A Realist’s list

Since we’ve been discussing different theoretical approaches and how they relate to the real world, I thought Stephen Walt’s hypothetical take on how American foreign policy decisions might have panned out if realists were shaping the diplomatic agenda was interesting (as well as back-slappingly self-congratulatory and provocative).

Walt (who describes himself as a ‘realist in an ideological age’) states that a neoconservative/liberal internationalist alliance has driven US foreign policy for the past two decades. These two camps are committed to ensuring America’s primacy (and the continuation of a US-led liberal world order) and this goal legitimates US military intervention as it polices the globe. According to Walt, the main difference between the neocons (think Cheney, Rumsfeld and co.) and the liberal interventionists (see ‘the Clinton Doctrine’, Blair as co-opted by the US) is the value liberals place on institutions like the UN, whereas neocons see them as a barrier to “America’s freedom of action”. Despite this quibble, liberal interventionists are just “kinder, gentler neocons,” while neocons are just “liberal interventionists on steroids.”

Walt selects 10 examples of recent US foreign policy-in-action (including the Iraq War, the ‘Global War on Terror’, Israel, Libya and China) and poses the counterfactual: what if realists had been in charge instead of the neocon/liberal coalition? Walt claims that his realist policymakers would (among other things): never have led the US to war in Iraq, would have zeroed in on al-Qaeda and not engaged in a broader ‘war on terror’ that included targeting the ‘axis of evil’, wouldn’t have got the US caught up in the Balkan wars in the 1990s, wouldn’t have been involved in overthrowing Gaddafi and would adopt a containment strategy towards China.

Without wading into each item on his list, I think realists like Walt consistently undersell the benefits of ‘economic interdependence’ when talking about China.

We’ve already talked about the possibility of a G2 based on economic relations and the US accommodating a rising China in a reconfigured ‘international society’. Although there will be inevitable tensions between Washington and Beijing, surely US encroachment on Chinese sovereignty (as advocated by realists and their Asia-Pacific counter-balancing bloc) will only unnerve (and potentially provoke) the Chinese? Wouldn’t a better approach be to continue to strengthen trade links and other forms of reciprocity to create a symbiotic relationship?

Unsurprisingly, Walt’s realist policy prescriptions look visionary when written with the benefit of hindsight. Adam Elkus deconstructs Walt’s article and points out that Walt’s definition of realism is slippery at best. I think one of his strongest arguments is around the relationship between IR scholarship and policy:

 IR scholarship is scholarship—it seeks to generate knowledge about the world around us. That knowledge can help aid action, but in and of itself does not constitute an operational approach for action…. [IR theory] was never optimized for the purpose of telling policymakers how to handle individual cases….Even if Walt’s realist policymakers understood the right solution, boning up on Offense-Defense Theory tells you nothing about how to operationalize it within the American political system.

Elkus concludes by saying that: “…theory’s primary role is to increase the analytical tools available to a policymaker.”

Along with the irony of a realist like Walt positing unrealistic scenarios (in Walt’s defence ‘top 10 lists’ always make for an easy blog read), maybe Kenneth Waltz’s claim that realists “face the world as it is” not as it ought to be is not quite as grounded in reality as realists would have you believe. Especially when realists don’t have their hands on the policy levers…


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