by Thorsten Koch, MA, PgDip
In ‘Realpolitik and Diplomacy,’ a podcast by the CATO Institute, host John Glaser asks his guest, Prof. Dr. Brian Rathbun, one of the world’s leading experts on diplomacy and rationality, with the University of Southern California, whether states are actually rational actors in their pursuit of national interest. Rathbun takes the point of view that it’s a simple endeavor to presume that beings are rational. In fact, however, rational thinking takes much “cognitive effort.” Linked with the presumption of rationality is the emotional reflex to allege that the masses of people are “uncivilized or unsophisticated,” when, in fact, everyone is bound by pressures and constraints. Hence, most people don’t act rationally, and not one person is absolutely rational. Instead, people generally resort to their pre-constituted identities as an orientation for and assessing situations and making the difference between good and bad…
Full Rationality Can Only Be a Goal
When we take our courses of action, we must thus be mindful of the fact that rationality is a constant goal, not our real and only capacity, since people are largely intuitive, according to Rathbun. What complicates things is that most resort to the notion that security is the only primordial and important aspect. But pursuing security considerations can render us much more insecure, not only because the world is more complex than we assume and think, but also because we are fundamentally biased in our judgements. Not only because of our initial socialization, however also because we are exposed to manipulations of all kinds, which renders us even more vulnerable to bias.
Thus, the stance that Realpolitik necessitates abandoning diplomacy, or opposing a consiliatory attitude even, thus abandoning a position and moral ethics of compromise, is perceived as “cheap talk,” while in reality, this is not the whole picture. Realpolitique can be sobering, but if everyone were to disqualify moderation, this would lead to looming conflict everywhere and in all places. True indeed, rationally adjusting one’s position is difficult, specifically because many bear preconceived notions with a view on the world as hostile throughout, with “selective information gathering” confirming this misjudgement. Albeit, to understand the whole of the “intentions of adversaries,” we must engaged in some level of supplementary, holistic completion of information, sometimes contrary to our first expectations, with an open mind towards not only the bad, but also the good and what is in-between. This goes especially for politics, where it is all so easy to “extract as many concessions as possible” from adversaries, expecting the ‘other’ side to have that same goal, the other side being dishonest, in order to exert pressure.
Trying to Achieve Understanding Instead of ‘Coercive Bargaining’
Classical realists” have been selling the idea of distrust,” Rathbun warns. The best position is that being diplomatic necessitates the standpoint that we need to understand the other side and get as much of the big picture as necessary, which is in no way weak or a sign of taking position for adversaries, thus becoming one-sided. “Reason dialog,” the concept advocated by Rathman, then, is to identify underlying interests when we are capable of taking into account and value that people make concessions. This means that we have to accept that there are many commonalities while there are differences we may at first not understand at all, and that all beyond national interest does in fact not “undermine security.” Overengagement in action to prevent defeat is not only a sign of weakness of character, it also runs against flexibility: many commitments can block much-needed initiatives, and excess bilateral and otherwise institutional checks will stand in the way of reaching agreements without which there cannot be any global stability. In other words, over-involvement worldwide hinders the various styles of pragmatic and diplomatic statecraft.
Bottom line, the gaps in our set of information need to be closed where necessary. We must not always engage in coercive bargaining, Rathbun emphasizes, especialy when the tendency would be anarchic, with one “existential threat” constantly stuck against another. On the other hand, we must also be conscious that concessions and trust-building is not always an option, simply because in many cases, the aforementioned goals are impossible to achieve. But we should talk with the other side, knowing that those we talk with face their own domestic situation, Rathbun says. Understanding more about the situation in the respective countries we do try to reach an agreement with means not simply focusing on what high-level officials tell other high-level officials but what the other side upholds and is concerned with. Within limits, we must see where the openings are, reminding ourselves that in this complex world, military force as “the first option” is always the wrong position.
11 July 2021
Listen to the podcast at this link:
Realpolitik and Diplomacy: Are States Rational? | Cato Institute
- Brian Rathbun, Reasoning of State: Realists, Romantics and Rationality in International Relations (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2019)
- Brian C. Rathbun, Diplomacy’s Value: Creating Security in 1920s Europe and the Contemporary Middle East (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014)
- Brian Rathbun, “The Reality of Realpolitik: What Bismarck’s Rationality Reveals about International Politics,” International Security 43, no. 1 (Summer 2018): 7–55