For political scientists, is Trump a black swan?

Within international relations, individual characteristics of leaders are often downplayed in favour of systemic explanations. Does the election of Donald Trump reveal a blind spot in the science of politics?

By: /
January 19, 2017
The cover of Time magazine is seen at a news stand at Pennsylvania Station in New York U.S., Nov. 9, 2016. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

I was reminded on Twitter that international relations professors have trained students for generations to focus more on the second and third levels of analysis and largely dismiss the first — that individuals and their characteristics matter much less than the constraining impact of institutions and the incentives provided by the international system.

So, should we just apologize as Donald Trump sells out the post-WWII order and ends American hegemony by whim or fiat? No, we need to drink heavily. 

But, in all seriousness, there are a few real responses to this question of agency and structure.

First, realists will say, and mostly rightly so, that their main focus is not on what states do but on how the system punishes states. Because there is no world government to protect countries (sorry, the United Nations simply does not provide universal security), countries have to focus on what other countries can do to them, not what they say they will do. This creates a key dynamic called the security dilemma — that any unilateral attempt to improve one’s security will threaten others and they will respond in kind.

The classic example of this was Ronald Reagan promising the Soviet Union that the effort to develop missile defences (the Strategic Defense Initiative) was not a threat and the Soviets scoffing. Today, the problem is that attempts to improve security vis-a-vis China will only threaten China, producing a reaction by the Chinese that will leave the U.S. worse off. 

I have no doubt this scenario is going to play out. The strength of realism was and is how the system of relations among countries produces dynamics that are enduring, regardless of the individuals involved. And they will endure during the Trump era, but his complete lack of awareness will mean that the tendencies of IR — to misperceive intentions, to be uncertain about allies, to expect the worst — will be exacerbated, not mitigated or managed by the strongest player in the system (until the U.S. is so weakened that it is not).

International institutionalists have been mostly right in that the security dilemma can be mitigated by cooperation among countries, but cooperation is not easy. Institutions endure and adapt because building new ones takes a lot of work. So, an alliance (let’s call it NATO) built to deter the Soviet Union got in the business of peacekeeping, democratization (teaching civilian control of the military to Eastern Europe — one of the real boons of enlargement), counterinsurgency, and is now back to deterring Russia.

Second, domestic institutionalist types (that would be me) would say that institutions tell us when individual personalities matter (this applies only to presidential systems, not coalition governments). The problem with Trump for these folks is: he is unconstrained by institutions and owes no interest groups much fealty. He violates norms and rules without much penalty, undermining the institutions. He is rich (sort of) and has a cult of supporters. And polarization has broken U.S. institutions. The Republican Party is so hostile to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton that they are supporting someone who might be an agent of Russia and who is definitely acting as if he will be drunk at the wheel of government, careening from one crisis to another.

To be fair, the international system and domestic institutions had a good run — the U.S. followed a relatively stable set of policies for over 70 years through Democratic and Republican administrations. But as social scientists, we have to admit a couple of things: 

First, individuals have agency. We (IR types) mostly don't like studying individuals (see Elizabeth Saunders as a timely exception) because it is easier to risk circular reasoning (leader x is crazy, we know this because of his crazy behaviour) and harder to make predictions.

Second, and relatedly, we might be better at getting outcomes right than intentions. 

Third, Trump’s election is, indeed, a black swan event — he had a low probability of success at first, he got empowered by a bunch of things in the primaries, won the general election due to a tainted opponent, a misguided media and much help from Russia. And now he stands ready to gut American foreign policy, because, as we have long taught, whatever constraints there are on presidents, they are weaker on foreign policy than domestic policy. It is far easier to sell out to Russia than to end the Affordable Care Act. The fact that the GOP is so obsessed about the latter that they are willing to overlook the former speaks poorly of them.  

So, did we mis-teach the kids for so long? Perhaps we could have played up the role of individuals a bit more, but mostly, the focus on domestic political dynamics and the pressures of the international system were well placed. And we will keep on getting it right. We may not be able to predict what Trump does (the term John Scalzi dubbed Trump's razor tends to work — the dumbest policy is most likely), but we will get right the effects: countries will respond rather harshly to Trump’s belligerence. 

An earlier version of this article was posted on the author's personal site.