Stephen M. Walt

A new paradigm for international relations: Confusionism

If you read this blog, you’ve probably heard about the various "isms" in the field of international relations. There’s realism, of course, but also liberalism, idealism, and social constructivism. And don’t forget Marxism, even though hardly anybody claims to believe it anymore. These "isms" are essentially families of theory that share certain common assumptions. For ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

If you read this blog, you’ve probably heard about the various "isms" in the field of international relations. There’s realism, of course, but also liberalism, idealism, and social constructivism. And don’t forget Marxism, even though hardly anybody claims to believe it anymore. These "isms" are essentially families of theory that share certain common assumptions. For example, realists see power and fear as the main drivers of world affairs, while liberals place more weight on human acquisitiveness and the power of institutions.

But there’s another major force in world affairs, and sometimes I think it deserves an "ism" all its own. With tongue in cheek and apologies to a famous Chinese sage, I’ll call it "Confusionism." For Confusians, ignorance and stupidity are the real key to understanding state behavior, not fear, greed, ideals, class interests, or any of those other things that people think drive world affairs. When Confusians seek to explain why states act as they do, they start by assuming that leaders do not understand the problems they face, have only a vague sense of where they want to go, and no idea at all about how to get there. Instead of starting with the rational actor assumption beloved by economists, realists, and most liberals, Confusians hone in on all the reasons why humans typically get things wrong.

Confusionism is the opposite of the assorted conspiracy theories that you often read about. Some people believe that the world is run by a shadowy network of elites (e.g., the Trilateral Commission, Bilderberg, Council on Foreign Relations, etc.). Other people think everything is ultimately the product of some secret Zionist conspiracy, or the machinations of oil companies and the military-industrial complex. Islamophobes are convinced there is some sort of well-oiled Muslim plot to infiltrate Europe and America, impose Sharia law, and stick all our young women in harems. If you read enough Robert Ludlum, watch The Matrix too often, or spend enough time patrolling the nether regions of the blogosphere, you might find yourself thinking along similar lines. If that happens, get help.

These warped world-views all assume that there are some Very Clever People out there who are busy implementing some brilliant long-term scheme for their own selfish benefit. But if you’ve actually met a few real politicians, run a small business, or merely tried to get a dozen family members to a wedding on time, then you know this is not how the world really works. 

Which is where Confusionism comes in. It begins by recognizing the limits of human reason, as well as the inherent uncertainties and accidents that accompany all human endeavors. Because men and women are fallible and because our knowledge is imperfect, screw-ups are inevitable. Why do you think the first two letters in the acronym SNAFU stand for "situation normal?" Clausewitz taught us "in warfare everything is simple, but the simplest things are very difficult," but his insight was not limited to the battlefield. Leaders rarely have accurate information, they are usually guessing about the results of different choices, and even well-formulated plans often go wrong for no good reason. For Confusians, world leaders aren’t Megaminds implementing fiendishly subtle stratagems; they are mostly well-meaning ignoramuses stumbling around in the dark. Just like the rest of us.

Evidence that supports Confusionism is easy to find. What explains George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003? Simple: he was deeply confused, and so were the people advising him. How are we to understand Mao Zedong’s disastrous decision to launch the Great Leap Forward? Easy: his head was full of goofy ideas, he had no idea what he was doing, and he didn’t realize how badly he’d blundered until millions had starved. The Russo-Georgian War of 2007? Clearly the product of rampant confusion on both sides. The Euro crisis? Isn’t it obvious that the people who created the Euro were confused about the feasibility of a common currency that lacked the institutional framework to sustain it in hard times.  

Confusionism doesn’t explain every case, of course. There are times when countries identify clear interests, devise effective strategies for achieving them, and implement those strategies more-or-less as intended. Realism is right to emphasize the importance of insecurity and fear, liberalism is sometimes correct in pointing to institutional arrangements that can facilitate cooperation, and social constructivists have a point when they argue that norms and identities also affect state behavior. But we shouldn’t forget the important role of human folly, which is where Confusionism shines.

When will Confusians see things more clearly than others? Watch out for the following deadly warning signs:

1. New circumstances. When leaders are facing a completely new set of problems, it will take them awhile to figure out what it all means. Until then, confusion will reign. It took a decade or more before Americans and Soviets understood the full implications of the nuclear revolution, and even then a lot of idiotic things were published and uttered on that topic for decades afterward. And because both sides were deeply confused about how deterrence worked, they spent trillions building well over 60,000 thermonuclear weapons, more than enough to destroy each other many times over.

2. Unfamiliar environments. It is hardly surprising that the United States has been stumbling its way over the past couple of decades, as we’ve wrestled with the politics of places that are vastly different from us. We were confused when we sallied forth to Afghanistan, Iraq, and a handful of other places, and no country as ignorant of world history and as linguistically-challenged as America is likely to sort these places out. It’s the downside of American exceptionalism: if we’re as unique as we like to think we are, then the rest of the world is very different and is bound to confuse us. A lot.

3. Overflowing in-boxes. Policymakers are bound to be confused when they are constantly rushing to put out today’s new bonfire and don’t have time to think about what they are doing or saying. (This is what got Susan Rice into hot water, right?) Confusionism helps you understand why ambitious great powers get into trouble: they are always trying to do too many things in too many places, and that inevitably leaves them operating with a flawed understanding of most of the problems with which they are contending. Getting involved everywhere also makes you a prisoner of the locals on whom you have to rely for advice, and they’ll work 24/7 to convince you to do what they want. Needless to say, this is a good way to maximize one’s state of confusion.

4. Taboo topics. Nations are more likely to sort out problems when information is readily available and alternative views can be debated freely. It follows they will get confused when secrecy abounds, or when topics become taboo and hard to discuss openly. Small wonder, therefore, that totalitarian societies commit some of the biggest blunders (collectivized agriculture, anyone?), or that governments in open societies get confused whenever they start shielding their actions from public scrutiny and accountability (see under: Gitmo, drone warfare, covert action, etc.).

5. Ideological blinders. Rigid and all-encompassing world-views are a fertile source of confusion. A simple set of dogmas can provide great psychological comfort to believers, but they invariably clash with reality and thus provide a poor foundation for policymaking (or for running a national election, as today’s GOP seems determined to prove). Whenever you hear anyone offering up universal and unquestioned truths about politics or society, your Confusion-detector should start pinging and you should hope that they never get close to power.

6. Success. Paradoxically, states can be more vulnerable to confusion after victory, because it often fosters over-confidence. "Victory disease" is a familiar wartime phenomenon, as a string of successes increases the appetite and encourages leaders to believe they can do no wrong. And once leaders stop thinking with their heads and start operating with their hearts and hopes alone, they are bound to stumble.

More seriously, I don’t really think Confusionism will become a school of thought in IR, and there is already a pretty extensive literature on the closely related phenomenon of misperception. But the label reminds us when we are puzzled by what national leaders do, an obvious explanation is that they are just as confused as we are. And sometimes more so.

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

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