The Asshole Theory of International Relations

by Thomas R. Wells

Some countries are assholes. They trample on international norms about human rights, maritime boundaries, climate change conventions, and so on. They repeatedly make and break promises and then complain indignantly and even violently if they are challenged for it. They bully weaker countries shamelessly to get their way, all the while declaring their commitment to the highest ideals of international peace and justice.

You know the kind of country I'm talking about. The kind that believes in its own moral exceptionalism: Not only does it not feel bound by the ordinary rules; it even demands that other countries acknowledge its moral right to set its interests above their own or the international peace. Take Russia. Its behaviour in Ukraine (and elsewhere in recent years) is classic assholism and is systematic and comprehensive enough to warrant the conclusion that Russia is a true asshole nation. I'm sure you can think of others.


The term “asshole nation” is inspired by Aaron James's neat little book Assholes: A Theory in which he defines the asshole individual as someone who in interpersonal or cooperative relations,

1. allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically;

2. does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement; and

3. is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people. (p.5)

James' theory is directed at the anti-social behaviour of individuals. It covers much of the same ground that organizational psychologists have mapped as the ‘dark triad' of anti-social personality types – narcissism, Machiavellianism, and sub-clinical psychopathy – which will be unfortunately familiar to most people who have worked in any large organization. But James adds two things. First, his account is a thoroughly moral one: the asshole is morally repugnant because of his fundamental lack of respect for the moral status of those he interacts with: He doesn't register other people as morally real. Second, because James' account starts from the moral requirements of participation in cooperative relations rather than from human psychology it is more general than that produced by organisational psychologists. I believe it can also be helpfully applied to non-human agents, such as countries.

Just as some individuals seem to think that every day is their birthday and they deserve special consideration from everyone else – and a general exemption from rules intended for the general benefit which happen to be inconvenient to them, like using their phone in the movie theatre or speeding through school zones when they're running late – so some countries seem to think that their sovereignty is more important than the sovereignty of other nations.


Just as with individuals there are different kinds and degrees of asshole nations, not all of which are equally morally condemnable, and which require different handling. A typology of assholishness allows us to distinguish the merely badly behaved from the ugly from the genuinely horrid.

Let's start by considering assholism that is domain specific misbehaviour rather than a dominant moral identity. Japan's support for whaling can certainly be described as assholish. Having voluntarily joined the International Whaling Commission and (eventually) signed up to its moratorium on whaling, Japan's government effectively raises a middle finger to the international community's concern to protect these endangered species by not only issuing fake ‘scientific research' permits to its whaling fleets but also providing them with millions of dollars of subsidies per year.

Yet Japan is generally a pretty well-behaved member of the international community of nations. In many respects, most notably in its commitment to its pacifist constitution and its funding for development aid, it takes care to recognise the moral reality of other nations. Its assholish behaviour is limited to a relatively few areas like whaling (and import tariffs and school history books that gloss over its brutal S. East Asian empire). Japan is not a completely unreasonable country: One doesn't have to worry constantly about what new self-serving stunt it will pull; and one can hope, eventually, to reason with it even on those subjects where it presently refuses to listen to criticism. Like a good many other reasonably normal countries, Japan is only a partial rather than a complete asshole nation.

There is also the incompetent or ‘half-assed' asshole nation, one that aspires to be an asshole but doesn't really have the self-delusion and moral blindness necessary to pull it off. One might place Britain in this category, as a country with an historic sense of its own moral and civilisational superiority, built up over the 19th century to rationalise its global empire, and of independence as an island nation. British governments up to the present have often been eager to play up the theme of British exceptionalism – for example Britain appears proud of its reputation as the asshole of the European project.

And yet, this is mostly political theatre. Britain hasn't seriously attempted to live up to its asshole aspirations since the extraordinary humiliation of Suez in 1956. British governments of whatever party are actually quite aware of the fact of Britain's relative insignificance, that it depends on its cooperative relationships with other nations for its prosperity and to further its international projects. Despite its politicians' posturing for the benefit of Daily Mail readers, Britain is generally pretty well behaved in practice. For instance, notwithstanding its endless vocal complaints about intolerable affronts to its sovereignty, Britain keeps up its treaty obligations as a member of the European Union better than most others. There is something blameworthy of course about wanting to be an asshole, something twisted in one's soul; but curmudgeonly recognition of the moral status of others and one's obligations to them is better than none. One can also take some hope from the fact that Britain appears to be on a trajectory that will eventually bring it to a more civilised ‘normal' state.


The defining characteristics of the complete across the board asshole nation are, fortunately enough, exactly what make assholism self-defeating in the long-run: obnoxiousness and unrealisticness. Asshole nations take ruthless and systematic advantage of cooperative norms and institutions intended for the general benefit, as N. Korea takes advantage of conventions such as diplomatic immunity and the freedom of the seas to smuggle drugs, weapons, and counterfeit US currency around the world. In this enterprise the asshole's strongest weapon is his shamelessness, his practised skill in walling off moral complaints in such a way that they never touch his entrenched sense of entitlement. From his moral throne he looks down upon them and laughs them off as beneath his dignity, or treats them as a merely strategic problem to be managed away, or becomes genuinely indignant that his moral superiority has not been respected.

If the infractions are relatively minor – such as Japan's asshole whaling policy – a country can get away with this kind of thing indefinitely. Other countries will generally make the rational decision that the costs and risks of trying to organise themselves to collectively enforce the rules by means other than moral exhortation are greater than the benefits, just as individuals confronted with everyday assholes like queue jumpers often swallow their righteous indignation and move on.

However, the complete asshole nation has a tendency to go too far. For example by threatening so much damage to essential international institutions that they can't function anymore, such as nuclear non-proliferation treaties. Or by threatening to unravel the ethos of international cooperation on which such institutions depend, such as by making other countries reluctant to continue making unreciprocated contributions or making themselves vulnerable to exploitation; or inspiring countries with asshole tendencies (‘realists' in International Relations terminology) of the benefits of the asshole way of life. In such cases there will generally be some collective effort to 'punish' the asshole's misbehaviour (such as by financial and travel sanctions on its elite), or at least to contain the damage it can do by downgrading its privileges as a member of the international community (such as its access to weapons technologies, or its participation in international institutions).

The reason asshole nations go too far relates to the same self-delusions from which their moral blindness springs. Because assholes genuinely and entirely believe that their exceptionalist interpretation of international norms is justified by their moral superiority they are unable to see clearly how they appear to others. For example, they cannot see international sanctions as a legitimate ‘punishment' for their misbehaviour because they acknowledge no moral judgement superior to their own. Sanctions may be successful to the extent that they constrain or reshape asshole nations' political options, but the way they are perceived is as a hostile act, probably motivated by envy and fully deserving of a response in kind.

At the same time, asshole nations' confidence in their own magnificence leads them to make unrealistic demands on other nations. They do not want merely to be allowed to get away with assholishness towards others; they want others to sincerely acknowledge their right to what they take. But even if one has the power to get away with bullying other nations into acquiescing to one's assholishness, like Russia, you will only ever have their fear, not the true respect that you really crave. And if you don't even have the power to frighten, like tinpot N. Korea, you will find yourself tortured by the studious indifference of other countries' to your claims to specialness.

Assholishness in countries, as in individuals, reliably messes up other people's lives but doesn't reliably operate to the advantage of the asshole himself. As the people of Russia will hopefully realise before too long, the complete asshole is as much a curse to himself as to those around him .