Paul Poast (@ProfPaulPoast): To understand international politics, you need to "think about thinking."

That was a core lesson from the great Bob Jervis.


Paul Poast (@ProfPaulPoast): I'm referring to a key insight from his 1976 classic, "Perception and Misperception in International Politics" (BTW: his 2017 New Edition is absolutely worth the purchase, just for the author's Preface alone)

Paul Poast (@ProfPaulPoast): This book is important because of how it explicitly speaks to (at least) four other books that were prominent at the time.

Paul Poast (@ProfPaulPoast): The first book is Kenneth Waltz's 1956 book, "Man, The State, and War" (which itself has gone through multiple editions).

Paul Poast (@ProfPaulPoast): As I discussed in another thread, a key lesson of Waltz's book is to introduce three "levels" of analysis: the individual, the state, and the international system.

Paul Poast (@ProfPaulPoast): Critically, in that book and his later work (notably Theory of International Politics, which would be published 3 years after Jervis' book), Waltz de-emphasized the first image (the individual) and made the case for focusing on the third image (the system)

Paul Poast (@ProfPaulPoast): In "Perception and Misperception", Jervis does not question the validity of studying international politics using the "system" level. But that level is not useful for understanding foreign policies of individual states (and Waltz would agree)

Here is footnote 7 of ch 1

Paul Poast (@ProfPaulPoast): Instead, Jervis wants to explore the decision-maker because, at the end of the day, going to war requires someone to make a choice to authorize the use of force (that "choice" is the "proximate cause").

Paul Poast (@ProfPaulPoast): What does it mean to focus on the individual and their choices?

This takes us to the second book addressed by Jervis: Hans Morgenthau's "Politics Among Nations"

Paul Poast (@ProfPaulPoast): Morgenthau also focused on the individual, but used human nature to explain why war occurs: people have arms because they deem it necessary to fight.

Paul Poast (@ProfPaulPoast): Jervis didn't want to make a "human nature" argument...and didn't think it was necessary: international politics was about "tragedy" not "evil" (from page 66 of "Perception and Misperception")

Paul Poast (@ProfPaulPoast): Jervis thought a useful way to make this point was to delve into a key debate at the time (this was written during the Cold War): arms racing and deterrence.

Paul Poast (@ProfPaulPoast): This brings us to the third key book: Schelling's "Arms and Influence"

Paul Poast (@ProfPaulPoast): Schelling's work argued that the key means by which the USA and USSR could avoid all out nuclear war was to deter one another: to keep the peace, prepare for war.

This is the heart of what Jervis calls "the deterrence model" (page 58 of the book)

Paul Poast (@ProfPaulPoast): Stated more formally (in language used by both Schelling and Jervis), the actors think they are in a game of chicken.

Paul Poast (@ProfPaulPoast): Since neither side wants to appear weak, both sides arm. The result is an arms race...but no direct war.

Paul Poast (@ProfPaulPoast): This brings us to the fourth key book: Lewis Richardson's 1960 book "Arms and Insecurity"

Paul Poast (@ProfPaulPoast): Richardson says that arms racing in the way described above (by the deterrence model) is what "people would do if they did not stop to think"

Jervis latches onto this idea!

Paul Poast (@ProfPaulPoast): Jervis introduces an opposing view to the deterrence model: "the spiral model" (page 64)

Paul Poast (@ProfPaulPoast): Rather than being stabilizing (as predicted by deterrence theorists), acquiring arms and preparing for war, because it can be perceived as menacing, can actually provoke war (page 64)

Paul Poast (@ProfPaulPoast): This is why the "security dilemma" is a common feature of international politics

Paul Poast (@ProfPaulPoast): Stated formally, international politics is more like the Prisoner's Dilemma, not Chicken

Paul Poast (@ProfPaulPoast): But why do states end up in this situation? Why can't they know that the arms are intended to deter, that nobody wants war?

Because you misperceive your perception!

Paul Poast (@ProfPaulPoast): You know that you only want peace and you think that others know that you only want peace. So your arms aren't a threat. But if you see others arm, then it must be that the other doesn't care that you want peace and they, instead, want war. They are planning on being aggressive.

Paul Poast (@ProfPaulPoast): To emphasize, the key to the spiral model is that there is an inherent difference between how actors perceive their own actions and the same actions by others.

Why? Because of a defining feature of international politics: anarchy (and the fear it generates)

Paul Poast (@ProfPaulPoast): In other words, looking into the psychological factors that drive arms racing and conflict is not SEPARATE from studying the system (anarchy), but helps to explain exactly HOW the system can lead to war (why it produces fear rather than, say, apathy).

The levels work together!

Paul Poast (@ProfPaulPoast): To be clear, Jervis doesn't say that the spiral model explains all conflict. He acknowledges that the deterrence model is sometimes more useful.

Indeed, he holds that you need both models to explain the world wars

Paul Poast (@ProfPaulPoast): But for Jervis, the key is to determine why leaders PERCEIVE themselves in a spiral world or a deterrence world -- and whether than perception is correct!

Paul Poast (@ProfPaulPoast): In sum, Jervis taught us the importance of thinking about how leaders think. Because anarchy is a constant, we need to look at differences (and changes) in how leaders perceive the consequence of living in anarchy.