Stephen M. Walt

Empty words

Empty words

I didn’t realize this at first, but what Barack Obama was really doing in the Middle East last week was setting up a test of competing IR theories.

As we’ve come to expect, the centerpiece of Obama’s trip was a beautifully crafted speech to a select group of Israeli students. It’s really what he does best: offer a cloud of rhetoric designed to seduce, cajole, and convince. Remember back in 2009, when he gave great speeches in Istanbul, Prague, Cairo, and Oslo, and then failed to follow through on any of them? Having been reelected, it’s back to the 2009 playbook.

This time around, he went to great lengths to convey his deep affection and regard for Israel and his commitment to Zionism. He told Israelis that the U.S.-Israel relationship was "eternal" (a pledge no mortal can actually make), and offered up the usual bromides about keeping Iran from getting a nuclear bomb. A lot of that stuff was just pandering to the Israel lobby, but he played his part effectively, and the Israeli reaction has been quite positive.

Obama also offered rhetorical support for Palestinian aspirations, and his speech went further than any of his predecessors. He spoke openly of their "right to self-determination and justice" and invited his Israeli listeners "to look at the world through their eyes." He also told them "neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer" and said "Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land." He reiterated his call for direct negotiations — though he no longer suggests that Israel stop building more settlements — and he called upon his youthful audience to "create the change that you want to see."

But that’s all he did. He did not say that a Palestinian state would have to be fully sovereign (i.e., entitled to have its defense forces). He did not give any indication of where he thought the borders of such a state might lie, or whether illegal settlements like Ariel (whose presence cuts the West Bank in two) would have to be abandoned. He did not say that future American support for Israel would be conditional on its taking concrete steps to end the occupation and allow for the creation of a viable state (i.e. not just a bunch of vulnerable Bantustans). On the contrary, his every move and phrase made it clear that Israelis could count on the United States  providing generous and unconditional support to the vastly stronger of the two parties. He made no mention of a special envoy or an "Obama plan." In short, he did not announce a single concrete policy initiative designed to advance the vision of "two states for two peoples" that he first laid out in the almost-forgotten Cairo speech of June 2009.

And therein lies the test of competing theories. There is a broad school of thought in international relations — often labeled "social constructivism" — which maintains that discourse can be of tremendous importance in shaping the conduct of states. In this view, how leaders talk and how intellectuals write gradually shapes how we all think, and over time these discursive activities can exert a tremendous influence on norms, identities, and perceptions of what is right and what is possible.  

It is this view of the world that President Obama was channeling during his trip. By telling Israelis that he loved them and by telling both Israelis and Palestinians that the latter had just as much right to a state as the former, he was hoping to mold hearts and minds and convince them — through logic and reason — to end their century-old conflict. And make no mistake: He was saying that peace would require a powerful and increasingly wealthy Israel to make generous concessions, because the Palestinians have hardly anything more to give up. As Churchill put it, "in victory, magnanimity."

Discourse does matter in some circumstances, of course, and perhaps Obama’s words will prompt some deep soul-searching within the Israeli political establishment. But there is another broad family of IR theories — the realist family — and it maintains that what matters most in politics is power and how it is applied. In this view, national leaders often say lots of things they don’t really mean, or they say things they mean but then fail to follow through on because doing so would be politically costly. From this perspective, words sometimes inspire and may change a few minds on occasion, but they are rarely enough to overcome deep and bitter conflicts. No matter how well-written or delivered, a speech cannot divert whole societies from a well-established course of action. Policies in motion tend to remain in motion; to change the trajectory of a deeply-entrenched set of initiatives requires the application of political forces of equal momentum.

For realists like me, in short, halting a colonial enterprise that has been underway for over forty years will require a lot more than wise and well-intentioned words. Instead, it would require the exercise of power. Just as raw power eventually convinced most Palestinians that Israel’s creation was not going to be reversed, Israelis must come to realize that denying Palestinians a state of their own is going to have real consequences. Although Obama warned that the occupation was preventing Israel from gaining full acceptance in the world, he also made it clear that Israelis could count on the United States to insulate them as much as possible from the negative effects of their own choices. Even at the purely rhetorical level, in short, Obama’s eloquent words sent a decidedly mixed message.

Because power is more important than mere rhetoric, it won’t take long before Obama’s visit is just another memory. The settlements will keep expanding, East Jerusalem will be cut off from the rest of the West Bank, the Palestinians will remain stateless, and Israel will continue on its self-chosen path to apartheid. And in the end, Obama will have proven to be no better a friend to Israel or the Palestinians than any of his predecessors. All of them claimed to oppose the occupation, but none of them ever did a damn thing to end it. And one of Obama’s successors will eventually have to confront the cold fact that two states are no longer a realistic possibility. What will he or she say then?