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Papa Don’t Preach: Rationalism is an Ism

June 17, 2011

Just yesterday I cautioned a graduate student not to get on the wrong side of some powerful people for the sake of principle if he could not truly effect change. And yet here I sit typing this right now, about to begin a rant on David Lake’s new ISQ article: “Why ”isms’ are evil: Theory, Epistemology, and Academic Sects as Impediments to Understanding and Progress.” Nexon started it. It is his fault.

The piece is taken from David Lake’s keynote address as ISA president and identifies five pathologies with dividing our field up the way we do, along ‘ism’ lines. We reify research traditions, reward extremism, mistake research traditions for actual theories, focus on the things that our approach is best at explaining so as to confirm our biases, and insist that our approach is the genuinely scientific one. I am going to assign this to my graduate seminar. I agree with every word. That is why it drives me so crazy.

It is not the message. It is the messenger. More than most other scholars, Lake has been part of the rationalist turn in international relations theorizing. His approach is wonderful, but not eclectic. It is simple applied microeconomics to problems of international relations and cooperation. I know Entangling Relations like the back of my hand, as it is the primary target of my forthcoming book on Trust in International Cooperation and my recent piece in IO. In his, there are no counterarguments, nothing to test his argument against. There is only rationalism.

Yet I don’t think Lake ever uses the word rationalism in that book, and probably only sporadically elsewhere. This is because, like others, he insists that rationalism is not an ‘ism.’ Realism, liberalism, constructivism, even feminism — these are part of the problem. But rationalism might as well be the Loch Ness monster. It is myth, a legend, something that you scare your kids with as you read them to sleep but not something that actually exists in daylight. And yet your dogs keep going missing…..

Stop right there. You are going to tell me that rationalism is a methodology, or an approach, not a substantive theory of international relations, that all rationalists assume is transitivity in preferences. You are wrong. In fact, Lake along with Robert Powell, lay out its fundamentals in an edited book called Strategic Choice and International Relations. This is a marvelous book, one of my all time favorites, precisely because it lays out the ontology of rationalism so well. But just because you change the name and call it an approach does not mean it is not rationalism and a proper ‘ism,’ just like the rest.

Like other isms, rationalism has a particular vision of the world, of individualist utilitarian maximizers engaged in a constant strategic interaction with others individualist utilitarian maximizers. Individual units are only held together by common interest, and those common interests could diverge at any time. There is no deep and abiding trust, no common identity, only these rapacious little units. This is why the rationalist revolution has been so revolutionary. It points out how states might make disastrous decisions about whether to go to war or how long to fight that are perfectly rational for the leaders who make them because those leaders are interested primarily in saving their own hide. This might just be cynical folk wisdom dressed up in academic garb, but I cannot think of a more compelling criticism of and comparison to realism. It was a useful corrective. We should be forever grateful. But let’s not pretend it is not an ism.

Stop right there. You are saying that the utility function is left open by rationalists, that it is capable of accounting for say, altruism. True, in theory. But in practice, name more than five articles or books that actually assume anything other than naked self-interest on the part of international actors, at whatever level of analysis. There is a reason for this. The strategic view of the world is a cynical view of the world, and a cynical view is a selfish view. That is fine, but I’m calling a spade a spade. Have you ever given a talk and had a formal theorist, for instance, ask if you aren’t being too cynical, if the political actors you are discussing aren’t more concerned with the public good than you give them credit for? I didn’t think so.

Lake no longer teaches ‘isms’ in his course, he tells us. Instead he relies on his strategic choice approach, which, as we have established, is not an ism. He advises us to focus our intellectual efforts on pragmatic problem-solving, of which three elements are of prime importance — interests, institutions and interactions. These are, of course, the basic building blocks identified in his book with Powell. Surely we can all agree on that.

For his part, Lake acknowledges his own part in these pathologies, in a footnote. And maybe he is having some mid-career Road to Damascus moment. His recent article in International Security advised us to develop behavioral theories of bargaining informed by psychological factors. Those psychologically minded who saw that might have rejoiced, had we not been doing that for several decades already with barely a nod from the other side of the aisle.

So, the more that I think of it, I don’t agree with Lake at all. Yes, paradigms have these pathologies. But the paradigm problem was one of the 1980s and 1990s more than it is today. Today we have hegemony, and worse, a hegemony that claims not to be coherent or even to exist. I think the complaint that many have is not that they can’t get into some of the bigger IR journals because they are constructivists or liberals or whatever, it is because they are not rationalists.

I want people to put their money, literally, where their mouth is. If diversity of viewpoints is important, then I’ll be happy to announce, on this very blog, UCSD’s search for a new junior line in critical security studies. You heard it here first! Of course California needs a budget first…..

If Lake is serious about such a project, I’d be the first to get behind him. When someone tells me, “I am a realist” or “I am a constructivist,” they immediately lose all credibility to me as a social scientist. Saying that means you know the answer before you start looking, which is the very opposite of science. You might as well say, I am a liberal. Or I am a conservative. I think paradigms can be destructive, too. But first we have to be honest about the current state of the field and the real substantive cleavages in it. We are not there yet.

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Rathbun is a professor of International Relations at USC. Brian Rathbun received his Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of California, Berkeley in 2002 and has taught at USC since 2008. He has written four solo-authored books, on humanitarian intervention, multilateral institution building, diplomacy and rationality. His articles have appeared or are forthcoming in International Organization, International Security, World Politics, International Studies Quartlery, the Journal of Politics, Security Studies, the European Journal of International Relations, International Theory, and the Journal of Conflict Resolution among others. He is the recipient of the 2009 USC Parents Association Teaching and Mentoring Award. In 2019 he will be recognized as a Distinguished Scholar by the Diplomatic Studies Section of the International Studies Association.