Un-Realist-ic Walt


May 13, 2009

Stephen Walt asks a very interesting question: why does the US overspend on defense? This is a very smart question, the kind you need to be contrarian theorist to ask. Given the global downturn in the economy, you’d think defense spending would absorb its fair share of pain.

As is well documented, the US spends more on its military than the rest of the world combined. And yet, worried that China may be less than 5 years away from sending a sub as far as Guam, there is a well developed narrative and lobby in US politics that we aren’t spending enough. So, defense spending continues to go up and up and up.

Originally, I wanted to tackle this issue head-on, but I’d rather tackle Walt head on instead. His core argument:

America’s rise to global primacy was accompanied by the creation of a well-developed set of institutions whose stated purpose was to overcome isolationist sentiments and to promote greater international activism on the part of the United States. American liberal internationalism didn’t just arise spontaneously as America’s relative power grew, it was actively encouraged by groups like the Council on Foreign Relations (founded in 1921), and a whole array of other groups and organizations.

He goes on to list many of them by name. Conversely, he finds,

By contrast, there are at most a handful of institutions whose core mission is to get the United States to take a slightly smaller role on the world stage….

In short, what I’m suggesting here is that America’s role in the world today is shaped by two imbalances of power, not just one. The first is the gap between U.S. capabilities and everyone else’s, a situation that has some desirable features (especially for us) but one that also encourages the United States to do too much and allows others to do either too little or too many of the wrong things. The second imbalance is between organized interests whose core mission is constantly pushing the U.S. government to do more and in more places, and the far-weaker groups who think we might be better off showing a bit more restraint.

In a vacuum, this is an interesting argument, worth exploring. It probably lends itself to some sort of liberal / domestic politics / organizing coalition or constructivist / national identity / lack of isolationist rhetorical commonplaces for legitimation argument, and is an interest case in which to evaluate the two ideas.

What it is not, however, is a Realist argument. To continue my picking on Walt, if you’re going to run around calling yourself a realist and writing a realist blog, for cryin’ out loud, advance a realist argument from time to time!!!

Lets review: Realism assumes an anarchic world of rational state actors maximizing security, defined as sufficient military force to defend the integrity of a the state. In that anarchic environment, systemic pressures are the primary factor states rationally consider in security decisions.

In other words, all states act the same, the only thing that differentiates them is their relative position in world politics, ie their relative power.

What Walt claims in his post is that the systemic pressures of anarchy have absolutely no bearing on US defense budgetign and policy. Rather, crazy domestic lobbies have hijacked USFP for some damn fool ideological crusade. This analysis is all well and good, but, and here’s the kicker, Walt’s theory–Realism–says this shouldn’t matter, not one lick! States can have all the internal politics they want, but in the end, systemic pressures shape security policy.

The fact that Walt can’t 1) adequately apply his own theory to one of the pressing questions of the day he poses, and 2) has to continually rely on ad-hoc explanations of domestic politics when things don’t go his way, leads me to believe that Walt has abandon Realism for either Rat-Choice Liberalism, or Hard-core, boarder-line PoMo (gasp!) Constructivism. I’m sure he’d reject both labels. If so, Be a frickn’ realist, then Steve!!! Give me a realist explanation for US defense spending over the past 20 years. It should have, as its key explanatory variable, some sort of systemic, balance of power-related force. Inability to do so constitutes a significant failure for realism, and suggests that Walt is fundamentally wrong.

Now, there are a lot of sophisticated attempts to add variation to realism, but, so far as I know, they all retain the rational states in anarchy thing, with a lot of (military) power. If this can’t give you any purchase on such an important issue, perhaps its time to re-think the theory.

Because, what you said is that Realism can’t explain the budget policies of the signal largest bastion and promoter of Realism, the US Pentagon, then as a theory it needs some work.

Sounds like a degenerative research program to me. Now I an see why no one’s a realist any more!


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Dr. Peter Howard focuses on US foreign policy and international security. He studies how the implementation of foreign policy programs produces rule-based regional security regimes, conducting research in Estonia on NATO Expansion and US Military Exchange programs and South Korea on nuclear negotiations with North Korea.