“Kant” Revisited: Rationality Won’t Save Us

“Rationality won’t save us”, as Robert McNamara warned us in “The Fog of War”. That’s probably my favorite quote regarding the nature of warfare.

It can’t save us because it’s beholden to the irrational.

The threat of nuclear war has been staring at us for the last 70 years. Mind you, the threat of it alone has probably prevented another World War. People in general just can’t stomach it. But it’s only a matter of time.

If a line is created, humans will inevitably cross it.

It’s simply been too long since the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Sure, history remembers it well, but the scars will quickly be forgotten. Unlike the Cold War generation, we haven’t grown up knowing that there’s a gun pointed at our heads. But the barrel has never been lowered. We’ve grown up under its shadow yet we haven’t noticed. But it’s there, and it will go off. We may dodge a bullet under Donald Trump, but nuclear deterrence won’t hold forever. It can’t. It certainly won’t hold if we keep electing lunatics into office. But if we have learned anything from Robert McNamara, who nearly saw nuclear war despite having two rational heads controlling the chess board, rationality might give us warning…but it won’t save us.

Once again, I must’ve been plastered when I wrote this because there isn’t much that I remember. But I do recall a professor that would continually repeat “numbers never lie”…as if they told the entire truth.  That’s all he pretty much ever said in class. He’s right, and I never questioned it. But thinking on it now, it kinda pisses me off. I explain why in the post.

Now that I think about that class, I hated it. So this is kind of my F-U to that professor.

I’ll be occupied over the weekend, so I won’t be writing much. Enjoy the holiday. As usual, because I’m lazy as shit, I don’t edit or spellcheck. So please forgive those errors.



Do you ever come across C-Span and wonder who the hell watches this shit? Well the answer to that is me. I do. While everyone else is watching Negan beat the shit out Rick and the gang, I’m watching trade deals with the Ivory Coast and some obscure professor with an Eastern European name discuss his latest social science book.

That’s what excites me. And if I could serve in any branch of government, it would be the State Department. It’s not as sexy as the Department of Defense or Homeland Security, but that’s what I’m interested in. Hell, if Donald Trump called me up and said “Kanye West doesn’t want to be Secretary of State, do you want the job?”, I might say yes. I’d consider it at least.

I imagine that most you listening know what the State Department is. In case most of you don’t, I think that a lot of people think of it as the customer service of America. When the military rolls in and destroys your village, you get with your local ambassador and air out your grievances. Right? Hilary Clinton was the State Department Secretary in case most of you don’t remember.

So anyways, the work that I will be reading is Theory of International Politics by Kenneth N. Waltz. And when trying to come to a definition of Theory, as it is distinguishable from the definition of Law, Waltz says something interesting. My infamous professor of sociology in college, in his defense of statistics, simply said that numbers never lie. And being a low-level college freshman that was more interested in getting laid than getting into any sort of in-depth discussion on anything, there was no way for me to refute that. No, of course numbers don’t lie. But perhaps numbers don’t tell the entire story. Waltz simply says that numbers and statistics only describe the world, but it doesn’t explain it. With my finger firmly on the pulse of modern intelligentsia, this might be a dubious idea. At least in the realm of social sciences, there might be a tendency to try and reduce individuals and events into a numerical description. Why? Possibly because numbers are absolute, and the real world is chaotic.

But Waltz introduces this idea of “inductivist illusion.” as credited by Levi-Strauss. And this is the idea that the more information we gather, like data and case studies, the more likely we are to arrive at truth. But then Waltz provides a quote from C.S. Peirce that said, quote “direct experience is neither certain nor uncertain, because it affirms nothing-it just is. It involves no error, because it testifies to nothing but its own appearance. For the same reason, it affords no certainty.” End quote. So data doesn’t necessarily prove anything. It’s just a representation of thing being analyzed .And of course, I feel the same way about history. It’s an assessment of how we got to our current time, at least in pragmatic terms, or just a recalling of events that happened some time ago. Of course, lessons should be learned from it, but using it as a tool to determine what’s going to happen in the future is pointless. Data and history can determine probability, but probability does not necessarily equate to actuality. So the inductive method clearly has its limits. And expanding on his definition of Theory, Waltz says something interesting. Quote: “those who believe, oddly, that knowledge begins with certainties think of theories as edifices of truth, which they would build inductively.” End quote. So he’s wanting to throw into question that knowledge begins with certainties. So it doesn’t appear that Waltz is an empiricist, as he seems to invoke Immanuel Kant later on. So once again, our ideas of post-modern truth comes knocking at the door. But Waltz is trying to explain his definition of theory, in a rather long yet interesting way, at least in ways that should be familiar to you if you’ve been listening to this podcast.

He seems to be explaining the definition of Theory as not something that is rooted in empirical evidence. If all we needed was empirical evidence to explain things, we would have no need for theories. So going with that thought, theories are things that have to be constructed. In conclusion, laws are facts of nature, while theories are ways of explaining those facts.So then Waltz goes into explaining Reductionist theories. And those are the theories that focus on the individual or national level. Or more specifically, the reductionist method attempts to understand the whole by examining how its parts interact. So it moves from the small to the large. However, Waltz himself doesn’t appear to be a fan of this method, or he appears to think that these method alone cannot adequately explain international politics. And he seems to take a few shots at the Hobson-Lenin theory of capitalism and how it promotes war and imperialism, even though non-capitalistic countries with differing economic systems have engaged in similar war and imperialistic tendencies. So assessing internal public policies and economic strategies of a nation cannot adequately explain why countries engage in certain international tendencies.

There’s a lot of information here, but what helped me get through a lot of this is a YouTube series from a man named Charles Kirchofer, who provides an excellent summary of this section. But, he says that yes, economics do effect politics, but it also works vice-versa. And a lot of the talking points from reductionist theorist would lead you to believe that democracy equals peace, and so on. But it should be important to note, that Waltz isn’t necessarily saying that we need to completely do away with reductionist theories, but there has to be other supplementary methods towards understanding politics. One size does not fit all.Which that’s a very anti-political idea when you think about it. At least anti-political from the point of view of someone that is heavily engaged in one political ideology over another. It’s all too easy for us to bogged down and become too pro-free market or too-socialist, or whatever the case may be. When the fact of the matter is that there might be more than one way to skin a cat.Political ideologies tend to have a monopolizing effect on its followers. Whenever you turn on Fox News, would you hear anyone ever propose raising taxes or promote gun control. Of course not. Because politics have such a polarizing effect, we have such a hard time attempting to assess problems through other methods. I don’t know if this is what Waltz is getting at, but there is certainly a tendency for certain political scientist to look at their field with only one lens, rather than abstracting themselves and their personal biases from the equation.

This is where, I think, history becomes important. Right now, I’m listening to An Economic History of the World since 1400, a lecture series by Professor Donald J. Herrald. And I’m listening to the part about Mercantilism, and how it dominated European economic thought for over 200 years. But no one at the time thought of themselves as “mercantilist”. That was only a title attributed to them many years later. But because we have the benefit of hindsight, we are able to fully understand the mercantilist system in an unbiased way because we have no skin in the game. We are able to see it from all angles, perhaps in a better way than Adam Smith did when he coined the term “mercantile system” when that system was in its waning years.

So, when choosing between political ideas, is it best to ask yourself “how will history assess this position hundreds of years from now?”. So therefore history itself maximizes its full utility under the pretense that human progress is constantly on the upswing, and that all actions are assessed through the lens of the betterment of human progress? Therefore historicism becomes the proper guiding light for human activity. I don’t know, what am I talking about here?

Anyways, Waltz, in addition to reductionist theories also brings up systemic theories. Which, I guess we can think of it as a way to distinguish the system and the parts that make up the system. So, I suppose that if we think of reductionist theories as being bottom-up, systemic theories are top-down. But we need systemic theories that distinguish themselves from reductionism. To extend this out into a greater philosophical discussion, I think that what we need to think about is how we can generally predict behavior from individuals and nations by just looking at their internal functionality. So we can say because a then b. But there is no exact certainty. We can say that because someone has a tendency towards something, that they are more likely to commit a certain action, but we have to take into account how external factors can make an influence. On an international scale, take into account the saying “only Nixon could go to China.” The idea that a hardline anti-communist would reach out to a communist country would be considered an unpredictable move.

Of course, when it comes to Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s foreign policy, the word Realpolitik comes up. This is where ideology is sidelined in favor of pragmatic solutions. This is often considered a negative term. Whether or not Waltz’s neorealism, the central thesis to Theory of International Politics, can be considered a form of Realpolitik, I have no idea. I might just be seeing connections where none exist. But what’s interesting is that in Waltz’s form of neorealism, as where states on their own function under a centralized government. But no such polity exists on the international level. We can consider organizations like the United Nations as a governing body, but we can also consider this organization as a predator without any teeth. So international politics operate, more or less, in a state of anarchy. As in, nations all have equal right to self-preservation.

So how can we predict state behavior on an international scale, despite nations having a diverse set of internal ideologies? And by the way, neorealism contrasts with neoliberalism, I’m assuming, or the thought that nations act in accordance with their internal ideologies. So anyways, how can we determine international behavior? Well Waltz seems to advocate that the anarchistic state of international relations fosters feelings of insecurity. When one state seems to be out-gaining another, that helps to determine the actions of competing states. So external pressure, as motivated by insecurity and self-preservation, is why states seem to act contrary to their ideals.

So, I guess in some ways, how this relates to realpolitik is that as nations relate to one another, they do so out of pragmatism rather than out of any ideological needs. Now, Theory of International Politics was written during the Cold War, and Waltz seems to be advocating for a bi-polar balance of power (as opposed to multi, or unilateral) because that seemed to be the most stabilizing. Presumably, he was thinking about the United States and the USSR. So we can debate the merits of that thought, as well as the merits of neorealism in general. But Waltz wasn’t trying factor in human nature in his system of international relations. The way that I like to think of it is, he was just trying to see how individual parts interacted with a system. But what I find so intriguing about international relations is how it often results in war. It’s either about seeking it or avoiding it.

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of Errol Morris. And his other famous documentary “The Fog of War”, he interviews former Secretary of Defense Robert S McNamara, who played a major role in two wars. And one of his lessons is that “rationality will not save us.” The example that he gave was the Cuban Missile Crisis. And Khrushchev and Kennedy were both rational actors, but we came only moments away from nuclear war. Now you’d think that after seeing the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that large scale nuclear warfare would never be an options. Nevertheless, intelligent people, the best and brightest of our nation, nearly caused such a thing. Now, we can argue that the threat of nuclear warfare became a mechanism that had to be controlled by the heads of state. But if it was such a horrific thing, why didn’t nations try harder to try to abolish it?Rationality won’t save us.

War is both an avoidance and an objective. It is the meeting point of modern technology and primal instinct to dominate our enemies. Modern man believes itself to be the pinnacle of rationality. That is, after all, the arrogance of modernity. But rationality is a creation of its maker. And because it is so, it can bent towards the will of its user. It prevents nothing, it only enables. Every generation has its excuse for war. If it isn’t the military industrial complex, other reasons will be found. It is simply an impulsive need for destruction, enacted on a global scale. It is far easier for nations to engage in violence, and individuals are subjected to laws. But nations make them.

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