Stephen M. Walt Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Balancing American Power in the Post-9/11 World: Conversation with Stephen M. Walt, Academic Dean and Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs, Kennedy School, Harvard University; November 15, 2005, by Harry Kreisler

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Realism

Within IR theorizing help us understand what a Realist is, because I think you would fall into that sub-category of theorizing.

There are a variety of ways of organizing the field of international relations, but one family of theories or research tradition has been called Realism, the Realist tradition. At its core are a number of basic ideas about world politics, first that international politics is anarchic, that there is no central authority and no policemen to protect states from one another, and consequently security is always an issue. States can never be completely comfortable and never totally relax. Second, most Realists regard nation states as the key actors in world politics. Other actors are important but not as important. For Realists, power, and especially military power, tends to be the dominant determinant. Again, not the only determinant -- you always have to say things like this because Realists get accused of being only focused on military affairs. Finally, Realism tends to be a rather pessimistic perspective. Conflicts can never be completely eliminated, trouble is always out there, bad things happen even to good nations. That's consistent with the biggest umbrella of Realism, and there're lots of variation within it as well.

Realism has had to grapple with two big events since the days when you were here in graduate school. One was the fall of the Soviet empire, where in essence the other half of the bipolar world collapsed. Talk a little about that and your response as a Realist. Do you have to be defensive about that event, not in the sense that you've had explanations out there that helped us understand the Soviet Union, but rather it was an earth-shattering event that the theory wouldn't necessarily anticipate?

Realism's never a popular theory, particularly in the United States, partly because it's pessimistic, partly because it doesn't laud American democracy as uniquely wonderful or anything like that. So, as soon as the Soviet Union collapsed it was an opportunity to do a lot of Realist bashing and say we don't have to pay attention to those guys anymore. That, I think, was not very well justified.

First of all, Realists had a pretty good explanation for why the Soviet Union collapsed. It was my advisor and probably the most pre-eminent Realist, Ken Waltz, who wrote in 1979 that the real question in international politics was whether the Soviet Union could keep up with the United States, which is not a bad forecast in 1979 of what would happen in the next decade, [because] it was their lack of an adequate power foundation and the pressure they were under from a number of different fronts that eventually led to their collapse. So, Realists didn't have big problems explaining what had happened.

But second, what's happened in the world since the end of the Cold War is entirely consistent with what a Realist would expect. NATO -- I actually wrote this in 1989 when I did the paperback edition of my first book -- now that the Soviet Union is gone, NATO's future looks much more up in the air because the principal external force that was holding it together is gone. A Realist would say that what holds alliances together is external threats. What we've seen ever since 1990 is NATO getting looser and looser and looser. It's getting bigger, more countries in it, but it's less and less important and much more friction within it, which is exactly what a Realist would expect. A Realist would also have expected the United States to become the object of concern after the Soviet Union. Now it's the only remaining superpower, the strongest country in the world. Suddenly we find America's position in the world beginning to deteriorate, even before George Bush becomes president.

It's not that Realism explains everything, but the end of the Cold War didn't invalidate Realism at all.

What about 9/11? Because at the heart of 9/11 is a failed state and a transnational terrorism organization. Aren't Realists primarily focused on states and state failures?

Right. It seems to me a Realist would have to concede that the phenomenon of al Qaeda is not really a Realist phenomenon. It's not a state. You could invent ways of squeezing it [into the theory] in different ways. What a Realist, though, would also point out is that the response to al Qaeda is not inconsistent. Right? The states are very worried about security, states will look out for their own self-interest, they will take whatever actions they think are necessary to protect themselves. American citizens did not turn to Amnesty International or Microsoft to protect themselves after 9/11, they turned to the federal government, they wanted to see essentially a military response. Again, a Realist would not be particularly surprised by that, and a Realist would probably also not be surprised that other countries have been sometimes supportive but also worried about the different ways that the United States has tried to deal with the dangers that it perceived after 9/11.

You've thought about the way theory can impact policy, the way IR theory might enhance our understanding as we make foreign policy. The [Bush] administration, in launching the war on Iraq, it's almost as if they were D+ students in Realism. They had the elements in the theory in place but it didn't apply and it didn't make sense. Is that fair?

Yes, I think that's fair. At the very simplest level, it's neo-conservatives who engineered the war in Iraq at a very atheoretical -- not very well supported -- but also almost ahistorical view of America's position in the world. They believed that American dominance was a very positive force in the world and that once it was demonstrated to a few countries, everyone else in the world would go along. A Realist would say immediately, "Wait. If the most powerful country in the world looks too eager to use force, that's going to generate lots of concern, lots of resistance. We're not going to see lots of support."

The second thing is they really did have this belief in the spread of democracy, that democracy was hardwired into all individuals in the world and that once you removed a despot like Saddam Hussein, the Iraqis would rise up and welcome the opportunity to build a democracy. Again, almost anybody who's looked carefully at how democracy has spread in different parts of the world understands it's a much more difficult process. This [U.S. response to 9/11] is sort of realism with a small R, it just wasn't very realistic to expect that sort of thing to happen.

If there's another sub-theme within Realism, it's that bad things do happen. Human beings are flawed, human beings make mistakes, and your policies should not be based on an assumption that everything's going to go perfectly. Rather, they have to be based on some hedging against the fact that not everything's going to go exactly the way you see it.

You wrote a piece recently about thinking through the problem of how to make IR theory more relevant for policy makers. That's one item I want to put on the table. Secondly, you and your colleague, John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, were very active in Council on Foreign Relations [publications] and elsewhere in making the Realist argument against the war. It didn't, unfortunately, have as much of an impact as one would have liked. So, bring these two together. What is the problem with theorists about making their work have an impact, and what is the problem on the side of policy makers in terms of not listening?

One of the things that's happened in the United States over really the last forty to fifty years is a growing gulf between the academic world and the policy world, where academics are not rewarded for having things that might contribute to policy debate or formation of policy. They're actively discouraged. A junior faculty member who spends any time at all publishing for broader consumption or publishing in more policy-relevant venues is going to get penalized when it comes time for tenure. I regard this as tragic. It's not that I want junior faculty, or for that matter, senior scholars spending all of their time writing op-ed pieces and flying to Washington to testify, but the reason society creates institutions like universities is for people to generate not just knowledge for its own sake but knowledge that can be more broadly useful. And that's especially true, it seems to me, in politics: society pays us and gives us tenure and these positions so that we will use that knowledge to make the country smarter.

For academics to be content to write only for a very small community of other scholars and their graduate students is just a waste of all that firepower that we allegedly have. [For] academics to be willing to engage in policy issues which are sometimes messier, a little bit harder to resolve than some of the theoretical issues, it means taking positions that may be unpopular. You know, if the Iraq war had gone very, very well, it would've been embarrassing for me. I would've been happy to be embarrassed, because for our country's sake, it's not a good thing.

I would like to find ways to encourage more academics to spend at least part of their time using the information and knowledge at their disposal to say where they think our country ought to go. You have to recognize that you're not suddenly going to get a phone call from Washington and they're going to ask you to take over and run the show. You're going to be disappointed, as I was, with the outcome of the debate on Iraq. I still think it was important, in this case, for John Mearsheimer and I, and others, to stand up and be counted beforehand, because among other things, it was important to register that there were people who understood that this was a mistake, and they weren't doing it on partisan political grounds, they weren't doing it on pure pacifism versus the use-of-force grounds, they were doing it on the grounds that this was not in our national interest, and that it was pretty obvious that it wasn't in our national interest, and somebody said so before we jumped off this particular cliff.

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