Stephen M. Walt

For Father’s Day: the IR guide to parenting

When I offered my “IR Theory for Lovers” guide back on Valentine’s Day, I said I might follow up with some IR-inspired reflections on parenthood for Father’s Day. I try to keep my promises, so here goes the “IR Theory Guide to Parenting.”  First off, modern realist theory focuses on the structure of the system ...


When I offered my “IR Theory for Lovers” guide back on Valentine’s Day, I said I might follow up with some IR-inspired reflections on parenthood for Father’s Day. I try to keep my promises, so here goes the “IR Theory Guide to Parenting.” 

First off, modern realist theory focuses on the structure of the system and especially number of major powers in it. Right off the bat, this perspective can tell you a lot about the dynamics parents face as the size of their family increases. When parents have one child, the balance of power is in their favor. They can double-team the lucky kid, and give each other a break by taking turns. Life is good.  

But if you have a second child the dynamics shift. If one parent is alone at home and both kids are awake, the balance of power isn’t in the parent’s favor anymore. Instead of double-teaming them, they get to double-team you. And once the kids are mobile, you learn about another key IR concept: the window of opportunity. You’re feeding or changing Kid #1, and Kid #2 makes a bolt out the front door, just like North Korea tested a nuclear weapon while we were busy with Iraq. Or you’re in the middle of a crowded department store and they each decide to head down different aisles. The potential complications of a multipolar order were never clearer the first time this happened to me.  

Moreover, once your children learn to overcome sibling rivalry and form alliances (e.g., by backing each other’s alibis), your problems get even more complicated.  Plus, children quickly master “divide-and-conquer” diplomacy — “But Mom said I could stay up until midnight!” — and soon learn that if they don’t get the right answer from one parent, just ask the other. Of course, if you decide to have three, four, five (or more), you’ll face even more complicated diplomatic dynamics and dilemmas of collective action, not to mention complete exhaustion. Yes, there are probably some economies of scale and maybe you’ll learn from experience, but expanding NATO and the EU didn’t make them easier to govern. If you decide to raise your own platoon, good luck to you.

Moreover, realists from Thucydides have stressed the destabilizing effects of shifts in the balance of power. This dynamic is built into family life: kids grow up, get older and smarter and bigger and more independent. Their parents get older, slower, more tired, and eventually dependent on the children. If you’re lucky, your kids will help out when you’re past your prime. Hmmm…is that what the United States has been doing for Great Britain?  

Second, as Tom Schelling described in Arms and Influence, the closely related subjects of deterrence and compellence are central to the parenting experience (just as the use of “salami tactics” is central to being a kid).  Most of us love our children deeply, which puts real limits on the amount of punishment we are willing to inflict. Total war just isn’t an option, and the ability to use force is limited, so we’re stuck with coercive diplomacy. And kids quickly figure out which threats are credible and which are not, and they are geniuses at probing the limits of our resolve.  

Moreover, no parent can monitor everything a child does (and you’d end up with a pretty neurotic kid if you tried), and you eventually reach a point where physical restraint (in IR terms, “pure defense”) isn’t practical. So we all rely on deterrence — “if you hit your sister/brother, I’ll take away your X-Box for a week.” But we all know the various subterfuges that states (and siblings) employ to negate a deterrent threat. Remember classics like: “It’s not my fault….he started it!” Or “I didn’t hit him, I just poked him.” (Sounds like the Middle East, doesn’t it?) And when parents get desperate, they turn to foreign aid (aka bribes): “If you finish your homework, I’ll take you out for ice cream.” Schelling was probably right: you can learn just about everything you need to know about this subject by raising a child.  

Third, the whole field of asymmetric conflict can prepare you for another aspect of child-rearing: your superior education, physical strength, and total command of financial resources will not translate into anything remotely resembling “control.” A two-year old who is barely talking can destroy a dinner party or a family outing just by being stubborn, and a smart, loving, strong and wealthy parent can be damn near helpless in the face of a sufficiently willful son or daughter. Read Andrew Mack, Ivan Toft, or James Scott on “asymmetric conflict” and the “weapons of the weak” before you have kids, and at least you’ll be forewarned.

Network theory is still underdeveloped in the field of international relations, but it tells you a lot about your social life once you have children. You used to pick your friends based on common interests, professional associations, or simple serendipity; now you’ll find that your children are in effect choosing some of your friends for you, depending on who they like in school or who’s on their soccer team. This is actually one of the unexpected benefits of parenthood; just don’t be surprised if your social circle looks a lot different by the time your child reaches ten.

Fifth, the IR literature on norms and socialization is obviously relevant, because there’s a lot of socialization and norm development involved in trying to raise a reasonably well-adjusted child. Regime theory tells us that states create norms in part to reduce the transaction costs involved in cooperation, and that’s exactly why parents set bedtimes and (try to) impose other general rules. My kids might like to negotiate every single aspect of their lives, but who has time? And as with most norms, failures in the short-term are less important than success in the long run. The fact that some states violate some norms doesn’t mean that norms have no impact at all, and the fact that kids sometimes break the rules doesn’t mean that they aren’t internalizing a lot of the core principles over time. At least that’s the hope that I cling to.

And then there’s adolescence. Once again, we are back in the Jervisian world of misperception, reinforced by linguistic barriers, cultural gaps, hormonal eruptions, and the like. My teenaged kids are both pretty terrific, but there are those days when I think I am suddenly dealing with a creature who is as predictable as Kim Jong Il, as honest as Pinocchio, and as amenable to compromise as Torquemada. And the scary part is that on those days, they probably see me as the reincarnation of Joseph Stalin, with a bit of Mussolini thrown in. Bottom line: after you’ve raised a teenager, you’ll never have quite the same confidence in the rational actor assumption.

There’s a whole constructivist dimension to parenting too. For me, marriage merely institutionalized a relationship that was already well-established and formalizing it didn’t feel like a momentous change. But parenthood felt like an instantaneous and overwhelming transformation of identity: there in the delivery room, I went from the comfortable role of “husband” to a new and frightening identity — “Dad.” And as the constructivists like to remind us, identities shape behavior in all sorts of unpredictable ways.

But to be honest, IR theory comes up short in one big dimension. I don’t know of any body of IR theory that adequately explains why parents love their children, even when they are driving us bananas. But it’s a good thing that we do, and for most of us, the joys outweigh the vexations. Happy Father’s Day!


Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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