The field of international relations centers on the problem of war and peace. For many decades nuclear weapons have given great urgency to dealing wisely with the subject. Countries having sometimes very tense relations with each other possess these weapons. Nevertheless, because they have not been used since World War II, the threat of nuclear war has appeared distant. We tell ourselves that no sane, rational leader would resort to these weapons. Self-preservation and enlightened self-interest forbid their use.
And yet history is full of evidence that human beings often act not prudently but out of the intense passion of the moment—out of hatred, fury, wild abandon, sheer desperation, or boundless ambition. Nuclear weapons are but one of the reasons why theories of international relations should include as complete and subtle an understanding as possible of what might induce prudence and restraint. Realism is certainly needed, but the belief that human beings are rational actors pursuing self-interest and that states behave in a quasi-mechanical manner needs to be revised and supplemented. Because of the potentially disastrous consequences of flawed assumptions in international relations, simplified theories of human nature are out of place. Even more than other fields, international relations needs in-depth reflection on subjects that some may consider too subtle, esoteric, or “philosophical.”
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