Commentary Magazine


Topic: Kenneth Waltz

Do Iranians Read “Foreign Affairs”?

In the article in the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs that Ira Stoll and Jonathan Neumann discussed, Professor Kenneth Waltz asserts that “if” Iran desires nuclear weapons, the purpose is likely “enhancing its own security, not to improve its offensive capabilities.” He is apparently uncertain whether Iran has such a desire but relatively sure about Iran’s intentions if it does. He thinks we have (to use the headings in his article) “Unfounded Fears” and can “Rest Assured” an Iranian bomb will be purely defensive.

Ira called the article “the latest proof that some ideas are so far out there that only Columbia professors believe them.” Only Columbia professors — and perhaps a former University of Chicago lecturer in constitutional law. In 2007, two months into his presidential candidacy, Barack Obama told David Brooks an Iranian bomb would be deterrable: “I think Iran is like North Korea. They see nuclear arms in defensive terms, as a way to prevent regime change.” Several months later, Israel bombed a nuclear plant in Syria for which North Korea had provided plans and personnel, in an area not previously considered part of the North Korean defense perimeter.

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In the article in the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs that Ira Stoll and Jonathan Neumann discussed, Professor Kenneth Waltz asserts that “if” Iran desires nuclear weapons, the purpose is likely “enhancing its own security, not to improve its offensive capabilities.” He is apparently uncertain whether Iran has such a desire but relatively sure about Iran’s intentions if it does. He thinks we have (to use the headings in his article) “Unfounded Fears” and can “Rest Assured” an Iranian bomb will be purely defensive.

Ira called the article “the latest proof that some ideas are so far out there that only Columbia professors believe them.” Only Columbia professors — and perhaps a former University of Chicago lecturer in constitutional law. In 2007, two months into his presidential candidacy, Barack Obama told David Brooks an Iranian bomb would be deterrable: “I think Iran is like North Korea. They see nuclear arms in defensive terms, as a way to prevent regime change.” Several months later, Israel bombed a nuclear plant in Syria for which North Korea had provided plans and personnel, in an area not previously considered part of the North Korean defense perimeter.

Earlier this year, President Obama told AIPAC “Iran’s leaders should understand that I do not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” It sounds resolute, but days before the speech White House aides told the New York Times Secretary Clinton erred when she assured the House Foreign Affairs Committee the policy was to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. The administration reiterated to the Washington Post that its red line is not capability but production of a nuclear weapon – what John Bolton has derisively called “just in time” deterrence.

In that connection, we should note what Prof. Waltz considers the three possible outcomes of the current crisis: (1) diplomacy and sanctions convincing Iran to abandon its pursuit of a nuclear weapon – an outcome he thinks unlikely; (2) Iran stopping after developing a breakout capability, allowing it to produce a nuclear weapon in the future on short notice – an outcome he thinks the U.S. and its European allies might accept but that Iran may deem an insufficient deterrent; and (3) Iran continuing its current course and getting a weapon – an outcome repeatedly declared “unacceptable” but which, he notes, has a history:

“Such language is typical of major powers, which have historically gotten riled up whenever another country has begun to develop a nuclear weapon of its own. Yet so far, every time another country has managed to shoulder its way into the nuclear club, the other members have always changed tack and decided to live with it.”

The current negotiations with Iran have the hallmarks of a process too big to fail, no one daring to call it a final failure lest action be required. Iran has seen what the U.S. didn’t do regarding North Korea (under both the Bush and Obama administrations), and may believe President Obama will eventually reinstate his 2007 view, after his “policy” is overtaken by a fait accompli. An election-year AIPAC speech may suffice for American Jews, but Iran is more likely to pay attention to articles such as Professor Waltz’s in Foreign Affairs and bank on post-election flexibility if Obama is re-elected.

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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. Read More

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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Iranian Nukes? Don’t Worry, Says Prof

An op-ed piece in USA Today appears under the almost satirical headline “Iranian nukes? No worries.”

It advises, “A nuclear-armed Iran would probably be the best possible result of the standoff and the one most likely to restore stability to the Middle East.” A nuclear Iran, the author of the piece writes, would counter “Israel’s regional nuclear monopoly,” which “has long fueled instability in the Middle East.”

I’m all for counterintuitive op-ed pieces that re-examine widely held assumptions, and it’s tempting to dismiss this one as so silly as to be unworthy of a serious response. But USA Today says the article is a condensed version of a longer piece that will appear in the July-August issue of Foreign Affairs, the flagship journal of the Council on Foreign Relations. Its author, Kenneth Waltz, is an adjunct professor in the department of political science at Columbia University. His biography says he has also taught at Brandeis and at the United States Air Force Academy.

So it’s worth taking a moment or two to point out the problems with Professor Waltz’s argument. First, there’s that word “probably.” Waltz writes, “It is impossible to be certain of Iranian intentions, it is far more likely that if Iran desires nuclear weapons, it is for the purpose of enhancing its own security, not to improve its offensive capabilities.”

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An op-ed piece in USA Today appears under the almost satirical headline “Iranian nukes? No worries.”

It advises, “A nuclear-armed Iran would probably be the best possible result of the standoff and the one most likely to restore stability to the Middle East.” A nuclear Iran, the author of the piece writes, would counter “Israel’s regional nuclear monopoly,” which “has long fueled instability in the Middle East.”

I’m all for counterintuitive op-ed pieces that re-examine widely held assumptions, and it’s tempting to dismiss this one as so silly as to be unworthy of a serious response. But USA Today says the article is a condensed version of a longer piece that will appear in the July-August issue of Foreign Affairs, the flagship journal of the Council on Foreign Relations. Its author, Kenneth Waltz, is an adjunct professor in the department of political science at Columbia University. His biography says he has also taught at Brandeis and at the United States Air Force Academy.

So it’s worth taking a moment or two to point out the problems with Professor Waltz’s argument. First, there’s that word “probably.” Waltz writes, “It is impossible to be certain of Iranian intentions, it is far more likely that if Iran desires nuclear weapons, it is for the purpose of enhancing its own security, not to improve its offensive capabilities.”

“Probably” and “likely” aren’t all that reassuring. If Waltz is wrong and the Iranians do launch a nuclear attack aimed at Tel Aviv, Washington, or New York, the consequences would be catastrophic.

Second, there’s a double standard when it comes to the Israeli A-bomb and an Iranian one. Waltz writes that “by reducing imbalances in military power, new nuclear states generally produce more regional and international stability, not less.” But he blames Israel’s nukes for fueling instability. (Never mind the question of whether “stability” is something that should be desired in the case of some of the Middle East’s more tyrannical or otherwise backward regimes.)

Third, Waltz writes:

Another oft-touted worry is that if Iran obtains the bomb, other states in the region will follow suit, leading to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. But the nuclear age is now almost 70 years old, and fears of proliferation have proved to be unfounded. When Israel acquired the bomb in the 1960s, it was at war with many of its neighbors. If an atomic Israel did not trigger an arms race then, there is no reason a nuclear Iran should now.

The lack of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East hasn’t been for lack of trying by Israel’s neighbors. Rather, Iraq’s Osirak reactor was bombed by Israel in 1981, and a Syrian nuclear site was flattened in 2007 in an action that is widely attributed to Israel.

Anyway, consider the USA Today article the latest proof that some ideas are so far out there that only Columbia professors believe them. Let’s hope it stays that way, because if Europe or the United Nations or the Obama administration are looking for an argument to justify standing by while Iran gets the bomb, the Waltz argument may prove too readily available to resist.

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