Friday, June 17, 2005

# Posted 11:42 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

DEFENDING REALISM (BUT NOT KISSINGER): Dr. DN, a real live professor of international relations, protests that
You can't be serious when you write [about China]:
"Then what? Be prepared, I suppose. Strengthen our alliance with Japan and other allies in the Pacific. And, if at all possible, avoid indulging ourselves in the willful naivete of the realists."
Ever read any Mearsheimer? The realists think China is where *all* the action is at vis-a-vis coming political conflicts, and they don't think much of the liberal "socialization" project for China. Kissinger is an outlier because, to be blunt, he represents a lot of interests that would like us to make nice to China....Don't pin this on realism.
I have had the misfortune to read many things written by Prof. Mearsheimer, but not regarding China. What those readings indicate is that Mearsheimer, like Kissinger, sometimes draws on a remarkable well of naivete in order to justify accommodating dangerous opponents. Although many intelligent individuals opposed the invasion of Iraq on fairly substantive grounds, Mearsheimer and fellow realist Stephen Walt argued that going to war was a bad idea even if we were fully confident that Saddam was in the process of developing nuclear weapons. They wrote:
But what if Saddam invaded Kuwait again and then said he would use nuclear weapons if the United States attempted another Desert Storm? Again, this threat is not credible. If Saddam initiated nuclear war against the United States over Kuwait, he would bring U.S. nuclear warheads down on his own head. Given the choice between withdrawing or dying, he would almost certainly choose the former. Thus, the United States could wage Desert Storm II against a nuclear-armed Saddam without precipitating nuclear war.
Wow. Wow. Repeat: Wow. These guys were confident that a nuclear Iraq would've been no problem to handle. As I responded at the time:
One could have argued at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis that according to strict logic, nuclear war was impossible. Yet no one knew that then and no one knows it now.
What's interesting is that realism has a long pedigree of favoring appeasement. E.H. Carr, the founding father of realism, was a staunch supporter of Neville Chamberlain's accomodationist approach to Hitler. And I think I'm not exaggerating when I say that Hitler was the Hitler of his time.

In the early 1950s, the second founding father of realism, Hans Morgenthau, viciously denounced Truman for being too hawkish toward the Soviets. Now it is true that the other great realist of the late 40s and early 50s -- George Kennan -- elaborated the doctrine of containment. Yet by the early 50s, Kennan had also turned against Truman on the grounds that he was too hawkish. In fact, Kennan even opposed the creation of NATO.

So what we see from Carr, to Morgenthau, to Kennan, to Kissinger, to Mearsheimer & Walt (c. 2002) is a resilient tradition of downgrading the threat presented by aggressive dictatorships. Yet as Prof. DN would be sure to point out, Mearsheimer was the quite the hawk during the 1980s. Many other realists were hawkish then as well.

This countertrend represented the growth of an emerging divide between "offensive" and "defensive" realists. The offensive faction tended to see the costs of aggression as low, and therefore thought of armed force as the only effective deterrent. The defensive faction had more confidence in the implicit deterrent of alliances, for example the Sino-American willingness to punish hypothetical Soviet aggression.

What united the offensive and defensive factions was an almost total disregard for the internal composition of the regimes they analyzed. The idea that democracies don't go to war with one another struck them as being as naive and dangerous.

These days, realism is in a state of flux, primarily because of the end of the Cold War. According to almost all pre-1991 realist theory, a unipolar world is something that simply shouldn't exist. Then, in the mid-1990s, Mearsheimer famously invested his reputation in the prediction that in the absence of a Soviet threat, Europe would descend once again into the internecine warfare of the pre-1945 era. Around the same time, Walt predicted that in the absence of a Soviet threat, NATO would fall apart. As you can see, the probelm with these bold predictions is that they ignored the difference between dictatorship and democracy.

Getting back to China, I'm guessing that the same offensive-defensive divide that bifurcated realist approaches to the Soviet Union is also responsible for mixed opinions about China. In addition, many realists have rushed to embrace the idea that democratizing powers, as opposed to established democracies, are especially war prone. When I track down Mearsheimer's latest on the Middle Kingdom, I'll let you know what he says.

In conclusion, DN is right that I should tar every realist with the stain of Kissinger's Sinophilic accomodationism. But the intellectual impulses responsible for Kissinger's short-sightness are endemic to the realist community.
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