Markwica on Rathbun, 'Reasoning of State: Realists, Romantics and Rationality in International Relations (Cambridge Studies in International Relations)'

Brian C. Rathbun
Robin Markwica

Brian C. Rathbun. Reasoning of State: Realists, Romantics and Rationality in International Relations (Cambridge Studies in International Relations). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019. 350 pp. $34.99 (paper), ISBN 978-1-108-44618-1.

Reviewed by Robin Markwica (European University Institute) Published on H-Diplo (October, 2019) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)

Printable Version:

The rational choice paradigm has been enormously influential in the discipline of international relations (IR). Mainstream IR scholarship has long been based on the assumption that actors’ decision-making is guided by instrumental rationality. Brian Rathbun’s new book, Reasoning of State, seeks to recast our understanding of rationality and rational choice. Drawing on insights from psychology, philosophy, art history, and other fields, Rathbun makes three bold arguments: First, he posits that rational choice is not possible without rational thought. In other words, whether agents behave rationally depends not so much on whether they opt for the most efficient means to reach their ends. Rather, it depends above all on whether the process by which they form their judgments is characterized by an unbiased analysis of information (“objectivity”) and careful deliberation. This is what he terms “procedural rationality” (p. 15).

Second, Rathbun makes the case that human beings, including leaders, not only vary systematically in their procedural rationality. They also relatively rarely manage to perform the objective analysis and active deliberation that he defines as the essence of rational thinking. Contrary to the assumption in rational choice theory, rational leaders are the exception—not the norm—in his view.

The third argument he puts forward is that scholars need to better understand what he refers to as “nonrational” thinking styles. For this purpose, he introduces the notion of the “romantic” as an antidote to rationalist realist conceptions of actorhood. Romantics, he maintains, are characterized chiefly by a sense of agency, deontological idealism, a belief in resolve, and a veneration of struggle. Their decision-making tends to be intuitive, preconscious, and emotional. Rathbun emphasizes that this romantic thinking style is not necessarily less effective than procedurally rational thinking. Each of the two modes of decision-making has its own advantages and disadvantages.

To evaluate his propositions, he employs bargaining experiments, quantitative textual analysis, and rich historical case studies on four key figures in history. Whereas Prussian leader Otto von Bismarck and Cardinal Richelieu exemplify the rationalist realist mode of thinking, UK prime minister Winston Churchill and US president Ronald Reagan represent the romantic type.

Reasoning of State is an impressive and provocative book. It is highly original, engaging, and beautifully written. I have rarely had so much fun reading an academic study. I strongly recommend it to IR scholars in general and rational choice theorists in particular.

In my view, the book’s most important contribution is its presentation of romanticism. It brings to the fore significant aspects of human psychology that have long been neglected by social scientists. It helps to account for Churchill’s determination to fight Nazi Germany in the face of all odds in 1940. And it sheds light on why Reagan, one of the most strident Cold Warriors, ended up pursuing the abolition of nuclear weapons and rapprochement with the Soviet Union—decisions that are difficult to explain on the basis of standard rationalist approaches.  

I agree with Rathbun that there is much to be criticized about rationalist IR scholarship. When it comes to his specific critique of rational choice theory, however, I have not been fully persuaded. First, in his eyes, “rationalism is based on … the assumption of individualistic and egoistic actors seeking to maximize their personal interests.... Firms seek profits, leaders seek office, and militaries seek larger budgets” (p. 306). It is correct that too many rationalist IR scholars operate under the simplistic assumption that humans seek only security, power, or wealth. Original rational choice theory, however, does, of course, not make any claim on the content of people’s preferences. These may include self-regarding or material interests, but they may just as well relate to other-regarding or ideational aspirations. If IR scholars keep in mind this openness of rational choice, and if they are ready to look beyond narrow security and economic interests, the rationalist approach can serve as a powerful tool to make sense of the complexity of human decision-making.

Second, I concur with Rathbun that the process of rationality has been neglected by rationalists. But I am not sure whether he is right in treating a decision process based on intuition and emotion as nonrational. Cumulative research in psychology and neuroscience suggests that rationality is not necessarily deliberative in nature. For example, evolutionary psychologists have theorized that emotions can help humans to make rational choices by focusing their attention on the key aspect of a challenge and to navigate rapidly through a complex and often dangerous world.[1]

Third, I recognize and welcome that Rathbun is ready to transcend traditional rationalist conceptions of rationality. This becomes apparent when he remarks that rational thinking also requires us to keep in mind what we do not know, thus avoiding cognitive closure and misplaced certainty. Yet I wonder whether his notion of rationality can be fully liberated from the shackles of rational choice theory. As noted above, he focuses on procedural rationality characterized by a commitment to objectivity and active deliberation. The combination of this procedural rationality and rationalists’ instrumental rationality tells actors how to reach their goals efficiently and on the basis of sound reasoning. What it cannot do, however, is explain why actors adopt these goals in the first place. This is where a notion of reflective rationality could be of help. It refers to the ability of humans to reflect on their beliefs, desires, and behavior in light of their values.[2] Amartya Sen has called it “reasoned self-scrutiny” on the basis of normative convictions, which may prompt actors to change their minds and to make new choices accordingly.[3] The inclusion of this reflective dimension into our understanding of rationality could help us to break free from the narrow rationalist confines of the concept.

Finally, Rathbun has convinced me that rational realist actors are relatively rare. The little Bismarcks evidently struggle to meet the demanding requirements of rational thought and rational choice. If rationalist perspectives fail to account for a substantial amount of political decision-making, this obviously raises the question of which conceptual framework would be more helpful. Rathbun has introduced the notion of the romantic actor as an alternative approach. As innovative and fascinating as this concept is, however, I am not sure how far it reaches to explain past and present international relations. Aren’t romantics just as exceptional as rational realists? This makes me wonder whether we need to develop further approaches beyond rational choice and romanticism to account for political decision-making across time and space.

Robin Markwica is a Max Weber Fellow in the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies at the European University Institute. He obtained an M.Phil. in History from the University of Cambridge (Corpus Christi College) and a D.Phil. in International Relations from the University of Oxford (Nuffield College). In between, he held a research fellowship at Harvard University’s Department of Government. His research interests include international relations theory, international security, constructivist and psychological approaches to international relations, as well as emotion research. He is the author of Emotional Choices: How the Logic of Affect Shapes Coercive Diplomacy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).


[1]. See John Tooby and Leda Cosmides, “The Evolutionary Psychology of the Emotions and Their Relationship to Internal Regulatory Variables,” in Handbook of Emotions, ed. Michael Lewis, Jeannette M. Haviland-Jones, and Lisa Feldman Barrett, 3rd ed. (New York: Guilford Press, 2008), 133; Paul Slovic et al., “Rational Actors or Rational Fools: Implications of the Affect Heuristic for Behavioral Economics,” Journal of Socio-Economics 31, no. 4 (2002): 331-32; Kirsten G. Volz and Ralph Hertwig, “Emotions and Decisions: Beyond Conceptual Vagueness and the Rationality Muddle,” Perspectives on Psychological Science 11, no. 1 (2016): 107. See also Rose McDermott, “The Feeling of Rationality: The Meaning of Neuroscientific Advances for Political Science,” Perspectives on Politics 2, no. 4 (2004): 691-706.

[2]. See Amartya Sen, Rationality and Freedom (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2002), 32, 36; Keith E. Stanovich, Decision Making and Rationality in the Modern World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 5.

[3]. Amartya Sen, The Idea of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2009), 195. 

Citation: Robin Markwica. Review of Rathbun, Brian C., Reasoning of State: Realists, Romantics and Rationality in International Relations (Cambridge Studies in International Relations). H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. October, 2019. URL:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.