The anthropomorphic fallacy in international relations discourse by Carlos Escudé


This paper deals with the often unnoticed practical and theoretical consequences of the anthropomorphic language that we all use when referring to states in terms of (for example) "weak" and "strong" actors who "suffer", are "honored", are "humiliated", have "pride" and aspire to "glory". Among other consequences, this language obscures the fact that, oftentimes, when a weak state challenges a strong one at a great cost to itself, we are not witnessing an epic of courage (as might be the case when a weak individual challenges a strong one), but rather the sacrifice of the interests, the welfare and sometimes even the lives of multitudes of poor people, to the vanity of their elite. The very fact that this is being obscured biases the value structure of international relations theory, which is not only not value-free, but instead has totalitarian values unintendedly built into it.

Indeed, the development of international relations as a social science is made ever more difficult (if not hopeless) because this is a field in which we are the prisoners of language. The structure of language itself often determines modes of thought that condition our theoretical frameworks and their policy implications in diverse ways, to the point of placing a specifically linguistic limit to knowledge. For instance, it is difficult to think without metaphors and analogies (like a state's "suffering"), yet thinking with metaphors and analogies can easily lead to fallacies with serious unintended consequences

Indeed, when we speak of states we frequently engage in what E.H. Carr has called "the fiction of the group-person" [1] , and as a consequence, unknowingly, we often adopt attitudes toward states and their policies that would be fitting for individuals but are clearly unsuitable vis-a-vis institutions and politicians who are in turn responsible for the rights and interests of individuals. This is true of first-rate theoreticians, politicians, journalists, and the man-in-the-street alike: we all engage, often unwittingly, in the fiction of the group-person. Yet to deal with the state as if it were a person, abstracting its relations with its citizens or subjects, is to unintendedly incorporate a totalitarian bias into theory. On the other hand, to highlight the relation between a state and the individuals under its care, avoiding the latter bias, enormously limits our modeling capacity in interstate relations.

Nevertheless, I will argue that the modeling capacity generated by the state-as-person fiction leads to both theoretical fallacy and normative pitfalls. The state-as-person fiction puts us in a frame of mind whereby we spontaneously tend to think of the accumulation of state power within the interstate system as the "natural" goal of states. Looking at this phenomenon from a normative point of view, I argue that to some extent this frame of mind has often fed back into the ambitions of many an elite, becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. On the other hand, looking at the same phenomenon from a theoretical perspective, this frame of mind tends to obscure the empirical fact that the major objective of states is often not the accumulation of state power within the interstate system, but the maximization of citizen welfare, or alternatively, the consolidation of domestic power for a certain state-structure, elite or individual. The natural flow of thought stemming from the state-as-person fiction leads the mind away from the individuals to whose service the state should be dedicated, under liberal democratic assumptions.

Needless to say, these three basic types of state objectives can at times converge in terms of what the adequate foreign policies needed for their successful implementation might be, but this will not always be the case, and oftentimes the policies needed to maximize state power within the interstate system might turn out to be the very opposite of those needed to maximize citizen welfare. On the other hand, all three types of state objectives coexist in a state's policy agenda, but inevitably one will dominate the others, so that --for example-- the accumulation of state power in the interstate system will sometimes be subordinated to the quest for citizen welfare, while sometimes it will be the other way around. Obviously, the specific kind of relationship between these sets of objectives in a state's policy agenda will be connected to a country's specific attributes: its political system, its social structure, and its political culture, among others. To make it even more complex, it is often impossible to say which of these types of objectives dominates a state's agenda, insofar as this in itself can be subject to flux.

Modeling hence becomes close to impossible when we abandon the simplistic premises of the state-as-person fiction. Therefore, the latter is not, as has been previously supposed, a convenient fiction that helps to model reality, but one that distorts reality and our theoretical models of it, while it concomitantly becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that contributes to model reality in a perverse way. Happily, the accumulation of state power in the interstate system is not and never has been the sole major priority of states. Both the consolidation of domestic power and the care of the citizens or subjects under the care of a state have been alternative types of state objectives that have competed with the accumulation of interstate power as a state's primary objectives. But, as already stated, this obvious fact has and continues to be obscured by the state-as-person fiction.

In turn, the anthropomorphic fallacy in international relations discourse is a linguistic offshoot of the state-as-person fiction which is worthy of attention and study. Even though I will argue that it is well nigh impossible to avoid value judgements in the construction of international relations theory, the linguistic mechanism whereby we tend to confuse the attributes and behavior of states with those of individuals, as well as its consequences for foreign policy and interstate relations, can be described and studied in a value-free way. The anthropomorphic fallacy is an universal mechanism which has not been explicitly pointed to in the literature, and to explore its causes and consequences everywhere will enhance our understanding of the way the world works, and might have significative theoretical consequences as well.


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