5 Myths About International Politics Everyone Thinks are True

myths about international politics

You read a lot of news stories about international politics, so you know the subject well, right?

I mean you know what ‘Britain’ thinks about the EU and what the ‘British’ position on Brexit is.

You also know who the movers and shakers in international politics are. All those presidents and foreign ministers.

And you also know how those people operate. They have certain preferences, they plan and they execute.

Different leaders have different interests, they sometimes clash. And that’s how international politics happens.

Right?

Wrong.

Here are 5 myths about international politics everyone thinks are true.

1. It’s all about individual policy leaders, their preferences and actions.

This is a big one.

Let me ask you this: why do international politics look the way they do?

Your answer will likely begin with something like: because those policy-makers…

I recently was in a taxi. When the taxi driver learned my profession, I knew what I was up for.

He was passionate about international politics. He immediately began explaining to me how things work.

His main message? The source of all evil is the United States. And more specifically, US presidents.

And what is good about international politics? Leaders like Vladimir Putin. If more leaders were like him, a real man, the world would be a better place.

He didn’t know he was building his argument based on one of the most popular myths about international politics.

I don’t blame him.

You think the media know better? Not so much. Most stories are about individuals.

Who is meeting whom? Or not meeting? What did the Prime Minister say? Who does not like whom?

Here is the truth:

Individuals matter in international politics, sure.

But to think they are all powerful is one of the myths about international politics.

There is a different level of analysis where things also happen. It is far ‘above’ the individual level. It’s what we call a system level.

What is a system level? It simply is a level of looking at international politics as a whole.

It’s about the following questions:

How is international politics organized as a whole? And how does it matter to what happens in the world?

International relations are generally organized into sovereign states. States can generally do what they want because there is no world government.

States have the ultimate authority to undertake action.

Does it mean that states must distrust each other and behave like egoists?

Or can they overcome mistrust and work through international institutions?

These are important theoretical questions. And they cannot be reduced to individual policy leaders.

These are important theoretical questions. And they cannot be reduced to individual policy leaders.

There is more. Between the system level and individual level, there is a state level.

This is about internal state organisation, public opinion and the media. How do they impact on state’s foreign policy?

Again, these are fundamental questions. You see, there is much more to international politics than meets the eye.

And we are only scratching the surface. There is also geography and climate, for example.

2. What matters is only what we can see and count

So what is it that really matter in international politics, other than individuals?

Is it the economy? Or is it military capabilities? Energy resources? The combination of those factors?

Sure, they do matter. I mean it’s great to have a thriving economy and strong military to deter threats.

But is it all? It’s not. To think that it is is one of the myths about international politics.

Here is the truth:

There is a fundamental debate going on among experts on the subject.

There are those who we can call Realists and Liberals. They believe that indeed, material factors are all the matters.

For Realists, it’s the material resources which guarantee state security.

For Liberals, it’s the strength of the economy. It guarantees people’s welfare.

And then there are people like Richard Ned Lebow. Go ahead and read his brilliant book A Cultural Theory of International Relations.

Sure, it’s not thin. But it’s captivating.

In the book, he goes back to the philosophy of Aristotle and Plato.

He argues that three motives drive people’s actions: appetite, spirit and reason.

The appetite is all primitive biological urges and their more sophisticated expressions. It’s about building wealth and armies.

Realism and Liberalism are both focused on appetite as a driving force of human action.

The spirit as a motive for action

But then there is also the spirit. The spirit is the source of vigorous and competitive behavior.

Finally, reason is the capacity to distinguish good from bad. Appetite and spirit don’t have this capacity.

What does it mean for international politics?

It means that policy leaders are not only driven by appetite motives. It’s more than just wealth and armies.

It’s also about self-esteem and honor. That’s the spirit motive.

The focus on appetite is very Western-centrist. But beyond the West, other principles are important.

The focus on appetite is very Western-centrist. But beyond the West, other principles are important.

For a great example, read Russia and the West from Alexander to Putin: Honor in International Relations.

It’s a book by Andrei Tsygankov. It tells an interesting story about what drives Russian leaders. The answer is in the title.

3. Choices faced by policy leaders are straightforward

This is again one of the popular myths about international politics.

Policy leaders face straightforward choices.

  • The UK either leaves the EU or it does not.
  • British Prime Minister should be ‘tough’ in Brexit negotiations.
  • She should pursue British national interest.

It’s only a few example, and only from one country on one policy issue.

Here is the truth:

In the academic field of International Relations, there is an interesting concept.

This concept challenges the view that choices are straightforward. In fact, it proves that those choices are anything but straightforward.

They are complex. They are messy. And they are uncomfortable.

The concept is called ‘agency -structure’.

Sounds complicated? It isn’t, but you won’t read about it in newspapers.

Here is what it’s about.

Agency – structure debate

In essence, this debate is about how much freedom individuals have in choosing their actions.

Individuals – agents – have preferences. For example, Theresa May has a particular vision of Brexit.

Donald Trump has a particular vision of migration policy.

Can they always get what they want?

You may already know that they can’t. British newspapers will tell you, for example, that there are those ‘plots’ to stop Brexit.

But the real issue isn’t those ‘plots’.

The real issue is the ‘structure’.

The real issue is the ‘structure’. What is the structure?

The structure is everything that enables and constrains action.

It’s the prevailing norms about what’s right and wrong. What’s appropriate and what’s off limits.

Structure is also institutions, bureaucracies, lobby groups, non-governmental organizations. It’s the public and the media.

It’s the political dynamics inside your political party: friendships and rivalries.

All those factors make choices complex. They all form the structure.

How much do they matter vs. the intentions of individuals?

This no one knows. But the truth is, the structure can be of great help for individual political leaders.

But it can also be an impossible burden.

4. States are always rational and unitary actors

This is one of my favorite myths about international politics. Let me explain what I mean here.

What does it mean that states are rational actors?

It means that they calculate costs and benefits of each action. And based on that calculation, they make decisions.

For example, is it better for the United States to support global policy on climate change, or not?

Or, is it better for the UK leave the EU’s Single Market, or stay inside?

Costs and benefits.

And what does it mean that states are unitary actors?

It means that they are unified decision-makers. They act as one.

There is this metaphor of states as billiard balls. Unified, solid, coherent. If there is an action, there is always a predictable reaction.

This assumption is even present in how we talk about world politics. We say ‘Britain did this’, or ‘the United States is planning that’.

Here is the truth:

States are neither rational nor unitary. To think that they are is one of the myths about international politics.

This fact was most forcefully demonstrated by Graham Allison in his groundbreaking book Essence of Decision.

The book describes the politics behind the Cuban Missile Crisis. Go ahead and find out what that was if you are unsure.

Allison revealed something fascinating.

It’s like you spend years on a boat travelling the seas, and then you dive underwater.

Suddenly you see a whole new world. You may have had some hints or ideas about its existence, but now you see it in all its complexity.

What kind of world did Allison reveal?

Organizational behavior

First, it was the world of organizations and bureaucracies.

How independent are individuals within organizations?

Turns out, not very.

Why? For one, state bureaucracies have so-called standard operating procedures.

They allow to act quickly and reflexively. But they also permit little flexibility or creativity.

They allow to act quickly and reflexively. But they also permit little flexibility or creativity.

The result? They can kill innovative solutions of individuals (like foreign ministers).

And then there is the competition between bureaucracies.

Here is the question I want you to consider: What games do bureaucracies play?

Turns out, for bureaucracies their own survival is the top priority. Bureaucracies measure their position through:

  • their relative influence in relation to other organizations
  • their organization’s budget
  • the morale of its personnel

Governmental politics

Every government, every Prime Minister, every President, must play the same game.

In this perspective, foreign policy is NOT a solution to a foreign policy problem.

Instead, it is an outcome of political compromise, conflict and confusion.

The following questions are crucial:

  • Who plays? (which individuals?)
  • What shapes their perceptions and preferences?
  • What is their working organization, goals, interests, stakes, deadlines?
  • How powerful are they?

So there you go.

The next time you hear ‘Britain’ or ‘The United States’, remember this:

There is a vast, secret political world underneath those labels.

It’s good to know about it.

5. Policy leaders think and plan first, and then do what they have planned

Consider this question:

Why do you do the things you do, in the way you do them?

Hmm. Here is an obvious response:

We do the things we do because we want to. This is our intention.

For example, we decide that we want to be fit. We come to this conclusion after learning the benefits of being fit.

So, we decide to go for a run 3 times a week.

And then there are policy leaders. Why do they do the things they do?

Again, different theories of international relations will have differing propositions.

For Realists, it is about accumulating power and securing the state.

Policy leaders decide that these are important objectives. So they act accordingly.

For Liberals, it’s about accumulating the wealth of the country.

It’s also about building links between states through cooperation. It helps with avoiding conflicts.

Here is what both assumptions have in common:

Policy leaders think and plan first, and then execute what they have planned.

Why is it one of the myths about international politics?

Neuroscience and emotions

Turns out, the latest research into our brains disturbs this comfortable picture.

Apparently, things we do are often based on the work of our unconscious brain.

Also, many decisions are the product of strong emotional responses.

Here is what it looks like:

The conscious mind is like a monkey riding a tiger of subconscious decisions and actions in progress, frantically making up stories about being in control (…) The conscious mind is only playing catch up to what the unconscious brain is already doingNew York Times (2007)

Are we really THAT rational?

And that’s not all.

Background knowledge and practices

The idea of ‘practice’ has become popular in the study of international politics.

We can define practices as competent performances. They entail doing something in a patterned, socially meaningful manner.

We often think that people do things they think about.

Pouliot and Adler, in contrast, suggest that people often do things based on what they think from.

And what do people act from? People act from their background or local knowledge.

This is the kind of knowledge people don’t think about. They have not learned it through studying.

This is the kind of knowledge people don’t even know they have. It is strictly related to the practices they engage in, things they do.

Diplomatic practice

Think about diplomats and diplomatic practice.

A lot of what diplomats do is not codified. It is just practice related to being a diplomat.

What diplomats do is often based on knowledge which is embedded in their practice.

The knowledge and practice can’t be separated here.

So rather than doing things which people think about, they do things based on what their think from.

And they think from their local, practice-based knowledge.

It’s like when you swim. Do you think about how to swim? Or do you think about how to brush your teeth?

No, you don’t.

You do those things based on your background, silent knowledge. The kind of knowledge you gained through practice.

Conclusion: more myths about international politics?

So this is my list of popular myths about international politics.

There is now no excuse for you to make those simple assumption people often make.

Can you think of more examples? Go ahead and write about them in the comment below.

I would like this list of myths about international politics to be as comprehensive as possible.

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2 Comments on “5 Myths About International Politics Everyone Thinks are True”

  1. A very interesting article. What this article effectively highlights is the need to avoid superficial conclusions and to dig deeper! Today international politics is so chaotic is because frankly speaking, people make “stupid” conclusions but convince themselves they are smart and correct. “Cogbitive dissonance” in political psychology explains this well.

    What’s more, throughout history, what’s dominated international politics is POWER. It’s almost what you say about “apetite” above. Humans, unless they are like Prophet Muhammad (P.B.U.H) or Dalai Lama or Bhudda, are hungry for power and pride.l, and material wealth. Greed is also something that can never be satisfied. I believe it is this “appetite” that supersedes rational thought, because we only believe what we want to believe and only see the truth that we want to see.

    This scramble for power also clashes with us, us little people and our needs. The elite class, to increase their power and wealth need us to be submissive and compromising of our freedoms if they are to win. Another thing Is that humans, naturally think in the short term. We crave economic booms therefore electorates can become angry when they don’t receive it. Whilst the “billionaire class” are happy to destroy the environment in order to get richer and win the competition. A lot is at play… humans are very multi dimensional. Our population had become so large, that civilisation has become increasingly complex, and strikingly repetitive too (as in history seems to repeat itself all the time no matter what).

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