Looking for love in all the wrong places: A Valentine's Day Guide to International Relations(hips)

One year ago, I offered a Valentine's Day post on "IR Theory for Lovers," a tongue-in-cheek summary of the lessons that international relations theory could offer to anyone in a romantic relationship. There's no need to update it (i.e., the IR field hasn't changed that much in a year), so this year I present instead my Valentine's Day Guide to International Relations(hips): a typology of inter-state pairings suitable for pondering with your partner. (Word of warning: this is international relations we're talking about here, so what follows isn't very romantic, schmaltzy, or even encouraging).

1. Odd Couples and Strange Bedfellows. International politics can be a rough business, and the necessities of statecraft often bring unlikely partners together  (See under: Realism 101). Remember the Grand Alliance in World War II: a ménage-a-trois between England (a constitutional monarchy), the United States (a liberal republic) and Soviet Russia (a communist dictatorship)? Americans may have been sold the wartime image of Stalin as the benevolent "Uncle Joe," but Roosevelt and Churchill knew it was a marriage of convenience all along. FDR told the U.S. Ambassador to the USSR that "I can't take communism nor can you, but to cross this bridge I would hold hands with the devil," and Churchill famously remarked that "if Hitler invaded hell I would at least make a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons." Now that's sweet love talk for you. Other odd couples include U.S. support for Tito's Yugoslavia, the U.S. tilt to Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War, and its close ties to a bevy of Third World dictators like Zaire's Joseph Mobutu. And let's not forget the "axis of evil" -- a trio of dangerous enemies whose unity existed only in the overheated mind of a White House speechmaker and included two states, Iran and Iraq, whose leaders detested each other. (BTW: the topic even seems to have inspired a conference at Oxford last year; see here.)

2. Failed Marriages: Sometimes states get so besotted that they decide to try living together, or even decide to get hitched. This sort of experiment seems to be even harder for modern states than it is for people. The United Arab Republic (a marriage between Egypt and Syria) lasted but three years (1958-1961) and ended with a bitter divorce; a subsequent attempt in 1963 (the so-called "Tripartite Unity Agreement" between Egypt, Iraq, and Syria) never got past the first date. And then there's the Sino-Soviet split, a nasty schism that put paid to the idea that the communist world was tightly unified monolith of like-minded and mutually supportive partners. One could add the long Soviet alliance with Egypt, which ended when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat got a better offer from Uncle Sam.

3. Polyamory: Sometimes states don't try for an exclusive marriage, but go for some sort of formalized polygamy. Multilateral alliances and collective security arrangements are an obvious example, but the most successful experiment of this sort is clearly the European Union, though it seems to be showing certain signs of strain at the moment. Some of you might want to nominate NATO as an even more successful example, but NATO is more of a harem, which is why the United States always seems surprised when its European partners do not immediately do its bidding. The history of other regional union schemes suggests this sort of thing is pretty hard to pull off, because some members usually feel like others are getting the benefits while they are bearing the costs.     

4. "Special Relationships": Then there are those cases where two states form long and lasting bonds, usually buoyed by repeated (and possibly insincere) professions of devotion and reinforced by domestic politics and elite connections. The United States and the United Kingdom are perhaps the longest-running example these days -- even if England tends to play the role of the neglected and taken-for-granted spouse -- and of course there's America's "special relationship" with Israel. But these aren't the only examples one can think of: Russia has had a "special relationship" of sorts with Serbia since the 19th century, and former colonial powers like Britain and France retain lingering connections to their former colonies.   Given that no two states interests are ever identical, however, an excessively intimate relationship may even be bad for both parties. If the illusion of unanimity prevents either party from a) doing what is in its own interest, b) convincing its partner to do what is actually in theirs, or c) pursuing other valuable friendships, then maybe it's time for separate vacations.

5. Casanovas, Don Juans, and other Con Artists: Single-minded seducers often try to lure unsuspecting innocents to into ill-advised couplings, and not just in the bedroom.  Thucydides recounts how envoys from Egesta convinced Athens to aid them against the Selinuntines, based on "a report as attractive as it was untrue." Among other things, they duped the Athenians into believing that Egesta possessed great wealth to contribute to the Athenian cause. It was all a pack of lies, however, and helped lead Athens to disaster. Similarly, Machiavelli warned about the tall tales that exiles routinely tell to convince their foreign hosts to back their efforts to regain power, and the blandishments of a diplomatic Don Juan like Ahmed Chalabi offer an obvious contemporary illustration. A charming but notoriously unreliable figure, Chalabi sought to seduce a gullible White House into backing the ouster of Saddam Hussein. Fortunately, as we all know, the United States is much too smart and sophisticated to fall for anything like that. . .

5. "Failed Courtships": Seduction doesn't always work, of course, and there are plenty of sad cases where one country goes to great lengths to court another but find its professions of devotion falling on deaf ears.  One suspects that Georgia felt like a bit of a wallflower in the summer of 2007, especially given all the efforts it had made to win over Washington in the preceding years.  The Kennedy administration made a serious effort to court a number of Third World leaders-such as Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser-during the early 1960s, and most of these efforts didn't pay off either.  One wonders if Barack Obama is feeling like a spurned Romeo in his efforts to win over Iran.  He's tried a videotaped message, direct talks, a deal on low-enriched uranium; at least he hasn't sent them a cake and a Bible.  Of course, he hasn't tried making an offer they are likely to accept, but that's another matter.


But what about True Love?  Where does it fit in my typology?  I'm sorry, but this is the world of international politics and no self-respecting realist would put much weight on the power of love in world affairs.  But I do prize it in other contexts, and I hope that all of you find a generous portion in your own lives this weekend.   And now it's time to go kiss my wife.


Happy Valentine's Day!


China Photos/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt

A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma...

If you find the news from inside Iran somewhat bewildering, and if you don’t know whether to believe those who think the clerical regime is on its last legs or those who think it will easily contain the opposition, don’t feel bad. The reality is that nobody -- including the leaders of the Iranian government, the opposition, and all of us watching from outside -- knows where they are headed or what the timetable for change might be. We'll know who guessed (yes, guessed) right some weeks, months, years, or decades from now, but right now trying to handicap events there is a mug’s game. Here’s why:

First, we don’t have very reliable information coming from inside Iran itself, partly because the regime is doing its best to limit it. That’s not to say that we have no information -- in the form of emails, journalists' accounts, twitter feeds, viral videos, and even some surveys of public opinion -- the problem is that it is very hard to know how representative it is, what the larger context is, or what any of it actually means.   

Second, the information we do have is tainted by what economist Timur Kuran termed "preference falsification." An individual’s true beliefs are a form of private information, and there’s no way of knowing whether someone who is expressing support for the regime is revealing their true beliefs or not. Even a large anti-government rally doesn’t reveal very much about what the people who stayed home are thinking, or how participants or bystanders would react in the event of either a crackdown or concessions by the ruling party. You might be willing to demonstrate if you think it's safe to do so, but your anti-regime feelings might not be so intense that you're willing to take big risks to express them. If enough Iranians feel this way, then the regime is probably safe; the key is that it is essentially impossible to figure this out ex ante.

Third, commentary and testimony about these events is invariably biased by the goals of the various interested parties. Iranian officials will naturally try to convince us (and the Iranian public) that most of the country backs them and that the opposition forces are  in cahoots with us, with Israel, and other outside forces. By contrast, the Green movement wants to convince the outside world (and neutral Iranians) that their support is broad and growing. Not surprisingly, Iranian exiles in Europe and America -- most of whom detest the regime -- have obvious incentives portray it as fragile and are therefore likely to exaggerate the power of the opposition. This is an old story: all revolutions generate an exile population that is eager for revenge and restoration and looking for foreign support, and the Iranian revolution of 1980 is no exception. And then there all those other people who are eager for regime change and alarmed by Iran’s nuclear program, and who have an obvious incentive to see the disturbances as an opportunity to squeeze the regime a bit more.    

In short, we are dealing with a situation where information is scarce, biased, and likely to be interpreted for us in various self-serving ways. In light of this unavoidable uncertainty, the smart bet is still to assume the regime will hang on and base U.S. policy on that assumption, while remaining alert for signs that the assumption is incorrect. Why? Because “hanging on” is what usually happens. Authoritarian regimes have many ways of clinging to power, and even very unpopular governments often prove to be surprisingly durable. The Soviet empire faced revolts in East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Poland in 1980, and it staggered on until 1989. Moreover, it took a new leader chosen by normal procedures (Gorbachev) to begin the revolutionary process. One could say the same for the failed Russian revolution of 1905 or still-born revolutions in Europe in 1848; in both cases governments tottered but did not fall. Big revolutions are relatively rare events, and the precise timing usually takes most observers by surprise, for the reasons noted above.

I also believe that using military force against Iran would be a mistake and that tougher economic sanctions aren’t going to hasten the regime’s demise. In terms of U.S. policy, therefore, the best course remains “engagement without illusions” where the short-term goal remains persuading the regime not to acquire nuclear weapons and the long-term goal is to allow political processes within Iran to erode the regime from within. The only way to achieve the former is to give up on getting Iran to forego all enrichment, and instead allow them limited enrichment provided they ratify and implement the Additional Protocol of the NPT. The best way to achieve the latter is to let Ahmadinejad & Co. do the raving, and not give him any ammunition by indulging in a lot of saber rattling ourselves. We should continue to reiterate our belief that the Iranian people should be allowed determine their own fate, but take no steps that suggest we are trying to dictate that fate ourselves.

I continue to fear that we are exaggerating the likelihood of regime change in Iran and exaggerating the strategic benefits it will bring. In other words, we may be falling prey to a lot of wishful thinking, and that’s usually not a good basis for sound policy.