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Why realists don’t go for bombs and bullets

Why realists don’t go for bombs and bullets

By David M. Edelstein

Thanks to Steve Walt for inviting me to contribute to his blog while he is away on vacation. I have been a regular reader of Steve’s blog since it launched, and for my first post, I wanted to pick up on a motif that I have seen running through Steve’s posts: Will realists ever again support the use of military force by the United States?

Followers of this blog will by now have little doubt about how Walt felt about the Iraq War or how he views the prospects for U.S. success in Afghanistan. In fact, throughout the history of his blog, I can only recall one case in which Walt advocated the use of U.S. military force (and I think the realist credentials in that case are rather dubious).

There is a common perception in the field of political science that realists are war-mongering Neanderthals anxious to use military force at the drop of a hat. Attend any meeting (if you must) of the American Political Science Association or the International Studies Association, and one will find realists derided as the "bombs and bullets guys" as if we were all direct descendants of Curtis LeMay. What is notable about this — and what has been notable about Steve’s blog — is just how infrequently realists have supported the use of American military force. Take the U.S. interventions of the post-Cold War period: Panama, the Gulf War, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Of those interventions, Afghanistan was the only one that received anything close to strong support from most realists. Others, most notably the Iraq War, received vehement opposition from the vast majority of realists. Even in the case of Afghanistan, realists expressed trepidation about the prospects for ultimate success despite early victories. 

Go back to the Cold War, and realists like Kenneth Waltz and Hans Morgenthau were famously opposed to the U.S. intervention in Vietnam. Lest one think this is an academic phenomenon, realist policymakers like Brent Scowcroft were equally critical of the Bush administration’s actions in Iraq, and George F. Kennan was skeptical of the U.S. interventions in both Korea and Vietnam. Today, should anyone dare to suggest the use of military force in new contexts such as Iran, they are summarily dismissed by prominent realists. Not a single (self-proclaimed or attributed) realist I know of has advocated the use of military force against Iran in response to its apparent development of nuclear weapons, and most are adamantly opposed to it.

From one perspective, this opposition is surprising. It is realists, after all, who so value material power, in particular military capabilities. It is not difficult to understand why so many would assume that realists are anxious to use military force because realists are anxious to focus on military capabilities as a primary explanatory variable for international politics. 

But it is precisely because realists have spent so much time studying military force that they are also so reluctant to use military force. Though realists themselves are divided on the question, many have concluded that the use of military force is often counterproductive, inviting balancing coalitions that simply make life more difficult. Moreover, as I have argued elsewhere, using military force to reorder societies is very difficult and unlikely to succeed except in uncommon circumstances.

At a deeper level, realists also understand that the most potent use of military force is the threat of the use of military force. Perhaps the greatest contribution of Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling to the field of strategic studies is the understanding that military force is at its coercive best when it is credibly threatened in a way that either deters or compels another actor. Realists have taken this to heart. Realists have spilled more ink in recent decades on questions of how to coerce an adversary without using overwhelming military force than on how to use that military force most effectively. The writing that has been done on the use of military focuses on how to use military force to coerce without having to resort to sheer destruction.

Finally, there is a personal element of this that should not be underestimated. The most prominent realists today came of age as scholars either during or immediately after the Vietnam War. For many of them — as with so many Americans — the war had a searing effect, rendering them exceedingly cautious about the use of U.S. military force in the far corners of the globe. Political science tells itself a useful myth about the foundational importance of deductive theory, but personal experience colors scholars in a way that is hard to ignore.

So this is why realists today are typically anything but warmongers. They are prudential in the use of force and more eager to try to coerce without employing military force than to overwhelm by using it. If all this is true, though, it prompts a number of significant questions for further debate and discussion. Have realists been too timid in their views of the utility of military force? Are there other contexts, perhaps short of conquest and occupation, in which military force becomes a "wasting asset" if it is not used to further a country’s interests? At its core, realism proclaims that states act to maximize (often ill-defined) national interests. If military force promises the best way to achieve some, if not all, of those interests, then why do realists remain so gun shy, and under what conditions might realists again endorse the use of abundant American military force overseas? And if the answers to these questions are hard to locate, then how effective a coercive instrument can the enormous U.S. military continue to be? Would the threat of U.S. force ultimately lose its credibility if the military were never actually used?

David M. Edelstein will be, as of August 1, an associate professor of international affairs and government at Georgetown University. He is also a core faculty member in Georgetown’s Center for Peace and Security Studies and Security Studies Program. He is the author of Occupational Hazards: Success and Failure in Military Occupation.