Stephen M. Walt

A Realist Celebration of St. Patrick’s Day

This is a guest post by Sean Kay of Ohio Wesleyan University. As the world goes green for St. Patrick’ Day, it is good to reflect on what Ireland’s experiences teach us. We might ask, why should a realist care about Ireland? What might be learned from the experiences of this small Island in the ...

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This is a guest post by Sean Kay of Ohio Wesleyan University.

As the world goes green for St. Patrick’ Day, it is good to reflect on what Ireland’s experiences teach us. We might ask, why should a realist care about Ireland? What might be learned from the experiences of this small Island in the North Atlantic — home to just 4.5 million people?

Realists care about strategy, of course, which is one good reason to ponder Irish history. Ireland was for centuries a key component of England’s rear defense against the risk of foreign enemies. Realists also are keen to understand new tactics in warfare and anyone wishing to get a sense of how guerilla campaigns proceed — and how state responses to them can backfire would be well advised to study Michael Collins and the Irish quest for independence. Add to that the personal risks to those who negotiate an exchange of land for peace — Michael Collins to Yitzhak Rabin show this only too tragically. The Irish experience in managing its strategic relationship with Britain after independence — by building tight transatlantic advocacy networks and by integrating into the European community — also demonstrates how creative diplomacy can achieve major strategic goals.

Ireland is also an interesting case of a state applying realism and ideals in its foreign policy, a topic that realists and others have debated for decades. Ireland remained neutral in World War II because it wished to consolidate its independence and avoid conscription of its people into the British army. Nonetheless, Ireland cooperated in both overt and secret assistance to the allied powers — likewise during the Cold War. Ireland also advocated the cause of self-determination for all nations at the United Nations — out of moral sympathy, but also as a way to keep its own views towards Northern Ireland on the agenda of global politics. Ireland managed to show how small nations can lead on a range of issues from peacekeeping to nuclear proliferation. It is often forgotten, but the origins of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty can be found in speeches by the Irish foreign minister at the United Nations in the late 1950s.

In the early 1990s, realists emphasized the partition of territory and the separation of populations and fighting forces in conflict zones, largely to create stable balances of power in places like the Balkans. Northern Ireland offers a similar illustration today. Northern Ireland was very successful at "peacemaking" — building a new system of governance. But the process of peace-building — confidence building and integration at the ground level remains only in its nascent stage. Key areas of Northern Ireland, especially in parts of Belfast remain in what is often characterized as a "benign Apartheid". "Peace walls" continue to divide street-by-street Catholic and Protestant communities. Education and public housing remain segregated. The irony is that peace-building in Northern Ireland requires breaking down those walls. But in so doing, also risks sparking street-to-street conflict once again. In effect, Northern Ireland shows that the real hard work to build peace takes generations, and that one has to look carefully at where the various security-dilemmas sit.

The Northern Ireland experience has implications for efforts to bring peace to the Middle East between Israel and Palestinians. In parts of Belfast one can visit Protestant neighborhoods where the Union Jack flag flies on houses, alongside the Israeli flag and many welcome signs say "Shalom". Some loyalist Protestant hold-outs identify with Jewish settlers and see themselves as under threat from all sides. Irish officials also point out to the Israelis that a central lesson of the Northern Ireland experience was that heavy handed tactics of the British forces only instilled more support for groups like the Provisional IRA during the Troubles. In the case of Northern Ireland, the essential ingredient of peace was a realpolitik decision to bring former terrorist sympathizers into the negotiations, which gave legitimacy to them but also gave them the tools they needed to invest in peace within their communities. Still, their engagement was conditioned on rejecting violence and monitored disarmament — something that might remain far off for Hamas.

Crucially, Ireland today also teaches us that containment still matters, albeit in economic form. Ireland is in the midst of one of the most serious economic declines in modern history. Ireland’s crash was a hyper-bubble of what happened in America — unregulated banking and a massive mortgage crisis that made a Las Vegas Casino look like a Church. Ireland offered an initial banking guarantee that would have been the equivalent of $30 trillion in the United States. It has undergone deep austerity that is deeply deflationary, and today this nation of 4.5 million have a gross external debt of $867 billion.

Ireland’s European allies have bailed out the Irish banks via the European Union and the IMF with a very expensive refinancing package. For the moment, at least, Ireland has lost most of its economic sovereignty. But Europe is clearly not motivated by altruism, for it is the Irish people who are suffering and who did not cause their crisis. Europe leans toward containment. The interest rate on the bailout of 5.8 percent is simply too high and, left unchanged, will lead to a catastrophic default sooner or later. But Europe appears to see Ireland as a way to shore up banking exposure there and send a strong deterrent signal to larger economies like Spain and Italy that if they do not get their budgets in line, they will pay a very high cost. At the core of this fear of contagion and dominoes is a strong desire to contain what has become an existential threat to the Eurozone.

Realists also care about human nature, and in the Hobbesian sense it being fundamentally rooted in evil and pessimism. The Irish people today are paying the price for a culture of greed that overtook the nation during the Celtic Tiger. It was a "cult of money" that overruled basic commonsense across society. But this was an aberration in Ireland’s long arch of history. The Irish character is rooted in a sense of humility and a thoughtfulness of character — and the Irish greet the daily grind with hopefulness and dogged optimism about the possibilities of the future — waiting at the end of the rainbow. Still, as Yeats said, "Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy."

As we all rev up our Irishness for a day, it is worth appreciating how much this small nation has shaped the world. Ireland has been at the forefront of globalization. Ireland has been at the forefront of peacemaking. Ireland has an innovative and dynamic foreign policy. Ireland has embraced multiculturalism as a tool to attract investment. Ireland is paving the way in wind and wave energy research. I conclude my book, Celtic Revival? with a story about a young girl in Clare whom I asked to suggest a title. She responded with a truth that only a child can know: "The Great Country Known as Ireland". Ireland has the foundations to revive itself, and as it does so, the lessons it provides might well be the most important export from which we all can learn.

Sean Kay is professor of politics and government at Ohio Wesleyan University, and a Mershon Associate at the Mershon Center for International Security Studies at the Ohio State University. He is the author of Celtic Revival?: The Rise, Fall, and Renewal of Global Ireland (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011).

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

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