My Personal View on IR Theory

Editor: Fajar & Kamil
PENULIS:  Ryan Muhammad Fahd  

There is an imperative for International Relations (IR) students:

“To understand the world, start with IR theory.”

But the problem is, do we have to?

Let us begin with a story in the event of the Cold War. It was midnight, 1983. Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Yefgarofich Petrov was on his usual duty and was observing Soviet’s early warning defense system. He noticed that the system was reporting the launch of one intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) from the US, directed towards the Soviet Union. Petrov quickly dismissed it as a ‘false alarm’ and he did not report the accident to the higher-ups. But suddenly there were four more ICBMs directed to the Motherland.

Time was not his best ally at that time. He had to quickly decide whether it is a genuine launch or not.

Petrov did not panic. He doubled down and dismissed all of the reported launches as a fault in the computer system with little to no knowledge that later, it was confirmed that the alarm was indeed triggered by a computer bug. It was because of that (in)action, Lt. Col. Petrov was reprimanded by his commander.

In his later interview, he admitted that he was never sure, and was unable to confirm nor deny whether or not the system was erroneous.

Being an engineer by training, Lt. Col. Petrov being an engineer by training has seen a lot of so-called system functioning and malfunctioning had the eye to tell the difference between a good functioning system and a faulty one. He had built the intuition for himself. Just like an experienced firefighter that decided to escape a collapsing building based on a hunch, without any real evidence’ of the imminent fallout of the building walls. It’s just mere intuition, System 1, Danny Kahneman said.

We encounter a quite similar story with Soviet naval commander Rear Admiral Vasili Arkhipov. He was stationed at Cuban waters at the time of Cuban Missile Crisis (1962). One of the gravest times in the Cold War.

He was a flotilla commander of a handful lethal submarine, that are, diesel-powered submarines carrying nuclear torpedoes. As his fleet crossed path with the American Navy convoy, his peers put pressure on him to authorize the launch of those torpedoes. The situation was: they haven’t had any contact with Moscow for several days, and his peers, Political Officer Maslennikov & B-59 ship commander Savitsky (Arkhipov was on board of B-59 submarine) thought that Cold War was already ‘hot.’

Arkhipov was skeptical of his peers’ judgment. He was against the launch. Being insubordinate, Arkhipov risked his career and forever damnation from the Politburo.

Arkhipov persisted and would not authorize any launch until their submarines are forced to resurface due to oxygen limitation and carbon dioxide buildup.

Thanks to Arkhipov’s stubborn insistence, they finally return to the Motherland in disgrace after fleeing those American convoys.

And now, let us proceed to the moral of those stories…

We were told that the reason why it was never the Hot War (or World War III) was because of the fact that both sides, Western Bloc and Eastern Bloc, possessed powerful nuclear weapons that, when used, will cause the annihilation of all humanity. So, it is in everyone’s best interest to maintain the balance of threat or power. With that in mind, then, the picture of international politics will only show an act of balancing and counterbalancing ad infinitum. No randomness.

As it turns out, the Cold War is averted because of a single decision taken bravely by few men and women, instead of balance of threat theory.

Probably, there are many more, brave Petrov (or Petrova) and Arkhipov (or Arkhipova) that stood for their ideas, risking their life, social standing, ranks, families, etc. to hinder us from nuclear war. We will forever be grateful to them.

For us, students of IR, it is rather discomforting pointing out that “the Cold War did not break out just because of a stroke of mere luck,” sans any explanation using some sophisticated reasoning from such and such theory.

The brave (and unfortunate) student that put “luck” in his mid-term essay will get a “D” for that.

We want to cast international relations phenomenon as a clear-cut and straightforward picture, not as a tangled web of complex relations. We instead have a (faulty) map of Moscow to guide us in an uncharted tundra of Siberia. Knowledge comforts us, gives us a sense that we are the master of the universe. We fear the unknown. We are not programmed for it.

Perhaps, it is best to start an inquiry with “I don’t know” or “I have no assumption” than with strong and seemingly-true assumptions, that hinder us from getting ‘the reality as it is’ and not as ‘we want to perceive.’

Then again let me return the original question “do we have to?”

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