(Go here for the intro to this series on the realist theory of international relations).

The behavior of individual voters is far from selfish.  The main reason, I’ve often argued, is that voting against your objective self-interest is practically free, because one vote almost never changes electoral outcomes. 

How does the behavior of countries – or at least democratic countries – compare?  At first glance, you might think that they would be highly unselfish, too.  If voters are unselfish, then it seems like politicians would propose unselfish foreign policies to appeal to them.

The key problem with this argument: Most voters have a blend of unselfish and nationalistic motivations.  For purely domestic policy, nationalistic voting and unselfish voting are roughly equivalent: Either way, voters support the policies they believe are in the best interest of their country.  For foreign policy, in contrast, the two motivations are distinct, and can easily work in opposite directions.  Upshots:

1. Reducing the price of charity to zero only spurs greater charity if someone cares about the potential recipient.  So when voters can help foreigners at little or no cost in terms of perceived national interest, they still might decline to help.  A great deal depends on how much voters like the foreigners in question.  Americans are happy to support Israel, but not Mexico; Russians are happy to support Serbia, but not China.

2. When nationalistic voters perceive a conflict between their national interests and those of foreigners, they will be even less inclined to support unselfish foreign policies.  Indeed, if they can help their countrymen by hurting foreigners, voters may self-righteously support selfish foreign policies.  See World War I.

3. Voters might even support imprudently aggressive foreign policies.  After all, if it is cheap to indulge altruism toward one’s countrymen at the polls, it is also cheap to indulge blind hatred of one’s “national enemies.”  See World War II.

Overall, then, the theory of national political selfishness is probably a lot more accurate than the theory of individual political selfishness.  So far, so good for the realist theory of IR.  Nevertheless, the realist theory is simultaneously too pessimistic and too optimistic. 

  • It is too pessimistic insofar as it ignores cross-border benevolence.  Consider: Why doesn’t the U.S. conquer and enslave Canada?  A realist could point to the negative international reaction, the shift in the balance of power, etc.  But come on!  The main reason why the U.S. doesn’t attack Canada is that Americans kind of like Canadians.  We don’t care about them as much as we care about fellow Americans, but we would consider it barbaric to enslave them.  The same applies for a lot of interventions, defense treaties, foreign aid, etc.  While perceived self-interest plays a role, the main motivation is benevolence toward (some) foreigners.
  • The realistic theory is too optimistic insofar as it ignores cross-border malevolence.  Consider: Why don’t the Israelis and Palestinians negotiate a lasting peace?  A realist could point to credibility problems and such.  But come on!  The main reason why the Israelis and Palestinians don’t negotiate a lasting peace is that they dislike or even hate each other.   They’re willing to suffer in order to “teach the other side a lesson.”  The same applies to a lot of wars, genocides, occupations, etc.  While perceived self-interest plays a role, the main motivation is malevolence toward (some) foreigners.

If you’ve paying attention, you’ll notice that even when I grant the importance of self-interest for IR, I talk about perceived self-interest.  In my next post, I’ll attack what I see as the fundamental flaw in the realist theory: Its assumption that people’s perceptions of national self-interest are roughly accurate.