Tag: Walt

No Supply Without Demand: A Response to Stephen Walt

This is a guest post by Sarah Detzner, a Ph.D Candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Her research is focused on international security, particularly post-conflict stabilization/reconstruction and security sector reform. In addition, she serves as Director of the Fletcher Graduate Writing Program, as a Fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies and the Institute for Human Security, and as a consultant for the World Peace Foundation. Previously, she served in the Obama Administration as a speechwriter for former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, campaigned as an Obama 2008 staffer, and worked with the National Democratic Institute in Washington, Lebanon, and Jordan. She is a graduate of Macalester College and originally from the Chicago area.

In his indictment of the training that schools of international affairs offer their graduates, Stephen Walt has an advantage. He’s able to observe from a great height, over a long period, the migration patterns of herds of hopeful students trekking up and wintering a season or two in Boston before starting the return journey southward to the shores of the Potomac in search of warm weather and think tank gigs.

However, from that peak, it’s easy to miss the confusion, the mud, and the constant search for enough forage that day-by-day nudges along those who eventually make it to shore. From a different perspective, as third wildebeest from the back and slightly to the left, I say that the United States’ international affairs programs are churning out graduates with exactly the skills that the United States’ foreign policy establishment rewards, though certainly not those it actually needs. Continue reading


Is it possible to be a realist?

Some weeks ago, Stephen Walt lamented the absence of realist commentators in the American media space. What was striking to me at the time was Walt’s claim that realism is a ‘well-known approach to foreign policy.’ That claim—that realism is a foreign policy approach—makes sense in the context of Walt’s dirge, which focuses on the role of policy makers and media in shaping state behavior. But putting realism into a foreign policy context does not come without theoretical costs. Indeed, the grandee of modern realism in IR Kenneth Waltz rejected the idea that realism was a foreign policy framework.

By taking analysis down to the policymaker level, Walt (and others) introduce a tension into analysis that is irreconcilable. The problem lies in the objectivist foundations of realism. For Waltz, the strictures of the system were independent of human perception, beliefs, or ideas. Waltz is never quite clear how systemic forces actually produce state behavior—he discusses socialization, but who is socialized, how that socialization is carried through time, and how it translates into actual policy outcomes is never very clear (in modern parlance, his microfoundations needed work). But, for the objectivist ontology and epistemology that formed the lynchpin of a now ‘scientific’ realism (e.g. balance of power as a timeless law governing international politics), Waltz’s neglect of microfoundations was useful for reasons that I hope are clear by the end of this post.

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Iraq 10 Years Later (3): Why the Neocon Theory behind the War Failed


My first post on the Iraq War asked if academic IR had any responsibility to slow the march to war.

The second tried to formulate what the   neoconservative theory of the war was, because many of us, in retrospect of a conflict gone so badly, desperately want to un-remember that there really was a logic to the war, that it was at least somewhat intellectually defensible, and that a lot of us believed it. We may want to retroactively exculpate ourselves by suggesting it was just W the cowboy acting ridiculous, or a neocon hijacking of the policy process, or Halliburton oil imperialism, and all the other reasons so popular on the left. And some of that is true of course.

But it ducks the crucial point that the war was popular until it flew wildly off-the-rails, which in turn revealed the staggering incompetence of the Bush administration to act on the neocon logic the country had embraced by March 2003. In short, I argued that the Iraq invasion was not about WMD, preemption, or democracy, although that rationale was played up in the wake of the failure to find WMD. The real neocon goal was to scare the daylights out of the Arabs and their elites by punching one of their worst regimes in the face, thereby showing what was coming to rest of the region unless it cleaned up its act, i.e., crack down on salafism and liberalize so as to defuse the cultural extremism that lead to 9/11. (Read Ajami saying in January 2003 that the war is ‘to modernize the Arabs;’ that’s about as a good a pre-war summary of this logic as you’ll get.)

So what went wrong?

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Iraq 10 Years Later (1): How Culpable is Academic International Relations?


I’ve been thinking a lot about the war this month. I’ll be teaching it in the next few weeks at school because of the decade anniversary (March 20). My quick sense is that any defensible theory behind the war was simply buried by an execution so awful, disorganized, mismanaged, and incompetent that it invalidated the whole premise.

The whole episode became just shameful, and regularly teaching and conferencing with non-Americans these last few years has made this so painfully clear. My students particularly are just bewildered to the point of incredulity. Again and again, the basic thought behind the questions is, ‘what the hell happened to you people? 9/11 made you lose your minds there?’ *sigh* (NB: when Asians ask me about guns in the US, the ‘what the hell is wrong with you people?’ bafflement is the same.)

Hence, the post title purposefully implies that the invasion was a bad idea. But to be fair, that should be the first question: what, if any, arguments at this point can be mustered to defend the war? IR should try to answer this seriously, because I’m all but positive that the journalistic debate will be not be driven by the state of Iraq or US foreign policy today, but by the high personal reputational costs faced by so many pundits supportive of the war. It would not surprise me at all if folks like the Kagans, Krauthammer, or Thomas Friedman miraculously found that the war was worth it after all. McNamara-style mea culpas only happen at the end of a career (so I give Sullivan and Fukuyama credit for theirs on Iraq). But IR should be more honest than that.

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Walt sings the praises of a liberal education

Steve Walt opines that “would-be foreign policy wonks” should basically get a classical liberal-arts education, and he uses a traditional justification for this: “In world that is both diverse and changing rapidly, a broad portfolio of knowledge is almost certainly the best preparation for a long career in the field.” I’d amend that somewhat, and say that a broad liberal-arts education — which isn’t about gaining a portfolio of knowledge or skills as much as it is about developing a certain critical intellectual disposition — is almost certainly the best preparation for the rest of your adult life, not just for a career in the IR field however understood. Hyper-specialization at the undergraduate level is something that annoys me to no end, and on that score as on many of the specifics in Walt’s list I find myself in complete agreement.

Two minor quibbles and one more major issue.

Minor quibble #1: I think Walt gets the justification for studying some statistics as an undergraduate student precisely correct: “statistics is part of the language of policy discourse, and if you don’t understand the basics, you won’t be a discerning consumer of quantitative information.” It’s a language, you need to be able to speak it in at least a rudimentary way to make headway in most policy circles, and (it pains me to say) in most IR academic circles too. [Not because statistics is bad, but because I think we can do better as a basic methodological vocabulary than elementary statistics. But that’s another post, or a different book that I already wrote.] But when Walt advises the study of economics, he shifts his epistemic warrant slightly, calling for “basic grasp of the key principles of international trade and finance and some idea how the world economy actually works.” The former justification (statistics is a language) makes no commitment to statistics being a correct or even defensible way to view the world, just as his recommendation to learn a foreign language makes no commitment to a given language being somehow truer. But the latter justification presumes that the language of contemporary economics is some kind of a reliable guide to how things work, a debatable proposition indeed — especially given very good recent work on the performativity of economic language. he should have stuck with “learn some of that language too.”

Minor quibble #2: Walt suggests that “geography matters” so students ought to learn things like the physical characteristics of different regions. But this is a non sequitur, since it is entirely possible for one to maintain that geography matters without becoming a geographical determinist. Studying the physical characteristics of a region and expecting them to give one insight into social and political dynamics is geographical determinism, whether or not one produces a minor caveat by converting those physical characteristics into an independent variable with only a partial or probabilistic impact on outcomes…if physical characteristics explain social forms, then we’re a minor and theoretically inconsequential step away from “geography is destiny” and Halford Mackinder’s world-island and heartland. On which, well, one might read any piece of critical geography/geopolitics written in the past several decades, starting here and here. In fact, works like those two provide a gateway to a more defensible and less reductionist/determinist kind of “geography matters,” in which it’s the discourse of geographic space and not that space “in itself” (whatever the heck that might mean) which has consequences.

And this in turn links to my biggest hesitation about Walt’s list, which is his persistent equivocation between the notion that one should study certain things as an undergraduate in order to grasp the diversity of ways that people make sense of the world, and the notion that one should study certain things as an undergraduate in order to grasp the way that things really are (despite what others might think, because they’re wrong). This is perhaps most apparent in Walt’s first recommendation, which is that one should study history:

Not only does history provide the laboratory in which our basic theories must be tested, it shapes the narratives different peoples tell themselves about how they came to their present circumstances and how they regard their relationship to others. How could one hope to understand the Middle East without knowing about the Ottoman Empire, the impact of colonialism, the role of Islam, the influence of European anti-Semitism and Zionism, or the part played by the Cold War?  Similarly, how could one grasp the current complexities in Asia without understanding the prior relations between these nations and the different ways that Chinese, Vietnamese, Koreans, Japanese, Pashtuns, Hindus, Muslims, and others understand and explain past events?

Walt’s “not only” joins two extremely, even radically, different versions of what it would mean to  study history. History as “laboratory” — Walt means historical facts as data for our theories to test themselves against, but this conception also covers historical facts as parts of developmental sequences that play themselves out behind the backs, or otherwise out of the grasp of, actors  — suggests that we understand a present situation in world politics better by studying what came before it. History as “the narratives different peoples tell themselves about how they came to their present circumstances” — true, Walt says that those narratives are shaped by history rather than being history itself, but then as the paragraph unfolds he grants the study of historical self-understanding its own autonomous role in grasping “current complexities” — suggests, by contrast, that we understand a present situation in world politics better by seeing what use is made of the past in the present and how that puts horizons on the future. Events with persistent causal power versus the causal power of “eventing,” so to speak.

My hesitation is two-fold. First, Walt, like many IR scholars, doesn’t seem to be aware of the tension between these two points of view, so he (like others) can pass pretty seamlessly from “here’s how different actors construe the situation” to “here’s how it is.” But there is radical tension, perhaps to the point of incommensurability, between those approaches to history. Because Walt glosses over that tension, I hesitate. But I also hesitate because I suspect that in the end Walt is really siding with the first approach rather than the second, and is hence unable to reflexively grasp the extent to which his own account of “how it is” is itself a perspectival construal rather than a way of dispelling inaccurate perspectives. The point of a liberal-arts education, as far as I am concerned, is to kick the apparent supports out from under each and every supposed “view from nowhere” by showing how they emerge from particular combinations of commitments and stances, and this in turn propels the liberally-educated person into a better grasp of the contingency of things — which in turn allows creative action that shapes a plausible future. It is precisely not about mastering a multifaceted-but-ultimately-homogenous narrative of The Way That The World Is so that one can use that as a basis for Sound Policy Recommendations.

Developing a respect for ambiguity and contingency is not the same thing as eliminating ambiguity and contingency through a more intricate totalizing account, even if that totalizing account is couched in terms of “a broad portfolio of knowledge” for a “world that is both diverse and changing rapidly.” The former embraces genuine uncertainty in the Knightian sense; the latter reduces it to just plain old “risk.” And I would say that the latter is precisely not what a liberal-arts education is all about — it’s a technocratic device for imagining oneself into a far less ambiguous world. But a liberal-arts education equips one to live in that world instead of perpetually trying to engineer it away. Walt’s last recommendation involves confronting ethical questions and conundrums, which I certainly agree is something that one ought to do as an undergraduate student…but not to find a superior foundation as much as to start recognizing the limits of such foundations, the Weberian “uncomfortable facts” that each and every principled position has to confront. Remember that it was Plato who thought that one could craft new, superior foundations; Socrates just asked questions that confounded his interlocutors and forced them to question their assumptions. The liberal-arts educator ought to think Socrates rather than Plato, and the undergraduate student — especially, perhaps, the undergraduate student interested in world politics broadly understood — ought to be a lot more concerned with the diversity of ways of worlding than with looking for the One True (Account Of The) World.


Ranking US Allies: A Response to Stephen Walt, Andrew Sullivan & all those Canadians…

Last week, I tried to rank US allies, drawing response from both Walt and Sullivan (oh, and these guys, whose website name’ll creep you out). So here are a few responses:

1. I accept the arguments from many commenters that Turkey should be on the list. So here is a final list, a ‘top 12’ of US allies in order: Canada, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, India, Indonesia, Israel, South Korea, Japan, EU/NATO, Egypt, and Turkey.

2. Walt’s expansion of my argument toward “zero-based alliance formation” formalizes my initial intuitions for US alignment-picks. He asks if the US had no allies right now, which ones would it choose, because many US allies are left-over from previous commitments that may no longer be valuable. It’s an interesting, semi-counterfactual exercise. Its logic may be a clearer way to think about US allies than my use of retrenchment to force a ranking on US allies. I think this is a pretty good paper topic actually…

Instead of my 3 proposed alliance criteria (direct security benefits to the US; how desperately a potential ally needs the US; and the values symbolism of an alignment), Walt lists 6 benchmarks: power, position, political stability, popularity, pliability, and potential impact. These are richer than mine but also make it much harder to build a ranked order. I wonder what Walt’s top 10 would be then? I think he would be harder than I am on small states. That follows insofar as realism would suggest that larger states are usually more consequential. By including values/symbolism as a criterion, I allow places like Taiwan and SK to hang on.

From my top 12, I think Walt would probably kick out Israel, Taiwan, maybe Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, and SK. Japan and NATO would probably be higher, and I think Brazil would be in there, and perhaps Australia. (I didn’t include those last because I think the US has few interests in Latin America and Australia benefits from the massive Indonesian glacis.)

What’s interesting though is that neither my nor Walt’s criteria would dramatically change the US alliance structure as far as I can tell. Walt would probably wind the US down in the ME more rapidly, while retaining NATO more, and I would do the opposite. We both probably agree that Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan should not make the cut. Finally, I think my benchmarks would ‘pivot’ the US toward Asia faster than Walt’s, although I am not sure. Anyone want to comment on what top 10 Walt’s benchmarks would create?

3. I was please to see that Sullivan flagged – not necessarily approved, but just noted – my argument for Indonesia as America’s most important bridge to the Muslim world. I realize this is kinda off-beat, given that the ME is what dominates our perceptions of Islam and where Islamist pathologies are worst. (Here is a critic, a neocon perhaps, calling me ‘delusional’ for ranking Indonesia this way.) So here is a quick defense, more or less along the lines of what Secretary Clinton said a few years ago.

Indonesia is a syncretic model of pluralist Islam and politics; I think this is pretty widely accepted. No, it’s not as modern and liberal as we might like, but by the standards of the region, other developing countries, and especially the OIC, it is a paragon. Let’s be honest about that. It could easily be far, far worse (think Pakistan), which is why I find it unfortunate that we don’t pay attention much. We should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and a friendship with Indonesia doesn’t mean avoiding tough issues, just like engaging China doesn’t mean we should ignore human rights and other similar issues.

So in its own imperfect, struggling way, Indonesia represents the future of political Islam (speaking very broadly to be sure), not the past, which is a lot of what the ME represents and what Arab Spring is trying to break. If the flat-earth religious elites of places like Iran, Pakistan, or Saudi Arabia are allowed to dominate the global conversation on Islam, more conflict is likely. By contrast, Indonesia offers a possible model for Islam to live with both democratic politics and religious pluralism. That we should vigorously support such an effort, through some kind of alignment, strikes me as so self-evident, that I am amazed that we never talk about this.

Indonesia is a multiparty democracy. Its military is “conditionally subordinate” to civilian control. Its human rights record has improved since the dictatorship. Its troubles with salafism and religious tolerance are there, yes, but again, by the standards of reasonably comparable states like Egypt or Pakistan, its record is good. There has no been no major jihadist terrorism since the 2003 Marriot bombing. Jemaah Islamiah is out there and nasty, but this stuff is far less threatening, with far less hold over popular imagination, than similar movements in so many other OIC states, especially given Indonesia’s huge size. Indeed, it’s Saudi oil money funding wahhabist preaching in Indonesia that is the big salafist threat, not homegrown Indonesian clerics.

So instead of lining up with badly governed Arab autocracies as we did in the ME – alignments that create islamist blowback – doesn’t it seem far more beneficial for US to align with a (reasonably) moderate, very large country (4th biggest in the world) that also worries about China, with improving democratic credentials? Like Turkey (also on the list now), Indonesia suggests that Islam can coexist reasonably well with modernity and liberalism. Similarly, Muslims have demonstrated that they can leave in reasonable peace with non-adherents in religiously diverse states like the US, India, and Indonesia. This is great news – somebody should tell the Tea Party and remind the Christian Right that it too should be a little more tolerant. And it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Islam in more monocultural places like the ME would be harsher and less tolerant. So we should be grooming South and SE Asian states where tolerance is more entrenched, if only out of the sheer necessity of preventing endless internal conflict. And Indonesia is easily the leader here. Hence I ranked it at number 7.

Even ‘long war’ neocons should see the value at this point in defusing the tiresome, now fairly stalemated debate of whether Islam can find a modus vivendi in the modern world or not. Regarding this debate, places like Indonesia and Turkey are not-perfect-but-good-enough-given-current-circumstances models for Islamic democratization and the cutting edge of Islamic politics. This is why we should be attached. We want US alliances to actually get us some real value-added, not just encourage free-riding from countries that already like us. This is why Indonesia is more important than Germany or Japan. We should have learned from the Arab Spring uprisings and Muslim Brotherhood victory in Egypt that supporting nasty dictators in the ME breeds a politicized Islamic backlash. Huntington notoriously argued that Islam had ‘bloody borders,’ but places Indonesia blunt that disturbing logic. That is very, very good – and far more valuable to the US than aging, tired alliances like NATO.

4. Canadians got pretty passionate over this. I didn’t know that was possible. Like most Americans, I tend to assume that Canadians are Americans who simply refuse to admit that fact (sorry – couldn’t resist that one), but commenters came out swinging against the idea that Mexico might be more important to the US or that Canada might ever be a ‘threat’ to the US (which I never meant to imply btw). One even argued that Canada is more politically stable than the US. Hah! … oh, wait, that’s probably true… Sad smile. Generally, I think Canada kinda gets screwed by being our neighbor – they get stuck with every bad idea we come up with and chain-ganged into it whether they like it or not. So, thanks, Canada, sticking with us even after we elected W. Yes, we’re kind of embarrassed about that now. Enjoy that vid above.

Cross-posted at Asian Security Blog.


Foreign Policy Charade

A few weeks ago, Steve Walt relied upon his own recent experiences writing about the Israeli Lobby to generate “a list of the lessons” he learned from “grabbing the third rail” of foreign policy discourse.

Interestingly, Walt’s somewhat older list of foreign policy taboo positions did not include challenging U.S. foreign policy towards Israel (or Israeli security policy). Had Walt declined to grab the rail this time?

I was reminded of the continued primary importance of these issues recently when reading a short book review in The Nation. Charles Glass, author of the review, used a sizable portion of his piece to quote the author (Emma Williams) quoting an unnamed aid worker in Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories. This is a potent and succinct critique of US policy:

“One day, we will look back on this charade with shame and ask ‘how in hell was this allowed to happen?’ We dress it up in shades of ‘security’–what are we talking about? That’s crap and we all know it. This is not about security. None of this is making anyone secure–the opposite is true, but we’re not going to say so, are we? This is about annexation of territory and slow ethnic cleansing. It’s making Israel less secure and a pariah nation on top of that. And we’re playing along with it, pouring billions of Euros and dollars into keeping the occupied going, keeping their heads above water while they’re boxed in like animals…. Oh, but don’t let anyone hear you say it. My God, we’re in trouble if we say it like it is. No no, we must toe the line, but why?”

I think most of us know why, though some evidence suggests that the discourse may be more open now.


Stephen Walt on Valentines Day and IR

This post on Foreign Policy Blog is not to be missed! First couple of paragraphs:

“Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day. As a public service, I would like to remind FP readers of the important insights that international relations theory can provide for people in love.

To begin with, any romantic partnership is essentially an alliance, and alliances are a core concept on international relations. Alliances bring many benefits to the members (or else why would we form them?) but as we also know, they sometimes reflect irrational passions and inevitably limit each member’s autonomy. Many IR theorists believe that institutionalizing an alliance makes it more effective and enduring, but that’s also why making a relationship more formal is a significant step that needs to be carefully considered.

Of course, IR theorists have also warned that allies face the twin dangers of abandonment and entrapment: the more we fear that our partners might leave us in the lurch (abandonment), the more likely we are to let them drag us into obligations that we didn’t originally foresee (entrapment). When you find yourself gamely attending your partner’s high school reunion or traveling to your in-laws for Thanksgiving dinner every single year, you’ll know what I mean.”

It continues. Read the whole thing. Walt doesn’t go so far as to say it, but in my view this vindicates decades of feminist IR theory arguing that our understanding of the international system is largely a metaphor built on family and gender relations. Given that, however (and given the complexity of gender roles and relations that Walt nods to in his last few paragraphs) I was surprised to see his argument in favor of bipolarity used as a defense of traditional monogamous partnerships. Does anything in perhaps the post-realist IR canon provide a roadmap for heatlthy, stable, alternative forms of inter(person)al relations as well?

Food for thought. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Type rest of the post here


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