International relations scholar Robert Jervis ’62 died December 9, 2021. “He was a husband, father, and grandfather extraordinaire, a giant in his field of international relations, a mentor to legions of younger scholars, an enthusiastic provider of feedback to university administrators, a museum goer and opera lover, a skilled napper, and a pioneer of the capsule wardrobe,” his family wrote in his obituary.
Foreign policy analyst Joshua Keating ’07, author of the book Invisible Countries, interviewed Jervis for the fall 2021 issue of the Oberlin Alumni Magazine.
Political scientist Robert Jervis ’62 has become one of the most widely cited and respected scholars in international relations largely by pointing out the field’s inadequacies and blind spots. In his classic works, including System Effects, Perception and Misperception in International Politics, and the more recent How Statesmen Think, Jervis has drawn insights from other fields, including political psychology and complexity theory, to make a convincing case that not only are governments and leaders not the rational actors they are often presumed to be by traditional models of state behavior, but that “rationality” itself may be a flawed concept when it comes to statecraft.
Jervis, who is the Adlai Stevenson Professor of International Politics at Columbia University and a former president of the American Political Science Association, was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in April 2021. He recently spoke with Joshua Keating ’07, a senior editor at Slate, to discuss what he’s learned from a career of trying to make sense of a very irrational world.
Joshua Keating: Were international affairs and foreign policy something you were actively engaged with while a student at Oberlin?
Robert Jervis: Oh, very much. I was there from ’58 to ’62 during one of the heights of the Cold War. The missile gap [between the U.S. and the USSR] was the major political issue then. There was a good group of political scientists. Four or five of us went on to get PhDs and to teach in major institutions. And so we’d talk about this all the time.
I remember when Khrushchev broke up the Paris Summit meeting in May 1960 because of Eisenhower’s refusal to apologize sufficiently for the U2 incident. Khrushchev was flying back to Moscow. At about midnight one of my Oberlin section mates was listening to the radio and heard the report that Khrushchev was stopping in East Berlin to sign a peace treaty with East Germany, which would have triggered an enormous crisis and real danger of war. So he woke us up and said, “Don’t bother studying for finals or anything, let’s just go out and drink.” So that’s what we did.
JK: The topic of perception and misperception has been a major theme in your work. I’m wondering how you first got interested in looking at that?
RJ: Well, ironically, I backed into it. I was very interested in nuclear deterrence theory and practice. At that time, the main critics of deterrence were social psychologists, who argued that we’d created this myth of a Soviet danger, and that policies meant to counter it were making things worse.
I thought they were wrong about the Soviet Union, but I realized they were quite right that no political scientists, or almost none, had taken any account of perception and the possibility of recurring misperception. I thought that was something that needed to be studied. As I got more deeply into the history of social psychology, I became less critical of its application to the Cold War, although I still thought that the scholars who claimed the Cold War was a misunderstanding were wrong, but I did gain an appreciation that they were not totally foolish. And then as I got in, I just found the topic of how [policymakers] perceive each other to be fascinating on its own.
JK: As somebody who’s studied how policymakers think and political decision-making, have you ever been tempted to go into government yourself and apply some of these ideas?
RJ: I have been tempted. I did quite a bit of work for the CIA and the DNI [Director of National Intelligence] and some work for the State Department and Defense Department. In a way what I’m doing parallels very much what the intelligence agencies do, and that’s why in the late ’70s, after the Iranian Revolution, I was asked to come in for a year to study why the analysts had missed the boat. That led to one of the major chapters in my book, Why Intelligence Fails.
Yes, it was a temptation, and partly a regret. I’m sure I would have learned a great deal from doing things for a year or so, but it just never worked out.
JK: Following up from that, what role do you think political scientists should play in active, ongoing political debates? Should they advocate positions, or is their role just to inform the debate?
RJ: In some ways we owe it to the public to do the best we can to bring our knowledge to bear on current issues, as long as we do it with humility, because the greatest expertise still leaves you very, very far short of complete knowledge. At minimum, we can clarify a lot of debate, or debunk myths or arguments that certain simple policies will be guaranteed to produce good results.
I’m proud of the fact that I was one of about 30 who studied security policy and took out an ad in the New York Timesin the fall of 2002 saying a war with Iraq would be a mistake. I also organized an ad when the debate over the Iran nuclear deal was raging, saying it was a good agreement and we should definitely ratify it. Not that those had any influence, but reaching out in that way is something we should do.
JK: In 2018, you wrote that “whatever else is true of Donald Trump’s presidency, it offers a great opportunity to test theories of international relations.” So, now that he’s out of office, what do you think are the results of those tests?
RJ: As usual with experiments, it’s a mixed result. Basically, where Trump really cared and where he appointed people who shared his views on trade and immigration, it did make a difference. He set American policy in a new direction. That’s less true in a lot of the areas of foreign policy.
JK: Do you think that Trump has changed the way other countries perceive the identity of America in some kind of lasting way, or conversely, the way America conceives of its own identity as an actor on the world stage?
RJ: Well, he certainly changed it or articulated it for a very vocal but important minority in the United States. And those people generally, I think, have a very different conception of the United States than you’d find in most Oberlin students and alums.
As for people abroad, I think it alerted them to the fact that leaders of countries can’t bind themselves as to how they behave in the future. We know, of course, that he lowered American standing in the world. How much he changed others’ view of the United States is harder to say. Partly because there was such opposition to him, it re-emphasized both the good and the bad about the United States in many people’s eyes.
JK: While most of your work is on international issues, I thought it was interesting how in your new preface to Perception and Misperception in International Politics, you apply your theoretical framework to a lot of domestic issues as well. Are there similarities to how different countries misperceive each other, and how “red” and “blue” America misperceive each other?
RJ: I think there are important parallels. One is the degree to which partisanship drives perceptions, which is through motivated reasoning, and which is very strong. The fact that strong Trump supporters tend to see that the election was stolen and unfair, yet can’t explain that by data that’s in front of them—because there isn’t any—is clearly building an affirmation of their identity, a shared identity with Trump, and the power of need-driven thinking.
Similarly, if you ask people, “Do you favor X?”—X being any policy—you’ll get something very different if you ask, “What do you think about X, which is endorsed by Trump or Biden?” People’s views on the substance of whether a policy is good or bad is strongly influenced by its association with either Democrats or Republicans. That’s not entirely irrational if you think the people you identify with or support are generally right. But people often will form their views in that way, without understanding that they’re strongly influenced, not by an independent assessment of the issue, but by who was supporting and opposing it. So, yes, I think a lot of the processes I’ve talked about do play out domestically as well.
JK: Back to foreign policy, Biden seems to have made countering authoritarianism, principally China and Russia, the centerpiece of his foreign-policy rhetoric. I’m curious, as somebody who cut his teeth studying the Cold War and the misperceptions and dynamics there, do you see similar dynamics playing out today?
RJ: There are some parallels. I think there’s almost a demonization of China, which is unfortunate. I think we have real conflicts of values with China and real conflicts of interest, but under Trump there’s almost this demonization that everything that China does is bad, and an over-reaction to real threats and problems. We saw some of that in the Cold War, but I think the Soviet Union was more of a danger than China.
JK: After spending so much of your career studying bias and misperception, do you think it’s helped you get better at overcoming those things yourself?
RJ: One thing I stressed is motivated bias leading people to downplay trade-offs, and to think that all relevant considerations point in the same direction. And I think that does affect the way I see the world and the political choices I make.
And also, being aware of our tendency to fit new information into preexisting beliefs. When I’m analyzing some piece of behavior in another country, do I reach my inference because of my general views of what that country is up to?
People often say, "Oh, well, that behavior provides unambiguous information that that country is hostile." Really, they are seeing that because they already think the country is hostile. I may fall into that trap of course, but I’m very aware of it and try to ask, what are the alternative explanations? How could someone see that behavior differently? And I think that’s useful.
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