Individual Level of Analysis in International Relations: Truman, Kennedy, and Bush

It seems that the individual perspective in International Relations theory lacks in maintaining the same characteristics of falsifiability as the unit and systemic levels of analysis. There is risk of crossing into other disciplines thereby causing confusion between distinctions and lowering falsifiability. There is a temptation to merely account for all actions as not according to any probable theory but the actions of an individual. Therefore, the individual level of analysis seems to be risky in its ability to claim apodicity over an event. That being said, proper analysis and contextualization can still be maintained leading to usefulness for the individual level in International Relations theory. For example, for the examples that follow, the individual analysis should not be used to the exclusion of other levels of analysis. Doing so virtually eliminates falsifiability and enables dogmatic apodicity–an unfortunate mistake when dealing with subjective phenomena. However, phenomenological epistemology shows that adding the individual analysis to a comprehensive one adds to the manifold of presentations for a given case. Adding phenomenological experiences to an analysis can elucidate or obfuscate accuracy but that is the role of a skilled theoretician to delineate and test in the context of the academic forum. However, as a general practice, it seems most useful to add the individual level of analysis to the complete picture when the unit and systemic levels struggle to maintain accuracy. This does not negate the veracity of those levels of analysis, but can serve to bring about a more complete theory.

For example, the decision by Harry S. Truman to approve the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with nuclear weapons is an enigmatic one to account for using either the unit or systemic levels of analysis. This is due in large part to the lack of other actors in the making of the decision. While internal normative factors of morality, systemic factors of alliances, etc. all played a part in influencing the fateful decision, ultimately it came down to the choice of one man.(Miscamble, 2-4) Therefore, individual analysis appears necessary in this case to form accurate theory for this case study.

Likewise, the actions of John F. Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis have oftentimes been the subject of study and controversy due to the president acting in a manner that was apparently not predictable. Based upon the apparent liberal ideals of the president, his bellicose response to the presence of nuclear missiles in Cuba is difficult to account on a unit or systemic level. However, individual analysis shows a Naval officer not opposed to aggressive, decisive action in order to protect his nation.(Gopalan) Thereby, biographical and psychological study of Kennedy can yield more accurate theory when examining the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Furthermore, the decision of George W. Bush to not fire the Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in the wake of the Abu Gharib war crime shocked members of the American public, the United States Military, and Bush’s own cabinet. Although, Bush was a highly loyal president–even to a fault.(Bush, 88-90) Therefore, even a justified action such as removing a Secretary of Defense at his own behest in the wake of a war crime can not be done not due to any unit or systemic motivations, but an individual decision of one man.

Therefore, while it can certainly be overused to the detriment of accurate theory, individual levels of analysis remain a vital part of International Relations Theory when investigating cases and developing accurate theory.

Miscamble C.S.C., Wilson D. The Most Controversial Decision. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Kindle.

Bush, George W. Decision Points. New York: Crown Publishers, 2010. Kindle

Gopalan, Karthik. “Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis,” Foreign Policy Journal, August 16, 2010. Accessed March 30, 2017. /kennedy-and-the-cuban-missile-crisis/


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