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Blame-game among theorists of international relations

Published on 13 September 2014
Updated on 05 April 2024

(who knows the truth does not seek the truth)

No sooner has the Ukraine crisis established itself that theorists of international relations have started the blame-game among themselves. In the September/October 1014 issue of Foreign Affairs, John J. Mearsheimer – the loudest proponent of “aggressive realism” gleefully blows his own horn: “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault – The Liberal Delusions That Provoked Putin.” Self-congratulation is unmistakable, and the blame is open: “They tend to believe that the logic of realism holds little relevance in the twenty-first century and that Europe can be kept whole and free on the basis of such liberal principles as the rule of law, economic interdependence, and democracy.”

Mearsheimer overdoes it (revealing his weak hand): “A huge expanse of flat land that Napoleonic France, imperial Germany, and Nazi Germany all crossed to strike at Russia itself, Ukraine serves as a buffer state of enormous strategic importance to Russia. No Russian leader would tolerate a military alliance that was Moscow’s mortal enemy until recently moving into Ukraine” (my emphasis). This is nonsense. Neither NATO nor the EU are now, or are likely to be avatars of Nazi aggression. Nor would such a one-dimensional worldview be of any use to the ruler in the Kremlin in the current predicament. Power is both economic and military, and trade-offs are not as easy to establish as Mearsheimer makes it out to be. The geopolitical, historical, and economic context is complicated beyond his black and white.

Actually, there is little reason to chortle: “I told you so” on theoretical grounds.[1]Russian signals on the matter of expanding NATO and the reach of the EU to its borders have been unambiguous from the start. Having invented the “sphere of influence” concept in 1821 (the Monroe Doctrine), and reiterated it loudly in 1917 (the Zimmermann Telegram) and during the Cuba crisis – the US should have understood the message. No surprise there: the Ukraine is a case of crisis foretold (by a major actor).

More critically, Mearsheimer has gone cherry-picking “among-his-texts.” One would have to take all predictions based on “realism” and look at the overall batting average, before awarding oneself the Nobel Prize of International Relations. How it might have turned out can be gleaned from a controlled experiment: over the span of 20 years or more, a researcher has tracked the oracular statement of many pundits (if not for Mearsheimer specifically). The outcome has been dismal.[2] Prophetic reputations mostly ride on the availability bias.

Theories are only as good as their predictions. No validated prediction – no worthwhile theory. Theories are grounded in the mechanical world: one cause, one effect. Newton discovered gravity (with the help of Galileo’s experiments), and he could predict the position of any planet around the sun at any time. His predictions came true (well, until Einstein came along). Validating predictions requires controlled experiments. Unless we control for the asserted cause, we could mistake “post hoc” for “propter hoc” (what one calls “narrative history,” an unbroken chain of plausible causes and effects). Sophisticated statistical analysis allows the disentangling on more than one causes at one time, but their number remains limited. The outlook for theories in international relations does not look good, for controlled experiments are impossible, and the sample is in any case too small.

This has not stopped “theorists” from pushing this or that project. In 1998, Stephen J. Walt made a 15-page survey of such theories.[3] I suspect this “Christmas tree” or “sprawling bush” has increased meanwhile. What they all share, is the “cause – effect” framework, possibly with complications and sophistications. As the analytical searchlight pierces the fog of international relations, this or that feature (or ghost?) comes into view, soon to yield to the next phantasm. If the searchlight lingers on the area, more and more features come into view, until the original becomes crowded with collaterals and consequents, not to speak of contingencies. Distinguishing between this or that theory becomes more difficult, the more one probes the detail. Causes dissolve into circumstances and contingencies.

Over 50 years ago, Fernand BRAUDEL has argued against uni-causality. Looking from a distance, assembling as many factors as possible, never preferring one over the other, he concludes than in the longue durée events have less meaning than the overall and evolving context. History is shaped by many factors, interacting, and favoring one is to obfuscate the role of others. The process is the message: history has no “direction” allowing for predictions; any theory assuming direction is distortive. The corollary difficulty, of course, is that there is no end to inclusiveness, particularly if one looks at patterns and hierarchies.

When BRAUDEL was writing, ecology had yet to appear a discipline: now one is able to recognize his as an “ecological” view of historical processes. No unique cause, but a nestled system of forces and overarching conditions: this view allows for better understanding, and in some cases, more plausible or at least arresting explanations, if not predictions. Yet this inclusivist stance is likely to be more useful than the reductivist approach of using a model grounded in a mechanical worldview.

Historical processes are, or course, far more complicated than ecology, for history is grounded in culture, and not in nature (which is far less plastic than culture). While energy drives ecology, in culture is it overlaid by individual and social agency. Still, I have found analogies from ecology far more interesting than the mechanical or game-theoretical models now current in international relations. Going through my posts, one recognizes the stance as well as my attention to circumstance. I shall continue to use analogies from ecology.

The aim is not prediction. An ecologically grounded worldview of international relations aims at better understanding, at discovering “hidden” forces and connections. This allows for adaptation, not transformation. The Chinese call this wu wei – the effortless action, which is reserved for the Emperor. In the West we would call it “making the inevitable happen” – which is, if I’m not mistaken, the trade-mark of the statesman

[1] There is a world of difference between an empirical and a theoretical statement. An empirical statement has only value within the particular context. A theoretical one has universal validity. Applying the same theory to Russia and China (on the principle e.g. that “boys will be boys”) would be a fatal political mistake, given the difference in context.

[2] Philip E. TETLOCK (2005): Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philip_E._Tetlock

[3] Stephen M. WALT (1998): International relations: one world, many theories. Foreign Policy, Spring.

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