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Frieden: Actors and preferences in international relations

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Frieden. 1999. Actors and preferences in international relations. In Strategic Choice, eds. Lake and Powell, pp. 39-76.

Preferences and strategies are different. Preferences are prior, based on the costs and benefits of achieving certain outcomes. Strategies are a reflection of how our preferences interact with structural constraints and others' preferences. We choose a strategy to achieve (what we think is) our best possible outcome.

Neither preferences nor strategies are directly observable. An actor's "revealed preference" for one outcome is a reflection of true preferences, strategy, and environmental constraints.

Confusion about preferences and strategies leads to three major "sins":

  • Sins of confusion: Our theory mixes preferences and "the strategic setting in ways that do not allow their independent effects to be examined." This is an especially common problem in realism, where scholars often argue that states maximize power or survival. Some say that this is an actual preference; others say that it is merely a strategy allowing states to reach other goals, or that the system forces states to fight for survival (making it a strategy, not a preference). So is survival a national preference, or are preferences irrelevant in an anarchic system?
  • Sins of commission: Attributes all results to variation in preferences. We see some new outcome, so we assume that preferences changed to reflect that new outcome.
  • Sins of ommission: Attributes no results to variations in preferences. We see some new outcome, so we look for ways that the environment changed without considering whether state preferences may have changed.

Three ways that IR scholars decide what preferences are:

  • Assumption: we assume they are power-maximizing (or something). Economists can assume preferences (wealth-maximization), but IR scholars face unique problems if they do so: first, actors in IR (states, NGOs, IGOs, individuals, firms) vary more than actors in econ (firms, individuals); second, unlike in economics, there is no unambiguous preference in IR that we can assume all the time; third, (and a partial cause of the second), IR deals with many issues along many dimensions, whereas econ looks only at one dimension (money). Besides, assuming any set of preferences begs the question: what theory specifies those preferences?
  • Observation: we observe "revealed" preferences in what actors actually do. Some observe national ideology, some observe national elites, some observe subnational groups, some observe temporary political conditions. Problem 1: "Revealed" preferences reflect both true preferences and strategy (see above). Problem 2: Risks tautology.
  • Deduction: The best (theoretically), but the most difficult. Requires prior theory about what factors should affect preferences. These prior factors might be internal (to states) or environmental. Advantage 1: we can "objectively" observe changes in the factors that might change preferences even though we can't observe preferences. Problem 1: "the preferences deduced from preexisting theories are only as good as the theories themselves." Problem 2: we would need a different theory of preferences in each new circumstance.