By David Brostoff
Dear Foreign Policy Community,
In a typical Sycamore Institute op-ed, one of our authors observes a contemporary issue in global politics and attempts to point out a potential solution. This letter is different. From the North to the South, from the East to the West, there are contentious crises—worthy of their own articles—that distress the relations between states. For thoughtful solutions to those crises to be addressed, however, the foreign policy community must grapple with a central problem that strikes the very core of the field of study itself: international relations has lost its identity.
International Relations, as a distinctive area of study, truly emerged out of the chaos of the First World War. After Europe ravaged itself—after an estimated forty million soldiers and civilians perished—scholars sought to formulate the field of international relations to educate students about creating a more secure and prosperous future. These scholars (and future policymakers) pulled from philosophy and history to understand the nature of the world. Hans J. Morgenthau, for instance, famously borrowed from Thucydides and Thomas Hobbes’ descriptions of human nature to prescribe policies that seek to promote both America’s national interest and global stability. This, however, is not the international relations we have today.
By the 1950s, behavioralism and positivism won over the hearts and minds of academics and profoundly influenced international relations. The field of study was transformed from a tragic art to a sterile science, cutting the humanities out of a deeply human practice. The academic field is no longer rooted primarily in the studies of history and philosophy; instead, it believes that state behavior can be understood and predicted by using the scientific method.
Neorealists, for example, consider all states akin to “black boxes” that react to the very structure of the international arena. Both Waltz and Mearsheimer claim that state decision-making is a result of the anarchical world: without an international police force, individual states are required to seek power as a means of protecting themselves. For Waltz, states work to balance power to prevent stronger states from dominating them; for Mearsheimer, states will seek to maximize their power through hegemony. Ultimately, the poverty of these theories rests in their oversimplification of international power politics: these “black boxes,” for starters, are completely devoid of a national character. Similarly, it is assumed that the political leadership within the states is equal in quality. Indeed, national character and leadership—two categories that cannot necessarily be studied through positivism—play an essential role in international politics.
Neorealists are not alone in using and abusing positivism in international relations, as neoliberals have also removed the humanities from international relations. After rejecting the traditional study of history and philosophy, neoliberals created scientific approaches to studying human and state behavior. One such example is complex interdependence, where states may tie their economies together to promote international cooperation. As states trade with each other, they argue, the wealth of one state is directly linked to the success of the other, and thus collaboration is incentivized. Nevertheless, neoliberals forget that state conduct is often made by individual policymakers that may act outside of the bounds of reason: financial profits and losses alone cannot explain behavior, as fear, honor, and national interest drive a statesman’s decisions.
Alas, these theories of modern international relations guide American foreign policy; however, flawed theories yield flawed policies, so it is crucial to restore the field of study to its ideal form. International relations is, first and foremost, not a science; it is a tragic art. Therefore, scholars and policymakers ought to turn away from the positivism that corrupted it and embrace the pursuit of philosophy. From Thucydides, we can learn about how wars break out between great powers; from Hobbes, we can learn about our natural predilection for power; from Sun Tzu and Clausewitz, we can learn about military strategy; and from Kant, we can learn about the potential for perpetual peace. These great thinkers cannot (and will not) give us a ten-step program to secure the United States and promote its interests. But, these great thinkers make distinctive claims about human nature and the human experience. These claims, of course, can guide policymakers to logical and effective policies that promote American interest and security.
True, the problem of positivism plagues not only international relations but the entirety of politics: both domestic and international. It is time for scholars and policymakers to end the era of scientification and return to the traditional study. After all, Morgenthau begins his Politics Among Nations by stating that “politics, like society in general, is governed by objective laws that have their roots in human nature. In order to improve society, it is first necessary to understand the laws by which society lives.” If the political realm is governed by men, and if men are governed by nature, then we must embark on the philosophical voyage to uncover our very own nature. After scholars and policymakers begin that intellectual journey, international relations may—once again—find its identity.