Delong on Mearsheimer is Unintentionally Hilarious

Brad Delong is at his funniest when he reads political scientists. Awhile back he read James Scott. Now he’s reading John Mearsheimer.

Mearsheimer appears to believe:

There is a thinking entity called “Russia” which has preferences and interests, and which has rights to have its preferences satisfied and its interests accommodated….

Needless to say, if Mearsheimer were to attempt to explain his reasoning to an intelligence from outer space–vast or not, cool or warm, sympathetic or unsympathetic–he would be met with vast incomprehension. It would see not Russia but Russians. It would see that many of those Russians believe that they and their ancestors belonged to various imagined communities in the past–the Tsarist Empire, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics–but it would not see “Russia” as having interests in preferences. It would see Russians as such–and it would see Russians aggregating up their individual preferences into those of the community that they imagine they belong to and wish to belong to.

This is funny stuff, and not only for the reasons that Delong himself reads. For some inside baseball IR theory reasons. The scholar most identified with the concept that yes, indeed, states are entities that we can actually treat as having thoughts, feelings, preferences, and interests independently of whatever their citizens think, feel, prefer, and want is Alexander Wendt. And he, indeed, wrote an influential article about how the potential existence of UFOs creates some real problems for theories of the state. The possibility that we might one day have to explain our notions of states to an intelligence from outer space raises some big questions as a result of the “functional imperatives of anthropocentric sovereignty” (his term).

(OK, fine, this is actually not that hilarious to most people. But it is smile-worthy for those immersed in this kind of debate, or at least those who had to argue about it in grad school.)

I am 100% sympathetic to Delong’s critique, but it’s essential that we remember that a pragmatic view of IR research must keep state-centric theories of international behavior in our arsenal. Even if we think that they are surely false as descriptions of reality. Why? Well, let’s take the analogue of old style Keynesianism versus the New Classicals. For forty years, the New Classicals and then New Keynesians worked with rigorously microfounded models to avoid talking about things like aggregate demand in broad terms. No spooky aggregate demand, just agents interacting. And it turns out that in times of crisis, all those tools prove a lot less useful than some simple, not-microfounded old-style Keynesian economics, even if such an approach “has more in common with standard undergraduate textbook macroeconomic models than with the typical models used at the graduate level or in research papers.”

So yes, let’s remember that Russia is not literally a person. But let’s also remember that, at least sometimes, reasoning about Russia as if it were might help us to explain stuff.

Comments 2

  1. jbdelong September 12, 2014

    I would note that Mearsheimer is not trying to explain the behavior of Muscovy’s bureaucracy via Graham Allison Model I: Rational Actor. Mearsheimer is claiming that we have moral obligations not to interfere with the behavior of Muscovy’s bureaucracy because Muscovy has preferences, interests, and feelings. That, for me, is a bridge too far…

    • tompepinsky September 12, 2014

      I actually agree with this. I also think that we ought to think more explicitly in terms of Putin himself, and his strategy for attempting to convince everyone (Russians and non-Russians) that l’etat, c’est lui.

Comments are closed.