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Reconsidering rationality

| Monday, September 8, 2014

First things first, I’m a realist.

Within international relations, realism rests on several basic assumptions. The primary actors in the international system are states whose most fundamental concern is survival. States are thought to be cohesive in their policy making and rational. Often states must defend themselves and pursue their own self-interest if they are to endure.

Most of this is not terribly controversial. What causes much disagreement and is the subject of ongoing debates in academia, D.C. and beyond is the assumption of rationality.

What does it mean to be a rational state? Are all states truly rational?

Many people find it odd to talk of Iran, North Korea or Russia as rational. If we move beyond states and consider other actors in the international system, such as Hamas or the Islamic State, talk of rationality often raises an eyebrow or two. Despite what one may think, these states, to which I add a number of non-state actors, are rational. Declaring them irrational does little besides signal an inability to understand their motivations and goals.

Rational action entails using reason to move towards the completion of a goal. If the goal is graduate school, then taking the GRE would be a rational action. If one assumes that states, and a number of non-state actors, are rational, then understanding their actions is about understanding their goals. What goal could a given action, such as firing rockets at Israeli cities despite a massive military imbalance, help to achieve? What is a given actor seeking to gain?

In international politics, the goals are not always obvious, nor are the thought processes behind a given policy. It can be difficult to tease out why a state is behaving the way it is, prompting many to simply label the actions irrational.

If you have been having difficulty understanding the actions of Russia in Ukraine or Hamas in the Gaza Strip, then you are not alone. Former National Security Adviser and, later Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, like many, was caught off guard by the Egyptian invasion of Israel in 1973. He was forced to concede that “our definition of rationality did not take seriously the notion of starting an unwinnable war to restore self-respect.” At the time, Egypt was thought to be militarily inferior to Israel and was highly unlikely to win any armed confrontation. Egypt pushed ahead, however, and the Yom Kippur War resulted in a massive military loss for Egypt. The American conception of rationality at the time did not allow for this possibility to be seriously considered. The military loss was not the only result, however. The war drastically altered the political landscape and eventually resulted in the United States brokering a deal in which the Sinai Peninsula was returned to Egypt. Off the battlefield, a seemingly irrational war later resulted in a change in politics and the accomplishment of major Egyptian goals.

With a rational actor framework in mind, Hamas’ more recent actions begin to make more sense. Hamas, labelled a terrorist organization by many governments, has governed the Gaza Strip since 2006 after a violent break with the Palestinian Authority, the governing body of the West Bank. While the Palestinian Authority pursues more peaceful methods of seeking statehood, Hamas frequently employs violence, including firing rockets into Israel and suicide bombings. Israel will always win any military confrontation, however.

The recent round of violence in the Gaza Strip resulted in massive losses for Hamas. Israel dominated the battlefield and again, the actions of Hamas seem illogical and irrational at first glance. The fall of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, disagreements with Hezbollah and Iran regarding the Syrian Civil War, and an economically crippling blockade of the Gaza Strip have all slowly forced Hamas into a corner. It has been rapidly running out of options. To paraphrase German military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, war is politics by other means, and Hamas needed a political change to survive. When Israel began rounding up Hamas activists following the murder of three Israeli teenagers in June, Hamas was forced to make a decision, and, seeking survival, rockets began flying.

Hamas may have suffered a tactical loss but won a strategic victory. It gained international sympathy for the broader Palestinian cause while further isolating Israel, brought the Egyptian government in as a mediator, and continues to govern the Gaza Strip. While it remains to be seen if Hamas will genuinely benefit in the long run, its motivations for seeking a change in the political environment make its initiation of conflict less surprising.

States, and many non-state actors, are rational actors. It is only a matter of considering what goals they seek to achieve and how a given policy choice relates to that goal. As is often the case with international politics, this is easier said than done.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

About Christopher Newton

Chris Newton is a senior formerly of Knott Hall. He is a political science major and international development studies minor.

Contact Christopher