Realists have a bad rap. They are portrayed as those who are always beating the war drum out of the false belief that war is the best and only way to improve a state’s security. Many point to the advocacy of mutual assured destruction (MAD) by realists who observed that the reason for peace between the two superpowers from 1945 until 1989/91 was solely because they could destroy each other with nuclear weapons. There even existed the idea that if one wanted world peace, then it was better to give the enemy nuclear weapons and create a MAD scenario. Others look at the U.S. invasion of Iraq, stating that it was neo-conservatives who took a realist approach to promote change in the Middle East through an interjection of U.S. military power in the region, in order to deter future threats and destroy havens for terrorists. They point to such concepts as pre-emption, having a war on terror, and the need for allowing enhanced interrogation techniques to illicit information from an irrational enemy. Fortunately, this if far from the truth and these above-stated concepts are denounced by scholars in the school of realism as well.
Case in point. Stephen M. Walt, one of the more famous realists, recently blogged on the Foreign Policy web-site that going to war with Iran over its nuclear program is actually a mistake. Such a war would actually decrease the security of the United States. How can you get a country to start a dialogue regarding their nuclear weapons program if you constantly threaten to bomb them? Would this scare them into dropping all prospects of a nuclear program or further show their need for a nuclear program to deter a hostile state? Walt argues the latter.
Indeed, two months before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 Walt argued again, with John Mearsheimer, in Foreign Policy against a military approach. Their red line was that there was no need to use the instrument of war, as Saddam Hussein was already contained and the negative consequences from an armed invasion far outweighed the benefits. There would be a greater loss to American lives than there had been under the current status quo and apathy against the U.S. would significantly increase in the Middle East, putting into jeopardy its access to vital resources in the region. Both have proved hauntingly correct, not to mention that Iran’s influence in the region has actually increased at the cost of American lives.
It’s time to put things straight and acknowledge that the Realist school does not actively promote war, but sees it only as one of many mechanisms to enhance a country’s security. There are other tools at a state’s disposal that it can draw from. Be it soft power, such as cultural appeal, economic influence, being a leader in international institutions, or hard power, states still hold the ability to resolve their differences peacefully, a mechanism not only promoted by institutionalists or liberals, but by realists as well.
To be sure, holding a hard-line in one “ism” is dangerous in itself. To do so is to miss the big picture and limit oneself to a single approach, when the real world actually requires multiple approaches to enhancing and guaranteeing state security. This is why the United States is the superpower. It’s not just its military that is big and powerful, but for the time being and despite the financial crisis, its economy is as well. Not to mention that it’s a hegemonic-driver of international institutions, such as the World Trade Organization, the United Nations, and the Special Court for Sierra Leone. It’s capable of pushing through ideas such as free trade that can benefit everyone who takes part, and let’s not forget, its culture is highly appealing, making it a cultural hegemon as well.
There are groups who are endangering this capability, and Walt is not shy on saying who it is. Neo-conservatives have not learned their lesson from the disastrous decision to invade Iraq out of the premise that it was building nuclear weapons and was on the verge of using them against the U.S. Any military action against Iran, whether it comes from the U.S. or Israel, would be just as disastrous because it would not only instantaneously disrupt protesting forces occurring within the country right now, but would also further isolate Iran in a negative way and more than likely disrupt the Palestinian peace process at the same time.
To use Walt’s analogy, holding a gun to Iran’s head is just going to make them more determined to acquire a nuclear weapon. Seeing that armed conflict is not the answer and knowing that there are other alternatives is not a liberal or realist approach. It’s just common sense.