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.


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See also Decision Making ; Public Opinion .

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