Quantum thinking should be introduced to IR studies


Quantum thinking suggests significant and potentially far-reaching implications for international relations. Photo: TUCHONG

In recent years, applying quantum theory into social sciences studies has emerged as a new interdisciplinary endeavor. Advocates of quantum international relations anticipate the possibility that tough questions and issues in international affairs could be answered and resolved through the introduction of this trending approach. One major concern is whether theoretical assumptions and conclusions drawn from quantum laboratories are applicable to understanding and explaining the social world at large, and international relations (IR) in particular.

Despite divergent research approaches, advocates of quantum international relations share a common belief that progressive development and promising prospects in quantum theory, sciences, and technology suggest significant and potentially far-reaching implications for constructing international theory and diplomatic praxis. Therefore, to reproduce knowledge and theorize world politics beyond what is possible based on a Newtonian worldview, it is academically meaningful to attempt to bring key concepts and principles from quantum theory into IR studies. This will improve understandings and explanations of our complex social world through a quantum worldview and a quantum mindset. 

Traditional thinking vs. quantum thinking

Simply put, a Newtonian framework has four distinct features. First, it considers individuality as its constituent units in the world. In other words, the world is ontologically material, with atoms as its fundamental building blocks, and the whole being made up of parts. Second, there exists a continuum in space and time in which all things have a beginning and an end, evolving and unfolding according to discernible laws. Continuity functions as both a precondition for experiments and the grounds for scientific induction and deduction. Third, straight causality is upheld. Just as actions produce counteractions, causes and effects correspond with one another. Last but not least, there exists certainty in processes and outcomes. If laws are discovered and mastered, along with given data, the past and future of all time can be inferred and known by means of scientific calculations.

Quantum thinking has roughly four distinct features too. First, it adheres to the principle of holism, which argues the whole determines, and consists of, the parts. Things are ontologically relational and interconnected through dynamics such as entanglement and mutual correlation. Second, discontinuity occurs in the space-time continuum. Energetic movement involves leaps, resulting in discontinuities. Things may transit from one state to another with successive leaps rather than gradual uninterrupted progressions. Third, it assumes complex causality for most dynamics. This means that cause-effect relationships are intricate, not singular nor linear. Finally, outcomes are a question of probability and uncertainty. In a diverse world with multiple choices, endless probabilities simultaneously exist as their developments and processes iterate. Before a choice is made, there exists infinite possibilities in which anything could happen unpredictably. However, once a choice or decision is made, all possibilities instantly “collapse” into a particular and distinct outcome. 

Shift of focus in research

To achieve new breakthroughs in IR studies, it is imperative to have a paradigm shift from Newtonian thinking (or Newtonian mechanics) to quantum thinking (or quantum mechanics). Thought processes, as a cognitive channel through which the essences of objects under investigation are known and grasped, usually remains habitually stable and denies changes. Therefore, introducing a new through process often meets resistance and demands greater intervals of time before acceptance. The limitations and inadequacies of Newtonian thinking are evident, though it has not yet lost its value in reflecting, understanding, and explaining international affairs. Quantum thinking is now emerging as an alternative, and is increasingly drawing broad attention and acceptance in IR studies. It is an increasingly popular framework for researchers observing and handling international issues.

With the significant paradigm shifts in the mode of thinking, certain research focuses in IR studies are readjusting accordingly. One shift of the study focus is from the macro level towards a micro and subtle level. Another shift of focus has emphasized an objective world, independent of human minds, projecting this onto a subjective world with human consciousness and cognition. Yet another shift of focus is from material-oriented to relations-oriented topics in IR studies. 

Role of diplomacy

In international relations, diplomacy plays an increasingly critical and decisive role in tackling challenges and dilemma. Nations and their decision-makers have to better master and appreciate the arts of diplomacy and the statecraft of governance. With changes of time, the thought process and actions of diplomacy have to be changed as well. How could a diplomat, for instance, appear in different places at the same time? How could an international event or a diplomatic crisis affect and shape events and behaviors in distant corners of the world. Scholars are encouraged to employ new conceptual tools to comprehend and describe the above-mentioned phenomena as “quantum diplomacy.”

In a digital age with advanced information technology, diplomacy usually transcends time and space, both locally and globally, interweaving the past, present, and future together. Sometimes, seemingly unrelated diplomatic events are in fact entangled through means such as powerful global media coverage. Scholars are no longer encouraged to untangle these processes and seek their direct cause-effect relationship via a singular and linear path. 

With an increasing number of actors and more opportunities for human interactions on planet, diplomacy today swings between governments and civilians, between the public and the private. While secret diplomacy is still necessary — and remains crucial — in the digital age, diplomacy also calls for public transparency and information-sharing. Both overt and covert diplomatic talks may take place at the same time. This is the simultaneity of quantum diplomacy. A diplomat who simultaneously situates himself or herself in different formats or locations of the talks is called a “quantum diplomat,” as his or her behaviors form a “system” in which the same diplomatic goal is pursued.

Superposition state

As a key concept in quantum theory, the state of superposition can be employed to comprehend and decipher a range of unique phenomena in diplomacy, which can be perceived as a state of entanglement and superposition on three aspects—the national, the institutional, and the strategic.

Nationally, decision-makers and diplomats are required to adapt themselves to, and manage, bilateral or multilateral relations with other countries that may be identified as both competitors and cooperators. The duality of competition and cooperation means one has to abandon the view that if nations collaborate on one issue, they will reach consensus on other issues too. This strongly mono-dimensional, linear view that a nation is either a friend or a foe fails to grasp and reveal the nuances of interstate relationships. Similar to particles in the quantum world, a nation may have overlapping identities — friend, partner, collaborator, competitor, or even adversary. Two countries may intensely compete over some issues, but this does not undermine their willingness to work together on other crucial ones. 

When interstate relationships are observed within specific domains, national identities “collapse” from the state of superposition. In this quantum phenomenon of international relations, a specific domain is just one “measurement” among many entangled relationships. For instance, in the realm of global climate, countries may be collaborators, while in technology, they may turn into competitors. In this sense, quantum diplomacy doesn’t measure other countries from a single perspective but treats them as states of superposition from multiple perspectives.

Institutionally, actors in diplomacy, with their ways of words and deeds, exist in different superposition states. A fundamental fact is that, against the rising pressures of globalization, diplomacy is undergoing a rapid and significant transformation. It is no longer highly institutionalized or centered solely around nations-states, which are no longer the sole diplomatic actors, nor do they have an absolute monopoly over diplomatic affairs. In cultural diplomacy, as in public and folk diplomacy, more actors are engaging in diplomatic activities and involved in relationships with peoples from other countries. This promotes diversity and socialization in diplomatic practices. These complex dynamics have ushered in a new reality: as more players participate in diplomacy, the methods of practicing diplomacy itself have changed accordingly. 

Strategically, the superposition state can also be applied to observe security strategies, which can be studied as a blueprint designed by a nation to achieve its goals in multiple security domains, and this forms an integral part of a nation’s overall strategic plan. In the process of forging its national strategy, a nation often needs to simultaneously address multiple targets, and employs different — even entirely opposite—diplomatic approaches, which closely resembles wave-particle duality in quantum phenomenon.


In conclusion, introducing quantum theory into diplomatic and security analysis provides an entirely different and promising perspective for IR studies. The notion of “quantum diplomacy” has offered a new conceptual and philosophical toolbox in IR studies. Indeed, the non-monotonic, non-uniform, complex, and entangled nature of diplomacy, coupled with the superposition states of possible security strategies, prompts scholars to take cognitively novel approaches to diplomacy today.

Quantum thinking offers a cognitive process entirely different from traditional thinking. Inspired by quantum theory, advocates of quantum IR are revisiting ontological and epistemological issues in IR, shifting their research focuses towards the nature of relationality, human consciousness, and micro and subtle levels of international affairs. Major quantum concepts like superposition and entanglement can be empirically applied to observe and analyze diplomatic words and deeds of countries and power blocks such as the European Union. These methods have gained traction in IR studies and are inspiring new theoretical and empirical analysis. 

While unsettling the roots of Newtonian thinking’s absolute dominance, quantum thinking does not intend to replace it, nor does it suggest that a quantum-inspired approach may marginalize other academic research approaches. The worlds described by both classical and quantum physics are not necessarily separate. Measurement makes an uncertain world a certain one.

Just as quantum theory itself is inherently about complexity and uncertainty, reactions to the introduction of the quantum thinking into IR studies are complex too. For those who follow conceptual frameworks or discourse systems within the social sciences, the application of theories and conceptions typically used in physics to the field of social sciences might be difficult to imagine. 

Nevertheless, in the face of constant theoretical challenges, critiques, as well as entrenched real world issues, the application of quantum theory into IR studies shines new light on old problems and will produce undeniable theoretical value and practical significance. Furthermore, the conceptions of “relationality” and “uncertainty” from quantum theory are closely associated with Asian philosophical ideas, forming a launching point for further in-depth exploration of this interdisciplinary endeavor.



Cao Wenshan is from the School of Marxism at Jiangxi Normal University; Liu Yongtao is a professor from the Center for American Studies at Fudan University.

Editor:Yu Hui

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