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Really Real: Take II on the Chicago IR Guys

January 4, 2012

In my last post, I offered a friendly critique of Nuno Monteiro’s piece on how unipolarity has been less peaceful than other periods (debatable) and that U.S. power alone explains why minor states feel insecure and trigger conflicts with the unipole (same – the domestic politics of the U.S. and minor states are important in my view).   

In this post, I want to provide a similar albeit friendlier critique to Rosato and Schuessler’s article (not least because Sebastian introduced me and my wife!). Rosato and Schuessler (R&S) make the case that realism can and should be taken as a prescriptive theory to guide U.S. foreign policy, and had their advice been followed, the U.S. might not have had to go to war in World War I and II (essentially a problem of underbalancing in both cases) and wouldn’t have gone to war in Vietnam and Iraq (basically both were unnecessary wars in either strategically unimportant places or areas where deterrence could have worked).

What’s more, R&S make the case that liberal theories held by policymakers (belief in international institutions, support for democracy, promotion of trade) actually made conflict more likely.

Let me offer a few reactions in this post, mostly dealing with their concept of security and controversial claims about World War II.
The starting premise of the article is based on familiar assumptions from structural realism including (1) anarchy (2) the inability to trust the intentions of other states and (3) the uncertainty of outcomes of wars, with weaker powers sometimes winning against stronger adversaries.

Balance, Ignore, Deter
Based on these assumptions, R&S make a number of claims that they suggest should guide U.S. foreign policy. Namely, that the U.S. should balance against potential rival states but ignore minor powers unless they are located in strategically important regions (i.e. those that have important industrial resources or oil). In those cases, the United States should make clear its red lines to deter minor powers from acting against its wishes. What this means in the case of Iran is interesting:

Given the power disparity between the two sides, containment should be a straight-forward matter, and it would be preferable to a preventive war that would at best delay Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons while inviting almost certain retaliation (813).

Of course, I think this is based on the Waltzian logic that leaders of nuclear weapons states would understand the gravity of the situation and embrace the logic of MAD and ensure the sorts of careful security mechanisms to prevent accidental or hasty first use. I wouldn’t go so far as to claim that Iran will be nondeterrable, but I’m not sure if containment will be as straightforward as R&S suggest (though mostly because the United States might not follow their prescriptions and overreact to Iran’s possible acquisition of nuclear weapons).

Before reading the piece, I worried that this would be one of those vacuous articles that suggests prudence and pragmatism are the essence of realism (A quick aside: As a nonrealist, that always drove me crazy that realists could claim pragmatism as their strategic advantage. I mean, who is against pragmatism? It’s like saying I support dumb power. Ok, rant over). There has always been a somewhat protean quality to realist-informed foreign policies, where one could make a good case for contrasting policies and still call oneself a realist. Fortunately, this piece is more consistent and substantive than that.

That said, I have a couple of concerns, stemming from a truncated view of security and a misreading of the WWII case. Let me tackle each of them in turn.

Critique I: Security is More than Deterring Armed Attack by Great Powers
First, I think the piece has an overly restrictive view of what constitutes security, for which balancing behavior and self-help may not be sufficient and for which cooperation, support for trade, multilateral institutions, and cooperation might be necessary.

While I think this piece does a good job laying out what approach states ought to take vis a vis potential state challengers, it doesn’t say much about the kinds of problems that liberals and constructivists frequently write about, economics, health, the environment, or even terrorism. For these kinds of issues, self-help is generally inadequate advice. Indeed, states have to be careful to protect their own national security (narrowly defined as protecting their territorial integrity from armed external attack) while also thinking about other processes that give them long-run material wherewithal to survive, namely economic development.

The structural logic of modern interdependence and capitalism make the economy as if not more important for security as self-help. States need to collaborate through international institutions and multilateral approaches to ensure an open trading regime and financial stability and to protect the commons from pandemic disease, environmental damage, piracy, and terrorism. For these kinds of things, which may not always pose existential threats, unilateral self-help will simply not do. About these things, the piece is largely silent.

What you do about China is not simply about self-help and balancing but also about ensuring the health of the international economic order. There may be trade-offs between the promotion of state security and the stability and vibrancy of the global economy. How to manage such challenges  before China makes its intentions clear about becoming a peer competitor is the essence of grand strategy today.

In the case of terrorism, for domestic political reasons, it won’t be sufficient to downplay the threat as a nuisance that hardly rises to the level of the Soviet Union. That still doesn’t inform policymakers with a coherent strategy of what to do.

Critique II: Was World War II Really Caused by Insufficient Realism?
Second, I think the claim that World War II was caused by underbalancing misses the earlier problem in which insufficient recognition of liberal insights created the conditions for Hitler’s rise. Beggar-thy-neighbor policies on trade made everyone worse off and deepened the Depression, creating possibilities for the emergence of demagogues. Overly punitive German reparations weakened the Weimar Republic and its creaky democracy. Failure by the United States to provide liquidity led to a weak financial system and also contributed to tough economic times (these are familiar arguments for readers of Ruggie, Ikenberry, Kindleberger, among others).

So, while later underbalancing could be said to be a function of insufficient recognition of realist insights, the problem had as much to do with the prior failure to embrace liberal insights.

In sum, while the piece has much to recommend it as policy-relevant scholarship that is theoretically informed and provocative, it still tries to stay too wedded to a rigid defense of a particular -ism, which I think is helpful for creating intellectual distance from others but may be limiting as a guide to actual foreign policy in the 21st century. 

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Joshua Busby is an Associate Professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas-Austin. He is the author of Moral Movements and Foreign Policy (Cambridge, 2010) and the co-author, with Ethan Kapstein, of AIDS Drugs for All: Social Movements and Market Transformations (Cambridge, 2013). His main research interests include transnational advocacy and social movements, international security and climate change, global public health and HIV/ AIDS, energy and environmental policy, and U.S. foreign policy. He also tends to blog about global wildlife conservation.