International realism and dictatorship

by John Quiggin on March 31, 2011

As a result of the events in the Arab world[1], I’ve been thinking some more about “international realism”, which I take to have the following central premises[2]

1. States have durable, long-term interests and their actions in international affairs are driven by the rational pursuit of those interests

2. The use or threat of military power is the pre-eminent way (or at least one of the primary ways) in which states pursue their interests

It struck me in thinking about recent events that this is essentially a theory for a world of autocracies. (Apologies to those for whom this is old news, but this is a blog, after all). In such a world, international realism reduces to the claim that individuals are driven by rational self-interest. While there are problems with this claim (it’s empirically problematic if self-interest is defined tightly, and tautological if it’s defined by “revealed preference”), it seems like a sensible starting point, at least for the kind of individuals who become successful autocrats.

Moreover, the idea that war is a central part of rational policy makes sense for autocrats. Although war is a negative sum game, it seems reasonable, under a wide range of circumstances to assume that the losses are borne primarily by the autocrat’s subjects, while the gains flow to the autocrats. Even a war that ends with the status quo ante can be beneficial to the rulers on both sides by providing a Malthusian check on a population that might otherwise prove restive, providing an excuse for increased taxation and so on. That implies the failure of the standard negative-sum game argument against war, namely, that both sides would be better off calculating the outcome of war, and agreeing to accept it without a fight.

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