- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day. As a public service, I would like to remind FP readers of the important insights that international relations theory can provide for people in love.
To begin with, any romantic partnership is essentially an alliance, and alliances are a core concept on international relations. Alliances bring many benefits to the members (or else why would we form them?) but as we also know, they sometimes reflect irrational passions and inevitably limit each member’s autonomy. Many IR theorists believe that institutionalizing an alliance makes it more effective and enduring, but that’s also why making a relationship more formal is a significant step that needs to be carefully considered.
Of course, IR theorists have also warned that allies face the twin dangers of abandonment and entrapment: the more we fear that our partners might leave us in the lurch (abandonment), the more likely we are to let them drag us into obligations that we didn’t originally foresee (entrapment). When you find yourself gamely attending your partner’s high school reunion or traveling to your in-laws for Thanksgiving dinner every single year, you’ll know what I mean.
Realists have long argued that bipolar systems are the most stable. So if any of you lovers out there are thinking of adding more major actors to the system, please reconsider. As most of us eventually learn, trying to juggle romantic relationships in a multi-polar setting usually leads to crises, and sometimes to open warfare. It’s certainly not good for alliance stability.
IR theory also warns us that shifts in the balance of power are dangerous. There’s an obvious warning here: relationships are more likely to have trouble if one partner’s status or power changes rapidly. So that big promotion that you both celebrated may be a good thing overall, but it’s likely to alter expectations and force you and your partner to make serious adjustments. The same is true if one of you gets laid off. Bottom line: it can take a lot of patience and love to work through a major shift in the balance of power within a relationship.
Even the best relationships have their bumpy moments, of course, because even human beings who love each other deeply can have trouble figuring out what the other person wants and why they are acting as they are. IR theorists have written lots of smart things about misperception, and it’s good to keep some of them in mind. We tend to see our own behavior as constrained by our circumstances, for example, while attributing the behavior of others to their own attributes and wants. “I’m doing this because I have to, but he’s acting this way because that’s just who he is!” This sort of perceptual bias is potent recipe for conflict spirals, something IR theorists have long warned about. A small disagreement occurs, and each person’s attempt to defend their own position starts to look like an aggressive and unjustified attack. And so we discover another core IR concept: escalation.
I’m hoping a few readers are nodding their heads in agreement at this point.
Which brings me to an especially helpful IR concept: appeasement. The term has been unfairly denigrated since Munich, but it is a critical strategy for preserving any romantic relationship. And if you don’t believe me, ask my wife, who made me put this paragraph in.
So maybe learning some IR theory can actually help your love life. If it does, and you’re lucky enough to find the right person, and then you might decide you want to institutionalize the relationship by getting married. (This assumes that you’re straight, of course, or fortunate enough to live in a part of the world that recognizes the rights of gay people to marry as well).
And then the two of you might also decide to mobilize your combined resources and grow your own alliance network — i.e., have kids — either via the traditional method or by adopting. If you do, you’ll get to learn about a whole new set of IR concepts, like deterrence, coercion, salami tactics, and overcommitment. But that’s another set of problems, and maybe I’ll wait till Father’s Day to blog about them.
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