Reason and emotion in foreign policy
International relations, as both a field of study and of operational activity, is based on a type of “rational conceit,” to borrow economist F. A. Hayek’s term. In this case, the conceit is that decisions and actions derive from a rational balancing of costs vs. benefits, based on a clear definition of national interests, relying on large bodies of carefully and objectively analyzed data.
The desirability of a cold-bloodedly analytical approach is a basic postulate of the study of international relations, as it has developed over the last 80 years or so.
I am no longer convinced. It can be tempting these days to imagine oneself as a pillar of rationality in an irrational world. I have described myself as an “Enlightenment rationalist” without the appropriate dose of irony. But life has a way of puncturing our illusions, and I’ve had to accept the role of emotion in driving actions, despite whatever well-reasoned and data-based explanations I might come up with.
Yet the rational conceit has had its uses.
E. H. Carr, first holder of a chair in international relations in the UK and author of 1939’s “The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1919-1939” had good reason to critique the liberal utopianism (à la Woodrow Wilson) of the interwar period. In 1948’s “Politics Among Nations,”the father of academic international relations “realism” in the U.S., Hans Morgenthau, also drew important lessons from the failure of peace in interwar Europe as he focused on the acquisition and rational exercise of power among states.
But full rationality in international relations is arguably more aspirational than descriptive (or at least fully descriptive) of reality: 21 years of diplomatic service and many additional years spent trying to explain the actual workings of the international system have left me very suspicious of tidy explanations wrapped up in black and white geometric prints.
The reality of international action is complicated, multi-dimensional, and frankly very untidy. Cramming it into the “parsimonious” theoretical frameworks beloved by international relations scholars requires shaving off too many corners, including what a proper social scientist might call the “affective” dimension and a normal person might call the “emotional.”
The barbarous Russian invasion of Ukraine and the complex debate in the free societies over what to do about it are providing some object lessons. Prominent academic realists like John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago — much beloved by Russophiles for his 2014 article blaming NATO for Russia’s seizure of Crimea — and Robert Walt from Harvard have tried energetically, but unconvincingly, to construe current events as demonstrating the superior wisdom of realist thinking, in which all states are fundamentally the same, distinguished only by greater or lesser degrees of power. They arrange the international system, in which very few states possess any actual “agency,” i.e. control over their own decisions and actions, based on said relative degrees of power.
The attachment — perhaps “emotional attachment” — of scholars to superficially compelling theories that have powered their academic careers is hardly surprising. But realism, though so very rational, or at least rationalistic, does not necessarily hold up well in the face of actual events — because of its lack of interest in the specificities of states and their political cultures. A rather depressing illustration came in Mearsheimer’s recent interview with Isaac Chotiner of The New Yorker, following the scholar’s visit to Budapest, including a three-hour conversation with Viktor Orbán, which he did not want to discuss. Mearsheimer spoke with serenity of Russian efforts to annex part of Ukraine and clung to his long-standing view that the real casus belli was not Russian aggression but Ukraine’s aspirations to join NATO. His insistence that Putin’s motives were very limited and that the Russian leader was honest about his objectives was frankly disconcerting.
Without denying the relevance of power, we arguably are seeing quite the opposite of what the realists would predict, based on theory, and therefore present as actually occurring. Soft power, the force of attraction that states can exercise thanks to the political and cultural models they embody and the values that they, perhaps imperfectly, carry is a very real factor. It helps account for the solidarity of the free societies — despite vigorous internal debates — in supporting Ukraine. (Of course, weakening Russia, the most open enemy of the rules-based international system, is also a desirable power politics objective.)
The exercise and effectiveness of soft power have important emotional dimensions. Consider, for example, the emotional impact on the international public of watching the Ukrainian people pull together, at enormous cost and sacrifice, to defend their sovereignty and democracy. (Reminding us in the process that national sovereignty — an emotionally loaded concept that comes in for criticism — has been and still can be linked to positive values.) Consider also the emotional impact as we view the evidence of Russian atrocities. Should we be trying to insulate ourselves from these emotional impacts, in the interest of making the most coldly rational and realistic decisions possible? I would argue, No. There are soundly rational strategic regions for fellow free societies to support Ukraine. But denying the value and rightness of our emotional impetus would only make that more difficult.
There are in fact strong emotions on both sides of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. The evidence of intensely emotional anti-Ukrainian sentiments in Russia is unfortunately abundant. And while a realist like Mearsheimer might depict intense Russian violence against Ukrainian civilians as a natural part of war, it actually looks like the fruit of anger and frustration at Russia’s lack of military success — and an emotional effort to show the Russian public that the Ukrainians are being forced to pay for their impudence.
In sum, we should not pretend we can expunge emotion from decision making in foreign affairs.
But one emotion is not worth another. We can choose to be driven by fear of costs to our own comfort or by simple fear of instability (an important driver for realists of the Henry Kissinger sort). Or we can choose the emotions that lead us to support individual freedom, which the German philosopher Axel Honneth reminds us is central to any effort to establish just societies and lead a “democratic ethical life.”
We can follow emotions, in other words, that lead us toward the best our civilization can embody.
Eric R. Terzuolo was a Foreign Service officer from 1982 to 2003, engaged in transatlantic relations and international security policy. He currently teaches at American University’s School of International Service. For many years, he was on contract to the Foreign Service Institute, the professional development unit of the Department of State, with responsibility for West European area studies. Before joining the foreign service, he studied East European and Russian history at Stanford University and taught Russian history at Gustavus Adolphus and Mount St. Mary’s colleges. The views expressed here are purely personal.