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Book Review: How States Think – The Rationality of Foreign Policy

14 Dec 2023
Reviewed by John West

Professors John Mearsheimer and Sebastian Rosato contest the view that states frequently act irrationally. In response, they propose their own concept of rationality and survey a number of cases in support of their argument. 

“It is widely believed in the West that Russian president Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine was not a rational act,” write John Mearsheimer and Sebastian Rosato in the opening of their new book, “How States Think.”

Mearsheimer, an international relations scholar at the University of Chicago, has been very vocal in arguing that Russia’s invasion was a rational response to the eastward expansion of NATO which Putin sees as an existential threat to Russia. Other analysts have a more cynical view on Russia’s rationality. The invasion could be rational in light of the West’s tepid responses to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the “stealth invasion” of the Donbas region of Ukraine. In other words, Putin thought that he could get away with another invasion.

So I began ploughing through this new book, which Mearsheimer wrote in partnership with a former student, Sebastian Rosato, from the University of Notre Dame, with a great sense of anticipation.

The authors lament the recent emphasis on non-rationality in both the policy and academic communities, which has been led by political psychologists and behavioural economists. Thus, they propose a new concept of rational decision making in international relations, which is a process based on credible theories as well as serious deliberation.

Importantly, the authors focus on the rationality of the foreign-policy decision making process (instrumental rationality), rather than goals or outcomes. They view human beings as being theoretical at their core (homotheoreticus), as their theories or understanding of how the world operates inform their decision making in times of crisis and for formulating grand strategy. Other theories based on “expected utility maximisation” are based on a flawed understanding of state rationality in international affairs.

Most states act rationally, most of the time, in developing grand strategy and managing crises, according to the authors. They argue that ten cases, traditionally regarded as being dominated by irrational decision making, are based on rational decision making. These ten cases include America’s pursuit of Liberal Hegemony after the Cold War, the expansion of NATO after the Cold War, and policies toward Europe after World War II, and East Asia after the Cold War. Among the European cases are Germany’s decisions to start World War I and invade the Soviet Union during World War II. There are also a few Japanese cases including its decision to attack the US at Pearl Harbour.

But states do not always act rationally. Thus, the authors include four cases of “nonrational state behaviour,” including America’s Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba in 1961, as well as its decision to invade Iraq in 2003. In both cases, small cliques of high level officials hijacked decision making, preventing a serious deliberative process. Nonrational decisions can also be the result of non-credible or irrational theories like the domino theory, racial theories, and class of civilisations, or non-theoretical ways of thinking such as analogies and heuristics.

According to the authors, it is possible to be rational and still fail to achieve your objectives. Why? There can be more than one possible credible theory for a particular situation. There can be information problems. And then there is luck and circumstances, things can change in unexpected ways. In other words, you can do everything right and fail to achieve your outcomes.

Although Mearsheimer has been a harsh and vocal critic of the US decision to admit former European communist countries to NATO, he argues that this was a rational decision because it was based on credible theories. Just because you disagree with someone does not make them irrational. According to the authors’ narrative, this decision involved a battle between two leading schools of international relations. Scholars of the “realism” school believed that an expansion of NATO membership would be seen by Russia as a threat to its security, and could lead to conflict in Europe.

Proponents of “liberalism” argued that a NATO eastward expansion would disseminate democracy. And because democracies are believed to not fight each other, NATO would become an instrument for peace. If accompanied by an expansion of the European Union, this would facilitate economic interdependence and prosperity, and further promote peace. As the former communist countries participated in these organisations, they would become responsible stakeholders in the rules-based world order. Thus, rather than feeling threatened by NATO’s expansion, Russia should become a part of the enterprise.

Realists like the authors feel vindicated, especially in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But they recognise that liberals based their analysis on credible theories, which have real standing in the academic world, namely the democratic peace, interdependence, and liberal institutionalism theories. This was based on the view that the US is a benign and benevolent hegemon. But as the authors argue, the Russians did not embrace democracy or see the world in non-realist terms. As experts in great power politics, the authors seem to overlook the very realist desire of the new NATO members, as smaller countries, to join that organisation as protection against a revanchist Russia.

One case that the authors could not cover is the current Israel-Hamas conflict, it having begun after the book’s publication. But Mearsheimer spoke of the conflict at length during a recent webinar. He regards the Hamas attack of 7 October 2023 as being an expression of Palestinians’ feeling of oppression. Since the Hamas attack was reportedly planned for two years, he does not believe that it was due to the more recent discussions between the Israelis, the Saudis, and the Americans towards another “Abraham accord.”

Although Mearsheimer believes that states are generally rational actors, he questions Israel’s lashing out to eliminate Hamas and punish the Palestinian population. Even if Hamas is eliminated, another group will rise to replace it. And the “massacre” of Palestinians only stains Israel’s reputation and worsens the prospects for peace in the Middle East.

Another issue not covered by the authors concerns modern US/China relations, and in particular whether the trade war launched by the Trump administration was rational. It could also have been interesting for the authors to have explored the US’ evolving policy in defence of Taiwan. Despite the authors attachment to rationality in foreign policy decision making, it is difficult to not see emotions also playing a role in US/China relations.

Overall, the book can read like a veiled promotion of the “offensive realism” perspective, to which the authors are both adherents. And while the case studies are very interesting, each one is very complex and does not garner scholarly consensus. Further, the authors’ analysis of the theoretical aspects of rationality can border on pedantry.

All that said, this is a fascinating book, as were Mearsheimer’s earlier books, and will provide scholars, analysts, and policy makers much food for thought. In particular, the cases highlight the importance of looking for rationality in foreign policy decision making, even when it may not be immediately obvious. It is critical to know your adversary.

This is a review of John Mearsheimer and Sebastian Rosato, How States Think: The Rationality of Foreign Policy (Yale University Press, 2023). ISBN: 9780300269307 (hardcover).

John West is the author of the book, Asian Century … on a Knife-Edge, which was reviewed in the Australian Outlook, and executive director of the Asian Century InstituteHe has had a long career in international economics and relations, with major stints at the Australian Treasury, OECD, Asian Development Bank Institute, and Tokyo’s Sophia University.

This review is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.