Sunday, June 21, 2009

What IR Theory Can Teach Us about Parenting

Just in time for Father's Day, Stephen M. Walt offers "The IR Guide to Parenting."

My favorite insight is this one that Walt draws from the theory of asymmetric conflict:

The whole field of asymmetric conflict can prepare you for another aspect of child-rearing: your superior education, physical strength, and total command of financial resources will not translate into anything remotely resembling "control." A two-year old who is barely talking can destroy a dinner party or a family outing just by being stubborn, and a smart, loving, strong and wealthy parent can be damn near helpless in the face of a sufficiently willful son or daughter.

Walt's piece reminds me of my own essay on this subject, one written several years ago but never published (perhaps because there is no journal called Parenting and International Politics). I offer it here in an effort to further the discussion of what IR theory can tell us about parenting (and vice versa).

Testing the Limits of the Domestic Analogy

Daniel, my oldest son, recently turned eighteen, which means that the time has finally come for me to write up the results of a long study involving him and his younger brother, Stephen. For those who might be wondering, I've checked: No institutional oversight of experimentation involving human subjects is necessary if those subjects are one’s own children. My parents ought to be relieved about that.

The experimental design was developed in the summer of 1987 when I returned to Charlottesville to defend my dissertation. My wife was six months pregnant at the time. Inis L. Claude, Jr., who doubled as my dissertation advisor and my special consultant on fatherhood, recommended that I read the work of Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, pediatrician to the Claude family some years earlier and author of What Every Baby Knows. I also had in mind the work of Dr. Benjamin Spock whom I had heard lecture at the University of Virginia a few months earlier (albeit on the subject of nuclear disarmament). Nonetheless, it seemed to me that there was a great opportunity at hand to test some of the major theories of international politics.

For the first couple of years after Daniel was born, not much happened, to be perfectly honest. Other parents suggested (often with a note of concern in their voices) that the situation needed to be analyzed in terms of some development model. I insisted that the experiment had to deal with IR rather than economics (no IPE in my family, thank you very much) and so we compromised in that early period on dependency theory. But, as IR theory goes, it was boring. Clearly it was time to introduce a new variable.

Stephen was born in 1990. We had, at last, a system. Within months, it became apparent that it would be a system characterized by conflict. In fact, I probably didn’t need to mix passages from Hans Morgenthau's Politics Among Nations into bedtime stories like The Cat in the Hat (Dr. Seuss’s gloss on The Prince) and Curious George (H.A. and Margaret Rey’s eerily prophetic description of U.S. foreign policy). Nonetheless, my wife and I soon had in our nursery–my laboratory–a "war of each against all," or at least brother on brother.

Taking a page from Professor Claude’s analysis of international organizations in Swords Into Plowshares, I determined that, as parents, my wife and I should play the role of the United Nations Security Council in our household. To keep things simple–-her degree was in English literature-–we decided to confine our options in maintaining fraternal peace and security to collective security and peacekeeping. The rules were simple: unprovoked aggression by either boy would be met, if the facts could be accurately determined, with the collective punishment of the parents against the aggressor. However, in those circumstances-–and they were numerous-–in which the truth of charges and counter-charges was impossible to establish, we the parents operated as peacekeepers, separating the combatants, avoiding judgments concerning culpability, and seeking, through various measures of preventive diplomacy, to prevent subsequent outbreaks of violence.

One might suppose, given the power imbalance existing between two brothers almost three years apart in age, that acts of aggression, when they occurred (like clockwork) would invariably consist of attacks by the older and stronger brother, Daniel, against Stephen. Such attacks, while not unusual, were accompanied by a surprising number of preemptive attacks by Stephen. In fact, it came to appear that the institutional constraints keeping large-scale violence in check (i.e., parents) actually made Daniel and Stephen's relationship safe for limited war.

In a remarkable vindication of realists' most fervent hopes, the level of violence in the household dropped dramatically when Stephen experienced a sustained growth spurt at age eleven that allowed him to match Daniel's hard power capabilities. With a balance of power established, war became much less common, although far more destructive when it did occur.[1] Diplomacy, in fact, became the norm. This was fortuitous as the boys' mother and I divorced (an episode I refer to as the collapse of the Evil Empire[2]), leaving me with my own "unipolar moment" and a concomitant unwillingness to play the U.N. Security Council game any longer.


1. Guys, I'm still not happy about that lamp.

2. Lighten up, Anne. It's a joke.