Commentary Magazine


Topic: Anti-Israel Lobby

Is Stephen Walt Actually a Realist?

The silly tagline of Stephen Walt’s blog is: “A realist in an ideological age,” the idea being that realists enjoy a more rational and serene understanding of global affairs than the benighted fanatics who do not adopt realism’s scientific outlook on the world.

Before becoming a full-time member of the Anti-Israel Lobby, Walt was an academic specialist in realist IR theory. Two of the central tenets of realism are: 1) domestic politics make little contribution to a state’s formulation of its foreign policy interests — states are “black boxes,” as the saying goes; and, related, 2) states are rational calculators of their national interests (yes, these two ideas are very much in tension, but ignore that for now).

The reason I bring this up is the fervency with which people like Walt — self-proclaimed realists, that is — make arguments at odds with the principles of their creed. One of Walt’s regular assertions is that Israel is incapable of calculating its own interests, or as Walt would put it, that the interests it pursues are self-destructive or harmful to its real interests, as understood by the noted Zionist, Stephen Walt. He writes this constantly, like yesterday, when he claimed: “A two state solution is also the best guarantee of Israel’s long-term future. … Netanyahu, AIPAC and the rest of the “status quo” lobby don’t get that. … these people are false friends of Israel.” A real realist would say that all of this is highly unlikely, or if he did believe that the Israeli government does not understand its own interests, he would be sufficiently curious about this significant aberration to do more than mention it flippantly.

And then there is the role of domestic politics, which Walt believes controls both American and Israeli foreign policy. In America, it is the pernicious influence of the Israel Lobby that perverts the expression of America’s interests in the Middle East, and in Israel, it is the pernicious influence of the settlers and the “greater Israel” ideologues who prevent Israel from withdrawing from various territories and hastening an era of peace and harmony in the Levant. Realist doctrine, of course, allows little space for the idea that domestic constituencies have significant sway over the expression of the national interest. But that is precisely what Walt argues over and over again on his blog. Maybe the tagline should read: “An ideologue in an ideological age.”

The silly tagline of Stephen Walt’s blog is: “A realist in an ideological age,” the idea being that realists enjoy a more rational and serene understanding of global affairs than the benighted fanatics who do not adopt realism’s scientific outlook on the world.

Before becoming a full-time member of the Anti-Israel Lobby, Walt was an academic specialist in realist IR theory. Two of the central tenets of realism are: 1) domestic politics make little contribution to a state’s formulation of its foreign policy interests — states are “black boxes,” as the saying goes; and, related, 2) states are rational calculators of their national interests (yes, these two ideas are very much in tension, but ignore that for now).

The reason I bring this up is the fervency with which people like Walt — self-proclaimed realists, that is — make arguments at odds with the principles of their creed. One of Walt’s regular assertions is that Israel is incapable of calculating its own interests, or as Walt would put it, that the interests it pursues are self-destructive or harmful to its real interests, as understood by the noted Zionist, Stephen Walt. He writes this constantly, like yesterday, when he claimed: “A two state solution is also the best guarantee of Israel’s long-term future. … Netanyahu, AIPAC and the rest of the “status quo” lobby don’t get that. … these people are false friends of Israel.” A real realist would say that all of this is highly unlikely, or if he did believe that the Israeli government does not understand its own interests, he would be sufficiently curious about this significant aberration to do more than mention it flippantly.

And then there is the role of domestic politics, which Walt believes controls both American and Israeli foreign policy. In America, it is the pernicious influence of the Israel Lobby that perverts the expression of America’s interests in the Middle East, and in Israel, it is the pernicious influence of the settlers and the “greater Israel” ideologues who prevent Israel from withdrawing from various territories and hastening an era of peace and harmony in the Levant. Realist doctrine, of course, allows little space for the idea that domestic constituencies have significant sway over the expression of the national interest. But that is precisely what Walt argues over and over again on his blog. Maybe the tagline should read: “An ideologue in an ideological age.”

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