The Enduring Truths of IR

There is plenty of deception in IR. But there are also genuine truths says Steve Saideman.
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July 23, 2012
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For the past couple of weeks, the focus here at CIC has been on deceptions and myths in international relations (IR). But not all in IR is myth and misdirection – there are also some enduring truths that, once understood, help to clarify a complex world. I will enumerate a few.


  1. Despite the fever dreams of some, there is no world government. While IR scholars will argue about the meaning of anarchy – the absence of government – this basic truth shapes the possibilities and constraints facing leaders around the world. Among many implications, two stand out: the security dilemma, and the challenge of commitments.



  2. The security dilemma refers to situations in which one country’s efforts to improve its security threaten others, who respond in ways that threaten the first state. Thus, the dilemma is that most – perhaps all – unilateral efforts to become more secure are actually going to leave one less secure. This dynamic explains a lot about arms races. To improve one’s security without provoking a counter-response, co-operation is often required.

  3. But the second big implication of anarchy is that commitments are hard to keep.  Countries may want to co-operate, but worry about being cheated. Without government (and thus courts and police and such), making binding commitments is hard, although not impossible.

  4. The next barrier to international co-operation is the problem of collective action. In many situations, countries are tempted to free ride on the efforts of others, or are fearful that their contributions to a co-operative effort will be wasted, or will be taken advantage of by others who do opt to free ride. Environmental challenges best illustrate these dynamics, although this problem is present elsewhere. Many countries, for instance, may choose to restrict fishing to preserve the fisheries, but others will decline and freeride, perhaps undermining the entire effort. The collective-action problem and related obstacles to co-operation are not insurmountable. Elinor Ostrom, who passed away quite recently, won the Nobel Prize in economics by developing a set of ideas about how to deal with this problem. The challenge is enduring and ubiquitous, but whether and how it gets resolved varies.

  5. The truths enumerated thus far all derive from the nature of international relations, but they cause us to gloss over another enduring reality: All politics is local. That is, international pressures are many and can be quite harsh, but how countries respond to them depends on the basic questions of domestic politics – who rules, and on whose behalf? Countries adapt differently to the same crises – as we saw in the 1970s with the oil-price shocks, and as we see today with the fiscal crises. Because leaders are almost always selected, and kept in power, by people within their countries’ boundaries, they look inwards to figure out how to respond to the various imperatives of international competition. This may cause an under- or over-production of arms, for instance. It also means that politicians who spend more effort appealing outside their borders will fail. Efforts at Pan-Africanism, Pan-Arabism, and so on are doomed to fail, as people care more about themselves than about others – even when those “others” are like themselves and simply live elsewhere.

  6. On the other hand, little is contained within boundaries. That is, civil wars spill over borders, economic crises spread beyond a single nation, and so on. Countries cannot isolate themselves, nor can they contain all that goes on inside their boundaries. Not even North Korea can do so, despite its best efforts to remain autarkic. While talk about globalization has increased in recent decades, the fact that countries are not isolated is nothing new. Those imaginary lines between countries that we see on maps have always mattered, but they have never been hard walls.

  7. Finally, the “Spider-Man principle” predates the comic book and movies: Great power has always implied great responsibility. In international politics, the strongest actors have always mattered most, with more power to shape their own destinies, the paths of less powerful countries, and the rules by which all nations interact. But just because a country has great power and great responsibility does not mean that it will use that power responsibly or that it will get what it wants. Great powers have often been irresponsible, sometimes by abusing their power, and sometimes by failing to use it at all. Moreover, we tend to confuse power with success: One may have a lot of power but still fail to reach one’s goals. The U.S. has been re-learning this lesson every year since 1945 (if not earlier)—that it can try real hard but often fail to achieve its goals.  Indeed, perhaps this is the most enduring lesson of all in international relations:

You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes well you might find
You get what you need.

(Rolling Stones; emphasis added)

Together, these enduring realities shape the dynamics we see when countries interact. Many of the problems we face are not unique, and we can learn much from the past, but even informed decisions may not produce success. Consequently, international relations can be quite frustrating, but also quite interesting. As I mentioned in my previous post, IR is my business, and business is good.

Photo courtesy of Reuters