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Book Review: How States Think. The Rationality of Foreign Policy.
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"States are rational actors": This is the assumption of scholars when they talk about state behavior. John J. Mearsheimer and Sebastian Rosato, esteemed scholars in international relations, present a compelling exploration of state behavior in their book, "How States Think: The Rationality of Foreign Policy." The authors posit that to explore the premise that states are rational actors, one must first understand what rationality is in contrast to, and what rational thought and behavior are like. The authors aim to answer two questions. First, what is rationality? Secondly, are states rational?

Mearsheimer is known for his seminal contributions to the theory of offensive realism. With a distinguished career spanning a decade, Mearsheimer has authored numerous influential works, including "The Tragedy of Great Power Politics." Rosato, a rising star in the field, brings his expertise in international security and American foreign policy to this collaboration. Mearsheimer and Rosato explore the complexities of state decision-making while questioning received wisdom and providing new perspectives on the logic of foreign policy. The authors shed light on the complicated mental processes that influence the state's behavior in the international arena through meticulous investigation and compelling arguments.

The book instigates questions on how states make decisions in the anarchic realm of international politics. Do states follow a rational process, carefully weighing the costs and benefits of each action? The book explores these questions with meticulous detail and insightful analysis. In the first chapter, the authors argue that states are generally rational in their pursuit of foreign policy goals, far from being irrational actors are driven solely by emotion or ideology. States prioritize survival above other objectives and if they don't do so they are deemed non-rational. The authors through various examples demonstrate that states follow the expected utility maximization theory, making calculated decisions to maximize their security and interests. In the second chapter, the author explores strategic rationality in international relations, considering the challenges affronted by policymakers and states in an uncertain world through historical examples of American War II policy, East Asia strategies, post-Cold War, Japanese pre-pearl harbor decisions, and American action during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The authors highlight pervasive uncertainty and information deficit in decision-making. Whether in military strategy, diplomacy, or alliances, decision-makers face uncertainties, complicating risk assessment, and rational choice. The chapter emphasizes the importance of evaluating decision-making rationality in navigating certainty in global politics.

In the subsequent chapter, the authors define strategic rationality as the basis for differentiation between rational and nonrational policymakers. Mearsheimer and Rosato provide valuable insights into the inner workings of statecraft by dissecting the mechanisms through which decisions are made at the highest levels of government. Further extending the argument the authors excavate into alternative arguments about rationality in international politics. Particularly critiquing the dominant definition proposed by rational choice scholars and accepted by political psychologists, the authors provide theoretical and conceptual reasons to doubt such claims. They challenged the notion that states are routinely nonrational. This comprehensive analysis offers valuable perspectives on the complexities of decision-making at individual and state levels. The authors addressed the empirical question of whether states are strategically rational.

Furthermore, to support their argument that states routinely think and act rationally the authors present five cases each of grand strategic decision-making and crisis decision making in the fifth and sixth chapters respectively. While discussing the case studies of grand strategic decision-making the authors examined, Germany’s decisions regarding how to deal with the Triple Entente before the First World War, France’s response to the Nazi threat, Japan’s strategies in dealing with the Soviet Union before the Second World War, the US decision to expand NATO after the Cold War, and the US pursuit of liberal hegemony after the Cold War. Each case illustrates how states make calculated decisions and strategically assess their interests based on perceived threats and opportunities. While talking about crisis decision-making the authors explored instances such as Germany’s decision to start the first world war, Japan’s decision to attack Pearl Harbor, Germany’s invasion of the USSR, the United States resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1968, and the Czechoslovakia invasion by the USSR.

Mearsheimer and Rosato through these case studies demonstrate that states engage in deliberative decision-making processes aimed at maximizing their security and pursuing their strategic objectives even in times of crisis. Nevertheless, the authors argue that upon closer examination, each of these examples reveals a contemplative decision-making process, resulting in policies based on credible theories. For example, in the case of the Cold War, the authors demonstrate how the United States and the Soviet Union pursued their interests and navigated the complexities of the bipolar world order through rational calculations. Similarly, states make decisions aimed at maximizing their security and interests in contemporary conflicts, thus displaying rational behavior despite exogenous factors. Further authors discuss four examples of strategic nonrationality to concede that states have not always been rational in their decision-making processes. Mearsheimer and Rosato aim to exemplify the complexities of state behavior and provide a nuanced understanding of the rationality of foreign policy.

In the second last chapter, the authors delve into the concept of goal rationality in state behavior. They argue that while survival is consistently prioritized by states there are occasional deviations from this principle. It is evident from historical examples that how states often prioritize survival over other objectives, even subordinating economic prosperity or ideological beliefs. Survival remains the paramount goal for states even though some instances of overexpansion or under=balancing exist, with rare exceptions like Germany's behavior at the end of World War II. In the final chapter of the book, the authors address challenges to the assumption of state rationality in international relations. Critics argue that states are not consistently rational due to cognitive limitations and empirical research. However, the chapter asserts that states are generally rational in decision-making, supporting the theories of realism and liberalism in academic discourse and foreign policy formulation. It elucidates that rationality doesn't always lead to peace and underscores the importance of understanding state rationality in navigating international politics.

Mearsheimer and Rosato acknowledge the limitations of state rationality, examining cases where exogenous factors may influence decision-making. They argue that while states strive to be rational, internal dynamics and external pressures can sometimes lead to irrational behavior. The authors explore the intricacies of state decision-making processes, examining the role of leaders, bureaucracies, and other factors in shaping foreign policy choices. They highlight the importance of understanding these processes to accurately assess state behavior. Additionally, the authors also highlight the importance of goal rationality in rational decision-making. The authors posit that the outcome of any decision is not determined by rational decision-making processes. While rational decision-making seeks to maximize utility or achieve specific objectives based on careful analysis and logical reasoning, external factors, uncertainties, and unforeseen events may impact the final result.

Mearsheimer and Rosato in their book "How States Think" offer a compelling argument for the rationality of state behavior in foreign policy, with thorough analysis and case studies shedding light on complex international dynamics. However, the authors have narrowly focused on state rationality overlooking non-state actors and broader structural factors shaping real-world events. Overall, it's a thought-provoking read for scholars and students of IR.

Khola Junaid is a student of Strategic Studies at National Defense University, Islamabad, Pakistan. Her research interests include the geopolitical security dynamics of Asia, arms control and disarmament and the military applications of emerging technologie

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