Analyzed through the lens of Kydd, A. H. (2008). Methodological individualism and rational choice. In The Oxford Handbook of International Relations.
Rational choice theory, the idea that political actors act based on their interests to try to maximize their benefits, operates under the assumption that human behavior and action can be systematized into a standardized and predictable format. While that is an attractive prospect, it defies our instincts regarding the intrinsic unpredictability and randomness of our free choice.
There are problematic assumptions, too, about the fixedness of the six attributes of actors, according to Kydd (2008, 426), namely decision making style, identity, preferences, positive beliefs, normative beliefs, and action set. It possesses internal contradictions about the fixedness of these identities, suggesting that, “change their positive beliefs rationally in response to new information… and face a fixed and known set of options, not an open-ended process subject to discovery or innovation (427).” Actors can certainly gain new positive information which informs their set of beliefs, but in the real world, decisions are neither fixed nor binary, but a set of degrees separated both in degree and over time. It also seems axiomatic that as human actors react to their circumstances or are introduced to alternative beliefs, normative beliefs, preferences, and even identities are also subject to change over time, and this includes over the prolonged decision making processes that account for many collective decision making regimes, as well as negotiations or bargaining processes between two parties.
Methodological individualism is the framing of the source of power in the behavior of individuals, whose collective actions and rationality have a social effect. States are also often assumed to be a unitary actor, made up of an aggregate of preferences within the population, which is equally problematic in a complex social context with infinite preferences over a continuous set of outcomes, almost never a bounded discrete set of simple choices. There are also institutional and organizational rules with split power structures which dictate how decisions are made collectively, which in international relations, they almost always are, at least amongst a group of elites.
Notwithstanding the limitations, rationalism is considered the most logical choice, the most instinctive, to explain not only conflict formation, but mitigation. What about de-radicalization, the combat between two nationalist states whose ideologies aim for hegemony of the world order and nothing less, and the aim of defeating the idea of passivity towards totalitarianism?
Consider the ideological campaign against the PRC, now a global power whose problem is not it totalitarian ideology so much as the level of public delusion and support for its aim to legitimize authoritarianism through its conquest. The question can no longer be framed as state versus state, with this newly engaged form of authoritarian rule laser-focused on popular consent, but on citizenry versus citizenry in an ideological war playing out directly in public over forums such as social media and by overseas students on college campuses, setting new stages for conflict. In attempting to strategize for dealing with such a conflict, it almost seems antithetical to such a purpose to assume that preferences must be fixed when the ultimate aim is to shift preferences by shifting the entire value structure. If preferences are fixed and defined by identities, then the real question is whether are identities fixed, too, or whether they can be remolded.
We know, instinctively, that identities can change, but are often changed not by a conflict with an outside group. Rather, identities can be changed by the individuals within them witnessing failure, either with the disintegration of the groups either from internal decay from within, or a failure to adequately achieve goals. However, sanctions which target the countries economic goals, and military pressure which can target expansionist ambitions are not unilaterally successful. They often instead strengthen the resolve and determination of a people whose enemy has made itself clear. Elites can manipulate the discourse and dimensions of how people perceive international conflict and can therefore mediate the effects of their own dependencies on international spaces, the only venue that the collective “we” have to enact sanctions, short of invasion.
With a culture cut off from the outside world through censorship and nationalistic hatred against the outside, it leaves little room for maneuver, not enough to topple a totalitarian state.
Perhaps a different paradigm is in order to considering the problem of the PRC and the implications for an international strategy whose aim is to challenge the trend towards normalizing authoritarianism everywhere.