Stephen M. Walt

Hawks, doves, and realists

As my vacation comes to an end, I want to thank Columbia’s Jack Snyder and Georgetown’s David Edelstein for their thoughtful guest posts. Last week David had an excellent entry on the war-aversion of most contemporary realists and I wanted to offer a brief reaction. I’ve always found it odd that many academics see realism ...


As my vacation comes to an end, I want to thank Columbia’s Jack Snyder and Georgetown’s David Edelstein for their thoughtful guest posts. Last week David had an excellent entry on the war-aversion of most contemporary realists and I wanted to offer a brief reaction. I’ve always found it odd that many academics see realism as a hawkish view of world politics and think that realists are big fans of using military power, even though most contemporary realists — with a few exceptions like Henry Kissinger — have generally been prudent about the use of force and skeptical about most overseas military adventures. As Edelstein points out, realists like Waltz, Morgenthau, and Kennan were opposed to U.S. involvement in Vietnam — on strategic rather than moral grounds — and younger realists (including me) opposed the Iraq War in 2003, were ambivalent about our intervention in Balkans or Africa in the 1990s, and think attacking Iran would be major strategic blunder today.

Edelstein’s discussion of this issue is excellent and I don’t have any major disagreements with his post, but I would add a few additional points. 

To start with a minor correction: the invasion of Afghanistan in 2002 is not the only post-Cold War military operation that realists supported. As I recall, most realists also supported Desert Storm, the 1991 liberation of Kuwait. Moreover, it was two realists — John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Barry Posen of MIT — who offered the most optimistic (and as it turned out, accurate) pre-war forecasts of how easy that war was likely to be. (By contrast, both doves and a surprising number of hawks seemed to think ousting Saddam from Kuwait was going to be very difficult).

As one might expect, realists supported Desert Storm for good balance-of-power reasons. If Saddam’s Iraq had absorbed Kuwait permanently, its GDP would have increased by about 40 percent and it could have translated that additional wealth into additional military power.   Although Saddam’s military machine was never very impressive by U.S. standards, a somewhat stronger Iraq might have posed a more serious long-term threat to the regional balance in the Gulf and presented a more serious threat to Saudi Arabia in particular. Given that the United States has always sought to prevent any single power from dominating this oil-rich region, it made good strategic sense to expel Iraq from Kuwait and to degrade its military power in the process. Most of the rest of the world agreed, by the way, which is why they helped us do it and why that operation did not tarnish our national image.

It was also the right decision not to go to Baghdad back then, because toppling Saddam in 1991 would have dragged us into precisely the same quagmire we have been dealing with since we foolishly invaded in 2003.

The other reason why contemporary realists have been skeptical about many recent military adventures is essentially structural. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has been in a remarkably favorable geopolitical position. Realists care primarily (thought not exclusively) about the balance of material power, and there just isn’t a lot of additional power out there to be won via military action. Instead, the main arenas of American military activity have been conflict-ridden backwaters of little or no strategic importance. They are hard to get to, difficult-to-impossible to pacify, and don’t have a lot of economic potential or military power of their own. Getting bogged down in places like Iraq or Afghanistan just strengthens jihadi narratives about America’s alleged antipathy to Islam, and as with Vietnam, it ultimately won’t matter very much whether we win or lose. On simple cost-benefit grounds, therefore, realists don’t think these wars are worth the effort.

In short, because realists understand that military power is a crude instrument and that governing alien societies is a costly business, they have argued against such foolishness.   Instead, the main advocates of military involvement have been a coalition of neoconservatives and liberal internationationalists, driven by a a variety of agendas and infused with a remarkable degree of hubris. The results — first in Iraq and now in Afghanistan — have not been pretty.

Realists have lost these debates, however, for somewhat similar structural reasons. When a state is as big and powerful as the United States is, it is hard for its leaders to believe that they can’t do the impossible in places like Iraq or Afghanistan. And when you are geographically distant from the places you are meddling, it’s hard to believe that it will have any serious consequences back here at home (9/11 notwithstanding). Also, as I’ve noted before, the Cold War got the United States in the habit of going everywhere and doing everything, and led to the emergence of a large set of domestic institutions whose cumulative impact is to to keep the United States engaged in as many places as possible.

So long as there are no great power rivals out there, it is hard to argue that attacking some country we have taken a disliking too (whether for valid or bogus reasons) is going to be costly or difficult.  Even worse, there will always be various propagandists and clever briefers out there to explain why this time the intended target is really dangerous and this time the war really will pay for itself, and this time failure to act will have catastrophic consequences, and oh yes, this time other states really want us to do it, etc., etc., etc. And no matter how many times the hawks have been wrong in the past, plenty of people will take them seriously.   For an 800-lb gorilla like the USA, amnesia seems to be a congenital condition.

One last point. Contrary to what some critics think, realists don’t want a weaker America. But they do understand that a robust economy is the foundation of all national power and that wasting money or lives on foolish foreign adventures, excessive military spending, or a large, secretive, redundant, and dysfunctional "intelligence" apparatus does not make the country stronger or more secure. 

As the realist Kenneth Waltz put it back in the early 1980s, "more is not better if less is enough." Those wise words apply to the entire national security establishment, and to the costly misadventures that civilians have been asking it to do in recent years. So in addition to the reasons that Professor Edelstein emphasized, that’s why realists have been wary of using force in recent years.

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

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