The Study of International Relations Turns Weird

“When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro,” is one of my favorite Hunter S. Thompson quotes. In his Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the legendary gonzo journalist was referring to marginals who become successful when what was thought to be normal becomes chaotic. The study of international relations (IR) is now turning weird. If you think cryptocurrencies, Donald Trump and his MAGA followers are strange, try learning about the relationship between quantum theory and international relations.

Weird is colloquially used to describe quantum physics because many of its phenomena are counterintuitive. For example: something can be described as both a wave and particle at the same time. Objects can be in two places at once. If you think in Newtonian classical terms these two examples are counterintuitive. If you think in quantum terms they make sense.

Now, you may think international relations is getter weird as well when: The president of the United States visits a country he had said he would make “a pariah,” and then fist-pumps its leader believed to have ordered the murder and dismemberment of a well-respected Saudi journalist; or that a majority of Republicans still believe Donald Trump won the 2020 election and that Joe Biden is not the legitimate president of the United States. The “weirdness” of quantum physics and international relations should not be that hard to accept. Both are part of our new normal.

What would Quantum IR say about the current violence in Gaza and Israel? It must consider different perspectives. It would begin by recognizing that members of Hamas are considered freedom fighters for many living in Gaza as well as many in the Arab world. Confined to a dehumanizing ghetto with little possibility for positive change, the inhabitants of Gaza are desperate. Encroachment by settlers on what is considered historic Palestinian land is part of their worldview. On the other hand, Israelis would defend their right to internationally recognized sovereignty and the inherent right to self-defense. Israelis also make Biblical references to the Occupied Territory being part of their historic heritage. They would point to previous Arab narratives threatening their existence. To try to end the violence, Quantum diplomacy would have to take into account these different perspectives. There would be no absolute right or wrong. Quantum diplomacy would point to the common Semitic background, “entanglement,” of both sides and their “interconnectedness.”

The “weirdness” of quantum physics and quantum IR are reactions to classical physics and its particle basis and traditional international relations based on the interaction of sovereign states. Both standard physics and historic IR have been governed by laws and similar mechanical paradigms, one based on particles and the other on sovereign states. Newtonian physics has definitive laws. IR has quantitative explanations using mathematical game theory assuming rational actors.

Quantum IR tries to apply fluidity and uncertainty to international relations. “We obviously do not seek to retrieve a classical Newtonian science, in which states interact like billiard balls, humans reductively behave as rational choice actors, and power is reduced to unitary objective interests,” James Der Derian and Alexander Wendt write in the introduction to their co-edited Quantum International Relations.  What the two eminent professors are trying to do, with funding from the Carnegie Corporation in New York, is to etch out “the beginnings of a holistic effort to revive, update, and apply quantum ideas that will advance a new human science of quantum IR.”

Physics has radically changed since Max Planck used the term quantum in 1900. Scientific research has been able to show the limitations of Isaac Newton’s description of a stable universe in the late 17th century. Among the revelations after Planck: experiments proved that the world was not constructed only by separated particles and that particles and waves are both valid descriptions of the material world.

In addition, there is a profound, holistic “interconnectedness” between all matter. Entanglements of objects are more prevalent than their separation. “[Q]uantum entanglement suggests that the quantum state of any particle or group of particles cannot be described independently of the state of the others, even if they are widely separated,” Thomas Biersteker writes in the Der Derian/Wendt volume. Moreover, the very act of observing could change the nature of the object being observed. The German physicist Werner Heisenberg proposed this in the mid1920s which led to his uncertainty principle.

How can advances in physics affect international relations? If there is an interconnectedness between matter, there is also complex interdependence in our globalized world. International relations are not just sovereign states interacting with one another. Beyond the state and its leaders, entanglement means people are all somehow related. What happens in one part of the world affects us all. A failure of a nuclear reactor, for example, is not just a problem for Ukraine or Japan. Violence and poverty in Latin America or Africa have consequences for the United States, Europe, and elsewhere. Factories in China belching CO2 also go well beyond borders.

As far as different perceptions depending on the observer, the view of the world from the Global South is markedly different from someone sitting in Silicon Valley or trading on Wall Street. Try discussing the importance of the rule of law with a MAGA follower or with an editorial writer for the New York Times. Their views will be very different. Descriptions of reality depend on the observer. Any attempt at a definitive observation of what is going on can only be described as uncertain.

Quantum physics has evolved into areas well beyond physics and IR. There is now quantum biology, quantum computing and computers, quantum cognition, quantum security, quantum diplomacy, and quantum finance. The stable, mechanical world described by Newton and the Enlightenment is evolving. Quantum IR is a small part of changing paradigms.

I must admit that if Hunter Thompson was right that “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro,” I remain an amateur. Interconnectedness, entanglement, subjective reality, and uncertainty are not part of my everyday vocabulary. But I do recognize that what I was taught in Physics 101 and International Relations 101 are woefully outdated. Whereas few can pretend to define quantum clearly – “Anyone who claims to understand quantum theory is either lying or crazy,” physicist and Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman once said – I do recognize how insufficient mechanical, rational explanations now appear. The new normal, in all its definitions, is truly weird.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.