Photo credit: National Defense University Press from Washington, DC, USA

The diverse legacy of Robert Jervis

The death of Jervis is a huge loss for the study of international relations

Artillery Row

On 9 December, American political scientist Robert Jervis passed away in New York at the age of 81. While he may not have been a household name outside the academic discipline of International Relations, the chances are that — if you read the international-political analysis of intellectual fora like The Critic — you engage with his ideas on a daily basis. This article is not a personal obituary, such as those written by those close to him. Instead, it is an effort to summarise the scale and reach of his scholarly contribution to the analysis and practice of statecraft, including here in the UK. 

Is today’s Russia a greedy, revanchist power bent on swallowing Ukraine, breaking NATO, and restoring hegemonic domination of central Eurasia? Or a weak, beleaguered state terrified of an expansionist NATO led by a superpower with military and economic capacity far exceeding its own? Or a bit of both, with each reinforcing the other? 

It is hard to judge from the outside. Both the NATO and Russian sides can observe the other extending their alliance networks, increasing their armaments, and asserting their preferences ever-more-forcefully. But are such behaviours simply the actions of wary, fearful states trying to provide for their own security or evidence of malign, expansionist motives held by implacable, imperial belligerents? Of course, all sides insist that they are the former. But then, if they were actually the latter, they would also profess benign intentions in the hope that their rival lowers its guard.

This perilous calculation is the essence of the “security dilemma” — the situation in which states take measures to increase their own security, but increase their adversary’s insecurity in the process, leading to a spiral of mutual hostility — that Jervis theorised so insightfully (although John Herz and Herbert Butterfield described the basic quandary prior to that). There would be no dilemma if each side could know the other’s future status-quo preferences with certainty — the prudent strategy would then be to refrain from arming, thereby reassuring the other that they face no threat — or if there was some higher authority that imposed order on world politics like the state does within domestic politics. But since we cannot, and there is not, states face incentives to proceed on the assumption that they face a revisionist adversary that must be deterred. This is the optimal strategy if that other state is a greedy imperialist bent on expansion, but a profoundly self-defeating strategy if that other state is simply a security-seeker that wants to be safe.  

Jervis roved across the fields of international relations theory, political psychology, and applied strategic studies

Jervis took these basic parameters and — in a 1978 article cited a staggering 4760 times as of 16 December 2021 — demonstrated when and why international cooperation can nevertheless be achieved between states that may otherwise have good reason to fear and menace each other. Specifically, he showed that where a state’s strategic posture can be configured using technology and geography to favour defence over offence — and, crucially, can be distinguished as such by outside observers — the antagonistic incentives of the security dilemma can be ameliorated. To get there, he moved effortlessly between game theory (the divergent payoffs of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Stag Hunt versus Albert Tucker’s Prisoner’s Dilemma) and history (the first footnote casually introduces a 1903 UK defence planning document corresponding perfectly with the article’s theoretical conundrum). “Cooperation Under the Security Dilemma” thus remains a landmark in the field, and its insights are still central to the management of contemporary major-power relations. Practitioners thereof are either aware of that fact, openly recognising the debt, or simply utilising his ideas without knowing their genesis.

If all Bob Jervis had ever done had been to write that article, his significance in the study of international security and national strategy would have been assured. But in fact, he roved across the fields of international relations theory, political psychology, and applied strategic studies, making contributions on an array of subjects that exceed what most scholars will ever make on one topic.

In The Logic of Images in International Relations (1970), he explained how the communication — via signals and indices — of strategic “image” can affect outside states’ behaviour without recourse to other levers of national power. In Perception and Misperception in International Politics (1976, foreshadowed here), he explored the effects of political psychology on policymakers’ assessments — accurate and otherwise — of their strategic environment. Such insights also complement the “spiral” described in that famous 1978 article, and were developed further in Psychology and Deterrence (1989, with Richard Ned Lebow and Janice Gross Stein) and How Statesmen Think (2017). This ability to systematically combine the material — states’ relative power, geographical position, technological capacity, and so forth — with the psychological remains an all-too-rare quality in analyses of statecraft. 

Meanwhile, in System Effects (1997) — a ground-breaking yet hard-to-pigeon-hole book featuring an amusing foreword listing all the organisations that refused to fund the project — he demonstrated how the complexity of political and social systems can invert the causal expectations of both theorists and practitioners. In an academic discipline obsessed with simplified, parsimonious theory on grounds of maximising explanatory coverage, Jervis showed that it was possible to embrace complexity and nuance without surrendering generalisable reach. The Meaning of the Nuclear Revolution (1989) — published in an unfortunate year for books that appeared to be about the Cold War — provided profound insights on the chilling effects of the nuclear shadow in statecraft among major-power adversaries (for a short summation, see here). His ability to impose sudden clarity on the fault-lines within — and implications of — a long-running scholarly exchange was not confined to nuclear politics, moreover; he did the same with the overarching international relations theory debate, notably via his 1999 intervention in the realism-versus-liberalism exchange and 1982 problematisation of “security regime” approaches. 

The fields of international relations, political psychology, and strategic studies have lost one of their giants

On a wholly different topic, Why Intelligence Fails (2010) — derived from a classified study he had produced for the CIA thirty years earlier — shed crucial light on the inadequacies of Western intelligence gathering and interpretation at both individual and organisational levels. His concern for the public interest further extended to forensic critiques of various controversial US strategic choices over the years, including America’s pursuit of nuclear primacy (1984), the “domino theory” of alliance cohesion (1991, edited with Jack Snyder), the “Bush Doctrine” of preventive war (2003), and the post-9/11 fixation on transformative interventionism (2013). He was also adept at applying theoretical and historical insights to the consideration of emerging and future strategic relationships.

Taken together, Robert Jervis made a vast, brilliant, and tremendously consequential contribution to the study and practice of international security. He produced far more insightful research than this short precis could ever list. Moreover, displaying the sure mark of a hungry and expansive intellect, he never stopped questioning, even when some of those questions had implications for his own previous work: just how far the Cold War could be understood as a security dilemma, whether realist critiques of a liberal US foreign-policy “blob” rest on sound methodological foundations, just how readily the security dilemma can be ameliorated using the offence-defence balance, whether the nuclear “revolution” was a permanent or transient condition, and more. He was also generous with his time, a riveting interlocutor, and — as the outpouring of grief from his former students and colleagues over the past week attests — a deeply respected person. The fields of international relations, political psychology, and strategic studies have lost one of their giants. But through those he taught and collaborated with — many of whom are now distinguished scholars and policymakers in their own right — and in the body of research he leaves behind, his insights will continue to influence the analysis and conduct of statecraft for decades to come. 

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