The Behavioral Approach to Diplomatic History

J. David Singer

When it comes to the ability to understand and predict events of importance, students and practitioners of American diplomacy manifest a fair degree of ambivalence. On the one hand, we find many bold efforts to explain why certain events unfolded as they did, and, on the other, we find frequent statements to the effect that these phenomena are so complex as to defy comprehension. According to Henry Kissinger, one of the more celebrated practitioner-scholars, such understanding is often "in the nature of things… a guess." Or, as Robert Bowie put it, "The policymaker works in an uneasy world of prediction and probability." And George F. Kennan put it still another way: "I can testify from personal experience that not only can one never know, when one takes a far-reaching decision in foreign policy, precisely what the consequences are going to be, but almost never do these consequences fully coincide with what one intended or expected."

While there is truth in these statements, such uncertainty may not necessarily inhere in the phenomena we study. It may well be, rather, in the ways in which that study is conducted. At the risk, then, of suggesting that students of diplomatic history—American and otherwise—have plied their trade with less than a full bag of tools, this essay addresses a number of ways in which the behavioral approach might usefully supplement the more traditional procedures.

By behavioral approach, it is not meant to say that we should pay more attention to the behavior of individuals, factions, and states than to their attributes and relationships or to the regional and global environment within which such behavior occurs. If anything, diplomatic history seems to be overly attentive to behavioral phenomena, and insufficiently attentive to the background conditions and ecological constraints within which these phenomena occur. Normally, the behavioral sciences include psychology, anthropology, sociology, economics, and political science, but the range of disciplines embraced can be less interesting than the range of methods, concepts, and findings that might be borrowed from those who labor in those particular vineyards.


Barbieri, Katherine. Trade and Conflict. Ann Arbor, Mich., 2000. A careful and systematic examination of the historical pattern between trade and conflict.

Berelson, Bernard, and Gary A. Steiner. Human Behavior: An Inventory of Scientific Findings. New York, 1964. Although dated, this inventory summarizes much of the flowering research of the post–World War II period.

Brams, Steven J. Theory of Moves. New York and Cambridge, 1994. One of the richest and most accessible works on the game theory approach for the nonmathematical scholar.

Brecher, Michael, and Jonathon Wilkenfield. A Study of Crisis. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1997. An original and ambitious analysis of most diplomatic crises since 1919.

Bremer, Stuart A., and Thomas R. Cusack, eds. The Process of War: Advancing the Scientific Study of War. Amsterdam, 1995. Papers from a Correlates of War conference emphasizing the strengths of thinking of war as part of a process.

Bueno de Mesquita, Bruce, and David Lalman. War and Reason: Domestic and International Imperatives. New Haven, Conn., 1992. A strong presentation of the rational choice interpretation of the decisions for war.

Collingwood, Robin G. "Are History and Science Different Kinds of Knowledge?" Mind (1922). A prediction that historians would begin to embrace the procedures of scientific method.

Cusack, Thomas R., and Richard J. Stoll. Exploring Realpolitik: Probing International Relations Theory with Computer Simulation. Boulder, Colo., 1990. An exemplary examination of how computerized simulations of international interactions can shed light on underlying dynamics.

Diehl, Paul F., and Gary Goertz. War and Peace in International Rivalry. Ann Arbor, Mich., 2000. The most comprehensive investigation into the dynamics of international rivalries and the propensity to go to war.

Gaddis, John L. "International Relations Theory and the End of the Cold War." International Security 16 (1992): 5–58. A widely cited article that sought to understand Western failures to predict the end of the Cold War.

Geller, Daniel S., and J. David Singer. Nations at War: A Scientific Study of International Conflict. Cambridge and New York, 1998. A thorough codification of data-based findings on the correlates of international war.

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Huth, Paul K. Standing Your Ground: Territorial Disputes and International Conflict. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1996. Models and findings on the role of territorial disputes in the onset of war.

Janis, Irving L. Victims of Groupthink: A Psychological Study of Foreign-Policy Decisions and Fiascoes. Boston, 1972. Applies psychological findings to foreign policy decision making and its high error rate.

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Lemke, Douglas, and Jacek Kugler, eds. Parity and War: Evaluations and Extensions of the War Ledger. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1996. Data-based studies of the impact of material capabilities of states, and rates of change therein, on the probabilities of war.

Leng, Russell J. Bargaining and Learning in Recurring Crises: The Soviet-American, Egyptian-Israeli, and Indo-Pakistani Rivalries. Ann Arbor, Mich., 2000. Examines which strategies make crises more or less escalation prone.

Maoz, Zeev. Paradoxes of War: On the Art of National Self-Entrapment. Boston, 1990. Fascinating discussion of the ways foreign policy decision makers generate outcomes quite different from those preferred.

Midlarsky, Manus I. Handbook of War Studies II. Ann Arbor, Mich., 2000. Excellent articles reviewing some of the central issues in the study of war and peace.

Morgan, T. Clifton. Untying the Knot of War: A Bargaining Theory of International Crises. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1994. Use of bargaining and game theory to understand the ways in which conflicts can lead to war.

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Stam, Allan C., III. Win, Lose, or Draw: Domestic Politics and the Crucible of War. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1996. A suggestive, rare, valuable look into the role of domestic politics in decisions for war and peace.

Thompson, William R. On Global War: Historical-Structural Approaches to World Politics. Columbia, S.C., 1988. A long cycle historical interpretation of economic and strategic factors in war and the evolving hierarchy in the global system.

Vasquez, John A. The War Puzzle. Cambridge and New York, 1993. An influential effort to assemble and interpret data-based findings on the explanation of war.

Wayman, Frank W., and Paul F. Diehl, eds. Reconstructing Realpolitik. Ann Arbor, 1994. Collection of studies that scrutinized some of the more widely believed realpolitik models.

Wright, Quincy. "Design for a Research Proposal on International Conflicts." Western Political Quarterly 10 (1957). Some early proposed research foci by one of the pioneers of scientific research on world politics.

See also Decision Making ; Public Opinion .

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