It all started with Stephen Walt’s How to Get a B.A. in International Relations in 5 Minutes (onerous paywall, so here’s a pirated copy). I didn’t dare pray for such lucidity on the topic of international relations:

  1. Anarchy There’s no policeman or court that protects you from criminals in the international arena.
  2. Balance of power/threats Therefore, nations are acutely aware of who is more or less powerful than them, and the rates at which they’re getting or losing power; the strength of alliances, and the rates of strengthening or deterioration of those alliances.
  3. Comparative advantage Nations and peoples can get rich by making the best things they can, or providing the best services they can, and with the money they earn doing so, buying things that they’d like and can’t get as well domestically. You probably read about this in microeconomics class.
  4. Misperception & miscalculation Misunderstandings, miscommunications, needless panic, rule the day. Because of all the above.
  5. Social construction People’s attitudes about huge things (god, moral norms, work, slavery, &c.) are both hugely important and can change quickly.

Walt lets a friend sum up international politics (though, note, that it most likely applies to a lot of other things, though just as imprecisely): “three words: fear, greed, and stupidity.” Numbers 1 & 2 above are about fear. Number 3 is about greed. And number 4 is stupidity. And number 5 just says that the specific things you fear, lust for, and get confused about will change.

Walt has a list of important and interesting books for people interested in international relations somewhere, and on it I found Mearsheimer’s book on power politics.

5 later thoughts