each other, but never admitted to a mistake or blunder.

In 1964, Sebastian HAFFNER published a short book on the “Seven deadly sins of the German Reich in WWI.”[2] It is a tale of arrogance, wishful thinking, over-assessment of one’s abilities, the cowardice of reason and ultimately self-destruction. It was an orgy of thought errors – Denkfehler – the inability to think through the consequences of Germany’s actions. The term should join Weltanschauung and Zeitgeist as loanwords in the English language.

Here is the list:

  • Abandoning the Bismarckian “balance in Europe:” in search for supremacy in continental Europe and a new, global balance;
  • The Schlieffen Plan, which pointlessly transformed what was an “Eastern” into a “Western” question;
  • The thrust through Belgium, which brought hesitant Great Britain into play, and Poland;
  • Unrestricted submarine warfare, which needlessly aroused America’s anger;
  • Bringing Bolshevism to Russia;
  • Brest-Litowsk and its aftermath;
  • Denial of defeat.

Some of these mistakes have shaped world history to this very day.

The most obvious is the inoculation of Russia with Bolshevism.

The forgotten mistake is Brest-Litowsk and its aftermath. Russia lost 25% of its population and territory, 27% of its agricultural surface, 25% of its railways system, 33% of its light industry, 73% of its heavy industry, and 89% of its coal. It was cut off from both the North and the Black Sea.[3]


One might remark that this gutting of Russia occurred anew in 1941 and after the dissolution of the Soviet Union – with the difference that Russia clawed back much of its territories in the two first instances.

Assuming that states are “rational,” that is, that they make no mistakes, and thus have nothing to learn from history, is a most dangerous point of departure.[4] Even it might be useful in the event of Star Wars.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Realism_%28international_relations%29

[2] Sebastian HAFFNER (1964): Die sieben Todsunden des Deutschen Reiches im Ersten Weltkrieg. Lubbe Verlag.

[3] Russia renounced all territorial claims in Finland (which it had already acknowledged), the future Baltic States, Belarus, and Ukraine. The territory of the Kingdom of Poland was not mentioned in the treaty. The treaty stated that “Germany and Austria-Hungary intend to determine the future fate of these territories in agreement with their populations.” Most of these territories were in effect ceded to Germany, which intended to have them become economic and political dependencies. The many ethnic German residents (volksdeutsch) would be the ruling elite. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treaty_of_Brest-Litovsk

[4] I have failed to find a justification for this enthymeme. My conjecture is that it is driven by the requirements of game theory. This reminds me of the drunkard who was looking for his lost key under a lamp post – for it was the only place he could see.

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