The Behavioral Approach to Diplomatic History - Some behavioral concepts




Shifting now from some of the methods associated with the behavioral approach, one of the more serious obstacles to a richer and more subtle understanding of diplomatic history may well be the rather restricted set of concepts used in seeking to put together predictive and explanatory models. To a considerable extent, concepts are limited to those used by the practitioners, their spokesmen, and the journalists who cover diplomatic events. Are there in the behavioral science literature some concepts that might provide new insights or suggest more powerful ways of thinking about diplomatic history?

First, there are several conceptual schemes that have developed to such a degree that they might qualify under the rubric of "theories"; indeed, they are so labeled by many of those from whose disciplines they emerge. Perhaps most promising is that set of notions that are called general systems theory. Proceeding from the assumption that there are structural similarities in different fields, and correspondences in the principles that govern the behavior of entities that are intrinsically widely different, this approach seeks to identify those similarities and correspondences (as well as dissimilarities) that might be found in the universes of all the scientific disciplines. In its search for an integrated theory of behavior, the general systems approach postulates the existence of a system, its environment, and its subsystems. Some of the key concepts employed are feedback, homeostasis, network, entropy, and information, reflecting a considerable intellectual debt to cybernetics. By thinking of the states as subsystems within the international system, which in turn has a particular environment of physical and social dimensions, we are provided with a rather fruitful taxonomy that suggests, in turn, a fascinating array of hypotheses. Within the same context, the idea of homeostasis is particularly suggestive to those concerned with balance, stability, and equilibrium in the international system.

Another set of concepts that seems to offer real promise is that employed in the theory of games. The clearest model postulates two or more players (individuals, groups, states, coalitions) pursuing a set of goals according to a variety of strategies. If the goals are perceived by the players as incompatible, that is, only one player may win, we have a so-called "zero-sum" or win-lose game, with the players tending to utilize a "minimax" strategy. If, however, they perceive a possible winwin outcome, their strategies tend to deviate sharply from the conservative minimax pattern, in which they place prime emphasis on minimizing their maximum losses. The appropriateness of such a model for an enduring rivalry seems rather evident.

We now turn from these very general conceptual schemes to some of the more limited concepts found in the specific behavioral disciplines. Looking first at psychology, from learning theory, stimulus-response theory, and the concepts associated with reinforcement, a wide range of models can be adapted and modified and could ultimately shed useful light on diplomatic influence, a central aspect of international relations. For example, is a major power more likely to shape the policies of a weaker neighbor by punishment, reward, denial, threat, promise, or calculated detachment? Or, in seeking to explain the way in which public opinion in a given state ultimately influenced a certain policy decision, we might find some valuable suggestions in reference-group theory, the concepts of access and role-conflict, or some of the models of communication nets. To take another problem area, if one were concerned with the emerging attitudinal characteristics of the international environment, such notions as acculturation, internalization, relative deprivation, self-image, or consensus might prove to be highly productive.

Or consider the discipline of sociology, from which many contemporary researchers in foreign affairs have borrowed heavily. If we seek to better understand the foreign policy of the United States or any other nation, we may want to think of the international system (regional or global) as similar to other social systems, but with national states—rather than individuals or groups—as the component units. Such systems manifest certain characteristics, and as these change, the behavior of the component units might also be expected to change. For example, certain social systems are highly stratified at certain times, in the sense that people who rank high on wealth are also high on education, prestige, and political power. Under such conditions, one might expect more conflict because the underdogs are deprived on every dimension. Might it also be that when the international system is highly stratified—with a few nations ranking at the top in wealth, resources, population, military capability, industrial output, and diplomatic status—the likelihood of sharp conflict goes up?

Remaining with sociological concepts, but shifting down from the systemic to the unit level of aggregation, certain individuals tend to be much more mobile than others, and as a result may acquire power more easily, or perhaps experience more conflict. That is, lateral mobility—by which is meant the rate at which individuals move in and out of certain cliques or associations—may also apply to nations, reflecting the rate at which they move in and out of blocs, alliances, or international organizations. Similarly, rapid vertical (upward or downward) mobility might be expected to get nations, as well as individuals, into more conflict than if they occupied a constant niche or moved up or down very gradually.

In the same vein, the concept of status inconsistency and its relationship to "deviant" behavior might merit closer examination. For example, if an individual ranks high on education or some other status-relevant dimension but low on political influence, he should—according to some sociologists—show a fair amount of deviant behavior. Do nations that rank high in certain prestige or status dimensions but low in power, manifest more odd and unpredictable behavior than those that are status-consistent?

As an example from the discipline of economics, consider the concepts of monopoly and oligopoly, reflecting the extent to which a given market is dominated by one firm or a handful of firms. The concentration of economic power may have its parallel at the international level, with a regional, functional, or global system manifesting a high degree of concentration as one or two nations enjoy most of the trade, industrial output, energy consumption, or military might in that system. The consequences of such high concentration, among firms or among nations, could be quite profound in its effects on such phenomena as conflict and cooperation, vertical mobility or stagnation, or the formation and dissolution of coalitions.

The range and variety of concepts that have been developed in the behavioral sciences is impressive indeed, as is the extent to which those concepts have often helped to differentiate, clarify, synthesize, or explain phenomena that had hitherto been quite baffling.

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