System Effects, by Robert Jervis, is an exploration of how the complex relationships between nations can generate or constrain action. Because each nation has its own goals and methods, it will try to seek the best situation. The problem is, because each nation has neighbors and opponents, it cannot always act precisely how it wants. Jervis deals with three basic types of problem: 1) You cannot predict the total effect from individual effects. That is, although each policy you adopt might have a certain goal, some might backfire or feedback in unpredictable ways. An international example is the Trident missile: our goal was to get a more accurate second-strike capability to deter the Soviet hope for a first-strike success. However, their accuracy was so high that the Soviets perceived the Trident as a first strike weapon. Combined with the accuracy of the land-based missiles, it looked to some in the USSR that the US was planning for a first strike. This result is not predictable when you consider the land and sea based policies in isolation, or by simply assuming that your overall increase in accuracy has a deterrent effect. By making the Soviets more nervous, our policy may have increased the chances of war. 2) Your behavior depends in part on the behavior of others. One nation may seek peace, but it cannot disarm if its opponents pursue war. Alternatively, if your opponents follow a course of appeasement, you may continue in actions as an aggressor. 3) Your actions reshape the world in which you live. As you defeat one opponent, another may encroach on his territory and become a new threat. If you choose to disarm, others may perceive you as less threatening, and also disarm. Jervis' account is detailed, but his writing style is a bit long-winded.Read more ›
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The essence of this book is a step-by-step guide on how to construct a framework to understand relations and transactions between nation states (under the rubric of `international relations'). Jervis conceptualizes the framework as an international system composed of individual units (nation states) whose transactions and relations with other nations, even if bilateral, will affect other nations that are not directly involved in the transactions. The behavior of a single nation (unit) thus can affect the entire system. Also the international system as a whole behaves differently and distinctly from its individual member states. Once this concept is described the remainder of the book is devoted in illustrating how the international system actually operates by breaking the system down into individual system components and describing how they function as illustrated by historical examples.
Jervis also demonstrates, unintentionally, how systems analysis can be used to understand the complex workings of international relations, although he does not use the term, "systems analysis." As this book demonstrates repeatedly, formulating a foreign policy relating to a specific issue concerning a specific nation should not be done in isolation, but should recognize the effect the policy will have on other nations and the international system as a whole. Jervis is not a believer in the discredited `domino theory' that led us into the Vietnam War. He simply accurately understands that nations do not and cannot exist in isolation. Events or changes to any one unit anywhere within the international system affect to a greater or lesser extent all other units in the system.Read more ›