Still More on Stephen Walt's Selective Application of Realpolitik

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on August 2, 2010

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Stephen Walt is not merely a realist (believing that the international system is anarchic, that nation-states are the primary actors, and the primary entities responsible for their own defense, and believing that nation-states take rational measures to expand their own power or security, largely independent from the domestic nature of their governments), he is also an advocate of the practice of realpolitik, and from the American perspective, the relentless application of policies that serve to advance American interests. Walt has consistently opposed the American involvement in Iraq, because he has believed from the outset–as has John Mearsheimer–that American interests were not only not being served in Iraq, they were being harmed by our presence there. When it comes to Afghanistan, Walt once supported American involvement in the country, but now believes that our presence there is doing more harm than good, and advocates withdrawal.

I disagree with Walt on these last two points; I think that realpolitik aims are being served by our presence in both countries (though I certainly want the United States to be in a position soon where it can deploy its resources elsewhere, as any reasonable American would). But while I disagree with Walt on the issues of Afghanistan and Iraq, I can certainly understand and appreciate his situation. Walt is a practitioner of realpolitik, is exceedingly cautious about applying American power, and does not want to do it unless American interests are being served in the process.

Guest-writing for Walt, David Edelstein tells us that lots of times, “realists don’t go for bombs and bullets.” Lots of times, they do, but point taken. However, I link to Edelstein because he links to this older Walt post, written after the recent confrontation between Israel, and the Gaza relief flotilla, in which Walt advocates the use of the U.S. Navy to escort a new flotilla.

Walt tells us that the blockade of Gaza makes the U.S. look bad, but the blockade hardly tops the list of reasons why some people don’t like the United States; much anti-American sentiment flows from the fact that the United States is a superpower, and superpowers can oftentimes cause other countries and parties to resent their power. He gives us vague promises about how the United States could look better in the Muslim and Arab world if it escorted a relief flotilla, but plenty of activities have been undertaken in the past to make the United States look good to Muslim and Arab countries, and the efforts consistently fail merely because the United States is a good friend of Israel. As long as that last point changes–and granted, Walt wants it to–no amount of escorts of relief flotillas in the world will do anything to fundamentally alter the American image in the Muslim and Arab world. Indeed, plenty of aid has been delivered to Muslim and Arab countries from the United States. I am all for more such aid, but Walt needs to tell us why it is that the delivery of that aid over a period of decades has done nothing to improve America’s standing in the Muslim and Arab world. Nowhere in his post does he do so.

Walt is on firmer ground when he tells us that American and NATO involvement might help alleviate Israeli security concerns, because the United States and NATO would take measures to ensure that weapons were not being smuggled into Gaza, but it doesn’t take escorting a relief flotilla–and putting American Navy lives at risk–to accomplish those aims.

Of course, one begins to understand Walt’s post better when one contemplates that it calls for the selective application of realpolitik. The United States should be careful about deploying its already-stretched military forces in other countries, but when it comes to Israel, the United States should not hesitate to take it on. That’s consistent with Walt’s and Mearsheimer’s generally selective–some might even say “hypocritical”–behavior concerning Israel. Is anyone still wondering why people like me now doubt Stephen Walt’s realpolitik credentials?

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