Constructive Illusions

Constructive Illusions: Misperceiving the Origins of International Cooperation

Eric Grynaviski
Copyright Date: 2014
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Constructive Illusions
    Book Description:

    Are the best international agreements products of mutual understanding? The conventional wisdom in economics, sociology, and political science is that accurate perceptions of others' interests, beliefs, and ideologies promote cooperation. Obstacles to international cooperation therefore emerge from misperception and misunderstanding. InConstructive Illusions, Eric Grynaviski challenges this conventional wisdom by arguing that when nations wrongly believe they share a mutual understanding, international cooperation is actually more likely, and more productive, than if they had a genuine understanding of each other's position.

    Mutual understanding can lead to breakdowns in cooperation by revealing intractable conflicts of interest, identity, and ideology. Incorrectly assuming a mutual understanding exists, in contrast, can enhance cooperation by making actors confide that collaborative ventures are in both parties' best interest and that both parties have a reliable understanding of the terms of cooperation. Grynaviski shows how such constructive misunderstandings allowed for cooperation between the United States and the Soviet Union between 1972 and 1979.

    During détente, the superpowers reached more than 150 agreements, established standing consultative committees, regularly held high-level summit meetings, and engaged in global crisis management. The turn from enmity to cooperation was so stark that many observers predicted a permanent end to the Cold War. Why did the superpowers move from confrontation to cooperation? Grynaviski's theory of the role of misunderstanding in cooperation provides an explanation that is significantly different from liberal institutionalist and constructivist approaches. This book's central claim is that states can form what French president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing called "a superb agreement based on complete misunderstanding."

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-5465-3
    Subjects: Political Science, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-15)

    When Captain Cook “discovered” Hawaii at the end of the eighteenth century, a remarkable case of cooperation began, perhaps one of the most remarkable in world history. As Marshall Sahlins controversially recounts the story of Cook’s first contact with the Hawaiians, a series of coincidences led the Hawaiians to mistake Cook for Lono, the god of peace, music, and fertility.¹ When theDiscoveryand theResolutionapproached the island of Hawaii, they chanced to circumnavigate it in a clockwise direction that mirrored the mythical process made on land by Lono. Cook’s progression around the island occurred in the same direction...

  5. 1 When Common Knowledge Is Wrong
    (pp. 16-47)

    Do shared ideas promote cooperation? Many of the most interesting and widely used theories of international cooperation suggest that shared ideas are crucial for ameliorating conflict. Realists suggest that misperceptions and uncertainty are drivers of conflict; liberal institutionalists highlight the importance of information for cooperation; and constructivists emphasize how shared cultures and norms promote peace. By contrast, I argue that Stalin was right: sometimes the best friendships are founded on misunderstandings. Misunderstandings can promote cooperation, and mutual understanding can promote conflict. False intersubjective beliefs—inaccurate beliefs that a piece of knowledge is held in common—may enable cooperation when shared...

  6. 2 Détente
    (pp. 48-87)

    During the early 1970s, the United States and the Soviet Union began a remarkable process of cooperation intended to develop an enduring relationship that would end the excesses of superpower competition. Superpower cooperation was so successful that many prognosticators predicted the end of the Cold War. Perhaps most impressive was the timing. Détente occurred less than ten years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, at the height of the Vietnam War, and nine years before the Soviet incursion in Afghanistan. What enabled the United States and the Soviet Union to improve relations? Was the change from what Richard Nixon called an...

  7. 3 The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty
    (pp. 88-118)

    The story about the tsar, recited by Brezhnev during Kissinger’s secret trip to Moscow in the spring of 1972, is indicative of the stumbling path that culminated in the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty later that year. Despite seeming clarity, like the tsar’s order, the superpowers’ signals, beliefs, and aims were misinterpreted throughout the ABM Treaty negotiations. The most remarkable part of the ABM Treaty negotiations was the circuitous path they took. The process was plagued with misjudgments, misunderstandings, and simple mistakes. Whereas many theories in International Relations maintain that these should stand as a barrier to cooperation, I argue that imagined...

  8. 4 The Decline of Détente
    (pp. 119-151)

    I have traced the process through which imagined intersubjectivity promoted cooperation in the early 1970s. The shift from enmity in the early Cold War to rivalry during détente was caused by misperceptions. The Soviets believed that the United States was ready to accept political equality and some Soviet influence in the periphery and would no longer try to obtain positions of strength in negotiations. The United States, in contrast, believed that the superpower contest remained a competition for political dominance and tried to use issue linkages and nuclear threats to prevent the Soviets from enlarging their area of influence. This...

  9. Conclusion
    (pp. 152-162)

    The conventional wisdom in International Relations is that mutual understanding—common knowledge, intersubjectivity, or shared ideas—is crucial for international cooperation. Specifically, the conventional wisdom in political science is that détente occurred in part because of reduced misperception between the superpowers. I have argued, in contrast, that cooperation is often best secured because of misperception. When actors hold false intersubjective beliefs—in which agents wrongly believe that their understanding of a relationship is shared—cooperation may be much more likely, especially if there are principled differences or conflicts of interest. In the case of détente, there were significant principled differences...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 163-184)
  11. References
    (pp. 185-206)
  12. Index
    (pp. 207-216)