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Are states ‘unitary actors’?

Published on 06 January 2016
Updated on 05 April 2024

One of the enthymemes underlying “realism” in International Relations (see 350) is that states can be taken to be “unitary:” In this view, there is only one and coherent principal, followed by a bevy of agents faithfully acting on its behalf.

Let’s look at a few pivotal points in history for verification of the assertion:

WWI: “What a laugh – Who rules in Berlin?[1]

Art 231[2] of the Treaty of Versailles has spawned an immense literature on the “war guilt” of Germany and her allies. Each generation has added to the detail,[3] without changing that sense that WWI was a misadventure,[4] rather than the result of “rationality.”

The key diplomatic issue after Sarajevo was how to avoid transforming what was an eastern problem (i.e. in the Balkans) into a western issue involving France and Great Britain. Germany’s “principal” – Emperor William II – saw is quite clearly (after returning from a cruising holiday):

There was a way out which, curiously enough, was grasped most clearly by a man in Potsdam, if not in Berlin. Wilhelm II had lost his bellicose ardour. He remained convinced that the Serbian reply gave Austria-Hungary all she needed. His erratic intellect pointed to a solution. The Austrians should occupy Belgrade as a pledge that Serbia would fulfil her promises. At the same time, they would declare that they had no designs against Serbian sovereignty. This was the Halt in Belgrade, a solution which any capable diplomat might have devised and which could have ended the crisis.[5]

William II tried to bring his opposite principal and cousin, Czar Alexander II, into the deal with him, but they both failed against the tide of their allegedly subordinate generals.

Insubordination on the way to the day of infamy

In July 1941, President Roosevelt went public about his policy toward Japan.

“Roosevelt had for the first time publicly revealed that he was appeasing Japan with oil in the hopes of garnering domestic support for his Pacific peace policy. He had clearly signaled that continuing oil sales to Japan was his way of keeping the U.S. out of an unwanted Pacific war.[6]

Authorization of sales was meant to remain under the control of the principals: the President, the Treasury, and the State Department. However:

Then the Foreign Funds Control Committee (FFCC), a newly created three-man panel, would release the Treasury-approved dollars for the Japanese to use to purchase their State-approved oil. The FFCC wasn’t involved in policy-making; it existed only as a mechanism to release to the Japanese the dollars State had authorized and Treasury had calculated. Little did Roosevelt imagine that an obscure committee deep within his bureaucracy would catapult America into World War II. The FFCC was made up of three representatives, one each from the Departments of State, Treasury, and Justice. Since it was designed to have no important decision-making function, there was no need for the secretaries of each department to serve on the committee, so they appointed surrogates: Dean Acheson from State, Edward Foley from Treasury, and Francis Shea from Justice.” (p. 268)

At the August 5 meeting of the FFCC, Acheson, Foley, and Shea reviewed the flow of oil to Japan and were aghast. As Jonathan Utley explains, “When they saw how much oil Japan would be able to buy under the freeze guidelines, they agreed not to release funds to Japan for the purchase of items for which [Japan had been] issued licenses.” Waldo Heinrichs noted, “The decision on an oil embargo was closely held and deviously managed. Action proceeded not in the formal realm of peacetime quotas and proclamations restricting export, for on paper Japan was supposed to receive some quantities of some kinds of oil, but in the shadowy world of inaction, circumvention, and red tape.” (p. 270 -271)

The de facto embargo on oil to Japan, an act of insubordination, went on for the whole month of August unbeknownst to the US principals. In the end, rather than countermand it, Roosevelt let the situation stand.

The embargo had a major impact on the Japanese:

“The US oil embargo of August 1 became a turning point in US-Japan relations because Japanese leaders had failed to take a chance on the proposal that had preceded it. Now, surprised and overwhelmed by what they saw as an undeservedly harsh punishment for the “peaceful occupation [of Indochina] some began to see war with the US in much less abstract terms.”[7] (p. 153)

By early September, Japan was leaning heavily toward war and a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

In 1905, Japan had surprised Russia with an attack on its fleet at the outset of the war. It was Japan’s way of evening the odds against a far more powerful enemy. A surprise attack on the US fleet had been widely discussed among professionals and publicly.[8] Roosevelt’s error was to allow his appeasement policy toward Japan lapse without considering the implications.

The unopened reports of the principal’s agents

Quoting Thomas Jefferson in Vietnam’s declaration of independence was a pretty broad hint that Ho Chi Minh desired friendship with the United States. Captain Patti and other American OSS officers stood nearby as Ho told the world that Vietnamese, and not foreigners, would now control Vietnam. Americans on the spot admired Ho and could see that the future was his. Patti wrote reports to Washington concluding that Ho Chi Minh had both widespread popular support and a potent plan to repel invaders. Julia Child— later America’s TV chef— was the young OSS secretary who wrapped Patti’s reports in burlap for their long journey to Washington. As Mao Zedong had, Ho Chi Minh extended his hand in friendship to the United States, sending a number of entreaties to President Truman and Secretary of State Acheson along the lines of this one: “I therefore most earnestly appeal to you personally and to the American people to interfere urgently in support of our independence.” 9 Neither Truman nor Acheson responded.”[9] (p. 332)

In 1973, as America withdrew from Vietnam in defeat, sixty-year-old Archimedes Patti asked the CIA if he could see the reports he had written from Hanoi about Ho Chi Minh in 1945 as an OSS officer. They were still tightly wrapped in Julia Child’s burlap, unread by the Wise Men. Patti observed, In my opinion the Vietnam War was a great waste. There was no need for it to happen in the first place. At all. None whatsoever.… During all the years of the Vietnam War no one ever approached me to find out what had happened in 1945.… In all the years that I spent in the Pentagon, in the Department of State and in the White House, never was I approached by anyone in authority.(p. 360)

A “unified” theory rests on the assumption that agents fully and honestly report to the principal. Here we have a case where the system malfunctioned – probably for trivial reasons since the reports had not been opened.

Vertical lines of communication are inherently flawed

The examples I have selected show that the “unitary” theory failed at critical points in recent history. As I write, the same flaws appear – albeit fleetingly as obfuscation prevails – in current conflicts. “Unity” is make-believe.[10]

Vertical lines of communication allow the principal and his agents to act as one – and combine their efforts. This in theory.

In practice, it is never the case. Verticality does not account for any system or human error. Directives and information get lost or are poorly understood. Duplication of lines of communication creates unwanted noise and defeat the purpose.

Systemically, an agent has no incentive to bear “bad or dissentient news.” In such a system yes-people thrive.

Caveat emptor.


[1] Annotation by Leopold Graf Berchtold, Foreign Minister of Austria-Hungary, upon being restrained by Germany’s politicians but urged on by her generals. It is ironic that his original appeal to Berlin had been made because the Habsburg Monarchy could not make up its mind about Serbia.

[2] Art. 231: “The Allied and Associated Governments affirm and Germany accepts the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies.”

[3] Christopher CLARK (2015): The sleepwalkers. How Europe went to war in 1914. Penguin, London.

[4] “A striking feature of the interactions between the European executives was the persistent uncertainty in all quarters about the intentions of friends and foes alike.” (p. 362)

[5] A. J. P. TAYLOR (2013): War by Timetable: How the First World War Began (Kindle Locations 774-778). Endeavour Press Ltd. Kindle Edition

[6] James BRADLEY, James (2015): The China Mirage: The Hidden History of American Disaster in Asia (p. 266). Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.

[7] Eri HOTTA (2013): Japan 1941. Countdown to infamy. Knopf, New York.

[8] James Otto Richardson (18 September 1878 – 2 May 1974) was an admiral in the US Navy who served from 1902 to 1947. As Commander in Chief, United States Fleet (CinCUS), he protested against the redeployment of the Pacific portion of the fleet forward to Pearl Harbor, believing that a forward defense was neither practical nor useful, and that the Pacific Fleet would be the logical first target in the event of war with Japan, vulnerable to air and torpedo attacks. He was subsequently relieved of command in February 1941. His concerns were to be proved justified in December. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_O._Richardson

[9] James BRADLEY, James (2015): The China Mirage: The Hidden History of American Disaster in Asia. Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.

[10] See e.g. Seymour M. HERSH (2015): Military to military. London Review of Books Vol XXXVIII, 1 (7 January 2016) for events in

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