Nations Are People, Too

Sep.27, 2019
David McAlvany

The Role of Fear and Insecurity in International Relations

Interview of Robert Jervis by David McAlvany.
McAlvany Weekly Commentary, June 11, 2019.
Introduction features Kevin Orrick and David McAlvany.

Kevin: We're in a day and age where continually we're hearing about China, we're hearing about North Korea, hearing about Iran. Of course, you have the political sides taking sides, and you have the press trying to sway you to their side. But there is a much deeper issue. The issue is, nations have egos like we do. They have perceptions of who they are. A lot of times a nation is defending the perception of who they think they are, and another nation trying to deal with them has no idea what they are talking about.

David: You're right, we often disconnect our experience as individuals. I am a person with insecurities, I am a person with an ego. I am a person with certain attributes and characteristics that is in relationship with other people. And yet, when we move to the aggregation of people – a nation, a nation state – we forget that there are insecurities and egos and perceptions of self and perceptions of others that are deeply psychological and very applicable to the way events unfold.

This is one of the things that is so important for us as we look at international relations, as we look at current events, whether it is Iran or North Korea or China or Russia, to understand that there are nuances to decisions that are being made and comments that fly just beyond the surface.

Kevin: You turned me on to an author, Robert Jervis, and had me read How Statesmen Think. I'm so glad I did because this is a man who has been giving his advice going back into the 1960s on the psychology of how statesmen think and how nations think. One of the things that he brought out, and I love his insights on the Cold War and how the cold war came to be and then how it ended. The insights were that many of the aggressive stances that the two sides were taking were actually based on fear and insecurity about the other side.

David: This week Robert Jervis is headed to Washington to share with our political leaders some insights specifically on North Korea and Iran. And so his theory has practical application as he brings revelation, if you will, into the internal workings, both in terms of our foreign counterparties, if you will, as well as even our own leadership and the psychology of our own statesmen.

Kevin: This is a man who writes reports for the CIA and for the NSA and talks to people behind closed doors. So taking the political sides out of this, David, the Republican versus Democrat division, and saying, "Let's just dig a little bit deeper to look at the motivations of nations and how we can hopefully avoid war and all benefit."

David: This journey for me began 2014. I was looking at a number of books by Thomas Schelling and was talking to Thomas about joining us on the Commentary as a guest, and we lined him up about two years ago to join us as a guest on the Commentary.

Kevin: And he unfortunately passed away before he was able to join us.

David: About two months before we were scheduled to do so. In fact, Thomas Schelling is one of the advocates there on the back of Robert Jervis' book. He says, "Students and spectators of international relations, or of bargaining anywhere, from families to political movements, will be intrigued and informed by the subtly seasoned study." It's because we are people, and we are people in aggregate – as you said, we have egos, we have insecurities – and the way that we operate or cooperate, or fail to cooperate, is very significant for the way the world looks, for the way markets operate, and for the way assets behave in light of that.

Kevin: For the listener who doesn't recognize the name Thomas Schelling, this is the man who won the Nobel prize for game theory. But what we are seeing today is that it is a lot more complicated than just game theory.

* * *

David: Robert Jervis is the Adlai Stevenson Professor of International Politics at Columbia University, and he has written on a variety of topics, not typically in the area of international relations -Perception and Misperception in International Politics; System Effects: Complexity in Political and Social Life; most recently, How Statesmen Think; and if we go back a few years, how I originally came across Robert's work was The Logic of Images in International Relations.

Robert, I came across your first book, The Logic of Images in International Relations, in 2015 when I was studying propaganda and the messaging found between nation states. You describe that work as a foundation to a theory of deception, in the context of international relations. What you explore is these shifts in images and what individual countries project, and behaviors that they adopt, that observers of those images can in fact be influenced by.

Of course, not all communication is deception in diplomacy, neither is all communication true, although it is always sincerely expressed. There is deep psychology involved, and I think that is what you discovered when you started your original Ph.D. thesis – that psychology is interconnected with international relations. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Robert: I got into the whole business of signaling and perception a very strange way. I've always been interested in international politics. Then when I was in graduate school in the early and mid 1960s there was a big debate about Soviet-American relations and whether the American policy of deterrence was effective in restraining Soviet power and adventures, or whether it was making things worse, leading to spirals of misunderstanding, tensions, and of course, raising the danger of war.

And note immediately that that same argument that we were having over 50 years ago about what the U.S. should do toward the Soviet Union is, indeed, parallel to a lot of the arguments we are having about policy toward North Korea and toward Iran. That is, are threats making things better and do we just have to work on making them stronger and more credible, or are we digging ourselves deeper and deeper into a hole?

So I think that debate, actually, runs like a red thread throughout a lot of international politics. You can trace it back to the debates that Thucydides tells us about. At that point I was a hawk, siding with the more hardline foreign policy, but I was struck by the arguments of the so-called spiral model that came out of social psychology, that my discipline, or the discipline I was hoping to join, really neglected the question of how people perceive others' sides, what common misperceptions there might be that might have interfered between treating things totally idiosyncratically as a function of personalities or accidents, and just ignoring it and assuming that communication channels were completely clear.

So although I thought that psychologists were wrong in their analysis of the Soviet Union and Soviet-American relations, I thought, "Oh my God, it's embarrassing," they really pointed to an important topic that my own field hadn't explored. But then as I started doing that I said, "Wait a minute, how are states perceived as only one side of the coin? States are actively trying to manipulate others' perceptions." And your summary of my first book is absolutely right. Sometimes the images they are trying to project are, indeed, accurate. Sometimes they are deceptive….

David: Let's transition. We have mentioned North Korea and Iran. In the past, Chinese security, or insecurity rather, was rankled by the U.S. interactions with them through North Korea, or when the U.S. moved troops to the Yalu in the autumn of 1950. How would you describe Chinese security, or insecurity, today? Because again, we're talking about not just fear, you can't step in and bully the Chinese, necessarily. Honor, respect – these are all things that go a long way, culturally speaking. But again, back to this issue of security and insecurity. How would you read the Chinese in the current context?

Robert: Let me go back a minute to your correct mention of our moving troops toward the Yalu which triggered the Chinese intervention in the Korean war in the fall of 1950. Dean Acheson was Secretary of State, and a very sophisticated diplomat. He didn't have a Ph.D. in international politics, wouldn't have wanted one, but had this stuff at the tip of his fingers. And there was worry about trying these interventions, so he was not completely naïve. But he did say, "How could the Chinese be worried? How could they see ending the North Korean regime as a menace to them?"

We now know that the Chinese communists were very, very worried. They had not consolidated the revolutionary regime, there were guerilla movements, remnants of the nationalists, in various places in the country – the U.S. played a little role in stirring that up – and they believed that if we were on their border we would do a lot more to try to overthrow their regime. There were no plans in the U.S. to do so, but that doesn't mean the Chinese fears were wrong. Who knows what the U.S. would have done in the next stages in feeling the optimism? But even if the U.S. wouldn't have done it, in retrospect the Chinese fears were obvious, and naïve of us not to have anticipated them. But even the most sophisticated ones didn't.

Where we are now, it is usually harder to tell. The rear-view mirror is much clearer. The big debate is sort of lost sight of in the current kerfuffles with Trump, but the underlying debate is how we can accommodate the increased Chinese power role in the world with the interests of the U.S. and the American allies. Very few people think a war is inevitable, but the question of how you can develop flexibility that accommodates increasing Chinese power, at least for now, but who knows where it will go? Legitimate Chinese interests in the South China Sea, which after all is their backyard and certainly not our backyard, without allowing China to completely overawe its neighbors, is the basic foreign policy challenge for the next decade.

Listen to or read the entire interview at:

Add new comment

Plain text


McAlvany Weekly Commentary provides investors with valuable monetary, economic, geo-political and financial information that cannot be found on Wall Street. Your host David McAlvany presents a solid strategy of wealth preservation for your financial and retirement assets while living in an unstable economy.

Through its client focused, customized approach, MWM is committed to providing independent, well-researched, objective advice, and investment professionalism. At MWM, our client commitment is to preserve capital, manage risk, and grow your assets in an ever-changing global environment.

At International Collectors Associates (ICA), we specialize in the sale of bullion, semi-rare U.S. and European gold coins and secure offshore storage in Switzerland for your precious metals. Our highly trained and experienced advisors strive to help you in customizing solid strategies of wealth preservation for your financial and retirement assets.

McAlvany Financial Group

The McAlvany Financial Group has a contrarian, in-depth approach to its analysis, allowing the company to avoid decisions based on emotion, and thus combine maximum risk mitigation with consistent real growth for its clients’ investments. Integrity, attentiveness, and longevity have characterized the company’s client relationships since 1972.