[UPDATED — see last paragraphs below the fold, which take into account Bush’s latest comments on Iran.]

Startling news out of the American intelligence community today:

Iran’s “decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a [nuclear] weapon irrespective of the political, economic and military costs.”

Hmm. After months, even years, of “Ahmadinejad, like all of those people, is a crazy ideologue who does what he does because he hates our freedoms,” maybe things are changing a little bit? Maybe we’re on a track towards regarding Ahmadinejad to be — wait for it — human, and therefore amenable to the kinds of diplomatic techniques that work so well when we area dealing with other human beings? Perish the thought.

Sarcasm aside, this is actually a fascinating shift. It’s important in policy terms, obviously, because it makes a great deal of difference whether we think we’re dealing with someone who is strategic and cost-sensitive or with someone who is fanatical and cost-insensitive. Politically, it says something interesting that we’re now officially — at least at the level of the National Intelligence Estimate — regarding Ahmadinejad, or at least the country that he heads up, to be more or less rational. But what I find most interesting here is less the shift itself and more the somewhat misleading way that the shift presents itself: it claims to be an empirical conclusion, when it’s actually an ethical presumption.

There’s been a lot of controversy about this in IR over the past several decades, so let me spell this out a bit so that I’m not misunderstood. One of the perennial problems in American social science is that scholars have a tremendously pervasive tendency to conflate presumptions and results, especially when it comes to issues like “rationality.” Why is this? Well, it’s probably overdetermined, but one of the key reasons in my estimation is that American social scientists are, by and large, “irrational Lockeians,” which means both that they generally equate ‘freedom’ and ‘agency’ per se with their liberal individualist variants, and that they generally believe that such notions can be empirically validated somehow. Of course, outside of political theory, most American social scientists don’t generally say this explicitly; instead, they illustrate their commitments by deploying models of strategic action that depend on individuals making self-interested calculations, reducing social forces to individual-level decisions and (especially cognitive) mechanisms, and (mis-)treating analytical constructs like “the rational actor” as though they were empirically falsifiable hypotheses.

This last one is particularly important to the present issue. Somehow, American social science has gotten it into its collective head that we can somehow prove that a given actor is rational, when this is in fact a silly and misleading exaggeration of the powers of empirical research. One cannot prove than an actor is rational, because rationality is an interpretive presumption that we often use to make sense of the things that actors do in the first place. We assume that actors are goal-directed, and that they calculate various means of achieving their ends with an eye to achieving those ends more or less effectively — indeed, we would have a very hard time making sense of any social action if we didn’t make that assumption, because virtually nothing that we would see would cohere in any meaningful way.

Now, if one wants to define “rationality” in more formal and precise terms, then yes, one can collect evidence about (say) the consistency of an actor’s preferences and use that as a way of determining empirically whether an actor is rational. But the NIE is not, as far as I can tell, operating at that level of subtlety; instead, it’s distinguishing between rationality defined as cost-sensitivity, and irrational motivations like ideological commitment. And here my point about rationality remains unshaken, since there is no way to definitively say whether an actor is behaving rationally or irrationally. If you point to a piece of evidence that you cite as representing cost-sensitivity and some kind of calculation of self-interest, I can point to the same piece of evidence and argue that it’s really generated by the actor’s ideology and her or his (or its) understanding of that ideology. And neither of us would be “right,” since neither of us can pry open minds and see what’s taking place there that is generating the social action(s) that we’re trying to explain.

So: you say “rationality,” I say “ideology.” This is strengthened if we eliminate the straw-man argument that ideological causation means a fanatical pursuit of a single goal regardless of cost or consequence; virtually no actor is that fanatical, especially since outside of “total institutions” like prisons and militaries and some cults, ideological commitments are susceptible to a range of interpretations. Indeed, if you ever listen to a group of ideologues debating what to do about something, what they are generally going to be talking about are the subtle nuances of their shared commitments — and they’re going to be dwelling on differences and distinctions that might seem incomprehensible to an outsider, but those distinctions point in different directions for action. You probably won’t be able to justify any course of action in the terms of a given ideology (indeed, if you could, then ideology would be completely epiphenomenal and more or less irrelevant), but you can generally justify a few different courses of action that might bear a family resemblance but are different and distinct all the same. To a rationalist, this looks like actors calculating their interests and proceeding; to a culturalist, it looks like contingent combinations of rhetorical resources entailing different ways of proceeding. There’s no way to empirically rule out one or the other.

And no, you can’t do this by predicting the kind of action that an actor would take if they were “really” motivated by one or another set of concerns, and then seeing what they actually do; a committed partisan of one of the other model of actor-hood and social action can always, always make sense of action in their preferred terms. To take the matter at hand, suppose we are dealing with a state that is spending money on the construction of nuclear reactors, is involved in the support of various insurgent groups, has declared an intention to develop nuclear weapons, and is engaged in a regional power-struggle with other states, some of which have nuclear weapons themselves. We might predict that, under the circumstances, a rational state might try to acquire or develop nuclear weapons if the cost wasn’t too high; based on that prediction we might apply various kinds of pressure to stop the state from acquiring nuclear weapons; and if the state does in fact refrain from going nuclear, we might pat ourselves on the back for “getting their motivations right” and using them to plan our strategy. But this is quite an an unjustified conclusion, inasmuch as a culturalist could explain the state’s actions in terms of changing social norms, the importance of international legitimacy to prop up a domestic regime, and the ambiguous symbolic value of nuclear weapons themselves. Predictions based on interpretive presumptions simply can’t be used to falsify the initial presumption, because that presumption is built into the very reading of the evidence itself.

Now, as I said at the outset, it makes a great deal of difference whether we assume that a given actor is cost-sensitive or not. If we don’t think that another actor is calculating any sorts of costs or benefits, then our actions towards them are not likely to be designed to alter those calculations; instead, they would probably involve either implacable opposition or warm embrace, depending on whether the course of action was a “good” (from our perspective) one or not. But we can’t know with certainty what motivates any particular actor we encounter, an observation that leads to the classical realist recommendation to always take care of your own security and to be on guard against possible attacks from any quarter. But even classical realists presume that states, or their leaders, are generally “rational” . . . and this opens the possibility of dropping one’s guard somewhat, depending on the circumstances. In practice, almost all of us make presumptions about other actors’ motives and intentions all the time, despite the fact that we can’t ground those presumptions on any definitive empirics. Since those presumptions don’t come from empirical observation, where do they come from?

Ultimately, I’d say that these presumptions are ethical rather than empirical, and have a lot more to do with how we think about various self-other relationships than they do with particular cases. Tzvetan Todorov argues that the question of whether we think that the other is like or unlike us is an entirely separate component of the self-other relationship than the question of how much we know (or don’t know) abut the other; the two can’t be collapsed into one another. I can know little about another actor and still presume that she or he or it functions more or less the same way that I function. Indeed, I’d posit that whatever data about the other that I generate based on that presumption can’t even in principle give me any sense of whether the presumption is empirically accurate: if I really think that you operate the way that I do, and if I am concerned to evaluate that characterization, then I’ll keep finding evidence that “proves” that you do in fact operate this way. And ditto, in reverse, if we start out thinking that the other is completely unlike us.

Given this, I think we have to ask a different question about things like this than we conventionally ask when formulating foreign policy to deal with other actors. Instead of asking what “they” are thinking or what motivates “them,” we have to ask whether we are comfortable with the ethical stance that we’re taking. And that ultimately means asking about our own identity as an actor. Are we comfortable treating Iran as a “wholly Other” that doesn’t think about costs when pursuing a weaponized nuclear capability? What kind of social and political work is an assumption like that doing in our present society? Conversely, what is at stake ethically in regarding Iran to be basically like us in the way that it makes nuclear policy decisions? Which can we live with better: the older estimate of Iran as fanatical, or the new one of Iran as rational? (Can we maybe have a third one: Iran, like all actors at whatever scale, as culturally strategic rather than formally rational or fanatically irrational?) Yes, it makes a difference which we choose, since they point to different policies. But we can’t choose on empirical grounds, so we’re left choosing on ethical grounds. It would be best, I think, if we were more explicit about that.

UPDATE 5 December: According to the New York Times, Bush had this to say about Iran at a news conference yesterday:

“Look, Iran was dangerous, Iran is dangerous, and Iran will be dangerous, if they have the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon,” Mr. Bush said during a news conference dominated by questions about the fallout of the assessment, known as a National Intelligence Estimate. “What’s to say they couldn’t start another covert nuclear weapons program?”

I can think of no better illustration of the epistemological point I was trying to make. Determinations about the fundamental and underlying character of an actor aren’t empirical considerations, but ethical ones: once that determination has been made, empirics can be interpreted, but there’s no way to logically go in reverse order even if the grammar of the statements made might lead one to believe that this is the case. Bush didn’t look at the evidence and decide that Iran was behaving rationally; Bush decided that Iran was a fanatical, ideologically-motivated opponent of the USA (and “our freedoms,” presumably) and then placed the empirical evidence into that framework (so that the mere potential that Iran might at some unspecified point in the future develop the capacity to produce a nuclear weapon appears sufficient reason for concern). This is no different than what all of us do all the time when making sense out of any actor’s actions, but it does point to the inadequacy of assuming that these debates are somehow purely based on morally neutral “factual” evidence.

Indeed, Bush’s comment might even be implicitly referencing a specifically Christian theology. The cadence of “Iran was dangerous, Iran is dangerous, and Iran will be dangerous” sounds strikingly similar to a well-known Christian doxology called the Gloria Patri, part of which runs:

. . . as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be . . .

Even if this is stretching a bit (and in Bush’s case I don’t think that it is), the point remains: these judgments are never made on empirical grounds alone.

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