Biology to Geopolitics: Evolving International Relations

The Pain-Pleasure Principle in Geopolitics. All behavior in the animal kingdom is governed by the avoidance of pain and the pursuit of pleasure. As we ascend from the primitive animals of Earth up to the pinnacle of human creation, we can observe that the pain-pleasure dynamic still governs all human behavior, but it assumes different identities depending on the context. In the context of International Relations, the pain-pleasure principle manifests as the avoidance of war and political career destruction (pain) versus the pursuit of conquest (economic, geographic, cultural, etc.) and political career success (pleasure). These are seemingly sophisticated human behaviors, but they are merely the topical veneer of the pain-pleasure principle in action.

Socially Derived Pain and Pleasure. The pain-pleasure principle is defined by and constrained within a universe of consequences. When caused by human action, pain is a consequence of interacting with other humans who reject what we want them to do. Conversely, when caused by human action, pleasure is a consequence of interacting with other humans who accept what we want them to do. Within the context of human interaction, the pain-pleasure principle is essentially a social phenomenon that is experienced in response to the actions of other humans in our environment.

The Bridge Between the Biological and the Geopolitical. Constructivists in the field of International Relations believe that the International System is constructed by the atomic building blocks of shared norms, patterns of human behavior that form institutions, shared and individual beliefs about the identities of the actors and objects within the International System, the social relationships between these actors and objects, among other dynamics. The social dimension of Constructivism is the bridge between the biological pain-pleasure principle and the higher level geopolitical activities that we consciously observe as causes and effects of actor agency within the International System.

Modern Constructivism Can Be More Scientific. With the bridge between the biological to the sociological to the geopolitical established, we can begin to develop a clearer understanding of why the distinction between Constructivism and Rationalism is largely illusory. Specifically, Constructionism’s social epistemology does not preclude the positivist epistemology of Rationalism. The social sciences have increasingly absorbed the tools of falsification, language pattern analysis, neurochemical analysis, data mining, statistical analysis, and various types of quantitative analysis to derive greater insight and meaning from social phenomena.

The Art and Science of International Relations. Constructivism and Rationalism exist on the same continuum of truth much like art and science exist on the same continuum of creativity. Their essential expression converges at the point where knowledge of what is and the imagination of what might be merge to create an expanded awareness of their respective domains and a deeper appreciation for the discrete phenomena that comprise their domains.

The Virality of Human Ideas and Pathogens. International Relations between states cannot be truly understood without analyzing the evolution of shared norms, cultural values, institutional patterns of human behavior, and the causes and effects among all these variables. Likewise, scientists cannot truly understand the etiology of a deadly human virus without analyzing the evolution of the virus’ DNA/RNA, what environmental conditions may have promoted certain mutations over others, the type of social human activity that facilitates the spread of the virus, etc. The spread of human ideas and norms within and between nations can and should be analyzed with the same holistic, systematic approach that epidemiologists use to understand and predict the spread of human pathogens.

Constructivism vs. Rationalism: A False Dichotomy. The battle between Constructivism and Rationalism is commonly exemplified by the question “Are states influenced by a logic of consequences or a logic of appropriateness?” But this question implies a false dichotomy. The “logic of consequences” and the “logic of appropriateness” are both fundamentally driven by the same biological dynamics of the pain-pleasure principle.

The Marriage of Constructivism and Rationalism. To suffer from a consequence of behaving “inappropriately” (a Constructivist concept) is fundamentally no different than suffering from a consequence of any other kind. And the “logic of consequence” is not the exclusive domain of Rationalism; it appears to be a fundamental principle of cause and effect throughout the entire universe. Thus, Constructivism can legitimately embrace Rationalism’s analysis of empirical cause and effect and continue to emphasize the significance of sociological dynamics within and among states without diminishing its integrity as a distinct discipline within the field of International Relations.

Unifying Everything Under One Label: Neoconstructivism. In most marriages there is a merger of names. In this case, Rationalists have defined themselves too narrowly, which precludes them from representing the marriage between Constructivism and Rationalism. We need a label that is expansive enough to integrate the science of positivistic Rationalism and the art of socio-political analysis into a unified concept. But the phrase “Constructivism” by itself is not expansive enough because it traditionally does not include positivist principles and the label “Conservative Constructivism” is so vague and boring that it scarcely inspires anybody to want to learn why the marriage of Rationalism and Constructivism is such an exciting development in the field of International Relations. Thus, from this point forward, I refer to this hybrid of Rationalism and Constructivism as “Neoconstructivism.”

Applying Neoconstructivism to the Real World. The quagmires of the Vietnam and Iraq Wars and the collapse of the USSR could have all been predicted years in advance within the context of this framework. As each of those events were unfolding, there were a constellation of quantitative and qualitative factors that were operating in concert to contribute to each phase of those events and their final outcomes. Quantifiable economic factors signaled many cracks in the Iron Curtain long before it came down in 1991. Socio-political factors within the Eastern Bloc countries also telegraphed seismic cultural changes, all of which were driving the diplomacy and international relations around the world in the years prior to 1991. Savvy businesspeople could have made fortunes from positioning themselves to profit from those events. (In fact, some fortunes were made.)

Helping Policymakers Accurately Predict and Avoid Catastrophe. Domestic public opinion in the United States turned against the Vietnam and Iraq Wars, which impacted the domestic welfare policies of President Lyndon Johnson and the domestic homeland security policies of President George W. Bush. Without analyzing the holistic context of the historical and socioeconomic factors associated to these events from a Neoconstructivist perspective, it would not be possible to understand why Johnson did not run for a second presidential term or how Bush was influenced by his father’s experience in the 1991 Gulf War, which likely caused him to be more aggressive in the 2003 Iraq War. All of these events continue to reverberate throughout the International System to this day. Using a Neoconstructivist analytical framework would have enabled policymakers to predict and avoid those catastrophes.

Mr. Academic: Tear Down that Ivory Tower! Many scholars seem to treat their academic domains like an impregnable fortress, high atop a mountain, protected from the onslaught of conflicting interests and adversarial ideas. They often seek to preserve the purity of their disciplines rather than embrace the complimentary features of other analytical frameworks and philosophies. This is a significant liability for any real-world diplomat, politician, or International Relations professional tasked with the goal of achieving peace, stability, or evaluating the viability of a significant financial investment that could be vulnerable to geopolitical and socioeconomic volatility.

The Field of International Relations Will Evolve. The importance of analyzing and quantifying (whenever possible) the socio-political mechanisms of International Relations is fundamentally no different than the importance of analyzing and quantifying (whenever possible) the socio-biological mechanisms that lead to global viral pandemics. The distinction between Constructivism and Rationalism will eventually be eliminated as silos of ignorance within the International Relations field are replaced with a more holistic awareness based on a multi-disciplinary understanding of our world. To remain relevant in a rapidly changing world in which viral ideas can spread and destabilize nations even faster than biological viruses can spread and infect human populations, International Relations scholars must be able to adapt and integrate ideas from as many domains as possible into their conception of the field of International Relations.

About Ferris Eanfar

Ferris has over 20 years of experience in the field of International Political Economy, including leadership positions within technical, business, financial, media and government intelligence environments. If you want to learn more about Ferris, please visit the About Ferris page.