Time to Make Psychology a Part of International Relations

Cultural studies, sociology and psychology are not fluffy, useless subjects. They are serious, underrated subjects that need to be given a more central role on the international-studies stage.

Everyone has knowledge gaps. Take it from Ted Mosby in an episode of “How I Met Your Mother.” Despite being an intelligent professor of architecture, Mosby mispronounced “chameleon” his whole life, and when he uses it in a lecture, his students can’t help but chuckle. Similarly, I pronounced the “b” in “subtle” for a long time as a kid. My mother, bless her heart, corrected me at age fourteen, sparing me more embarrassment later in life. Some knowledge gaps are comical and not cause for concern. Others require serious attention and demand filling. One such knowledge gap for international-relations experts lies in the realm of psychology. There is a strong need for a psychology requirement for all international-relations, strategic-studies, security-studies, public-diplomacy majors and so forth, but it seems to go largely overlooked.

If we liken the human brain to a computer, the need for a psychology requirement in international-relations curriculum becomes simple and clear. If one wanted to become a computer technician, it would follow that one would take a few courses on how computers work, yes? So if one wanted to become, say, a diplomat, a political analyst, an academic, a foreign-service officer, a State Department employee and so on—in short, someone whose job it is to know how political and economic systems function (because they do not function of their own volition or in a vacuum; humans are at the root of politics, naturally), offer up solutions on how to improve the functionality of those systems and help manage relations with the rest of the humans in this world—would it not also follow that one should be well versed and well learned in how humans work? After all, how useful are our leaders and ambassadors (notwithstanding other reasons for questioning the appointments thereof) at facilitating good relations with leaders of other nations if they are not experts in human behavior?

At the very least, anyone engaging in serious negotiations with leaders of another country should be extremely knowledgeable about that country’s culture, including the nuances and patterns in psychological and sociological behavior that are prevalent in that country. For example, one leader whose behavior seems to have vexed most U.S. politicians as of late is Vladimir Putin. Nina Khrushcheva, the granddaughter of former Soviet Union premier Nikita Khrushchev, offers up a few works of literature, including Gogol’s Taras Bulba, that she believes give insight into Putin’s behavior and motivations for getting involved in Ukraine’s political affairs and annexing Crimea. Khrushcheva, a longtime Putin watcher and accomplished academic, uses her extensive knowledge of comparative literature, politics and Russian culture to try and understand why leaders such as Putin behave the way they do. Perhaps if some of our top leaders bothered to learn about Russian culture and how it manifests itself in Russian politics and foreign policy, we would have a better shot at repairing relations with one of the largest and most influential countries in global politics. (The onus is also on Russian leaders to understand U.S. leaders, but that does not make it any less critical for U.S. leaders to understand Russian leaders.) The last thing we need is our own president making any more misinformed comments about countries upon which he claims to be focusing. It seems that Obama knows very little about the aspects of Russian cultural and psychology that influence and motivate Putin’s actions. Further, the issues raised in Kenneth Yalowitz and Matthew Rojansky’s article about the demise of Russian and Eurasian studies in the United States seem indicative of just how little we care about establishing good diplomatic ties with Russia’s leaders and how little importance we place on understanding the psychological motivations behind their actions.

It begs the question: Why is it that so many people playing the international-politics game do not have a solid educational background in psychology?