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The Reality of Structural Realism

To add to Ira Stoll’s post criticizing Kenneth Waltz’s op-ed reassuring us that Iranian nukes are not worrisome, it’s important to put Waltz’s remarks in context. Specifically, they must be understood within the neorealist school of international relations which he – a highly respected academic – effectively founded.

Neorealism, or Structural Realism, considers the actions of states to be conditioned by the structure of the international system, which is fundamentally anarchic. The struggle against anarchy determines the policy of states, which all ultimately seek security. That means that when one state rises in power, others will seek to balance that power. Hence Waltz’s view that the Iranian drive for nuclear weapons is motivated by concern about Israel’s alleged nuclear capability, and that, upon achieving parity, there will be balance and stability.

The problem with structural realism – its limited analytic value notwithstanding – (as with all structural theories) is that it largely evacuates notions of ideas and agency from world affairs: facts such as Israel’s democratic politics as compared with Iranian theocracy, or the caprices of dictators, or domestic politics, and so forth, do not drastically change a state’s aspirations and behavior. Yet these facts are so critical to any reasonable observer – and, in the case of the Middle East, that includes all the Arab regimes, who have never shown the sort of alarm toward Israel’s supposed nuclear capability that they have toward Iran’s. This reality fatally undermines Waltz’s thesis.

Incidentally, the case of Israel has also undermined the approach of another structural realist, John Mearsheimer. Though his perspective differs slightly from Waltz’s, his obsession with the power of the ‘‘Israel lobby’’ in the United States is inconsistent with his theory that domestic politics are largely irrelevant to the actions of states.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that Israel, anomalous in so many ways, has ruptured the theories of both of these leading IR theorists. In Mearsheimer’s case, he has in effect abandoned his entire life’s work by indulging his prejudice; in Waltz’s case, he has illustrated the poverty of his theory by presenting such an outlandish analysis and offering policy prescriptions so disconnected from reality.

This is important to remember when encountering academics who are unsympathetic or hostile to Israel: sometimes the scholar’s view is simply the product of a broader theoretical perspective. That of course doesn’t make the theory correct – after all, these scholars do work in ivory towers – but it does mitigate the nefariousness of their intentions. That said, sometimes they really are just haters.



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