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.
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
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.”