An Interview with Robert Jervis

The transcript of Harry Kriesler’s interview with International Relations theorist Robert Jervis is up at Conversations with History.

Let’s talk a little about international relations theory and doing it. What does it take to do that work well, in terms of skills, in terms of temperament?

That’s interesting. Of course, now skills is one of the right words. A tremendous amount of [work] was either formal, using game theory (and I use informal game theory, but a lot of people do it formally), and a lot large statistical analyses. So, any young person has to learn that. I read the stuff. I’m — you can tell from my expression — I’m ambivalent. It has produced some real value. There are a lot of different ways to study, there’s no one method, no one approach, but it takes a fascination with international politics. Every day I either pick up the newspaper or a history book and say, “I can’t explain that. Why did that happen?” You know: “What rules does that violate?”

It takes a combination of thinking about particulars and trying to think about the generalizations it fits with, or can lead to, or can contradict. That playing back and forth between the particular and the general is what is certainly most productive for me. It’s a constant grounding in saying, “Well, wait a minute,” keeping your theory anchored in something.

I’m familiar with your work, and we’ll talk about some of it in a minute, but I’m curious, given this background that you’ve just described, there must be a fascinating interplay between the theorizing you do and what’s happening in the world or what has just happened. Talk a little about that, and maybe give us an example of that, because I know, for example, you’ve done a lot on nuclear weapons.

Let me give you two of my favorites. One is what I’ve written about in the misperception book and in other articles about the security dilemma on the extent to which a conflict can be seen as irreconcilable conflict of interest in which a defender of the status quo, to be crude about it, has to use threats and enforced deterrence, it’s called, versus what I call — they’re drawing on others, I am not original in this — in the spiral models.

But basically this is what I grew up with. When I asked my parents in 1947 — the Russians have shot down this plane over the Baltic, claiming it was a spy plane. How ridiculous that we would spy, of course not. But leave that aside. What I was asking then was the same question, so that I’m still driven by those questions.