Wolfowitz and his critics: why he is right and they are wrong

A familiar debate surfaced on the pages of Foreign Policy Magazine this week - the ongoing one between neoconservatism and its critics. The subject of controversy is Paul Wolfowitz’s latest intervention. In it, Wolfowitz lays out the basis of his position, draws a sharp contrast between his outlook and that of self-styled 'realists', and considers whether the new administration can in any meaningful sense be called realist. Using a distinction between realism as foreign policy doctrine and a more flexible approach to policy based on the consideration of consequences, he concludes that Obama is a pragmatist, rather than any kind of realist.

Four foreign policy specialists - Steve Clemons, Stephen M. Walt, Daniel D. Drezner and David J. Rothkopf - are then invited to respond. The exchange is a useful primer for anybody interested in the byzantine complexities of the American foreign policy debate, throwing into sharp relief some of its most enduring faultlines, and it is worth reading in full. Of all the respondents, for me Steve Clemons makes the killer distinction - which effectively puts him on the same side of the argument as Wolfowitz - between what he calls the 'pure' realism of John Mearsheimer and his followers on the one hand, and 'policy realists' on the other. That is, between mainstream realists in the foreign policy establishment and their ideological counterparts in the academy. Daniel D. Drezner makes the point by way of a simple stylistic device, reserving the lower case ‘r’ for the pragmatic, policy oriented strain of realism and the upper case ‘R’ for the grand theory.

The distinction is not in any way controversial. Each of the four respondees uses some variation of it. On 25 August, in answer to a question from Theory Talks, for exampe, we find the following from Stephen Walt:
"I’m reasonably sure that Obama has never read Mearsheimer, Waltz, Krasner or Morgenthau, and he probably wouldn’t describe himself in those terms, but I do think he is a realist in the sense that he is essentially a pragmatist – he’s not wedded to a powerful ideological agenda"
So everyone is agreeed. Obama is no dogmatic realist. Although Walt is in agreement with the basic point, his use of language leaves a lot to be desired. The problem with his formulation is that, by not fully differentiating between pragmatism and realism, it ends up conflating them. The whole point about today's realists - and it is a point that appears to elude Walt altogether - is that they are wedded to a powerful ideological agenda. The sort of pragmatism he associates with Obama is a million miles away from the realism of the academy, and he just does not make the point forcefully enough. He is clearly using Daniel Drezner's lower case 'r', but by calling Obama a realist he simply shows up the limitations of framing the distinction in this way. For precision, it is much better to follow Wolfowitz and reserve the 'r' word for the grand theory.

However we frame it, the distinction is real and of central importance. Contra Walt, who then goes on to accuse Wolfowitz of erecting a straw man, the version of realism Wolfowitz describes is not “artificial and contrived”. It is neither “caricature” nor figment of his imagination. It is alive and well in the academy. As I have written elsewhere, it is backed up by a voluminous literature, supported by a sophisticated theoretical edifice and powered by passionate advocacy. At the same time, it is a fundamentally flawed doctrine. At the centre of it is a picture of the world that simply no longer exists. The sort of diplomacy it calls for assumes a world of fixed territorial units and conventional forces - the old Westphalian model of secure borders and unitary states. The world we are confronted with is an altogether different beast. Threats no longer appear as concentrations of conventional military power that can be offset by countervailing coalitions, but rather in an altogether more diffuse form. Gangsterism, warlordism, shadowy transnational terrorist networks - these are the principal threats to American interests in the region and so the idea that America can go around the world simply arranging balancing coalitions in some grand eighteenth-century European style is just absurd. The new strategic environment calls for an altogether more nuanced and subtle diplomacy, a different blend of elements, and a different set of capabilities. Quite simple one would think, elementary even, and yet American realism seems institutionally incapable of grasping it.

The major theoretical statement of this sort of realism, of course, is Mearsheimer’s Tragedy of Great Power Politics. I once wrote a review of Tragedy entitled A Tale of Two Mearsheimers. The basic premise was that, although at his best Mearsheimer is a formidable intellect, a profoundly insightful author and theorist of the first rank - at his worst, he is combative, uncompromising and something of an ideologue. I now realise that the argument was mistaken. There really is only one Mearsheimer and he was always an ideologue. It would have been better to have told the tale of two Walts, because in Walt we really do see something of a transformation. The early Walt is someone with whom I remain in substantial agreement. His most telling contribution was The Origins of Alliances, a wonderful book in which he elaborated what he called ‘balance of threat’ theory. Essentially an amendment to classical balance of power theory, the argument of the book was that states do not balance simply against power, but rather against threats and that, when calculating these, they take into consideration factors such as geographic proximity, offensive capabilities and perceived intentions. It was an important concession to the mainstream and placed him squarely in the pragmatic, policy-oriented tradition.

Walt and MearsheimerBut he now appears, under the influence of Mearsheimer, to have moved away from that nuanced position to some kind of rigid structural determinism. Any suggestion that regime type matters is completely missing from his analysis. The more time Walt spends with Mearsheimer the more strident his position becomes and the effect of his years of friendship and co-authorship with Mearsheimer is now really quite pronounced. I now find myself in sharp disagreement with him on nearly every point of logic, theory, policy and fact. It is a remarkable journey that Walt has made - from sophisticated realist to strident ideologue. And it is not a transtion that produces nuanced policy analysis. Take his opening shot against Wolfowitz:
"On the most significant foreign policy decision since the end of the Cold War - the ill-fated invasion of Iraq in 2003 - the realists who opposed it were right and Wolfowitz and the other architects of the war were dead wrong"
This is an astonishing claim. It is not at all clear that the realists were right and Wolfowitz wrong. In fact, there are good reasons for thinking the opposite. The first thing to understand about the realist argument against the war in Iraq is that it is part of a wider argument in favour of an alternative grand strategy. Effectively realists want America out of the hegemony business. The aim is to unpick the system of Cold War alliances, scale back America’s overseas commitments and concentrate on the defence of what they regards as 'core' interests. Although this choice has the benefit of aligning policy with long-term historical trends, in that it anticipates the coming multipolar order, the way they push the argument one might think that it was a new concept - that the idea was somehow untested. Take Christopher Layne, Robert M. Gates Professor of Intelligence and National security at the Bush School of Government, author of The Peace of Illusions, and an increasingly prominent advocate of offshore balancing, for example. His basic premise is that since 1940, America has pursued a strategy of preponderance, and that this has weakened her strategic position, rather than strengthen it.

NasserThe problem is that the analogy between the European states system and the Middle East, which forms the core of his argument, with the US in the role of would-be hegemon, just does not stand up. America has conducted a balance-of-power diplomacy in the Middle East – not a strategy of preponderance - throwing her weight into the mix first against Egypt under Nasser, then Iraq under Saddam and now Iran under the Mullahs. The overriding imperative at all times has been to maintain a balance of power, not upset it – to preserve the independence of states, not overthrow them. America is a status quo power in the region, not any kind of revolutionary power intent on overthrowing the existing order. Seemingly oblivious to this, Layne goes on to observe that
"by being ... ‘offshore’ and non-threatening, an insular great power can deflect the focus of other states’ security policies away from itself. Simply put, if an offshore power stands on the sidelines, other great powers will compete against each other, not against it .... to capitalise on this dynamic, an insular great power must adopt a non-threatening posture, and not pursue hegemonic ambitions”
This is exactly the pattern we have observed in the Middle East. Jordan and Saudi Arabia ally with the US for this very reason: they fear their neighbours more than they do America. America’s allies in the region know they are not at risk of attack by the US. The only states at risk of attack by the US are those that have posed a threat to the equilibrium – Nasser’s Egypt, Saddam’s Iraq and now revolutionary Iran. The truth of the matter is that challenges to the equilibrium in the Middle East largely come from within the region, not without, and so the reading of the diplomatic history at the centre of Layne’s argument, it seems to me, is just plain wrong.

The same is true of Walt and Mearsheimer. They co-authored an article in the January 2003 issue of Foreign Policy called An Unnecessary War. In it, like Layne - who glibly asserts that the “policy of containment and deterrence worked in 1990 – and was still working in 2003” – they argue that Saddam was “eminently deterrable”. The fact of the matter is that these claims are simply false, and demonstrably so. Saddam set his mind to undermining the containment policy from the start and by the end of the Clinton presidency, the policy was in deep trouble. The Iraqi leader waged an effective propaganda campaign to discredit both the sanctions regime and the UN. Pictures of starving children and reports of up to 100,000 civilian deaths from disease and malnutrition were enough to tip the balance of world opinion against the policy. On top of this, the presence of US forces in Saudi Arabia – a key element of the containment policy – was steadily inflaming anti-American sentiment among Islamic radicals, enraged at what they considered the desecration of Islam’s holiest sites.

At the same time, pressure from France, Russia and China for an end to the policy was steadily eroding our position at the UN and undermining the effectiveness of the inspections regime. Similarly Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, all under pressure from their publics, were each lobbying for an end to the policy. So the policy was just not sustainable over the long term. Far from being “eminently deterrable”, Saddam was on the verge of defeating the policy. The truth of the matter is that containment was effectively dead. The measures necessary to contain Saddam were causing deep resentment throughout the region and beyond, straining alliances to the point where our entire strategic position was in danger of unravelling. The crucial point to remember here, for our wider argument, is that none of these measures were part of any grand hegemonic design. They were part of our effort to contain Saddam and so Layne’s argument that it was our departure from sound balance of power principles that produced what he calls ‘the backlash’ is simply false. It is the balancing strategy that led to the backlash because it required us - across six decades - to build up dictators, to support repressive regimes, to tilt first one way, then another – casting us in the role of defender of tyrants against the freedoms of ordinary Arabs and earning for us a reputation for duplicity and double-dealing. And so the lesson we take from the history is not that we need to return to a balance of power diplomacy, but rather the opposite: that we need to go beyond it. We need to go beyond seeking to uphold a precarious balance and find a way to get beyond the destructive rivalries of the past. That is what we attempted with the Iraq war, and that is the reason Wolfowitz is right and his critics are wrong.