Breaking Bad and IR Theory: A Rejoinder to Peter LaVenia


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When I saw this post by Peter LaVenia applying IR theory to Breaking Bad, my first reaction was: oh, rats, someone beat me to it –  as I love to apply IR concepts to pop culture and vice versa.  My second reaction was: oy – as the post put various characters in the show into different theoretical boxes—Walter What as a realist, Jesse Pinkman as a constructivist and so on, which is always problematic. While Kissinger is a realist, most other folks are a complex combination and characterization individuals.  So, personifications of theories tend not to illuminate but obscure.

In the piece, LaVenia argues that Walter White, or ‘Walt,’ is a neo-realist, who sees the world as anarchic, and then does the usual IR stuff of balancing power via alliances and so on.  The problem is that Walt is not motivated by insecurity, which is the engine of behavior in neo-realism’s take on anarchy, but by pride and resentment. Walt, who gets into the drug business to save his family financially after being diagnosed with cancer, is given a variety of outs that would maximize his ‘security,’ including offers of money from his former co-workers. But he refuses the offers, sticking instead to the path of meth-making and law-breaking.  This is not about fear of being betrayed by these co-workers – it’s about not wanting to take their money.  Walt resents them and pursues a course of action that reduces his security, which is very much counter to what neo-realism would expect of a rational actor in anarchy.  The idea of Walter White as a rational actor balancing risks is pretty strange, given that the series consistently shows Walt acting foolishly and getting lucky. Walter White fails miserably if he is trying to maximize security, as the flash-forwards in season five make abundantly clear.  “I am the Danger”?  Yes, to himself and everyone around him.

But LaVenia is correct that there is heaps of IR in Breaking Bad, both in that the drug war is a cross-border dynamic and that we can conceive of the competition outside of the law to be akin to international relations’ anarchy.  By “anarchy,” IR scholars mean mostly the absence of government, not necessarily chaos.  Of course, the problem in both IR and in Breaking Bad is that there is government—international law and elements of governance in the former and, well, the police and the Albuquerque courts in the latter.  So, how exactly do we apply IR to Breaking Bad?

First, as it has been my obsession lately, I would note that at the core of many of the problems that Walter White faces is the principal-agent problem: how does a boss get his or her underlings to do the job appropriately?  This has been a problem in Afghanistan where commanders have both NATO and their home countries as bosses, and they have to choose which chain of command matters more to them (generally, the answer is the latter).  Even within the national chain of command, people in the capital have to figure out how to control the troops on the ground, with caveats being one particularly controversial way to limit discretion of the agents.

The principal-agent problem is difficult in international relations because international organizations have very limited tools to manage the agents.  The UN or NATO can send someone home, but that is the extent of their ability to punish those who break the rules or who exceed their authority.  In drug wars and in Breaking Bad, the same is true because one cannot rely on contracts and the courts to handle disputes.  How do you deal with a potentially disloyal or incompetent employee in a drug war?  Well, when Todd exceeded his discretion at the end of the train heist, his employers faced three choices—fire him, keep him … or kill him.

Of course, Todd is not the only problematic employee in Breaking Bad.  Walter White has always been a difficult agent.  Indeed, one of his problems is his refusal to see himself as the employee in a chain of command.  Gus Fring was brilliant, but despite his extensive management techniques and expertise, he could not solve his principal-agent problem.  Indeed, once Walt ascends, we see that the principal is often the problem in the principal-agent problem, something frequently overlooked in IR applications.

Second, as in any criminal enterprise, one can apply the prisoner’s dilemma.  This has been a basic concept for much of the thinking about cooperation under anarchy.  The fear of defection causes potentially cooperative partners to cheat, leading to each ratting on the partner.  In international relations, the fear that others will increase their armaments or raise their tariff barriers or devalue their currency causes one to do the same, or risk being exploited as the trusting sucker.  In a criminal conspiracy (where one cannot take notes), distrust is everywhere, and efforts to deal with distrust usually generate more distrust.  Thus, the most disturbing line in the first episode of the remaining eight is when Walt says to Jesse, “you have to trust me.”  If Walt senses that Jesse thinks he is lying, then Walt will have to kill Jesse.  And Jesse understands this, as he agrees to the lie, understanding the context here much more clearly than ever before.

How do we overcome the prisoner’s dilemma? In international relations, cooperation is possible if the players know the game will be played over and over again, as the gains of long-term cooperation outweigh the short-term gains of defection.  The Soviet Union and the United States eventually figured out how to make small steps via a series of arms control agreements and other cooperative efforts that risked relatively little.  The repeated play created more confidence that cheating was unlikely and that the game would continue … until both felt cheated.  The challenge in this season of Breaking Bad is that there is no long-term.  Not for Walt, whose cancer has returned.  And not for Jesse, who knows that Walt is killing those who he distrusts (Mike and his guys).  Thus, the tension between them is incredibly high, so the theory here would predict escalation and conflict as the two anticipate the betrayals of the other.

Third, one could try to ask whether rationalism is really the best approach to understanding behavior in IR or in Breaking Bad.  The real challenge of constructivism to realism, liberalism and other more conventional approaches is to ask the following: are the actors motivated by a logic of consequences or a logic of appropriateness?  The former logic really is about costs, benefits and probabilities of success, whereas constructivists argue that actors are often motivated by what they see as appropriate.  To illustrate this, I would ask my Intro to IR students if they ever considered cannibalism as a solution to their hunger pangs.  Of course not: they would not imagine that as a possibility because it is so inappropriate.  The juxtaposition of international support for the Afghanistan campaign and the opposition to the Iraq invasion is striking—that one was seen as an appropriate response that received much support and the latter was not appropriate and received much friction.

By this logic, the problem with applying realism or liberalism to Breaking Bad is that the competition among the actors is not really about which risks are most likely to pay off, but about which behavior is imaginable and even acceptable.  Remember, Walter White poisoned a child just to get Jesse to distrust Gus, and facilitated a suicide bombing to kill Gus.  Jesse, whom LaVenia describes as a constructivist, does view certain behavior as inappropriate, as does Mike, who risked a great deal of insecurity to uphold his agreement with his agents.  He could have worried about the consequences, but Mike seemed to have followed a code of conduct.

What we cannot debate is that this show is brilliant, that the suspense and tension will be very high for the last (alas) seven episodes.  I am sure that there are other ways that we can see IR in this show, and that the remaining episodes may shake our preferred ways of looking at it.  Of how it all ends?  I have no certainty at all.


Stephen M. Saideman holds the Paterson Chair in International Affairs at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.