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Mearsheimer's Rationality

Despite the obvious general interest of any further commentary on the Ukraine crisis from Mearsheimer, How States Think is about as inside baseball as pop-academic books come.

Credit: Drop of Light

How States Think: The Rationality of Foreign Policy, by John J. Mearsheimer and Sebastian Rosato, Yale University Press, 304 pages

First, a surprise: John J. Mearsheimer thinks expanding NATO eastward was rational. The University of Chicago professor, already famous, had celebrity status thrust upon him when a 2015 lecture titled “Why is Ukraine the West’s Fault?” went viral after last year’s Russian invasion. His account of the “primrose path” to war along which the United States was then leading Ukraine has, verified by events, confirmed his place alongside George F. Kennan in the realist pantheon of unheeded prophets. Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade was predictable and predicted, in part because of America’s policy of NATO expansion. Yet in their new book, How States Think: The Rationality of Foreign Policy, Mearsheimer and his coauthor, Sebastian Rosato of the University of Notre Dame, write, “Whatever one thinks of the merits of NATO expansion, the decision to enlarge the alliance was rational. Both proponents and opponents of the policy relied on credible theories and engaged in a vigorous and unconstrained debate before President Clinton finally opted for expansion.” 


Despite the obvious general interest of any further commentary on the Ukraine crisis from Mearsheimer, How States Think is about as inside baseball as pop-academic books come. It is a conversation about the social sciences, within the social sciences, and a defense of international relations theory as a scholarly field. It advances no position on the conflicts or global politics of the day, even if its authors’ realist perspectives are inescapable. Their enemy here is not the liberal idealists of the D.C. beltway or counterbalancing powers rival to American national interest; it is, instead, Homo economicus, and the dominant position—surely felt more keenly at the University of Chicago than many other places—that the dismal science holds over its fellows. As an academic discipline, Mearsheimer and Rosato argue, international relations must study Homo theoreticus, not as utility-maximizer but as model-maker. And, thus, the rationality of foreign policy can be reduced to model use in the midst of uncertainty: deliberation and decision based on credible theories. 

One other case study briefly considered by Mearsheimer and Rosato will have wide reader appeal. The Bush administration decision to invade Iraq in 2003 was, they conclude, indeed not rational. It was one of the “cases in which states adopted strategies based on noncredible theories or emotions and that resulted from a nondeliberative decision-making process.” That the railroad to invasion rested primarily on manipulation rather than deliberation—WMD, sir?—has become established and accepted fact. But, as Mearsheimer and Rosato conclude, the credibility of the theories underlying the Bush Doctrine is slightly more complicated. Some were, as wrongheaded as readers of The American Conservative might still find them, credible: democratic peace theory, which says that democracies find ways short of war and nuclear-weapon mutually assured destruction to resolve their differences, and the idea that “shock and awe” might bring swift initial victory are both reasonable positions to hold, according to our authors. Meanwhile, the idea that democracy can be promoted by force, or that in a reversal of the Cold War case democracy might spread by a domino effect, is noncredible. 

Noncredible, not incredible: there is something to the difference here. But, unfortunately, one closes How States Think not entirely certain what standard for credibility has been appealed to beyond the opinions of Mearsheimer and Rosato. They are, it is clear, advancing something like an Augustinian epistemic posture—crede ut intellegas, “believe so that you understand”—in opposition to the “as if” black-box account of utility maximizing in economics. Actual mathematical maximizing of utility in a political crisis is ridiculous; our authors write of the practical uselessness of its formula: “Probabilities must be objective: they must accurately capture the prevailing states of the world… Yet international politics is an uncertain world where information is scarce and unreliable.” Moreover such an approach, even attempted, is necessarily subjective, and the ends it assumes are themselves what Mearsheimer and Rosato and any other student of politics find interesting. A reminder of the Greek origins of theory, like theater, in theoria, for them the essence of rationality is found in how decision makers see the world. 

How States Think, then, is its own attempt to provide a theory to explain an uncertain world where information is scarce and unreliable, namely, the world in decisionmakers’ heads. “Decision” ought to stand out to the careful reader. Carl Schmitt does not get a mention in Mearsheimer and Rosato’s book, but, this being international relations, one feels the cool in his shadow anyway. Even with all the importance put on a deliberative process, Mearsheimer and Rosato cannot help admitting that deliberation ends with a decider, someone who, like Schmitt’s sovereign, goes beyond theory and norms to action. They write, “The decision-making process is largely unaffected by the nature of political institutions, the influence of powerful domestic interest groups, the need to respond to public opinion, or interference by military leaders.” And it is only because of this personalism that international relations can be a field of study at all; if humans did not make up states, and did not decide on states’ behalf, and did not think in recognizable ways, then explanations of foreign policies or predictions of future state actions would be impossible. 

In questioning and defending the possibility of international relations theory, of knowledge of a part, Mearsheimer and Rosato implicitly raise the question of philosophy, and knowledge of the whole. How States Think addresses the mathematical positivism of economics with a theoretical positivism of its own, making rationality a process conforming to internal logic. But metaphysics seems eager to sneak back in with Mearsheimer and Rosato’s account of credibility, for it suggests a higher sense of rationality setting a standard for this entire exercise. The authors are right to dismiss any simplistic utilitarian account of the rational as what works—the rational decision does sometimes fail to achieve its goals in a world of chance and uncertainty, and perhaps an irrational decision can “succeed”—and they are right to resist the tendency in liberalism to reduce rationality to whatever furthers a progressive arc of history, condemning its discontents as irrational. But an older, pre-sociological account of rationality would describe rationality not as conformity to the nomos, or conventions, of an age but rather submission to the logic of reality itself. 

Mearsheimer and Rosato are theorists defending theory within the camp of the social sciences, but international relations is political science examining politics at the highest and grandest scale—and thus they cannot help brushing up against the firmament of political philosophy. In dealing with deliberation and final decision-makers, even men as small-souled as William Jefferson Clinton, in their ascent they make contact with statesmen and statesmanship. How do states think? Not with the mechanisms of law or markets or the processes of bureaucracy, but with men. If this is so, then the real thing of concern in “the rationality of foreign policy” is the political art, which Aristotle called the “most authoritative and most architectonic” branch of knowledge, for in its end is included the ends of all the others, for its end is the Good of man.