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Rationalism (international relations)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

International relations theory
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Politics portal

Rationalism in politics is often seen as the midpoint in two major political viewpoints of realism and internationalism. Whereas Realism and Internationalism are both on ends of the scale, rationalism tends to occupy the middle ground on most issues, and finds compromise between these two conflicting points of view.


Believers of Rationalism believe that multinational and multilateral organizations have their place in the world order, but not that a world government would be feasible. They point to current international organizations, most notably the United Nations, and point out that these organizations leave a lot to be desired and, in some cases, do more harm than good. They believe that this can be achieved through greater international law making procedures and that the use of force can be avoided in resolving disputes.[1]

Rationalists tend to see the rule of law and order as being equally important to states as it helps reduce conflicts. This in turn helps states become more willing to negotiate treaties and agreements where it best suits their interests. However, they see it as wrong for a nation to promote its own national interests, reminiscent of Internationalism, but that there is already a high level of order in the international system without a world government.[1]

Views on sovereignty

Rationalists believe that states have a right to sovereignty, particularly over territory, but that this sovereignty can be violated in exceptional circumstances, such as human rights violations.

In situations such as that of Burma after Cyclone Nargis, rationalists find it acceptable for other states to violate that country's sovereignty in order to help its people. This would be where an organisation such as the United Nations would come in and decide whether the situation is exceptional enough to warrant a violation of that state's sovereignty.[1]

Attitude towards war

There are several rationalist explanations for why states go to war. The first rationalist explanation for war is that of anarchy. Within a state, the existence of a central government that controls the means to violence keeps people in check. However, in international relations, there does not exist a central government that can coerce and monopolize violence. The rationalist anarchy claim is that because states do not have a higher power that can credibly threaten punishment for the use of violence, states are more likely to turn to war to resolve conflicts. The second rationalist explanation is that states engage in preventive war. This occurs when a state is declining in power and another state is rising in power. The declining power, expecting to be attacked in the future by the rising power, attacks the rising power now while the declining power is still relatively strong. Thirdly, there is the explanation of positive expected utility. War occurs in this scenario when the expected benefits of war outweigh the expected costs. Finally, the last two explanations for why rational leaders choose to go to war are that people have incentives to misrepresent information about their capabilities, making it hard to reach a trustworthy bargain, and because of commitment problems faced by the stronger state gives them incentive to renege on previously negotiated peace bargains.[2]

Fearon's rationalist explanation of war

In his 1995 paper titled "Rationalist Explanations of War", James Fearon examines the five, predominant rationalist explanations for war and aims to evaluate their theoretical strength and empirical plausibility. He concludes that the first three rationalist explanations of warfare are not robust explanations within the rationalist framework because they do not explain away the fact that states can still reach a negotiated bargain in those cases. In all of the first three explanations, negotiation is still a more rational course of action than war. Fearon concludes that asymmetric information and commitment problems are the two sufficient explanations for why rational actors might choose to wage war because they appropriately explain why an actor's most rational choice is to fight instead of negotiate.[3]

Comparison to other political perspectives


Realists believe that states act independently of each other and that states' sovereignty is effectively sacred. Rationalists agree to a certain extent. However, as stated previously, rationalism includes sovereignty as a vital factor, but not as untouchable and 'sacred'.

Realists also hold the Treaty of Westphalia and the international system that arose from this as the international system that prevails to this day. Rationalists acknowledge that the treaty has played an important part in shaping international relations and the world order and that certain aspects, such as sovereignty, still exist and play a vital role, but not that it has survived in its entirety. They believe that through the existence of international organisations, such as the European Union and the United Nations, the international system is less anarchic than Realists claim.[4]


Internationalists believe in a world order where an effective world government would govern the world, that sovereignty is an outdated concept and barrier to creating peace, the need for a common humanity and the need for cooperative solutions. Rationalists adhere to these beliefs to some extent. For example, with regards to the need for a common humanity and cooperative solutions, rationalists see this as being achieved without the need to abolish sovereignty and the Westphalian concept of the nation-state.[1]

Applied rationalism

United Nations reform

It is believed that the proposals for reform of the United Nations come from rationalist thoughts and points of view. This belief is held because most members of the UN agree that the UN requires reform, in the way of expanding or abolishing the Security Council and granting it more powers to violate sovereignty if necessary.[1]


Some figures who consider themselves as 'rationalist' include:


  1. ^ a b c d e Scott, Derek; Simpson, Anna-Louise (2008). Power and International Politics. Social Education Victoria.
  2. ^ Fearon, James (1995). "Rationalist Explanations for War". International Organization. 49 (3): 379–414. doi:10.1017/s0020818300033324.
  3. ^ Fearon, James (1995). "Rationalist Explanations for War". International Organization. 49 (3): 379–414. doi:10.1017/s0020818300033324.
  4. ^ "Political Philosophy". Retrieved 2009-05-23.
  5. ^ "Habermas, Jürgen". Retrieved 03-06-2009. Check date values in: |accessdate= (help)
  6. ^ "Australian Humanists of the Year". Archived from the original on 2008-08-23. Retrieved 03-06-2009. Check date values in: |accessdate= (help)
  7. ^ Lynch, March (July 25, 2005). "IR: Constructivism v Rationalism". Abu Aardvark. Retrieved 10 November 2013.
This page was last edited on 25 September 2019, at 23:03
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