Robert Jervis Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

American Foreign Policy in a New Era: Conversation with Robert Jervis, Adlai E. Stevenson Professor of International Politics, Columbia University; November 17, 2005, by Harry Kreisler

Page 2 of 4

Doing International Relations Theory

Let's talk a little about international relations theory and doing it. What does it take to do that work well, in terms of skills, in terms of temperament?

That's interesting. Of course, now skills is one of the right words. A tremendous amount of [work] was either formal, using game theory (and I use informal game theory, but a lot of people do it formally), and a lot large statistical analyses. So, any young person has to learn that. I read the stuff. I'm -- you can tell from my expression -- I'm ambivalent. It has produced some real value. There are a lot of different ways to study, there's no one method, no one approach is best for everything, but it takes a fascination with international politics. Every day I either pick up the newspaper or a history book and say, "I can't explain that. Why did that happen?" You know: "What rules does that violate?"

It takes a combination of thinking about particulars and trying to think about the generalizations it fits with, or can lead to, or can contradict. That playing back and forth between the particular and the general is what is certainly most productive for me. It's a constant grounding in saying, "Well, wait a minute," keeping your theory anchored in something.

I'm familiar with your work, and we'll talk about some of it in a minute, but I'm curious, given this background that you've just described, there must be a fascinating interplay between the theorizing you do and what's happening in the world or what has just happened. Talk a little about that, and maybe give us an example of that, because I know, for example, you've done a lot on nuclear weapons.

Let me give you two of my favorites. One is what I've written about in the misperception book and in other articles about the security dilemma on the extent to which a conflict can be seen as irreconcilable conflict of interest in which a defender of the status quo, to be crude about it, has to use threats and enforced deterrence, versus what I call -- drawing on others, I am not original in this -- the spiral models.

But basically this is what I grew up with. When I asked my parents in 1947 -- the Russians have shot down this plane over the Baltic, claiming it was a spy plane. How ridiculous that we would spy, of course not. But leave that aside. What I was asking then was the same question, so that I'm still driven by those questions.

The other one -- let me tell you the story -- I've written two books on nuclear strategy. I was interested in my first book on the logic of images, very heavily influenced by Schelling and Goffman,always interested in nuclear strategy, in IR and in that era you couldn't help it. But I started consulting for CIA in the late seventies, partly on stuff on the Soviet Union, but I had a friend who was in the Pentagon at that point, a former student. I went over to see him and he said, "This is not in my area but I know that the administration's pushing the new missile, the MX. I can't figure it out. Give me the justification." He pulls a paper out of the drawer, I read it and I say -- are you censored? -- I say, "This is a bunch of crap. This is ridiculous." So, he puts it back and says, "All right," digs down deeper, pulls out another paper. So, I [took a look and gave it] back to him and said, "Okay, this is better. It's still no good, doesn't answer the fundamental questions." And he said, "Bob, you have just read the most sophisticated paper in the government on this. This is so sophisticated, it won't leave program analysis in the Pentagon." And you know, here I was 37 years old, I'd studied this stuff -- I was shocked. I really thought they were wrong, but maybe they knew what they were doing. On the plane going back to LA -- I was teaching at UCLA at the time -- I sketched out an article [outlining] why nuclear superiority doesn't matter, which led to those two books.

Realizing that the government really didn't have a good rationale led me to think about arguments about nuclear superiority, nuclear strategy, in a way that I'd never thought of it before. Now in principle I could have gotten there without this silly paper, but for me, it's the constant engagement with what are the issues, what do they mean, and then taking it to a level, deeper or higher than you get from even intelligent discourse.

So, it sounds like there's a continuity in your life, because if you were doing this when you were seven about events in the Cold War, and so on, it's keeping that momentum. Of course, the subject matter will change. book coverSo tell us a little -- I don't have all of your books here, but let me show one, Perception and Misperception in International Politics. What got you interested initially in this whole question of the way we see the world? Obviously it's pivotal for understanding international politics.

Yes, but I got into it backwards, because again, my interest was the central Cold War arguments. In '64 when I was starting this, I wa pretty much of a hawk. The arguments on the other side were called the spiral model, were done by social psychologists, built partly on the security dilemma but heavily on the perception. I was going to rebut them. I thought they were wrong on the Cold War (now I'm not sure) but it struck me that it was an interesting topic that IR hadn't covered. So, I was led into it in that odd way.

At Berkeley you were getting a very good comparative politics education -- I know because I know many of the people who were here with you at that time. You focus on misperception, and often behind [misperception] is ideology, and you were well grounded in that. I know you were reading everything from Louis Hartz to probably Richard Hofstadter and "The Paranoid Style." So, how do you find what is really important and zero in on that, which is clearly what you're doing?

Well, that's interesting. We didn't do a lot on ideology but I was struck by the Louis Hartz book that Mike Rogin, a marvelous Berkeley professor, assigned, and I still think Hartz's analysis of America and why it can't see the world right because of its unusual social structure has a lot to be said for it. The great thing about Berkeley then, and I hope now, is it left us alone, the graduate students, it didn't tell us what to do. It said, "Here're a lot of things to read and think and talk about, and we'll help you, but you go out and explore." In retrospect, it looks a little risky.

I was looking at your concluding section in Perception and Misperception, and there you say, [though] it's hard to write a conclusion, that empathy for the other side [is necessary]. That is, however we understand why we're misperceiving, or our adversary is misperceiving, we need empathy for the other side. Make assumptions and predictions explicit, encourage the formulation of alternative images, don't let interested parties define perceptions, and know the common errors of perception. A short list there, very powerful, and it seems like a lot of our policy makers still haven't learned those lessons.

It is funny, I have not gone back and read that, but what I'm talking about later today is work I've done on intelligence failures, and that list will be on the view graphs. Today it was on the conclusions when I did a post-mortem for CIA on why they were slow to see the why the Shah [of Iran] would fall over twenty-five years ago. People in CIA have read the book and the analysis, and really like it. Very hard lessons to internalize, but you're right. I could put them right back on the view graphs for the Iraq WMD case.

And we're going to talk about that in a minute. Now you are in the field of international relations. You are, I think it's fair to say, a Realist. Help us understand what Realism is about in the way it sees the world.

It really is very important for understanding current American foreign policy. Almost everyone, whether they like American foreign policy or don't like it, sees it in terms of internal sources. You know: America, we're doing good for the world because we're good internally; or the people who think that we're doing evil in various ways trace it back to a tradition of American imperialism, like the genocide of the Indians. You've had Chomsky on this program; we can go through the left-wing rap, it's pretty straightforward. What almost no one does is say, "Wait a minute. The United States is a state, it is a country in international politics. There is tremendous continuity. The U.S. is behaving like a normal superpower, which the world has rarely seen." The core belief in Realism is, both from the international system and from human nature, unless people or larger entities are checked externally by the world, they will gratify their whims and impulses. It's what the U.S. is doing. It's what any Realist from Hans Morgenthau, or Thucydides, through the Ken Waltz perspective would lead us to expect. Ken Waltz, in a way, predicted this in an article in '91. It leads you to believe -- no, maybe not true -- that this -- yeah, much as I like Hartz and his American uniqueness, the U.S. is neither uniquely good nor uniquely evil. It's what Britain did when it had the ability to do it. It's what countries -- great powers -- will do.

Next page: The Consequences of 9/11

© Copyright 2006, Regents of the University of California