Stephen M. Walt

John Bolton’s unrealistic “realism”

www.thedailyshow.com Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor Spinal Tap Performance John Bolton made an appearance on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show a couple of days ago, and unwittingly reminded us how unrealistic most neoconservatives are. (Yes, I know Bolton has denied he’s a neoconservative, but he embraces most of the core neoconservative positions and he certainly ...

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John Bolton made an appearance on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show a couple of days ago, and unwittingly reminded us how unrealistic most neoconservatives are. (Yes, I know Bolton has denied he’s a neoconservative, but he embraces most of the core neoconservative positions and he certainly backed their pet projects like the invasion of Iraq).

Here’s a key passage of the interview (hat tip to Steve Clemons for highlighting this portion):

John Bolton: The purpose of statesmanship is to look into the future, look at the risks and opportunities and try and shape developments to get us into the optimal situation. Looking at all these very dangerous scenarios, what it should argue to us is the continuing importance of the strategic reality in the world that we have to try and deal with.
Every country that gets nuclear weapons is an additional threat to our friends around the world.
 

Jon Stewart: Who — and this is your final question — maybe this is an easier one … Who wouldn’t you bomb?

John Bolton: There’s not that much difference between me and the people who want a world where no government has nuclear weapons. There’s not much difference. I only want one government to have nuclear weapons…

Jon Stewart: I know … Switzerland! Uh … hold on …

John Bolton: You’re sitting in it … [the United States].

Now you might think this is tough-minded realism, at least at first glance. In a world where no agency or institution can protect states from each other, a hardnosed American realist should want the United States to be the only country with nuclear weapons. If great powers are primarily concerned with maximizing relative power (as my buddy John Mearsheimer argues), then of course they’d like a nuclear monopoly, right?

Not so fast. Bolton’s position is actually decidedly unrealistic, for several reasons. First, surely he doesn’t really think that every country that gets nuclear weapons threatens "our friends," because I haven’t heard him complaining too much about India’s arsenal, or Britain’s, or Israel’s. If Japan were to cross the nuclear threshold, would Bolton see that as an imminent threat? I doubt it.

Second, even if a nuclear monopoly might be desirable from a purely American perspective, realist theory tells you that other great powers aren’t going to accept that situation for very long. (In fact, our original monopoly lasted a grand total of 4 years). In other words, hoping for a permanent nuclear monopoly is about as unrealistic an expectation as one could possibly imagine. After all, if Americans think they need a sizeable nuclear arsenal to be secure — even though we have the largest conventional forces, produce about 25 percent of the world’s goods and services, and are insulated from many threats by two enormous oceanic moats–then surely at least a few other countries whose security positions are a bit more precarious are going to want them too. And the history of the nuclear age confirms that tendency, while also demonstrating that most states seem content to get along without them. 

Third, like a lot of other neoconservatives, Bolton is obsessed with the possibility that Iran will someday get a nuclear weapons capability. Yet none of them has ever explained why that would be such a catastrophic development, for the obvious reason that Iran could not use any weapons it might one day get without inviting its own destruction. And if you can’t use them, then you can’t blackmail people, or do any of the other lurid things that threat mongers keep harping about. 

More importantly, Bolton and others of his ilk don’t seem to understand that threatening Iran with various bad things (including regime change) is the best way to convince them that they really do need a nuclear deterrent. Thinking that you can persuade Teheran not to go nuclear while pointing a gun at its head is not realistic. And as Tony Karon points out, if you want to unite Iran’s competing factions and restive population, all you’ve got to do is impose harsher international sanctions. And if you want to guarantee that outcome, make a few military threats and then carry some of them out.

Fourth, trying to re-establish and preserve a nuclear monopoly would be very costly, and would have required the United States to fight a series of preventive wars. U.S. leaders thought seriously about preventive war against the Soviet Union in the early 1950s, and pondered it again when China was developing its own nuclear arsenal. We should all be grateful that cooler heads prevailed, because nuclear strikes or a conventional invasion of the Soviet Union or China would have been a disaster for the United States. We did invade Iraq in 2003 in order to end Saddam’s WMD ambitions once and for all — unaware that he’d already abandoned them — and we all know how well that worked out.

Finally, Bolton’s position assumes that power in the hands of the United States is always a force for good, and would never be misused. I like U.S. primacy myself, but its equally unrealistic to believe that the United States is incapable of abusing the vast power at its disposal. Realism also warns that those with unchecked power are often tempted to undertake ill-advised adventures, and I’m afraid I don’t have quite the same confidence in American wisdom that I had when I was younger and more naïve. 

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

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