The Behavioral Approach to Diplomatic History - Conclusion

There are several ways in which one might react to the foregoing information and suggestions. One might, for example, paraphrase that observer who told us that "history is bunk" and assert that "social science is bunk." Less frivolously, one might see little value in trying to apply the behavioral sciences to the study of diplomatic history, concluding that the investment will far exceed the likely gain. For those who conclude otherwise, it may nevertheless appear to represent a radical break with traditional style, and thus one that should not be taken lightly.

Not only can we benefit considerably by attending to the behavioral sciences, but to do so represents only a logical expansion of practices and procedures that for decades have been the stock-in-trade of historians. First, we note that the scientific method has been utilized for centuries in the solution of all sorts of physical and biological problems. But for a variety of reasons, ranging from religious taboos and superstition to the allegedly greater complexity of social phenomena, we have shied away from (if not vigorously resisted) its application to the study of social problems. That orientation has, however, been gradually eroded, partly through the work of courageous and creative scholars and partly because of the increasingly obvious need to replace folklore with knowledge.

In addition to the fact that social science is merely an extension of a given intellectual style already well established in the study of physical and biological phenomena, it is also quite nonrevolutionary in that it is little more than an extension of certain problem-solving processes that have always been used. While it is clearly an extension, the fact is that human beings have used a combination of logic and sensory observation for centuries in coping with social problems. In trying to understand what people did under certain conditions and why they did it, philosophers, kings, merchants, and soldiers have often employed a rudimentary form of scientific method. That is, they have tried (a) to identify and classify a variety of social events and conditions; (b) to ascertain the extent to which they occurred together or in sequence; and (c) to remember those observed co-occurrences.

But since they seldom have used explicit criteria in classification, they often placed highly dissimilar events and conditions in the same category; and since they seldom used constant criteria, they often forgot which criteria they had used for earlier classifications, with the same garbled results. Moreover, because one could not put social events on a scale, or measure the length and breadth of a social condition, their basic belief that social phenomena were not tangible, and therefore not measurable, was reinforced. This failure to measure and scale further reinforced the philosophic notion that whereas physical (and later, biological) phenomena were inherently quantitative, those of a social nature were inherently qualitative. Given this widespread belief, there was little effort to develop either the instruments of observation or the tools of measurement.

For centuries, then, social phenomena could be studied in a no more reliable or accurate fashion than if physical ones were studied without yardsticks, balance scales, or telescopes. To put it another way, the primitive essentials of scientific method were used but the critical refinements were ignored. Instead of aiding and enhancing their natural capacities to observe, remember, and reason, observers made a virtue of these very frailties and inadequacies by arguing that the incomprehensibility of social phenomena was inherent in the events and conditions themselves, rather than in the grossly inadequate methods used in that effort to comprehend. Modern social science, then, is nothing more than an application of methods already found useful in the other sciences and an extension and refinement of the basic methods always used. As in the familiar cliché, we have been "speaking prose" all along, but prose of a rather poor quality.

To be sure, the study of foreign relations remains as it was in the 1970s and 1980s. But this is not necessarily good news. First, there was the lively and early interest in the behavioral sciences approach among certain scholars and practitioners. In the early days of the peace research movement, for instance, one found copies of the Journal of Conflict Resolution and the Journal of Peace Research on the desks and shelves in certain self-selected offices in the Departments of State and Defense. Further, such agencies as the Advanced Research Projects Agency or the Office of Naval Research were practically caught up in the early enthusiasm of the 1960s for computer simulation, game theory analyses, or even the wide-ranging survey research and field interview strategies, as in the U.S. Army's Project Camelot. And the years following the Cuban missile crisis also saw moderate levels of involvement between U.S. and Soviet groups around a variety of conflict resolution conferences and field studies in Washington, New York, London, Moscow, and Ann Arbor, Michigan. But worth noting is, first, the relatively limited reflection of these interests in the scholarly literature of diplomatic and military history, and, second, the impact of U.S. intervention in the Vietnam War. By the early 1970s, the behavioral science enthusiasm had pretty much disappeared from both the policy and academic scene, with almost no residue in the scholarly literature.

Worse yet, with the demise of the Cold War, the early curiosity and experimentalism of the Cold War–Cuban missile crisis–Vietnam epoch was gradually replaced with a nouveau vague interest in approaches that were not only nonscientific but explicitly and ideologically antiscientific. For reasons not yet clearly evident, the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s culminated in the flowering of a scholarly literature of remarkable vitality and intellectual vacuity. Reference, of course, is to the postmodernist movement, embracing such variations as poststructural, postpositivist, and, perhaps, postbehaviorial. These orientations are found primarily in the humanities and those of the more humanistic social sciences, including, of course, history. In addition to the appearance of a new vocabulary in which words like "discourse," "contested," and "social construction" figure prominently, it is not surprising that the discipline of history is paying less attention to diplomatic and military phenomena and more to gender, race, and social class. While such variables were admittedly underrepresented in the study of foreign affairs and world politics during the twentieth century, this radical shift in both the theoretical and the methodological hardly bodes well for the future of the discipline.

Some might suggest that none of this matters a great deal, given how modest has been the contribution of the behavioral sciences. Scholars such as John L. Gaddis (1992) have gone out of their way to remind us that with all of the modern scientific paraphernalia in their toolbox, the behaviorists utterly failed to predict either the Soviet collapse or the end of the Cold War. Three responses seem appropriate. First, the behavioral science researchers in international politics were not alone in being asleep at the switch. Second, those who should have been alert to the Soviet demise were the specialists in the Cold War, Kremlinology, and contemporary diplomacy. Third, there were some who did indeed predict the end of the Cold War (as J. David Singer did in his 1986 article "The Missiles of October—1988: Resolve, Reprieve, and Reform").

In sum, it is very difficult to quarrel with Robin G. Collingwood's early recognition (1922) of the intellectual similarity between history and science:

The analysis of science in epistemological terms is thus identical with the analysis of history, and the distinction between them as separate kinds of knowledge is an illusion…. When both areregarded as actual inquiries, the difference of method and of logic wholly disappears…. Thenineteenth century positivists were right in thinking that history could and would become more scientific.

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