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Perception in Politics: An Interview with Robert Jervis

Image Credit|National Defense University Press

Robert Jervis is a professor of international politics at Columbia University. He studies the intersection of psychology and international relations. His work challenges popular notions about nuclear deterrence by noting the complexities that perception and misperception introduce to deterrence and foreign relations as a whole. He was awarded the National Academy of Sciences Award for Behavior Research Relevant to the Prevention of Nuclear War in 2006 and has also been involved in research programs on nuclear proliferation. 

Shilpa Sajja: What prompted you to analyze politics and international relations through the lens of decision making? 

Robert Jervis: Well, really, that almost happened backwards. When I was in graduate school in the early 60s, I was very interested in nuclear strategy. At this point in the Cold War, the big competitor to deterrence theory was developed by people partly in sociology but mostly in social psychology. I thought those people were right that the question of how you perceive that other states are adversaries is really important and was almost totally unaddressed in the academic literature. A few people had written about it and I was writing about it, but not many people. So I got into it partly to rebut a certain school of thought and because I was intrigued by arguments that I thought were wrong in their application. It’s an odd way to get into the topic, but the more I got into it, the more interested I became. 

SS: For readers who may not know about your work with decision making, could you give me a brief summary of how something like deterrence theory can be impacted by decision making heuristics? 

RJ: The basic problem [with deterrence] is that standard deterrence theory assumes that the two countries – let’s just make it two for simplicity – see the world the same way, that they are playing the same game. But when you start looking at the psychology involved and looking at cases, you find that they are often not playing the same game. There are very different perceptual worlds. I sum it up by saying that people studying international relations know that the game of chess is a bad analogy [for international politics] because all the players are out in the open. However, bluffing and deception is an important part of IR [international relations]. So people say, “Oh, well, chess isn’t the right game, but it’s poker because that’s bluffing and deception.” But actually poker is not a good analogy. In poker, all players understand the rules and are playing with the same rules. I think the best analogy for international politics is the Japanese short story and movie Rashomon which shows a particular incident, in this case robbery, murder, and rape in medieval Japan. It shows the incident from the perspective of four people and they tell four very, very different stories. We saw when we had conferences after the Cold War, [that] participants sitting around talking about events that occurred 10, 20, 30 years ago just saw those events very differently. They saw the moves differently, they thought the game started at different places, they interpreted each other’s behavior very differently. In some ways that doesn’t take a lot of fancy psychology [to see], but it’s an important lesson that you must not assume that the other side is understanding the world the way you understand it or understanding the moves or the signals you’re trying to send as you intend them. And some of the reasons for that is countries have different political cultures, their leaders are socialized by their own domestic systems and see the world differently. Ideologies are powerful. 

SS: How would you recommend policy makers and our politicians be more cognizant of different cultures and their own perceptions of different nations? 

RJ: Some presidents have done quite well. To be bipartisan, I think Obama and President Eisenhower both lived outside the country for significant periods. That helped them realize that perceptions of world views tend to be parochial, and that they had to learn that others might see the world differently.Whereas, for Trump, who is of course very self-centered, this multiplies the effect [of misperception]. It becomes very hard for him to see how others might really see differently, and so that’s partly why when he meets Kim Jong Un, he thinks, “Oh, Kim is going to do what I want him to do.” He interprets Kim’s remarks in ways very favorable to him and then when he gets rebuffed, as he did in Hanoi, he’s just totally flummoxed. So, having had a wide variety of experience probably, well certainly, helps. No guarantee, but it certainly helps. And others who haven’t, if they are just intellectually sophisticated, will know that they need to talk to people with quite different views and to escape from the bubble and the echo chamber. It’s hard to do that because the bubble is very comfortable, but good people will do it. 

SS: To go back to your work with deterrence during the Cold War, how does the multipolar world system now complicate the Cold War theories of deterrence and misperception?  

RJ: [In the Cold War], deterrence was essentially a two actor system. What do we do with multiple adversaries and also multiple audiences, including allies, that can be very important? The audiences may interpret your behavior differently and sometimes that can work in your favor, but often it does not work in your favor and you have to try to take into account how you think each audience will see your behavior. Today with multiple adversaries that are sort of similar you have that problem even more where what we do with North Korea is presumably being watched by Iran and maybe by Venezuela. And again, what we do or don’t do in Venezuela may have some impact on what North Korea says. The North Koreans have public statements which show no reason to doubt that when they saw us overthrow Gaddafi in Libya and also invade Iraq, the obvious lesson was that the U.S. will overthrow or push around countries that don’t have nuclear weapons and that, they’ll say, increased their incentives to get nuclear weapons. It’s quite plausible that Iran reasoned the same way. 

SS: I’m interested in how this idea of being cognizant of other people’s perceptions of the world plays into not just deterrence but also diplomacy and even domestic politics. Could you talk a bit about how you’ve seen perception play into domestic politics, particularly with the upcoming election? 

RJ: American politics and mass opinion has become much more like an echo chamber than it was. I’m not an expert in American public opinion but there is data showing that people used to have many more friends in opposite parties and peoples views of the opposite political parties have grown much, much more negative over the past 20 years. That’s related to the fact that people with one party affiliation are likely not to know or talk to many people in the other party. So, you’ve got this greater self reinforcing cycle domestically. From the standpoint of leaders, this is good and bad. It’s bad for the country, but it can increase a leader’s hold over his base. I mean, we’ve seen this with Trump — perfect case of playing to the base and doing well. You can also see [this separation] in relations in Congress. It used to be that congressmen stayed in Washington most of the week and often over the weekend. Now they get to go back to their districts all the time to raise money, and even when they’re in Washington, they’re doing a lot of fundraising. They don’t mix with each other nearly as much as they did 20, 30 years ago. 30 years ago, they would grow much, much more informal every day. [They had] friendships across party lines and even when it was not a close personal friendship, [they had] pretty good interpersonal knowledge. Now much less, and that increases and increases polarization. More broadly, what political leaders do [is] try to appeal to audiences, and that does require knowing quite a bit about what others like, how they’re thinking, and how they’ll see the world.

SS: Could you touch on how the increasing domestic polarization we’ve seen has the potential to impact our international policies? 

RJ:  Well, the main thing is the parties have polarized more on foreign policy and on a wide range of foreign policy issues which makes continuity much harder. When Bush came into the office his policy was ABC – “anything but Clinton.” And when Obama came in, actually, when Trump came in even more strongly, we saw the policy become “anything but Obama.” Why did Trump renounce the nuclear deal with Iran? Well, because it was Obama’s deal. And if Trump loses in November, the next Democratic president will reject Trump’s policies wholesale. I personally think there are a lot of things there that should be rejected, but you really do want to look with some care at these. So, the domestic polarization means just a blank renunciation, so you may not get as careful consideration of what was good or bad and what the international constraints are. It’s also really hard for the United States as a country to commit itself to get a treaty ratified. It takes two thirds — that’s very, very hard. And so it means that if you can’t do treaties, you do executive agreements, but it’s much easier to back out of executive agreements than treaties and other countries know that, so [other countries] know they can’t trust any promises we make to them which is a great harm to American foreign policy.

SS: What are some tactics that future politicians could use to go between the aisle more?

RJ: Well, it’s really hard. I fear that Paul Krugman, who I think is very good generally, is right that it is not a symmetrical problem. Yes, the Democrats, of course, are hostile. But most of the Democratic politicians, senators, congressmen, will listen to reasonable proposals, even if they come from Republicans. But really, even before Trump, Republicans have been unwilling to compromise. And, of course, now it’s even worse. I think things have to get worse before they get better. I think the Republicans have to not only lose the presidency but suffer quite a major defeat in Congress. I think that’s necessary before we get a decent degree of bipartisanship. 

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.