I recently discussed some theories of international relations. As theories go, international relations is one that is relatively subjective. Politics is an interesting field because it exists entirely within the construct of the human mind. As a result, there are a few absolute truths in politics. In fact, belief is a far more powerful tool than truth. All one needs to do is turn to one of the many examples from history – be it the peaceful protests of India to throw off the yoke of British control, or the darker side of belief that led us to the incidents of January 6th.
Keeping with the theme of international relations, the theory that deals mostly with belief is called constructivism. As a quick refresher, constructivism is the idea that the system is what the people make of it. The behaviors of the system are an emergent characteristic of the actions of all the people within the system. This has implications for connectivity, as the closer we get to other people via the internet, the more likely we are to influence each other’s views, thoughts, and opinions. In this context, I’ve used the term emergence to describe actions. This term is used specifically within the context of complexity theory, which contains its own pocket universe of interesting ideas. We’re going to stick with those that apply to this discussion however.
So with constructivism, the belief that people share that drives their actions is what results in the creation of the international system. If we accept this axiom to be true, then we see that the system is what we make of it. There are several other sides to this coin of belief being power. Even if you don’t buy the constructivist ideology hook line and sinker, there are plenty of other examples of belief creating power. Religion is the obvious one; people believing in a higher power than themselves aligns their actions towards the shared set of common values, that results in working towards common goals. This is the creation of power at its broadest sense. When a hard-working and industrious people apply themselves to natural resources, they create power. It could be economic power, military power, or perhaps even the implicit power of being successful. Others see the success and wish to emulated.
I’d like to look at two examples, one from the realms of fiction and one from the realm of history. The first example I’d like to use is that of Yoon Ha Lee and the Machineries of Empire series. In this series, knowledge of mathematics and belief in certain systems literally creates power.
If enough people believe a thing can be a certain way, then it becomes that way. Lee’s use of advanced weaponry that only functions in areas where enough people believe in its underpinnings is a great metaphorical projection of the concept of belief equating to power. If you have not read these books yet, I highly recommend them.
The examples from history are somewhat more nuanced. It’s easy to point at applications of the military instrument of power being the projection of one society’s belief against another, and that eventually resulting in victory or defeat. But perhaps a more subtle example comes to us from the Cold War. there are many different scholarly explanations as to why the Soviet Union collapsed. some point to the issues with the way their economic system was implemented, some point to the personalities that were responsible for that execution. But modern Russian strategy itself reflects a different explanation. To greatly simplify it, modern Russian strategy attributes the fall of the Soviet Union to a complex and coordinated information operations campaign by the US and Western allies.
Information operations campaigns are the application of the theory of belief being power. By engaging with the Soviet people, and those under Soviet control, and continuing to project Western beliefs and ideas into the global understanding of international relations, the US and its western allies was able to undermine the Soviet people’s belief in their system. this lack of belief is ultimately what led to the downfall of the Soviet Union.
Now I will be the first to acknowledge that this is just one explanation of many, and I am far from being a foremost scholar on the Cold War, but this explanation rings true to me based on what I know of constructivism and these interesting concepts of belief equating to power.
Constructivism itself is limited and that it is not a predictive model of international relations. it’s very easy to use it to explain actions that have happened, but because of its complex nature it is impossible to use it to predict future actions with a high degree of certainty. But the real tests of a theory, at least in my opinion, is whether or not you can scale it from the macro to the micro and it still holds true. So what does constructivism look like scaled down to a small organization? In elegant simplicity, it’s a story.
stories are how we teach. From the very beginning of our lives, our parents, our teachers, and all the adults in our lives tell us stories. These stories can inform, they can influence, and they certainly can help develop what we believe. there’s certainly an ethical line and storytelling with the intent to alter someone else’s belief; most value systems will look negatively on attempting to undermine someone’s autonomy in this fashion. But when those stories are targeted towards shared common goals and ideas, belief in a cause, that is when the story becomes powerful at the micro level.
During the Cold War, the West told a story about how it was good for people to have a representative government, to trade in goods and services that were their own, and to pursue their own definitions of life liberty and happiness. When you tell a story and your organization, you can have that same power, that same influence. if you can use your stories to create belief, whether that’s belief in a mission, belief in a vision, or even belief in a shared purpose, then you will truly find yourself as a leader. please let me know what you think of this article in the comments below, and I look forward to hearing each and every one of your stories!