Do Individuals Matter?: Great Men, Individual Interaction and Ideas in IR Theory
International Relations theory, in general, has ignored the role individual actors play in shaping the international system. Instead, scholars have tended to favor systemic theories that explain the behavior of actors –generally viewed as states -- as a product of anarchy in the international system (Waltz 1979; Keohane 1984). But what if Hitler had never been born or Lenin would have died in 1916? Would international politics have developed differently? Those that believe individual actors matter say yes, and that because of systems-level theory scholars have ignored the “great men” of history. Daniel Bynam’s and Kenneth Pollack’s article “Let us Now Praise Great Men”, and Henry Kissinger’s diplomatic history A World Restored tried to fill this analytical void in the literature. This essay will review the contributions of both pieces, and argue that recognizing the importance of individual actors is an appropriate step in the right direction for IR theory. However, the literature on “great men” could also be improved by analyzing how individuals interact with one another, and also understand to what extent ideologies and ideas shape individual decisions and preferences in international politics.
Individuals and International Politics
Daniel Bynam and Kenneth Pollack argue that international relations has devoted less attention to the role of individuals in politics for three reasons. One, scholars argue that individuals simply do not matter and that the impersonal forces of the international system are stronger that individual will. Two, to be truly “social scientific” is an expressed goal of political science, and thus individuals make it hard to generalize about world politics. In particular, treating each individual as unique, or special, is a difficulty if the aim of social science is to generate hypotheses and predict future events. Lastly, the field of international relations – particularly the main theoretical traditions of neorealism and neoliberalism – is hostile to relying too much on individuals to understand the international system (Bynam and Pollack 2001: 108). Two works in IR – one old and the other new -- have tried to bring individuals back to the forefront of the discipline, however.
Henry Kissinger’s A World Restored is a diplomatic history of
Bynam’s and Pollack’s article “Let Us Now Praise Great Men” is a more recent contribution to IR theory. Their article is designed to promote a new research agenda in international politics that looks at individual actors as important pieces to explain the international system. They provide five cases from which to spur the agenda – Hitler, Bismarck, Saddam Hussein, Napoleon, and Ayatollah Khomeini – and show that “regardless of political system, period of time, or region of the world,” individuals can reshape world politics (Byman and Pollack 2001: 115). They also develop a litany of hypotheses about when individuals “matter”. These hypotheses could be grouped categorically on four dimensions: 1) the “common sense” hypotheses; 2) the personality trait hypotheses; 3) the enabling factors hypotheses; and 4) the interacting images hypotheses (Bynam and Pollack 2001: 133-143). In short, Byman and Pollack believe that, with time, a research agenda aimed at including individual actors could answer all of the criticisms lodged from the main theoretical camps.
Kissinger, and Bynam and Pollack, offer up two works that relate the importance of individual actors in understanding the world. Kissinger’s contribution was written years before structural realism and neoliberal institutionalism were mainstays of the discipline. Indeed, Kissinger’s work is probably as important to historians as it is political scientists. Nevertheless, Kissinger reminds us that without Metternich and Castlereagh European history might have turned out very differently and probably from Kissinger’s viewpoint, much worse. Bynam and Pollack seek to turn the discipline on its head by favoring accuracy over parsimony (Bynam and Pollack 2001: 113). Their common sense approach asks us to imagine politics without individuals. Arguing that one cannot understand World War II without Hitler, or the German unification without
Individuals, Interaction and Ideologies
Both works added a more thorough understanding of the way individuals could impact international politics. Two criticisms might be lodged at this nascent research project, however. First, projects that say “individuals matter” must not only argue about under what conditions they matter, but also why other actors do not matter. I call this the problem of “individual interaction.” Hitler’s success in capturing parts of
A second criticism of this work is the remarkable absence of ideas and ideologies in Bynam and Pollack’s research agenda. By ideology, I mean a framework for understanding the world that simultaneously prescribes and limits certain actions or behaviors. Kissinger better deals with this problem by suggesting that Metternich was a conservative who had a particular vision for post-Napoleon
Both works reviewed here make important contributions to the literature in IR theory and international security. I am sympathetic to their view that individuals matter, and that, yes, accuracy is sometimes a more desirable outcome of research than parsimony. One could not understand the 100 year peace that occurred after the Napoleonic Wars without some reference to Metternich and Castlereagh. Similarly, without Napoleon, Hitler or Bismarck history would have looked very different. I have offered two criticisms though of this nascent research design. One, scholars should examine individual interaction when arguing that individuals matter; and two, ideas and ideologies also fundamentally shape the preferences and choices individuals make. Although systemic theories are still the norm in IR theory, these new challengers will hopefully build on this research agenda to further understand how individuals matter in international politics.
Bynam, Daniel and Kenneth Pollack. “Let Us Now Praise Great Men.” International
Security. 25:4, 2001.
Keohane, Robert. After Hegemony. Princeton:
Kissinger, Henry. A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace.
 For a review of rational choice theory consult
 This is, of course, some debate about whether or not conservatism is an ideology at all, or just a disposition or preference for sameness, stability and order. (See