Is legitimacy for real?

By David Edelstein Steve Walt ought to be used to having his realist credentials challenged by now. In his first book, The Origins of Alliances, Walt argued that how states perceive threats is informed not just by material capabilities, but also by beliefs about whether another state has "aggressive intentions." Some have suggested that such ...

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Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

By David Edelstein

Steve Walt ought to be used to having his realist credentials challenged by now. In his first book, The Origins of Alliances, Walt argued that how states perceive threats is informed not just by material capabilities, but also by beliefs about whether another state has "aggressive intentions." Some have suggested that such a theory cannot possibly be "realist," and social constructivists seem particularly fond of pointing out how beliefs about intentions are inherently social and intersubjective. In my view, Steve has always handled these challenges with ablomb, "Call me what you want. The question is whether my theory helps explain the world."

In his blog, however, Steve seems less bashful about brandishing his realism, so I'd like to take issue with an argument about legitimacy that he and other ostensible realists have been making in recent years. The argument suggests that legitimacy has become a sine qua non for a successful American grand strategy. If the U.S. is successfully going to persuade both allies and adversaries to behave in ways that the U.S. would prefer, then Washington itself must act in ways that are appropriate and that accord with accepted norms and standards of behavior. As an example, take what Walt himself wrote a few years ago in the course of advocating a revised grand strategy for the U.S.: "Therefore, in addition to waging the familiar forms of geopolitical competition, the United States must do more to defend the legitimacy of its position and its policies. This process must begin by recognizing how the United States looks to others and then proceed to devise clear, specific, and sustained initiatives for shaping these perceptions."

By David Edelstein

Steve Walt ought to be used to having his realist credentials challenged by now. In his first book, The Origins of Alliances, Walt argued that how states perceive threats is informed not just by material capabilities, but also by beliefs about whether another state has "aggressive intentions." Some have suggested that such a theory cannot possibly be "realist," and social constructivists seem particularly fond of pointing out how beliefs about intentions are inherently social and intersubjective. In my view, Steve has always handled these challenges with ablomb, "Call me what you want. The question is whether my theory helps explain the world."

In his blog, however, Steve seems less bashful about brandishing his realism, so I’d like to take issue with an argument about legitimacy that he and other ostensible realists have been making in recent years. The argument suggests that legitimacy has become a sine qua non for a successful American grand strategy. If the U.S. is successfully going to persuade both allies and adversaries to behave in ways that the U.S. would prefer, then Washington itself must act in ways that are appropriate and that accord with accepted norms and standards of behavior. As an example, take what Walt himself wrote a few years ago in the course of advocating a revised grand strategy for the U.S.: "Therefore, in addition to waging the familiar forms of geopolitical competition, the United States must do more to defend the legitimacy of its position and its policies. This process must begin by recognizing how the United States looks to others and then proceed to devise clear, specific, and sustained initiatives for shaping these perceptions."

Elsewhere, Dartmouth professors Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth dismiss the common understanding that legitimacy poses a constraint on America’s behavior as a unipolar power, but they also suggest that the United States should take advantage of its current material power advantage to shape emerging standards of legitimacy to conform to its interests. Legitimacy is not a constraint on the U.S., but it can be a useful tool for powerful states.

The question I’d pose is how easily can such notions of legitimacy fit into the bounds of a contemporary realist understanding of international politics. Earlier realists clearly understood that legitimacy could be a valuable asset to states in international politics. No less a realist than Hans Morgenthau wrote, "Legitimate power, which can invoke a moral or legal justification for its exercise, is likely to be more effective than equivalent illegitimate power, which cannot be so justified. That is to say, legitimate power has a better chance to influence the will of its objects than equivalent illegitimate power."

I agree with Morgenthau, but recognition of the importance of legitimacy raises at least two significant, unresolved issues (to be clear, the study of legitimacy in the conduct of political affairs is anything but new, but these questions remain insufficiently answered in the contemporary setting). First, what are the costs of acting illegitimately? Brooks and Wohlforth seem to suggest that, at least for the contemporary U.S., the costs are relatively low. But inasmuch as violating international norms may undermine a state’s ability to get what it wants in international politics, the costs may be long-term and diffuse. If so, then can and should we expect frequently myopic governments to be particularly responsive to these costs? The answer to this question may depend on the time horizons of states, an important and understudied dimension of international politics in my view, and the answer to this question also will help us understand just how much we should expect concerns about legitimacy to influence behavior.

Second, the issue to me is not whether being perceived as legitimate is better than the alternative, but rather how standards of legitimacy are established in international politics. Through my realist eyes, I see legitimacy closely tracking material interests. Whether or not a certain policy is viewed as "legitimate" very often accords with how it affects a state materially, not whether it conforms to some norm that is valued for ethical or moral reasons. Put more bluntly:  if it makes Actor A wealthy and secure, then Actor A will view it as legitimate; if not, then it’s seen as illegitimate.

To take one illustration, early in the Iraq War, John Dower, perhaps the leading American historian of the post-World War II occupation of Japan, argued that the U.S. occupation of Iraq was going to struggle because it lacked the legitimacy of the U.S. occupation of Japan. But why was the occupation of Japan viewed as legitimate by others in the region? In large part because the other states of East Asia valued the fact that they would no longer have to worry about a threat from Japan for as long as it was occupied. In other words, had the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq immediately improved the welfare and security of the people of Iraq and its neighbors (as it, tragically, did not), then I suspect it would have been accorded more legitimacy.

Now, there obviously are exceptions to this, as there are to just about any theoretical claim in international politics. States and other powerful actors sometimes act for moral reasons in ways that run counter to their material interests. And there is no shortage of literature in political science that addresses the how legitimacy enters into the calculation states and institutions in international politics. But the point is that to understand the role of legitimacy in international politics, it is vital to understand from where standards of legitimacy emerge. If these standards are often little more than cover for ulterior material motives, then we should recognize these standards for what they are and attend to those motives.

All of this is to suggest that Walt’s call for the United States to "defend the legitimacy of its position" might be impossible unless and until the United States is willing to sacrifice some of its material well-being for that of others. But is it worth it? Would you rather be more materially powerful and viewed as illegitimate or less materially powerful and viewed as legitimate? Though that dichotomy is too starkly struck, I think I know how a realist should answer.

But perhaps it is not so simple. Perhaps it is time for contemporary "realists" to start taking non-material sources of power as seriously as their intellectual forefathers did. Perhaps successful states need to augment material power with non-material power. And, if so, perhaps we need a more compelling realist theory of legitimacy to bolster the case made by Walt and others.

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.

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

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