After his dissertation, Wolfgang Leidhold remained true to the subject of experience, switching, however, to international relations with a focus on security policy, choosing an area with parties living in very different situations: the Pacific islands and the Pacific Rim powers. How did the actors get in touch with political reality? How did they direct their actions? How did both sides interact? Studying the experiential side reconfirmed the presumption derived from studying Hutcheson and the history of ideas: Political reality does not simply adhere to the empirical formula, but rather emerges from a variety of experiential dimensions that include our imagination, spiritual experience, fantasy, reflection, and interpretation. Result: a multi-dimensional concept of experience is also indispensable in the field of practical politics.
Furthermore, Leidhold assumed that the perception of political reality on both sides would be substantially divergent. This hypothesis had to be examined more closely, and thus the study—published as Crisis under the Southern Cross, The Pacific Island States and International Security—explored the interrelation of experience and political action: How did the actors get in touch with political reality? How did they direct their actions? Generally speaking, the regulatory complex governs action, and the experiential complex defines the modes of experience.
The regulatory complex, or regimes, that govern political action on the international level are well understood. They consist of principles, norms, rules and procedures such as beliefs of rectitude, standards of behavior, treaties, decision-making practices, and the like. In a remote region such as the Pacific Islands, the challenge was primarily to collect the relevant facts.
Less attention is paid to the experiential complex that governs the way people get in touch with political reality. Therefore, this was a major theoretical challenge. The empiricist formula, i.e. the path from first-hand perceptions to experience, does not get us very far here, as we rarely derive our image of political reality from direct participation. Therefore, it is largely a second-hand affair based on information and communication. We create this image by using our imagination, fantasy, and rational reflection, i.e. by interpretation. The world of politics is an imagined reality.
Although all sides have shared a common history since World War II at the latest, they developed very different images of the political world and its driving forces. Thus divergent perspectives emerged. The isolated situation of small island states produced a view that was simultaneously marked by strong feelings of fragility and vulnerability, as well as a sense of marginality. Keeping a low profile, e.g. by establishing nuclear free zones, was considered to be the best guarantee of national security.
For the powers of the Pacific Rim, however, the picture was quite different: The island states were by no means considered marginal, but instead played a significant role in the East-West conflict. Two issues were particularly relevant at that time, and these were President Reagan’s Star Wars Initiative and the strategy of sea-based power projection. Therefore, firm integration into western alliances was considered to be the best guarantee for national security of the island world. With regard to the experiential complex, the study found that a multi-dimensional concept of experience is indispensable in the field of practical politics as well.