Stephen M. Walt

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 ...

China Photos/Getty Images
China Photos/Getty Images

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!


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

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