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A Nitpicky Critique of The Fat Tail’s Application of IR Theory

December 7, 2009

A while back I started reading The Fat Tail, a book about political risk by Eurasia Group’s Ian Bremmer (who also pens The Call for Foreign Policy) and Preston Keat, but couldn’t really get into it. I recently picked it back up and have been plowing through. I am reserving my final judgment until I’ve had a chance to complete it. However, one area has already irked me enough that I wanted to post a (rather long) comment: their treatment of international relations theory.

In Chapter 3, Bremmer and Keat outline a number of frameworks and theories that political risk analysis can (and should) consider when conducting a forecasting exercise. On page 47, the authors briefly outline the three major strains of international relations theory and attempt to illustrate how they might be applied to questions of political risk by asking how each theory would guide a US response to Iran’s nuclear program. First up, realism:

[Realism’s] foundation is premised on the conviction that states exist in an anarchic world, one with no international force or institution capable of arbitrating disputes between and among them (me: so far, so good). As a result, states exist in perpetual fear of being attacked, overtaken, or conquered by rival states (the “security dilemma”).

That last part is not correct. What they describe follows from the condition of anarchy states find themselves in. The security dilemma describes the process by which two states, neither of which have any desire or intention of initiating military hostility with each other, create conditions that facilitate conflict since the steps states take to increase their own security (e.g. expansion of military capabilities) necessarily decreases the security of other states. State A arms in order to protect itself, which leads State B to arm itself in order to protect itself in case State A decides to attack State B, etc, etc. The fear itself is not the security dilemma; rather, the actions taken as a result of anarchy (which includes fear of conquest) lead states to actually decrease their security by feeding arms races and spirals of insecurity. To be fair, the authors do describe this dynamic but they never correct the earlier misstatement regarding the security dilemma.

Ok, ok, minor point you might say. My real bone of contention lies with how they try to apply realism to their chosen scenario. Bremmer and Keat suggest that realists might provide two conflicting policy prescriptions to deal with Iran’s nuclear program:

One might argue that it is irresponsible to allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons and insist that it must be prevented at all costs and by any means necessary.

I am not so sure. While there are various strains of realism, most would agree that states are rational actors that look to maximize their interests (or, at a minimum, their security). As such, it isn’t clear why realists would see a nuclear Iran as utterly unacceptable. Unless one lacks faith in the logic and power of a nuclear deterrent, a nuclear Iran posses little threat to the United States. Regionally, Iran would have to contend with Israel and their nuclear arsenal. Furthermore, simply gaining a nuclear capability would not propel Iran on a path of potential parity with a declining US. As such, I can’t see any rationale for a preemptive attack from the hegemonic war literature.

Another might argue that Iran’s neighbors should develop nuclear arsenals of their own to restore the regional balance of power–and, therefore, the region’s stability.

Yes, except that already happened–when Israel acquired a nuclear capability a few decades ago. Furthermore, the authors couched the discussion in terms of what the US should do. I fail to see why the US needs to encourage any regional players to develop nuclear weapons when the US could deploy their deterrent directly against potential Iranian action. (Yes, extended deterrence in the nuclear realm is not straightforward, but it is more realistic than promoting additional proliferation.)

On to liberal institutionalism:

Liberal institutionalists share the realist belief in an anarchic world, but they believe that international institutions (such as treaties and organizations) can and do provide a framework that can mitigate the security dilemma…Neoliberal institutionalists argue that institutions can overcome fears of cheating and unequal gains and allow cooperation to emerge between states.

I think they do a decent job summarizing liberal variants of institutionalism here and how it differs from realism. What I disagree with is how they apply institutionalism to the Iran scenario:

[…] a neoliberal institutionalist could provide varied policy recommendations, though these would emphasize a multilateral approach to the issue, preferably one involving diplomatic consensus reached within existing international organizations like the U.N. Security Council.

Sure, maybe, but this is a rather unimaginative application. The other approach would be to focus less on gaining international consensus on punitive measures via global institutions and more on how the US could leverage (or possibly design) international and regional organizations in such a way as to alter Iran’s preferences for acquiring a nuclear capability. If neoliberal institutionalism is all about exploiting absolute gains in order to affect actor’s choices (as the authors suggest), I find it odd that their application doesn’t speak to this at all. Can institutions (global or regional) be exploited to increase Iran’s security, thereby negating one reason for a nuclear program? Can concomitant financial incentives be baked in as well, altering Iran’s ‘payoff structure’ so as to make it less likely that their program will proceed? Those are the questions I believe a neoliberal institutionalist would more likely ask.

Finally, constructivism:

Constructivism is a radical departure from both the realist and neoliberal institutionalist traditions in international relations. An outgrowth of literary deconstruction and postmodernism, it focuses on how ideas, social identities, and theoretical concepts are created and employed in strategic politics…The main idea is that nothing is foreordained in international politics and that strategy and geopolitics are heavily dependent on how they are conceptualized.

I admit that describing constructivism is difficult, mainly because it isn’t so much a coherent paradigm as it is an approach that has many variations and, in some cases, divergent applications. I could write an entire book on what constructivism is or isn’t. Instead, I’ll focus once again on their application of the theory:

Our hypothetical constructivist analyst could address the question of what the United States or the international community should do in the case of Iran’s nuclear arsenal in a number of ways–from recommending direct U.S. diplomatic engagement with Iran, to regime change in that country. Overall, constructivism is more a critique than a school of thought and does not lend itself to policy prescriptions.

So, basically, a constructivist could recommend pretty much anything in this situation? There is no way for a constructivist to use insights from that approach to decide between diplomatic engagement and regime change? I am not sure how much the authors have engaged the constructivist literature and/or thought this through. More than likely (and this is pure speculation) they felt obliged to throw constructivism into the mix and either didn’t think all that much of it (given the line that it is ‘more a critique’) or did not bother to grapple with the large amount of constructivist scholarship that attempts to both apply the theory to specific policy issues and empirically test the theory against competing explanations. One could easily have picked up a copy of the edited volume Security Communities, published in 1998, to get an idea for how a constructivist might approach the issue of a nuclear Iran.

What’s stranger is that Bremmer and Keat go on in the next section to laud praise upon the ‘foreign policy analysis’ approach. They cite Kennan’s famous X article as a great example of how to apply foreign policy analysis to a situation:

[Kennan’s article] detailed the sources of Soviet behavior as extensions of its Communist ideology and of Russian history. The article described how Russia’s geopolitical condition–as a flat, open landmass lacking natural barriers to invasion–left it perpetually insecure in the face of potential marauders…As a consequence, Kennan argued, Russia had always sought expansion, both to create buffers and to fulfill a sense of “manifest destiny.”

While Kennan was widely regarded as a foreign policy “realist”, the analysis above fits in quite well with variants of constructivism. A focus on a state’s past experience and ideology to describe it’s decision-making process and likely actions fits right in with most strains of constructivism. Additionally, by noting that Soviet policy wasn’t simply a result of the condition of anarchy, but rather followed from their unique history, experiences (particularly with other states), and their ideology at the time, Kennan is going beyond Bremmer and Keat’s realist discussion.

Are these descriptions and applications–spread across only a few pages–essentially straw men? Sure, and the authors admit as much in a footnote in the back of the book. However, even while dealing with straw men I think the authors could have done a better job describing and applying the various theories, if for no other reason than to provide readers with a better summary of IR theory and to help them think about how one might incorporate insights from these theories into their analysis of political events.

And thus endeth the rant.

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Petti is Associate Director of Insights and Analytics at Alexion . Previously, he served as Lead Data Scientist in the Decision Sciences group at Maritz Motivation and a Global Data Strategist and Subject Matter Expert for Gallup.