Stephen M. Walt

Musings on a summer’s day

I’ve been studying politics a long time now, and there are still lots of things about it that at some level I just don’t get. I’m not saying that I have no idea why these things occur or suggesting that they are totally inexplicable. I’m just saying that I still find them a bit baffling. ...


I’ve been studying politics a long time now, and there are still lots of things about it that at some level I just don’t get. I’m not saying that I have no idea why these things occur or suggesting that they are totally inexplicable. I’m just saying that I still find them a bit baffling.

So I made a list, and thought I’d share a few of them. Maybe some of you will share my confusion.

1. I’ve never really understood why plenty of smart people think the United States still needs thousands of nuclear weapons (or ever did). I’m familiar with the abstract theology of nuclear weapons policy and I don’t favor total nuclear disarmament, but the case for an arsenal of more than a few hundred weapons eludes me. See here or here for convincing arguments to this effect.

2. I’m still puzzled by why Americans are so willing to spend money on ambitious overseas adventures, and yet so reluctant to pay taxes for roads, bridges, better schools, and health care here in the United States. My fellow Americans, where’s your sense of entitlement? And frankly, I’m also surprised that the U.S. armed forces haven’t put up more resistance to the seemingly open-ended missions they keep getting handed by ambitious politicians. I can think of various reasons why they remain willing to make these sacrifices (it’s a volunteer force, there’s a long tradition of civilian authority, our soldiers, sailors and airman are dedicated patriots, the top brass are often chosen for their political malleability, etc.), but it still surprises me.

3. I don’t understand why many people think invoking God is a compelling justification for their particular policy preferences, and why they assume that this move is a trump card that ends all discussion. The idea that Jehovah, Jesus, Allah, Odin, or Whomever gave some people permanent title to some patch of land, dictated how men and women should relate to each other for all eternity, or provided the incontestable answer to ANY public policy question is simply beyond me. Yet it remains a common feature of political discourse at home and abroad. Weird.

4. I’m equally baffled by when someone invokes “history” to justify a territorial claim and assumes that this basis is unchallengeable. This view assumes that sovereignty over some area is infinitely inheritable (no matter what has happened in the interim), ignores the fact the borders have changed a lot over time, and further assumes that there’s only one version of history that matters. I understand why Serbs invoke the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 to justify their current claims to control that region, why Israelis and Palestinians invoke different readings of history to justify their positions on Jerusalem, or why certain Asian states invoke different historical claims to assorted rocks in the South China Sea — they are all looking for some way to persuade others to let them have what they want. What’s odd is that people who make such claims tend to think their view is simply incontestable and other equally valid historical claims aren’t worth paying attention to. You’re entitled to your version of history, I suppose, but why do you assume that anyone is going to be persuaded by it?

5. I do not understand why Americans are so susceptible to the self-interested testimony of foreigners who want to embroil us in conflicts with some foreign government that they happen to dislike. A case in point would be Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi, who sold a lot of fairy tales to the Bush administration prior to the 2003 invasion. As Machiavelli (himself an exile) warned in The Discourses: “How vain the faith and promises of men who are exiles from their own country. .. Such is their extreme desire to return to their homes that they naturally believe many things that are not true, and add many others on purpose; so that with what they really believe and what they say they believe, they will fill you with hopes to that degree that if you attempt to act on them, you will incur a fruitless expense, or engage in an undertaking that will involve you in ruin.”  This sort of thing goes back to the Peloponnesian Wars (at least), and you’d think we’d have learned to be more skeptical by now.

6. I certainly don’t get the business model that informs the content of the Wall Street Journal‘s op-ed page. The rest of the newspaper is an excellent news source, with reportage that is often of very high quality. The editorial page, by contrast, is often a parody of right-wing lunacy: the last refuge of discredited neoconservatives, supply-siders, and other extremists. Do the Journal’s editors really think democracy is best served by offering the public such a one-sided diet of opinion? Do they feel no responsibility to offer a wider range of views to their readers, as the rival Financial Times does? More importantly, wouldn’t their market share (and profits) be increased if they offered a more diverse range of views? I’m equally puzzled by the op-ed page of the Washington Post: what’s the business model that says cornering the market on tired neoconservative pundits is the best way to attract new readers? (FP is now owned by the Post corporation too, I might add, but anyone who follows this Web site knows that there isn’t any discernible party line here.)

7. A related point: I can’t figure out why newspapers aren’t hiring more bloggers to write columns for them on a regular basis. I started reading blogs because the stuff I read on the web tends to be smarter, funnier, better researched, and more entertainingly written than the pablum that appears on the op-ed pages of most newspapers. A lot of bloggers seem to produce more material too; frankly, doing a column twice a week sounds almost leisurely compared to what some bloggers pound out. There are dull bloggers and some excellent mainstream print pundits, of course, but I’m amazed that more bloggers aren’t breaking into the so-called big-time mainstream media. Probably another good reason why newspapers are dying.
8. In an era where the United States is facing BIG problems at home or abroad, it is both puzzling and disheartening to observe the amount of ink and airspace devoted to the Skip Gates arrest, Michael Jackson’s demise, or the “birther” controversy. But then I didn’t get the Princess Di phenomenon or the whole reality-TV thing either.

9. I don’t understand why academics defend the institution of tenure so energetically, and then so rarely use it for its intended purpose (i.e., to permit them to tackle big and/or controversial subjects without worrying about losing their jobs) When it comes to politics at least, the Ivory Tower seems increasingly populated by methodologically sophisticated sheep.

10. I’m both amused and annoyed by the highly intrusive security procedures that now exist at airports, which are almost certainly not cost-effective. The key to preventing another 9/11 wasn’t to have us all removing our shoes or carrying shampoo in a plastic bag; the key to preventing another 9/11-style attack was to put locks on the cockpit doors, so terrorists couldn’t gain control of the airplane and turn it into a weapon. (A smarter Middle East policy wouldn’t hurt either). I’ll concede that additional screening is probably preventing a few additional incidents, but I question whether the extra expense and inconvenience is ultimately worth it. Alas, nobody is going to relax those procedures now, because they’d worry about being blamed the next time someone managed to blow up an airliner. I understand the CYA impetus that will keep these procedures in place from now until doomsday, but the irrationality of it all annoys me every time I fly.  

Ami Vitale/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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