The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

David Adesnik vs. Realism

June 20, 2005

Not that long ago I questioned whether David was giving realism a fair shake. Recently, David shared an email on his blog that does the work I should have done:

First off, the notion that a nuclear Iraq would be problematic but not inherently disastrous isn’t some bizarre notion – the fairly-insane regimes of Stalin and Mao proved manageable even once they got nuclear weapons. The same arguments made in favor of stopping a nuclear Iraq were also made in the early 1960s about stopping the PRC from getting the bomb (see Frank Gavin’s recent work on the Gilpatric Commission) and have been proven quite terribly wrong in retrospect. So maybe “wow” is one possible response, but another might be “nuclear deterrence is pretty robust, even in the face of genocidal psychopaths.”

Second, you badly misrepresent Mearsheimer’s arguments, and the rest of realism’s approach to the Cold War. He wasn’t a Cold War dove in the 1980s, but neither was he a hawk as you claim – he cut his teeth arguing that the conventional balance in Europe wasn’t nearly as bad for NATO as hawks like Sam Huntington and Eliot Cohen kept claiming it was (see the 1988 exchange in IS between Mearsheimer, Posen, and Cohen for an example; moreover, history has borne JJM out on this argument). His “Back to the Future” article’s analysis was premised on US withdrawal from Europe, which didn’t happen, and so the causal logic hasn’t had a chance to be tested (by the way, it was 1990, not the mid-1990s).

Go read the whole thing. I’m going to focus on David’s response to the long, and excellent, set of arguments excerpted here.

David, always the gentleman, points out that he can’t possibly do realism justice. Instead, he focuses on a couple of quick rebuttals:

Unless one is comfortable with the current situation in North Korea, I don’t see how one can describe deterrence as a robust response to the hypothetical situation of a nuclear Iraq (c. 2002) or Iran today. My previous point about the Cuban Missile Crisis suggests why deterrence was not ideal or safe during the Cold War, either.

1. We could flip this argument on its head. If David was so worried about Iraq, and remains so worried about Iran and North Korea, why isn’t he losing sleep over Chinese and Pakistani nuclear weapons?

2. In fact, the prospect that the US could deter a nuclear Iran, Iraq, and North Korea is much, much stronger than David gives it credit for being. David presents the Cuban Missile Crisis as an example of why we shouldn’t have confidence in deterrence. But we could also draw the exact opposite conclusion: that the Crisis shows how the risks of nuclear war diminish the likelihood of military escalation. Moreover, the deterrence situation the US would face in a potential struggle with Iran and North Korea – and might have faced with a nuclear Iraq – is far more asymmetrical than it faced vis-a-vis the USSR. Put simply, for the foreseeable future no “rogue state” could inflict remotely the level of damage on the US that the US could inflict upon it.

There are nightmare scenarios, but it seems pretty clear the first concern of both the North Korean and Iranian regime is survival. The prospect of suffering fiery death from an overwhelming US retaliatory force should give even those most hardline North Korean or Iranian leader pause (In 2004, Michael McFaul wrote an excellent summary of the reasons not to preempt Iran’s nuclear program. In it, he provides the basic rationale for why Iranian nukes are not a direct threat to the US). The same was true of Hussein.

Indeed, Hussein was probably even more deterrable than North Korea is. North Korea will sell weapons technology to anyone, but Hussein had no history of proliferating weapons of mass destruction. He was, simply put, not the kind of guy to risk his regime by giving WMD capabilities to non-state actors that he could not, in the future, count on following his policies or pursuing his policy objectives. The best argument for why Iraqi nuclear proliferation presented a real problem for the US could be found in the writings of Kenneth Pollack and my colleague Robert Lieber (himself a realist): if Iraq acquired nuclear weapons, it might then return to expansionist policies in the Mideast, with the hope of deterring US intervention by threatening nuclear weapons use.

Similarly, the problem with a nuclear North Korea is not that we should be quaking in our boots about a North Korean nuclear attack on the US. The problem is that it may enhance North Korean leverage in the region and potentially trigger South Korean and Japanese nuclear proliferation. A potential arms race among multiple new nuclear powers, with at least two existing nuclear powers (the US and the PRC) having huge stakes in the region, is just not a risk worth taking. One can believe that without believing that North Korea is fundamentally impossible to deter.

Ultimately, even if David disagrees with the mainline realist assessment, the case is not so unambiguous that he can use that disagreement to discredit realism. Given what we know about nuclear deterrence in practice, I’d say the burden of proof is actually on David to demonstrate why Iraq was an atypical case.

David also argues that

Second, Morgenthau deserves credit for his early opposition to the war in Vietnam. However, this in no way vindicates his persistent criticism of Truman and others for taking Soviet ideology very seriously.

It is not at all clear to me, given hindsight, that this particular realist position on the USSR – that it was, ultimately, a great power like any other great power, and that it would not mindlessly follow the dictates of Marxism-Leninism – proved wrong. Here, I’d just ask David to explain himself a bit more.

Finally, David begs off by writing

When it comes to the defensive realists and domestic politics, I will avoid further discussion on the somewhat spurious grounds that this debate is too detailed and too distant from actual history and politics.

The question, of course, is whether he is right.

Why does David dump on realism, even to the extent of falsely inferring the problems with an entire set of approaches from a few specific instances of authors writing things he disagrees with? Two answers, I think:

1. David believes realists discount the importance of ideas and rhetoric in the formation of foreign policy. There is some truth to this, but, as PS argues, there are a number of realists who take ideas and rhetoric quite seriously in explaining the actual behavior of governments. It is one thing to argue, as most realists do, that international anarchy limits the ability of states to effectuate their values in international politics, or that states that ignore systemic imperatives in the pursuit of ideas and values will suffer from it, and another to argue that realism is simply blind to these forces. As Stacie Goddard and I have written about, various strands of realism are actually quite amenable to role that ideas and rhetoric play in foreign policy.

2. Another reason is that realists don’t exactly go in for democracy promotion – which they would call an “ideological crusade” – as a fundamental goal of foreign policy (although realists are not necessarily opposed to humanitarianism or democratization as aspects of foreign policy, they just don’t think either should be, or can be, the centerpiece of prudent statecraft).

Neoconservativism and liberal internationalism, as some of our commentators have noted, are very similar in their core assumptions. Not realism, which sees morality as very much a function of power and is often deeply suspicious of self-righteousness in foreign policy. I’ll beg off this issue for now, but let me note my own comment when I started the Duck: realism, whether in the form of Waltzian structural realism, Morgenthauian “classical” realism, or Weberian political realism, is an important antidote to unbridled liberal internationalism.

Indeed, let me quote from Weber:

If one says ‘the future of socialism’ or ‘international peace,’ instead of native city or ‘fatherland’ (which at present may be a dubious value to some), then you face the problem as it stands now. Everything that is striven for through political action operating with violent means and following an ethic of responsibility endangers the ‘salvation of the soul.’ If, however, one chases after the ultimate good in a war of beliefs, following a pure ethic of absolute ends, then the goals may be damaged and discredited for generations, because responsibility for consequences is lacking….

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.