Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Mutant Model of the Cuban Missile Crisis

Last night, one of the people I follow on twitter, Robert Farley, who works at the other Patterson School, watched the X-Men: First Class movie and said this:

Why? Because Graham Allison wrote THE academic book on the Cuban Missile Crisis.  No, his aim was not really to provide the definitive account, but to illustrate three ways of thinking about policy, especially defense/foreign policy:
  1. One could look at governments as rational actors, making decisions that aim to advance the national interest.  This was the conventional approach at the time and is still quite prevalent.
  2. One could study organizations to see how they function as machines more or less, processing information as an input and processing policy as an output.  That how organizations function shapes what they do via standard operating procedures and the like.  
  3. One could take the second model further and focus not on organizations as processors but as actors in politics.  That politics takes place within governments as individuals and agencies fight to push policies that benefit themselves, more or less.  He called this government politics but became known as bureaucratic politics.  
The important question of the day is this: how does the new history of the Cuban Missile Crisis, with the important roles played by Mutants--especially Magneto and Professor X--shape what we know about Allison's three models.  The answer is this: it reminds us that there is a fourth set of folks who matter in politics: individuals.  The perceptions, passions, aspirations,affinities, ambitions and anxieties of the various Mutants determined the outcome on that day. 

With great power comes ... great power.  The X-Men had no institutions at that time to constrain their decisions.  Intra-group politics certainly mattered as the love triangle involving Mystique mattered.  But the events turned on the decisions of Professor X and Magneto, who combated each other despite their love for each other because of their conflicting visions of humankind.  So, when empowered individuals have the chance to impact the course of events, it is their personalities, their backgrounds, their proclivities that matter.  And that sucks.  Why? Because it is hard to theorize about individuals, and it is hard to code individuals without some circular reasoning.  We political scientists prefer to stick mostly to groups of individuals--parties, interest groups, countries, social movements, states, international organizations, alliances, etc.

So, Spider-Man teaches us to use power responsibly.  The X-Man, at least in the First Class edition, teaches us that Allison missed the fourth model of politics--understanding individuals as key actors.  If only he knew how empowered some actors are by their mutations....

1 comment:

Mrs. Spew said...

Okay, your next option is to explain politics through the Smurfs or My Little Pony.