# Posted 2:00 PM by Ariel David Adesnik
A SCHOLARLY DEFENSE OF REALISM: Grad student PS takes OxBlog to task for attacking a strawman version of realism
rather than the doctrine itself:
First off, the notion that a nuclear Iraq would be problematic but not inherently disastrous isn’t some bizarre notion – the fairly-insane regimes of Stalin and Mao proved manageable even once they got nuclear weapons. The same arguments made in favor of stopping a nuclear Iraq were also made in the early 1960s about stopping the PRC from getting the bomb (see Frank Gavin’s recent work on the Gilpatric Commission) and have been proven quite terribly wrong in retrospect. So maybe “wow” is one possible response, but another might be “nuclear deterrence is pretty robust, even in the face of genocidal psychopaths.”
Second, you badly misrepresent Mearsheimer’s arguments, and the rest of realism’s approach to the Cold War. He wasn’t a Cold War dove in the 1980s, but neither was he a hawk as you claim – he cut his teeth arguing that the conventional balance in Europe wasn’t nearly as bad for NATO as hawks like Sam Huntington and Eliot Cohen kept claiming it was (see the 1988 exchange in IS between Mearsheimer, Posen, and Cohen for an example; moreover, history has borne JJM out on this argument). His “Back to the Future” article’s analysis was premised on US withdrawal from Europe, which didn’t happen, and so the causal logic hasn’t had a chance to be tested (by the way, it was 1990, not the mid-1990s).
Third, it’s not clear that somehow Morgenthau was wrong in arguing that such fun adventures as Vietnam were not in America’s vital national interests. The twilight wars on the periphery were sideshows from defending the main strongpoints that locked up the keys to world power. It’s not threat deflation to say that American vital interests were simply not involved in places like Africa. Moreover, it’s hard to tell exactly what you’re referring to with the Cold War and realism – apparently “many other realists were hawkish then too” but somehow also were “downgrading the threat.” For the most part in the 1980s realists were arguing for robust conventional and nuclear deterrence in Europe and East Asia while trying to keep the US from getting too bogged down in the Third World. Europe mattered, while the Third World only did in certain areas and in certain ways. A mixture of hawkishness and dove-ishness.
Fourth, I don’t understand your critique of defensive realism as ignoring the domestic nature of regimes (an “almost complete disregard”). Walt writes on the effects of revolution, Van Evera on militarism, organizational politics, nationalism, and misperception (you might want to read “Primed for Peace” or “Hypotheses on Nationalism and War” or “Why Cooperation Failed in WWI”), Posen on military organizations (“Sources of Military Doctrine”), and Snyder on domestic log-rolling, bureaucracies and international expansion (“Myths of Empire” and “The Ideology of the Offensive”). Most of this was written during the Cold War or was developed during it and published very soon after. Since then, people like Tom Christensen and Randy Schweller have very seriously looked at domestic politics. So I’m not really sure exactly what your point is. Snyder and Van Evera explicitly talked about democracies as being less expansionistic than dictatorships and especially oligarchic/log-rolling regimes. Maybe that’s “almost complete disregard” but given that these are major figures it’s hard to see how. Some people disagree with them, while others don’t think they go far enough in looking at domestic politics. But it’s not like domestic politics have been ignored.
Fifth, Walt appears to be right that NATO is no longer a very important alliance – the US doesn’t use it for much of anything, and the Europeans are slowly putting together their own power projection force. And if it does exist in some serious fashion, I don’t see how that’s the result of democracy. The US has been allied with Saudi Arabia and Jordan for decades too, and that’s not because of democracy.
Sixth, the offensive/defensive realist distinction you make is wrong – both look at armed force as the only effective deterrent. “The implicit deterrent of alliances” you refer to as the focus of defensive realists is backed by armed force; alliances are about armed force. The distinction between offensive and defensive realism is based on other things, like the efficiency of balancing, the probabilistic or possibilistic nature of state decision-making, the impact of nuclear weapons on deterrence, the ability to signal and detect state “type,” and the impact of domestic pathologies (discussed above) in leading to war. Armed force is crucial to both, as it is to any theory of international security, realist or not.
So I guess I just remain confused by your intellectual history of the field and current read on world politics. And I’m not really comfortable with you casting sweeping aspersions on the beliefs and motives of scholars whose work you appear not to have read, at least in any detail. Realists of various stripes have been right about lots of things, have looked at the issues you claim they haven’t, and have offered much more nuanced arguments than you give them credit for. They’ve also been wrong about lots of issues and ignored others, obviously. It’s always fun to beat up on “realism” but there are good and bad ways to do it.
Let me respond briefly. First of all, I think PS does a good job of illustrating that my previous comments can't do full justice to a scholarly enterprise in which hundreds of brilliant men and women have taken part over the past few decades. For those with a serious interest in realism, there is no replacement for reading actual books written by realists, rather than OxBlog's anti-realist polemics.
That said, I stand by my basic points and continue to disagree with PS. Unless one is comfortable with the current situation in North Korea, I don't see how one can describe deterrence as a robust response to the hypothetical situation of a nuclear Iraq (c. 2002) or Iran today. My previous point about the Cuban Missile Crisis suggests why deterrence was not ideal or safe during the Cold War, either.
Second, Morgenthau deserves credit for his early opposition to the war in Vietnam. However, this in no way vindicates his persistent criticism of Truman and others for taking Soviet ideology very seriously. With regard to the 1980s and the late Cold War, I basically agree with PS's characterization of where the realists stood.
When it comes to the defensive realists and domestic politics, I will avoid further discussion on the somewhat spurious grounds that this debate is too detailed and too distant from actual history and politics. (If I am wrong, and there are a lot of you out there who want to see OxBlog wrangle over the legacy of defensive realism, just send me an e-mail.) The same point applies to the subject of the offensive-defensive divide, although in that instance I tend to agree with PS's characterization of the subject.
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