Thursday, June 15, 2006

Do Individuals Matter?

Do Individuals Matter?: Great Men, Individual Interaction and Ideas in IR Theory


International Relations theory, in general, has ignored the role individual actors play in shaping the international system. Instead, scholars have tended to favor systemic theories that explain the behavior of actors –generally viewed as states -- as a product of anarchy in the international system (Waltz 1979; Keohane 1984). But what if Hitler had never been born or Lenin would have died in 1916? Would international politics have developed differently? Those that believe individual actors matter say yes, and that because of systems-level theory scholars have ignored the “great men” of history. Daniel Bynam’s and Kenneth Pollack’s article “Let us Now Praise Great Men”, and Henry Kissinger’s diplomatic history A World Restored tried to fill this analytical void in the literature. This essay will review the contributions of both pieces, and argue that recognizing the importance of individual actors is an appropriate step in the right direction for IR theory. However, the literature on “great men” could also be improved by analyzing how individuals interact with one another, and also understand to what extent ideologies and ideas shape individual decisions and preferences in international politics.

Individuals and International Politics

Daniel Bynam and Kenneth Pollack argue that international relations has devoted less attention to the role of individuals in politics for three reasons. One, scholars argue that individuals simply do not matter and that the impersonal forces of the international system are stronger that individual will. Two, to be truly “social scientific” is an expressed goal of political science, and thus individuals make it hard to generalize about world politics. In particular, treating each individual as unique, or special, is a difficulty if the aim of social science is to generate hypotheses and predict future events. Lastly, the field of international relations – particularly the main theoretical traditions of neorealism and neoliberalism – is hostile to relying too much on individuals to understand the international system (Bynam and Pollack 2001: 108). Two works in IR – one old and the other new -- have tried to bring individuals back to the forefront of the discipline, however.

Henry Kissinger’s A World Restored is a diplomatic history of Europe following the Napoleonic Wars. Kissinger argues that the post-war order was created and sustained by two important men: Viscount Castlereagh, the British foreign secretary, and Clemens von Metternich, the Austrian foreign minister (Kissinger 1957: 5). In particular the European order that existed after Napoleon would be a conservative one, restoring the old institutions destroyed by the revolutionary impulses of the French Revolution (Kissinger 1957: 11). Metternich, who plays the hero in Kissinger’s story, was the great diplomat who traveled throughout Europe negotiating and legitimating a restored order of peace that would last close to 100 years (Kissinger 1957: 20). Castlereagh was credited with negotiating the international settlement. As Kissinger related: “Castlereagh was at his best when the objectives were determinate, when there was a coalition to be maintained, a settlement to be negotiated, a dispute to be resolved” (Kissinger 1957: 36).

Bynam’s and Pollack’s article “Let Us Now Praise Great Men” is a more recent contribution to IR theory. Their article is designed to promote a new research agenda in international politics that looks at individual actors as important pieces to explain the international system. They provide five cases from which to spur the agenda – Hitler, Bismarck, Saddam Hussein, Napoleon, and Ayatollah Khomeini – and show that “regardless of political system, period of time, or region of the world,” individuals can reshape world politics (Byman and Pollack 2001: 115). They also develop a litany of hypotheses about when individuals “matter”. These hypotheses could be grouped categorically on four dimensions: 1) the “common sense” hypotheses; 2) the personality trait hypotheses; 3) the enabling factors hypotheses; and 4) the interacting images hypotheses (Bynam and Pollack 2001: 133-143). In short, Byman and Pollack believe that, with time, a research agenda aimed at including individual actors could answer all of the criticisms lodged from the main theoretical camps.

Kissinger, and Bynam and Pollack, offer up two works that relate the importance of individual actors in understanding the world. Kissinger’s contribution was written years before structural realism and neoliberal institutionalism were mainstays of the discipline. Indeed, Kissinger’s work is probably as important to historians as it is political scientists. Nevertheless, Kissinger reminds us that without Metternich and Castlereagh European history might have turned out very differently and probably from Kissinger’s viewpoint, much worse. Bynam and Pollack seek to turn the discipline on its head by favoring accuracy over parsimony (Bynam and Pollack 2001: 113). Their common sense approach asks us to imagine politics without individuals. Arguing that one cannot understand World War II without Hitler, or the German unification without Bismarck, Bynam and Pollack are right to exhume “great men” from the dustbins of history. Bynam and Pollack’s research is all the more refreshing because it argues that individuals do different things, at different times, and for different reasons. Unlike rational choice theory – the only other theory in political science to posit that actors possess agency – Bynam and Pollack do not infer that actor’s possess certain characteristics across time and space.[1]

Individuals, Interaction and Ideologies

Both works added a more thorough understanding of the way individuals could impact international politics. Two criticisms might be lodged at this nascent research project, however. First, projects that say “individuals matter” must not only argue about under what conditions they matter, but also why other actors do not matter. I call this the problem of “individual interaction.” Hitler’s success in capturing parts of France during World War II is not only attributable to Hitler’s individual features, but also dependent on the fact that other individuals did not – or could not – challenge him. Individuals do not live in a vacuum, but constantly bump up against one another. Kissinger’s work is at times excessively praiseworthy of Metternich’s and Castlereagh’s achievements, but tries to show that individuals confront one another with some resolution. Kissinger shows this when Metternich and Napoleon meet one another in 1813, with Napoleon realizing “the boundaries” of his power, and Metternich testing the “limits of his manipulation” (Kissinger 1957: 130). Bynam and Pollack deal less with this issue. They view individuals as almost completely autonomous with respect to their goals and achievements. Their discussion of Napoleon is completely one-sided. Napoleon’s continental victories – over Italy, Prussia, Austria and Spain – and his defeat in Russia were seen as a product of Napoleon’s ego and desire for European domination. But Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Trafalgar is conspicuously absent from their analysis (Bynam and Pollack 2001: 127). Is Napoleon’s defeat a result of egoism, or a result of Lord Nelson’s tremendous skill in directing the British navy? If one could add an additional hypothesis to Bynam and Pollack’s design, it should read: “Individuals are more likely to succeed when other individuals cannot challenge them.”

A second criticism of this work is the remarkable absence of ideas and ideologies in Bynam and Pollack’s research agenda. By ideology, I mean a framework for understanding the world that simultaneously prescribes and limits certain actions or behaviors. Kissinger better deals with this problem by suggesting that Metternich was a conservative who had a particular vision for post-Napoleon Europe (Kissinger 1957: 195).[2] Because Metternich succeeded, European order was restored in the form of conservative, monarchical regimes. Bynam and Pollack offer no observations about the extent to which ideologies might shape individual’s actions. Their hypotheses reflect particular personal or psychological traits of individuals, not deep-seated beliefs or understandings of the world. Hitler and Mussolini became allies rather than enemies because both shared a fascist interpretation of the world. Hitler, even if his personality type was geared to take over all of Europe, never bothered Italy along the way. Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy as has been widely discussed was a result of his liberal (or messianic) ideology about the goodness of democracy in the world. And Ayatollah Khomeini’s war with Saddam Hussein in the early 1980s was inspired in part by the ideas of fundamentalist Islam and Iran’s historical animosity with Shiite Iraq. By ignoring ideology Bynam and Pollack have constructed an incomplete individual that is somehow disconnected from the ideas and thinking of the world around them.


Both works reviewed here make important contributions to the literature in IR theory and international security. I am sympathetic to their view that individuals matter, and that, yes, accuracy is sometimes a more desirable outcome of research than parsimony. One could not understand the 100 year peace that occurred after the Napoleonic Wars without some reference to Metternich and Castlereagh. Similarly, without Napoleon, Hitler or Bismarck history would have looked very different. I have offered two criticisms though of this nascent research design. One, scholars should examine individual interaction when arguing that individuals matter; and two, ideas and ideologies also fundamentally shape the preferences and choices individuals make. Although systemic theories are still the norm in IR theory, these new challengers will hopefully build on this research agenda to further understand how individuals matter in international politics.

Works Cited

Bynam, Daniel and Kenneth Pollack. “Let Us Now Praise Great Men.” International

Security. 25:4, 2001.

Keohane, Robert. After Hegemony. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984.

Kissinger, Henry. A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace.

London, UK: Phoenix Press, 1957.

[1] For a review of rational choice theory consult Downs 1957; Shepsle 1993.

[2] This is, of course, some debate about whether or not conservatism is an ideology at all, or just a disposition or preference for sameness, stability and order. (See Huntington 1957) Conservatism in this sense is derisively referred as anti-intellectual, or lacking vision.