Despite the name, rationalist theories of international relations are anything but, limited as they are by both an almost childlike understanding of human behavior and a catastrophic lack of imagination. Rationalist theories of international relations, like the Objectivism which developed in the same post-World War II period, rely on a number of assumptions which have since been shown to be empirically false. Rationalism assumes that the most important, and in fact, the only entities dictating international relations are nation states, and that these nation states are engaged in a zero-sum game of diplomacy and war, in which the goals of every nation state is eventual dominance above all others, so that international relations are dictated almost exclusively through violence or coercion, with diplomacy essentially reduced to the well-spoken threat of force. Thus, rationalist theories of international relations are not only incorrect, but altogether dangerous, as they give the violent and aggressive theoretical justification for their actions by suggesting that conflict is inevitable and all other nation states represent and existential threat. By examining rationalist theories of international relations in greater detail, as well as far more effective theories for describing the functioning of global politics, it becomes clear that the rationalist theory of international relations is erroneous, dangerous, and ultimately just plain ignorant, so far reaching are its assumptions and blind spots.
Before examining rationalist theory in greater detail, it is helpful to first outline some of the major flaws with the theory in order to give some structure to the subsequent demolition of its claims. Firstly, rationalist theory, like Objectivism, fails as a legitimate theory due to its appropriation and tortuous reformation of its titular term, implicitly demonstrating its fallacious nature through the fact that it must secure itself a title that seems to demonstrate its validity a priori. Secondly, rationalist theory's application of its key organizing term actually has little bearing to "rationality," so that while its claims have the appearance of accuracy and appeal to people's gut reactions, closer inspection reveals that what is called "rational" by rationalist theory is anything but. These two flaws are somewhat general, because they stem from rationalist theory's lack of rigor and ill-defined terms. Thus, while these problems alone are enough to invalidate rationalist theories, what makes them truly dangerous, in terms of actual lives lost, comes from the specific ways in which these logical and theoretical failures are applied to real world politics.
In terms of application, just as rationalist theory is rendered invalid due to the gap between what it calls "rational" and every other generally used definition of the term, so too does its description of international politics have very little bearing to the reality of international relations. Rationalist theory, born as it was out of the failure of the League of Nations, favors the nation state as the primary actor in international relations, discounting any possible influence of intergovernmental organizations and completely disregarding non-governmental organizations.
For example, in his book Political theory and international affairs, Hans Morgenthau, one of the central proponents of the rationalist theory of international relations, answers the question "where does sovereignty lie?" By claiming that at least in the United States, sovereignty lies with the federal government, because "the Civil War decided that issue in favor of the Union because the federal government happened to have won the Civil War" (Morgenthau 2004, 104). In his construction, sovereignty (and thus power, influence, and the ability to dictate the evolution of international relations) may only lie with the governments of nation states, even though a cursory glance at international politics proves this is not the case, due to the overwhelming influence of capital over every facet of modern life.
Even if one defines sovereignty in the most barbaric of terms (that is, those entities with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force) one finds that it is not governments which maintain this monopoly, but rather the rich, even if governmental organizations are most often the ones carrying out the grunt work. Any subsequent flaws in rationalist theory stem from this fundamental misunderstanding as to the distribution of power in the world, and rationalist theories are so dangerous precisely because they work to shield this power structure from scrutiny while giving the powerful theoretical support to continue their dominance at the expense of a majority of the human population. Thus, having identified the major problems and consequences of rationalist theories of international relations in general, it is now possible to examine these problems in detail, as well as discussing more useful alternatives that have a far better ability to describe the functioning of international relations.
Perhaps the defining problem with rationalist theories of international relations is the fact that they have laid claim to the title of "rational," which allows rationalist theories to present themselves as objective, scientific approaches to global politics even though the specifics of the theories are arbitrary and wholly lacking in the rigor expected of truly scientific investigations. Thus, rationalist theories are presented as useful without actually having to show "the empirical value of their approach" (Checkel 1998, 339). Rationalist theory essentially is a case of "words [taking] on the meanings and colorations that reflect the preferences of their users," a phenomena ironically lamented by one of the proponents of rationalist theory (Art & Waltz 2009, 117). Thus, rationalist theoreticians may claim that they "work with the world as it really is," even though the "world as it really is" bears little resemblance to the laughably simplified version of governmental and human interactions presented in their theories (Brown 2001, 28). At its core, rational choice theories propose that nation states make rational choices based on "the incentive structure faced by those making decision" (Baylis, Smith & Owens 2008, 250). At first glance, this seems largely intuitive, and indeed, much of the success of rationalist theory has come from its ability to simply feel correct when approached without a critical eye, as most people assume that people, and groups of people, will tend to make the most rational choice with the information presented.
Rationalist theory plays upon "a fundamental issue regarding the nature of human knowledge and experience: that when we operate from a dominant mode of experience, we often fall prey to rationalist error," believing that assumptions regarding the functioning of the world are actually empirical observations. Thus, "the appeal of the traditional approach [to international relations] based on the overall power structure lies in its simplicity and parsimonious predictions," because "judgments of relative power seem easy to make on the basis of military strength," and according to this ideology (make no mistake, it is an ideology), "it is possible to calculate a rational course of action in any given situation" (Keohane 2001, 37). The appeal lies in its ostensible simplicity, drawing in the uncritical by presenting seemingly obvious claims without bothering to outline or discuss any of the numerous assumptions which underlie those claims. This appeal towards "rationality" of course does not correspond with reality, both at the level of the individual and group, but because it fits in with most people's assumptions rationalist theory is given something of a free pass.
When examined with any sort of attention to detail and accuracy, "it immediately becomes controversial as to how far human beings are capable of behaving rationally, how rationality is defined in the first place, and whether what we deem rational behaviour is in any case so desirable" (Hill 2003, 97). The arbitrary relationship between the word "rational" and the phenomena upon which it is applied in rationalist theory is actually hinted at by Hans Morgenthau. In his book Politics Among Nations, Morgenthau states that "intellectually, the political realist maintains the autonomy of the political sphere as the economist, the lawyer, the moralist maintain theirs" (Morgenthau 1993, 13). Examining this quote in greater detail will help to uncover one of the biggest problems with rationalist theory, namely, the entirely unscientific process by which it makes its assumptions and draws its conclusions.
Morgenthau's choice of professions with which to compare the realist/rationalist theoretician is telling, because each of these professions actually has very little bearing to objective reality or the scientific method. Economics, as a discipline, is entirely unscientific, relying as it does on assumptions of rationality that prove entirely irrelevant to the actual buying choices of human beings. Law, while ostensibly more rigorous than economics, is itself not concerned with any kind of objective truth or accuracy, but rather the manipulation of rules and information to achieve the desired result (such that the comparison makes the international relations scholar appear more like a propagandist than anything else). Finally, morality is probably the least worthwhile of all, based as it is on wholly fabricated notions of universal rights and wrongs that completely disappear so long as one does not believe in omnipotent sky gods with magical powers.
It is necessary at this point to expand the discussion to rationality in general, as a means of…