Is Steve Walt making sense — realistically?
By Peter Feaver Well, Steve Walt took the bait and renewed his critique of the Bush administration from what he calls a “realist” perspective. In particular, he takes exception with my claim that relations with great and rising powers belongs on the credit side of the ledger when assessing the Bush administration’s overall record. I ...
By Peter Feaver
By Peter Feaver
Well, Steve Walt took the bait and renewed his critique of the Bush administration from what he calls a “realist” perspective. In particular, he takes exception with my claim that relations with great and rising powers belongs on the credit side of the ledger when assessing the Bush administration’s overall record. I think he does as good a job as anyone can do arguing the brief he has chosen, but he has not persuaded me.
Consider his points in the order he presented them.
First, he claims, without presenting any evidence, that great powers weren’t a top priority for Bush and his team. To be sure, waging the global war on terrorism, overall and in the high-intensity combat theaters of Iraq and Afghanistan, was priority #1. But a great deal of thought and effort went into addressing the various challenges I listed in my original post, and they were, consequently, high priorities. Walt may be guilty of a common academic fallacy of inference: if I did not read about it in the New York Times, it must not be happening.
Second, Walt dwells on the gradual erosion of U.S.-Russian relations, but I found his core claims here somewhat fanciful. He claims that Bush’s gushy sound-bite on Putin (admittedly unfortunate, as I acknowledged from the outset) actually shaped administration estimates of Russia’s intentions. Again, he presents no evidence for this claim, and, indeed, rather contradicts it with his subsequent critique that the administration was far too hawkish in regard to Russia’s interests. He lists some of the things the administration did that Russia did not like, but does not actually come out and say it was a mistake to do those things.
Indeed, he acknowledges that a case could be made for each of those initiatives on their own merits leaving one wondering what, if Walt were in a position of responsibility and had to decide on these, he would actually do himself. Would he decide, as one part of his critique implies, not to do anything that annoys Russia? Or would he decide, as the other part of his critique implies, that on balance it made sense to pursue our current course despite the effects on U.S.-Russian relations?
In point of fact, the Bush administration’s policy on Russia was a classic straddle, neither pure hawk nor pure dove, not unlike the nuance that classical realists have celebrated in the past.
I reserve further judgment until Walt moves beyond critique into sketching out an actual policy line. By the way, for the record, I am not convinced that the Bush administration got Russian relations exactly right. I have my doubts about the Kosovo policy, for instance, and I think Georgian President Saakashvili could have been managed a bit better. In other words, I believe that, like all good Monday morning quarterbacks, I can find a place or two where hindsight would lead me to advocate a different maneuver. This is precisely the noble contribution that academics bring to the exercise, and I expect Walt can do it well.
On one matter, we already know enough to reject the Walt assessment: Russia (and France and Germany) did not withhold support for the Iraq invasion because Bush had been too hard or too soft on Putin (Walt is not clear on this point). They withheld support because, although they shared our intelligence estimates on the WMD holdings and ambitions of Iraq, they had a different risk calculus and calculated their own interests differently than we did. Ditto for Iran relations.
Good realists should be able to realize that states are acting on the basis of their assessments of their national interest and not because they have their striped-knickers in a twist over “the Bush approach.” One could go on in this vein — perhaps asking Walt whether the amount of cooperation that Russia has given (UN Security Council votes on Iraq and Iran) should be credited to the same “Bush approach” or only the lack of cooperation. But as two bickering professors might say, let’s leave that exercise to the reader.
Third, in the section that mystifies me the most, Walt attempts to run down the Bush strategic outreach to India on the grounds that Bush paid too high a negotiating price: recognizing India’s nuclear status and deferring the goal of a nuclear-free India. As a famous realist and a friend of mine once wrote:
Realists believe that foreign policy should deal with the world as it really is, instead of being based on wishful thinking or ideological pipedreams…. Realists respect the power of nationalism and understand that other societies will resist outside interference and defend their own interests vigorously. Accordingly, realists believe successful diplomacy requires give-and-take and that advancing one’s own interests sometimes requires cooperating with regimes whose values or practices are objectionable if not repellent.
I might wish that India did not have nuclear weapons, but wouldn’t a realist advise that we deal with India as it really is? I might aim for as good a deal with India as I can get, but wouldn’t a realist advise that India is going to defend its own interests vigorously and so we may need to do a bit of give-and-take in our negotiation of a strategic partnership with India? Walt is absolutely right that we should worry about nuclear proliferation, and that is why I was never persuaded when some realists opined that we should just rely on deterrence to contain the Iraqi nuclear program. But I don’t think that it is unrealistic to view the Indian nuclear program, however unfortunate in an ideal world, as something we can learn to live with more easily (or at least, more necessarily) than we could the Iraqi program.
Walt is also absolutely right that India ought to do more on Iraq and Iran, but he doesn’t offer any specific guidance on how to persuade them to do so. I am pretty sure that no one who had any role in negotiating the deal with the Indians would view his implication — that somehow we left some achievable Indian concessions on Iraq and Iran on the table — as pragmatic or realistic.
The same weakness bedevils Walt’s drive-by claim that we could somehow have better thwarted Chinese ambitions while simultaneously addressing Iran’s. If Walt has a theory for how to shoot a trifecta — more Chinese pressure on Tehran, less Iranian nuclear progress, and less Chinese meddling in their near-abroad — I, for one, would like to hear it.
Finally, he does not challenge my claim that classical realism has long given pride of place to how great powers manage their relations with other great and rising powers, but argues, sensibly, that it is not the only thing realists measure. I never claimed it was. In fact, the original idea for my post was from a talk I gave at the APSA on a panel with Mearsheimer, who was making roughly the same argument that Walt has been making. What struck me from Mearsheimer’s presentation was how much he had to say on Iraq and Israel and how little he had to say about the rest of the world.
Now, I knew then and know now that ardent critics of Bush would happily critique from A to Z. But it is much harder to give Bush the failing marks those critics long to give when, as realists would advise that we do, the aperture is widened beyond Iraq and Israel to consider the whole world. And if one is going to invoke the decidedly anti-realist criterion of “global image,” then it seems to me that one is rather obliged to, you know, consider things globally.
A final speculation: I wonder if there isn’t a difference between academic realism and policy realism, between realism in theory and realism in practice. Heaven knows, the last thing International Relations theory needs is yet another modifier for realism — what with classical, and neo, and neoclassical, and defensive, and offensive, and prescriptive, and who knows what other labels are haunting graduate preliminary exams. Yet I can’t shake the notion that Walt’s critique looks good until one considers the alternatives and imagines putting into policy practice the prescriptions that he deduces from the theory.
Academic realists have always had trouble wrestling with real policy choices, which involve real tradeoffs across real counterfactuals. Rely on off-shore balancing in the Middle East? But what is a stable balance of power between Iran, the Gulf States, Israel, and Egypt and how do we achieve it from afar? Live with Iraqi or Iranian nuclear ambitions? But what about the likely nuclear proliferation that will result? Before I was ready to conclude that academic realism would produce a better great power foreign policy than Bush produced, I would need to see more of this sort of policy detail and no-kidding assessment of the trade-offs.
I guess that means I have to become a faithful reader of Walt’s engaging blog. Surely, that is a point on which he and I can both agree!
Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.
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