Home > News > Scholar Robert L. Jervis passed away this month. He pushed policymakers to see the world’s complexity.
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Scholar Robert L. Jervis passed away this month. He pushed policymakers to see the world’s complexity.

Jervis had a boundless curiosity about both theory and policy in international relations.

- December 14, 2021

On Dec. 9, political scientist Robert L. Jervis died of lung cancer. Jervis was the Adlai E. Stevenson Professor of International Politics in the Department of Political Science at Columbia University and a member of the Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies in the School of International and Public Affairs. He died at home, in the presence of Kathe, his wife of 54 years, and his daughters, Alexa and Lisa.

Jervis was an intellectual giant. During a career that spanned five decades, he authored some of the most significant books in the field, including “The Logic of Images in International Relations,” “Perception and Misperception in International Politics,” “The Meaning of the Nuclear Revolution” and “System Effects: Complexity in Political and Social Life.” His last book was “How Statesmen Think: The Psychology of International Politics.”

Jervis’s work shaped not only international relations theory but the fields of history, psychology and sociology. His analyses of intelligence and nuclear weapons reached beyond academia to the American policy community. And he will be remembered for his generosity, his kindness and his humor.

Jervis’s legacy was built from curiosity and humility

One is hard-pressed to think of another international relations scholar as influential as Jervis. The substantive breadth of his research was astonishing. As one colleague noted, “He touched every facet of international relations — psychology, the nuclear revolution, intelligence. You name it.”

Jervis’s work, particularly on strategic bargaining, was broad and pathbreaking. He analyzed when leaders could strategically manipulate “signals” about their intentions and when they might be unable to bluff. He also pioneered the sophisticated application of the laboratory findings of cognitive psychology to problems of real-world political decision-making.

In Jervis’s later work, he challenged both scholars and policymakers to take “system effects” seriously. International politics, he argued, was a complex social system, with overlapping, interrelated parts. To social scientists, that complexity undercut attempts to predict outcomes, he cautioned. To practitioners, he warned that complexity meant that all policies were likely to have unanticipated consequences.

Part of his unique ability to produce this wealth of original and significant work lay in his unrelenting curiosity. Jervis valued interdisciplinary work long before it became the academic norm. For his work on misperception, for instance, he delved into research that had been published in psychological journals. The footnotes in “System Effects” demonstrate Jervis’s facility in everything from sociology to evolutionary biology.

Jervis’s deep curiosity about history also allowed him to ask important questions about world politics. One historian noted that Jervis “read more history than anyone I’ve ever met.” He founded a forum on security studies at H-Diplo to bring the disciplines closer together and to highlight the work of junior scholars.

To his colleagues and students, what stood out even more than Jervis’s vast knowledge was his humility. Jervis’s work was never driven by an unwavering commitment to a particular theoretical approach. He was intellectually challenged by the substantive problems of international cooperation in the face of the danger of war, especially nuclear war. It was his awareness of how little he understood about the world that produced his best work.

Jervis’s work bridged theory and policy

Throughout his career, Jervis engaged with the policy community, particularly with practitioners in intelligence and diplomacy. Jervis intended that his work — even the most theoretical of his writing — be read by a policy audience.

His efforts to reach policymakers were successful. Practitioners consistently name him as one of the most influential scholars. One current member of the National Security Council reported, “I draw on Bob’s work on political psychology and signaling almost daily.”

Jervis did lament that “System Effects” was not as well known in the policy community. In 2012, he wrote that while “ ‘System Effects’ is highly relevant to public policy … it rarely comes up in my discussions with officials in Washington, unlike my work on signaling, perception, the security dilemma, and nuclear deterrence.”

Jervis also participated in policy directly. Beginning in the 1970s, he consulted for the Central Intelligence Agency. Assigned to work on Soviet intentions, he shifted gears to analyze why U.S. intelligence had failed to predict the 1979 downfall of the Shah and the Iranian revolution. Jervis chaired the CIA’s Historical Review Panel and was tireless in his efforts to stop the over-classification of documents. He was recently awarded the Agency Seal Medal for his work.

A scholar as kind as he was brilliant

In their own remembrances, Jervis’s colleagues and students make it clear that his significance in the field is grounded as much in his generosity and kindness as it is in his academic work.

Jervis took ideas seriously. Former students report speaking with Jervis in his office for hours about history, theory and current events. One former student recalled him scrambling to stand on his desk to find an unpublished manuscript to aid in research. They remembered that “he’d take time to talk and provided the most helpful feedback on the messiest of drafts with grace, a sense of humor and his signature grin.”

Jervis’s support was particularly important for women in his field. For much of his career, women were underrepresented in international relations theory and security studies. As one former student recalled, Jervis was “keenly attuned to the fact that women faced challenges in our field. He could not remove the hurdles in my path, but made sure I was supported as I cleared them.” He was also a generous source of parenting advice.

While Jervis took ideas seriously, he approached his work and those around him with a keen sense of humor. He will be remembered for his mischievous smile and his sharp and acerbic commentary (an “enthusiastic provider of feedback to university administrators,” one informal obituary noted). He will be remembered for his brilliance, but also for his supportive phone calls, his careful listening and his deep affection. He is irreplaceable, and he will be missed.

Stacie Goddard is the Mildred Lane Kemper Professor of Political Science at Wellesley College. She is the author of When Right Makes Might: Rising Powers and World Order (Cornell University Press, 2018).

Jack Snyder is the Robert and Renée Belfer Professor of International Relations in the Columbia University political science department and the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies. His books include Human Rights for Pragmatists: Social Power in Modern Times (Princeton University Press, forthcoming in 2022).

Keren Yarhi-Milo is the Arnold A. Saltzman Professor of War and Peace Studies and the Director of Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies (SIWPS) at Columbia University. Her books include Who Fights for Reputation? The Psychology of Leaders in International Conflict (Princeton University Press, 2018).