June 20, 2024

Book Review – How States Think: The Rationality of Foreign Policy

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By: Darshan Gajjar, Research Analyst, GSDN

How States Think: The Rationality of Foreign Policy – source Internet

The domains of geopolitics and foreign policy are filled with many unsolved questions due to the association of inherently uncertain and somewhat bizarre dispositions with them. Often, academicians and scholars of international relations are propelled by questions such as “How do states think? Are they rational all the time? How do policy makers take decisions in a crisis? What is rationality in foreign policy, and how is it associated with the final outcome of policy?”

In a well-crafted manner, American political scientist and international relations scholar John J. Mearsheimer and political scientist Sebastian Rosato attempt to answer those questions through their new book, “How States Think: The Rationality of Foreign Policy,” published by Yale University Press. In this work, which is divided in nine chapters, John Mearsheimer and Sebastian Rosato (jointly referred to as ‘the Authors’ hereafter) not only define strategic rationality in international relations but also break popular notions by separating rationality from that of expected utility maximization. 

Defining Strategic Rationality

When it comes to rationality and international relations, there are broadly two schools of thought: rational choice theorists and political psychologists, who argue that states are non-rational for the majority of the time. If true, such a hypothesis can prove to be catastrophic because in the majority of IR theories, especially liberal and realist theories, states are primarily rational actors—what we call a rational actor assumption.

How can we say that states are rational? Can we equate rationality with the end outcome? The authors argue that “states are rational if their policies are based on credible theories and result from a deliberative decision-making process,” which means rationality is strictly alien to the outcome of the policy decision.

Taking this definition as a reference, the authors highlighted how some of the most infamous decisions, such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Hitler’s decision to invade the Soviet Union, and Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor during World War II, were rational decisions despite not achieving their desired outcomes.

Expected Utility Maximization and Rationality

Both rational choice theorists and political psychologists correlate rationality with expected utility maximisation which propounds that rational actors take action to maximise their overall utility. The authors have rejected such a correlation, arguing that since the international system is an anarchic one and uncertainty is one of its prime components, it will be difficult for policymakers to identify the expected maximum utility under such conditions.

The authors further assert, “Rationality is often judged in terms of outcomes. In this view, a policy is rational if it brings success and nonrational if it fails. Rational thinking is associated with good outcomes, such as victory in war, and nonrational thinking with bad outcomes, such as defeat. But rationality is about process rather than outcomes. Rational actors employ their critical faculties to figure out how to operate in an uncertain world. This does not ensure that the policies they come up with will meet with success.”

Instead, they provide that rationality is independent of outcomes and utility maximization. This does not mean that rationality has nothing to do with outcome; rationality simply means that a decision has been taken based on credible theories and is the result of a deliberative decision-making process that can lead to the survival of the state. That is to say, rationality is not an end but a means to an end, where the end is the ultimate survival of the state.

Credible and Non-Credible Theories

As mentioned earlier, one of the two components of the definition of strategic rationality is a credible theory. The field of geopolitics and foreign policy is an information deficit field where, for the most part, uncertainty prevails, making it necessary for any state or policymaker to follow any particular theory that can help it formulate rational policy.

The authors put forth that any theory is credible if it has its own set of assumptions, causal logics, and empirical claims that are backed by evidentiary support. Conversely, a theory is non-credible if it commits one or more of the following errors: i) it rests on unrealistic assumptions; ii) its causal story is logically inconsistent; iii) there is little evidentiary support for their causal logics, overarching claims, or both.

Giving various historical and empirical examples, the authors term realist concepts and theories such as Balance of Power, Mutually Assured Destruction, and liberal theories such as Democratic Peace Theory, Economic Interdependence, and Liberal Institutionalism, along with Social Constructivism, as credible theories, while theories such as Domino Theory, Forcible Democracy Promotion Theory, and Neoclassical Realism Theory are non-credible.

Individual and State Rationality

To what extent do individual biases affect the actions of the state? The second component of the definition of rationality is the deliberative decision-making process. While the final decision has to be taken by an individual, that decision must be the result of deliberative discussions. Though it is possible for an individual to have particular biases in certain matters, due to collective deliberations, the final outcome of the policy will be alien to such a bias.

State rationality is a result of two-staged deliberative aggregation where key decision makers involve themselves in a robust debate where the final policy choice has to be made by the ultimate decider. In the first stage, every actor engaged in the discussion must have a credible theory, put forth their view on those theories, and discuss among themselves various merits and demerits of them, followed by robust and uninhibited debate, after which they settle on a guiding policy based on a credible theory or theories. In cases where policymakers involved in the debate fail to agree on a theory, the ultimate decider determines the way forward based on that debate.

Case Studies

The book further provides fourteen historical case studies, which include five grand strategy decisions, five crisis management decisions, and four non-rational decisions, solidifying an earlier argument that separates rationality from results. Out of those fourteen case studies, three merits to be mentioned here.

These days, due to the Russia-Ukraine conflict, one of the most discussed issues in common geopolitical debates is the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. John Mearsheimer himself in the past contended that one of the reasons why Russia attacked Ukraine in February 2022 was the eastward expansion of NATO. While the authors may not agree with the policy, that ipso facto does presuppose the policy to be a non-rational one. The book asserts that the initial decision to expand NATO after the Cold War by the Clinton administration was based on the amalgamation of credible theories of Democratic Peace Theory, Economic Interdependence, and Liberal Institutionalism and was the result of a deliberative decision-making process between the stakeholders, thus making it a rational policy decision.

Similarly, two of the most consequential events during World War II—the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour and Operation Barbarossa—were believed to have shifted the entire balance of power in favour of Allied powers. In 1940, as a result of Japanese military expansion in Asia, the USA passed the Export Control Act, which cut off Japan’s supply of many goods and raw materials, which by and large crippled the Japanese economy. It was further feigned by the American oil embargo in 1941. Eventually, on December 7, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. The Japanese chose to attack the United States, reasoning that a risky war was preferable to a crippled economy and elimination from the ranks of the great powers. No matter how bad it has proven to be, the book argues that since the attack was based on a credible theory of balance of power and was followed by due deliberation, it was a rational decision.

Likewise, Hitler’s decision to invade the USSR on June 22, 1941 is often considered a non-rational decision, and it is widely, for ideological reasons, believed to be motivated by Hitler’s personal hatred towards communist ideology. While his personal anti-communist biases may align with Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union, the decision was based on credible realist theory, and during the deliberations with his generals, Hitler, based on the poor performance of the Red Army in the war with Finland (famously known as the Winter War) along with other factors, concluded that the Red Army was hardly a formidable opponent, paving the way for the full-fledged military invasion. Thus, making it a rational policy decision.


The concept of rationality, as argued in the book, relies on the assumption that policymakers, while taking a decision, solely rely on the existing theories, which is not the case all the time. However, the arguments offered in this book will provide a starting point for future scholars and researchers to delve deep into the subject of rationality and how it affects geopolitics and foreign policy of any State.


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