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‍Certainties and uncertainties in the studies of international relations

LI Shaojun1

(1.Institute of International Relations of Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, Shanghai 200020)

【Abstract】The study of international relations is not a perfect discipline. What scholars seek is certain knowledge, but they have to deal with both many facts that are difficult to comprehend and with academic uncertainties. Because facts in international relations have societal and systemic properties, conceptual factors cannot be directly observed and the complex impacts of the systemic effects are difficult to explain, and therefore incomplete information and inference uncertainties cannot be avoided. In this regard, studies of international relations need to explain both the certainties of the relationships among the variables and the uncertainties due to the conceptual factors and the systemic complexities. The certainties can be explained by specifying the properties of specific events and the range of possible changes within the given premises and by indicating those directions and factors that require close attention. Explaining the uncertainties requires revealing the complex systemic structure due to the non-observable factors and deducing their interactions and contributions to the systemic effects. In studies in which the two cannot be separated, specific knowledge about every single mechanism as well as a deepened understanding of the uncertainties is required. With respect to the discipline of international relations, some knowledge can be inferred from the results of specific premises that cannot explain everything in international relations. Knowledge about such uncertainties is necessary for both researchers and policy makers because the international environment is uncertain and a deeper understanding is required.

【Keywords】 certainty; uncertainty; systemic effects; rationalism ; constructivism;

【DOI】

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    Footnote

    [1]. ① See also John Lewis Gaddis, “International Relations Theory and the End of the Cold War,” International Security, Vol. 17, No.3, 1992/1993, pp.5–58. [^Back]

    [2]. ② See also Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, Springfield: Merriam-Webster Inc., 1991, p. 223, p. 1284. [^Back]

    [3]. ① See also F. David Peat, From Certainty to Uncertainty: The Story of Science and Ideas in the Twentieth Century, Washington, D.C.: Joseph Henry Press, 2002, esp. pp. ix-xiv. The related narratives herein refer to the publisher’s introduction to the book. [^Back]

    [4]. ② Edward Carr. The Twenty Years’ Crisis (1919–1939): An Introduction to the Study of International Relations. Qin, Y. (trans) Beijing: World Knowledge Press, 213 (2005). [^Back]

    [5]. ① See also Thomas R. Palfrey and Howard Rosenthal, “Voter Participation and Strategic Uncertainty,” American Political Science Review, Vol. 79, No. 1, 1985, pp. 62–78; Barry Nalebuff, “Brinkmanship and Nuclear Deterrence: The Neutrality of Escalation,” Conflict Management and Peace Science, Vol. 9, No. 2, 1986, pp. 19–30; Robert Powell, “Nuclear Brinkmanship with Two-Sided Incomplete Information,” American Political Science Review, Vol. 82, No. 1, 1988, pp. 155–178; James D. Morrow, “Capabilities,Uncertainty, and Resolve: A Limited Information Model of Crisis Bargaining,” American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 33, No. 4, 1989, pp. 941–972; D. Marc Kilgour and Frank C. Zagare, “Credibility, Uncertainty and Deterrence,” American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 35, No. 2, 1991, pp. 305–334; Keisuke Iida, “When and How Do Domestic Constraints Matter? Two-Level Games with Uncertainty,” Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 37, No. 3, 1993, pp. 403–426; Keisuke Iida, “Analytic Uncertainty and International Cooperation: Theory and Application to International Economic Policy Coordination,” International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 37, No. 4, 1993, pp. 431–457. [^Back]

    [6]. ② See also David Edelstein, “Managing Uncertainty: Beliefs About Intentions and the Rise of Great Powers,” Security Studies, Vol. 12, No. l, 2002, pp. 1–40; Brian C. Hathbun, “Uncertain About Uncertainty: Understanding the Multiple Meaning of a Crucial Concept in International Relations Theory,” International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 51, No. 3, 2007, pp. 533–557; Jennifer Mitzen and Randall L. Schwelleir, “Knowing the Unknown Unknowns: Misplaced Certainty and the Onset of War,” Security Studies, Vol. 20, No. l, 2011, Tian, Y. International Forum (国际论坛), (4): 62–67 (2000); Ma, J. International Review, (1): 52–59 (2011); Tang, S. Journal of International Security Studies (国际安全研究), (2): 3–41 (2014). [^Back]

    [7]. ③ Jennifer Mitzen and Randall L. Schweller, “Knowing the Unknown Unknowns: Misplaced Certainty and the Onset of War,” Security Studies, Vol. 20, No. 1, 2011, p. 5. [^Back]

    [8]. ① Keisuke Iida, “Analytic Uncertainty and International Cooperation: Theory and Application to International Economic Policy Coordination,” International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 37, No. 4, 1993, pp. 432–434. [^Back]

    [9]. ② Keisuke Iida, “Analytic Uncertainty and International Cooperation: Theory and Application to International Economic Policy Coordination,” pp. 434–435. [^Back]

    [10]. ① Brian C. Rathbun, “Uncertain About Uncertainty: Understanding the Multiple Meanings of a Crucial Concept in International Relations Theory,” pp. 533–557. [^Back]

    [11]. ② John J. Mearsheimer. “The False Promise of International Institutions,”International Security, Vol. 19, No.3, 1994/1995, p. 10. [^Back]

    [12]. ③ John Mearsheimer. Tragedy of Great Power Politics, Wang, Y. & Tang, X. (trans) Shanghai: Shanghai People’s Publishing House, 55 (2003). [^Back]

    [13]. ④ Jennifer Mitzen and Randall L. Schweller, “Knowing the Unknown Unknowns: Misplaced Certainty and the Onset of War,” p. 8. [^Back]

    [14]. ⑤ Brian C. Rathbun, “Uncertain About Uncertainty: Understanding the Multiple Meanings of a Crucial Concept in International Relations Theory,” pp. 541–542. [^Back]

    [15]. ① Robert O. Keohane, “Institutionalist Theory and the Realist Challenge After the Cold War,” in David Baldwin, ed., Neorealism and Neoliberalism: The Contemporary Debate, New York: Columbia University Press, 1993, p. 276. [^Back]

    [16]. ② James M. Goldgeier and Philip E. Tetlock, “Psychology and International Relations Theory,” Annual Review of Political Science, Vol. 4, 2001, pp. 67–92. [^Back]

    [17]. ③ Brian C. Rathbun, “Uncertain About Uncertainty: Understanding the Multiple Meanings of a Crucial Concept in International Relations Theory,” pp. 534–535, p. 549. [^Back]

    [18]. ① Alastair Iain Johnston, through the interpretation on the ancient Chinese book on military strategy and analysis of the Ming Dynasty’s foreign relations, in the study of Chinese strategic culture, drew the conclusion of “culture of realism,” that is, the ancient Chinese dynasties, in foreign relations, is inclined to the use of force, and the strategic and cultural tradition has influence to contemporary China. See also Alastair Iain Johnston, Cultural Realism: Strategic Culture and Grand Strategy in Chinese History, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995. [^Back]

    [19]. ② In terms of the system effects, see also Robert Jervis. System Effects: the Complexity in Political and Social Life, Li, S. (trans) Shanghai: Shanghai People’s Publishing House, 3–15, 33–80 (2008). Speaking of the realistic examples, the occurrence of the “Islamic State (IS)” in some ways is an unintended result of establishment of the Iraq War by Bush. [^Back]

    [20]. ③ There are 116 achievements obtained in the six rounds of Sino-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue, held in July 2014. See “The List of Specific Achievements of Strategic Dialogue Under the Sixth Round of Sino-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue Framework” http://news.xinliuanet.com/world/2014-07/12/c_l 111579285.htm. [^Back]

    [21]. ① Reuben Ablowitz, “The Theory of Emergence,” Philosophy of Science, Vol.6, No. 1, 1939, pp.2-3., quoted from Robert Jervis. System Effects: the Complexity in Political and social Life, 10. [^Back]

    [22]. ① The general conclusion on inference of classical realism, see Robert Jackson & Georg Sorensen. The Theory and Method of International Relations Wu, Y. & Song, D (trans) Tianjin:Tianjin People’s Publishing House, 94–98 (2008). [^Back]

    [23]. ② Kenneth Waltz. Theory of International Politics Xin, Q. (trans) Shanghai: Shanghai People’s Publishing House, 132–134, 154–156, 168–170 (2003). [^Back]

    [24]. ③ See Kenneth Waltz. Realism and International Politics Zhang, Y. & Liu, F. (trans) Beijing: Peking University Press, 51–52 (2012). [^Back]

    [25]. ① With regard to theory of neoclassical realism, see also Gideon Rose, “Neoclassical Realism and Theories of Foreign Policy,” World Politics, Vol. 51, No. 1, 1998, pp. 144–172. [^Back]

    [26]. ② John Mearsheimer, Tragedy of Great Power Politics, 55–66. [^Back]

    [27]. ③ With regard to the discussion on offensive realism and defensive realism, see also Glenn H. Snyder. “Mearsheimer’s World-Offensive Realism and the Struggle for Security,” International Security, Vol. 27, No. 1, 2002, pp. 149–173. [^Back]

    [28]. ④ The general conclusion on liberal institutionalism, see also Robert Jackson & Georg Sorensen. Theory and Method of International Relations, 141–149. [^Back]

    [29]. ① Alexander Wendt. Social Theory of International Politics Qin, Y. (trans) Shanghai: Shanghai People’s Publishing House, 23–28 (2000). [^Back]

    [30]. ① With regard to the interpretation of correlation and relationship between variables, see also an interesting example: a scholar found that the more consumption of the chocolate is in the country, the more there are Nobel Prize winners per capita in the country, by quantitative study. The scholar, however, has no way to explain the relationship between these two subjects, which can only explain that the chocolate may help contribute people’s cognitive function. The researcher has no data of personal consumption of winners but national average. He believed that there may be an unknown reason which contributes the two subjects. The sample demonstrates that the explanation plays an essential role in data calculation. See also Franz H. Messerli, “Chocolate Consumption, Cognitive Func­tion and Nobel Laureates,” New England Journal of Medicine, Vol. 367, No. 16, 2002, http://MrwW.nejm.org/t6c/nejm/367/16/, logging time: April 20, 2015. [^Back]

    [31]. ① John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, “Leaving Theory Behind: Why Simplistic Hypothesis Testing Is Bad for International Relations,” European Journal of International Relations, Vol. 19, No. 3, 2013, p. 431. [^Back]

This Article

ISSN:1006-9550

CN: 11-1343/F

Vol , No. 06, Pages 23-38+156-157

June 2015

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Article Outline

Abstract

  • 1 Definition of certainties and uncertainties and the studies of international relations
  • 2 Origin of uncertainties in the studies of international relations
  • 3 Influence of uncertainties on the studies of international relations
  • 4 Conclusion
  • Footnote