Walt Explores a New IR Theory: Confusionism

Have you ever wondered if there is an IR theory to account for an assumption about human nature that people are not rational actors?  Enter the would-be theoretical perspective of Confusionism, explained by the professor Stephen Walt of Harvard:

These warped world-views all assume that there are some Very Clever People out there who are busy implementing some brilliant long-term scheme for their own selfish benefit. But if you’ve actually met a few real politicians, run a small business, or merely tried to get a dozen family members to a wedding on time, then you know this is not how the world really works.

Which is where Confusionism comes in. It begins by recognizing the limits of human reason, as well as the inherent uncertainties and accidents that accompany all human endeavors. Because men and women are fallible and because our knowledge is imperfect, screw-ups are inevitable. Why do you think the first two letters in the acronym SNAFU stand for “situation normal?” Clausewitz taught us “in warfare everything is simple, but the simplest things are very difficult,” but his insight was not limited to the battlefield. Leaders rarely have accurate information, they are usually guessing about the results of different choices, and even well-formulated plans often go wrong for no good reason. For Confusians, world leaders aren’t Megaminds implementing fiendishly subtle stratagems; they are mostly well-meaning ignoramuses stumbling around in the dark. Just like the rest of us.

via Never underestimate the power of confusion | Stephen M. Walt.


8 thoughts on “Walt Explores a New IR Theory: Confusionism”

  1. In economics, we assume that everyone is a rational actor – this makes modeling much easier to assume that all people act rationally and congruously, but this not the case. It seems in IR theory the same assumptions have been made, perhaps to for similar reasons. Just as Walt suggests, people are not rational, nor are they predictable. He coins the phrase “confusionism” (not to be confused [pun intended] with the teachings of the Chinese sage Confucius). When in the course of making decisions, all leaders are doing their best with limited knowledge, and indeed no way to viewing the future outcomes and ramifications of decisions (except for the faulty models, previously mentioned.) We cannot assume we are rational actors. Here’s an interesting article on the implications of such an assumption: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/30/business/30view.html.

  2. There are a number of inherent assumptions in Mr. Walt’s article that seems to stem more from opinion rather than fact. Admittedly, he argues a number of valid points such as the notion that human behavior makes it difficult to believe many conspiracy theories, etc.. However, he also seems to gloss over certain key issues, for example, he doesn’t reference or discuss the idea of bounded rationality in connection with his thesis. While it is eminently impractical to believe every conspiracy theory, it is equally unwise to accept the premise that everyone in the world is a bumbling idiot without a clue of what is going on or lacking goals. Therefore, it seems that we should evaluate Mr. Walt’s train of logic first before delving into his actual arguments.


  3. I’ve often struggled when it comes to seeing how theories are based off of assumptions that seem unfounded at times, but I feel pretty comfortable accepting the premise of confusionism as far as understanding the limits of human reason. As humans, it is easy to act irrationally and then justify our actions to the point where they suddenly seem rational. As was mentioned in the earlier comments, I agree that not everyone can be considered rational. Even people who fall under the widely accepted definition of “rational” may have disagreements on what that definition entails! Then again, people aren’t completely idiotic and they have common needs and typically agree on their fundamental desires and values.

    When it comes to leaders and how they operate off of the information they have in policy making, perception plays a huge role in what they do. Basically everything that we experience is filtered through our view of the world and our personal biases, and leaders are no exception. The challenge lies in figuring out how to dissect our own perception of events to see how accurately we’re seeing things and then finding a balance between reality and what we see.

    It was tough to find articles that deal with confusionism since it isn’t a mainstream theory, but here is a webpage that provides some information on what a rational actor is: http://faculty.ucc.edu/egh-damerow/decision_making_models.htm

  4. I was thinking that this theory needs further research. After doing a little bit more of research I found out that there are many past studies regarding the topic. According to an study made by Bradley C. S. Watson “The politics of Confusion in International Relations Theory” political science is based in abundance of methodology. Watson provides an interesting study that refutes the idea of confusion as an actual theory. In his article, he seeks to explain that the different theories of international relations exist at the expense of understanding the nature of the primary political phenomena, including man. It seems to me that this theory needs more proves that are supported by pheromones of the international relations. Although, he provides some really good examples, more studies will need to be done to provide the validity of the theory.


  5. I agree with Sara in that this theory could use some more research and development. However, I do believe that it brings up some good points such as the ones Clayton mentioned. We can’t just assume that all humans are going to conform to a mold of sorts and behave rationally. That’s just never going to happen. We are all imperfect beings and sometimes do things that have no solid explanation. These mistakes and inconsistencies do in fact make using one IR theory to explain everything in the whole world incredibly difficult and unreasonable.

    Here’s an interesting article entitled “The End of IR Theory As We Know It”

  6. While this article highlights some good points as to the situations where leaders tend to become confused, I agree with the author that I don’t think Confucianism will ever become a school of IR thought. Confucianism may explain unexpected responses by confused leaders in unfamiliar situations, but the problems is that no two days are the same. Politicians and diplomats face new circumstances each day; sure, some are more strange than others, but each day and each relationship brings its own trials. If we classify ‘unfamiliar or new circumstances’ as a time for Confucianism to come into play, it will always be in play. I think a lot of times when we analyze rational choice and other theories we seriously overlook their creators’ intents.

    The creators of schools of IR thought weren’t ignorant and weren’t blind to the problems that humans face each day and the irregular ways in which people solve those problems. Instead, these philosophers tried to explain in the most parsimonious and generalizable way possible the most common ways people deal with unfamiliar circumstances. IR already accounts for the difficulty of being thrown into a new environment, and it offers a suggestion of a rational way that some may deal with that transition. Implementing Confucianism into IR seems like more of an excuse for when diplomats make unexpected decisions than an actual explanation for their thought process.

    I like the way this article simply states some of the assumptions of rational choice theory. Even if the family is late for the dinner party, their goal is still to come, which supports rational choice theory anyways.

  7. Confucianism is were safety lies in the political realm. When we do not expect much from others we are very rarely disappointed. However, if we do not expect much we do not trust either. In group, communities, and families delegation is a key component. If we do not work together because we are afraid of the lack of experience of those around us process is seldom made.
    For example, singers on a stage will go no where if they do not trust the abilities of those around them. All of the voices will be hesitate cause the tone to drop and the sound to be ruined. Yet, when all the voice go in in full with trust that the group will hold their part harmony is created.
    Here is a helpful website to understand other political theories. I had found it interesting the compare and contrast the both ideas.

  8. I enjoyed reading this article and agree with the author on many points he made. I will go even further to call this new “ism” almost the opposite of realism. It is my opinion that a lot of international policies, moves or anything of that sort are just for show business. It is to increase power for a bloc, state, or leader. Realism to me is when these moves work and things are accomplished and happen and lives become better. Confusionism to me is when these moves for power do not work. A classic example the author points out is Susan Rice and the Libya attacks. She came out and made statements that showed power and U.S. dominance. If she was correct in her assumptions on the Libya attacks, then she did what she did out of realism-increasing U.S. power over international situations. Since she did not have all the facts and her comments came back to hurt her, it is confusionism, acting to gain power, but receiving none. Confusionism is when realism does not work.
    Here is a website that goes further into realism

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