Sunday, February 25, 2007

Offensive Realism, Hegemony and Iran

As Mearsheimer mentions in The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, offshore balancers (regional hegemons) such as the United States will seek to influence the affairs of distant regions through direct military force when a potential hegemon in that region threatens to upset the balance of power. The underlying assumption or rationale for this behavior is summed up succinctly by Mearsheimer.
Regional hegemons fear that a peer competitor might jeopardize their hegemony by upsetting the balance of power in their back yard. Thus, regional hegemons prefer that there be two or more great powers in the other key regions of the world, because those neighbors are likely to spend most of their time competing with each other, leaving them few opportunities to threaten a distant hegemon (141).
He goes on to demonstrate how this mode of behavior has been the typical mode for the US throughout most of its history, including WW1 and WW2. I tend to think that while our administration may not have been guided by this logic prior its present intervention in southwest Asia, future US actions may follow this trajectory. In other words, the US destabilized this region through its invasion of Iraq’s Saddam and Afghanistan’s Taliban (both Sunni enemies of the largely Shia Iran.) Now the effects of Iran’s status as a regional power and its ambitions towards regional hegemony are becoming increasingly more tangible. Now it seems that if the power of Iran is not checked by Israel or some other power, the US is likely to do so through its own efforts.

It is becoming increasingly more evident that our government, in trying to advance the security interests of our nation post 9/11, created a whole new range of potentially more dangerous security dilemmas that we are now attempting to comprehend. Iran has clearly become stronger relative its previous position. And, while Iran was among the nations sympathetic to our plight, its people holding a public vigil in support for the victims. Our government ignored and vilified them. As such, a radical element rose to power, embodied in the form of President Amadinejad. Iran has since allied itself with Russia who is threatening to cut off oil supplies to Europe and Venezuela who’s newly elected Socialist Dictator, Hugo Chavez, is openly challenging US power.

This is clearly predictable behavior given the calculus of Mearheimer’s Offensive Realism. Iran, as it increasingly exercises regional power, is attempting to export its power to other regions in order to maximize its own security interest. However, this behavior is exacerbating a security dilemma that could have the effect of precipitating a major power war on a scale implying the world.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Walt and Mearsheimer on the Israel Lobby

Much has been said in the past half year on the relationship between the US and Israel, some of it reasonable, rational and persuasive, and probably most not even worth mentioning. Interestingly enough, much of the recent controversy was started by two eminent scholars of international relations, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. They published an essay in the London review of books last March where they attempted to explain the seeming unconditional US political, military and economic support for Israel. They came to the conclusion that it was due in large measure to the existence, prevalence and strength of what they loosely termed the “Israel Lobby.”

Here is the general thesis of their essay.
This situation has no equal in American political history. Why has the US been willing to set aside its own security and that of many of its allies in order to advance the interests of another state? One might assume that the bond between the two countries was based on shared strategic interests or compelling moral imperatives, but neither explanation can account for the remarkable level of material and diplomatic support that the US provides.

Instead, the thrust of US policy in the region derives almost entirely from domestic politics, and especially the activities of the ‘Israel Lobby’. Other special-interest groups have managed to skew foreign policy, but no lobby has managed to divert it as far from what the national interest would suggest, while simultaneously convincing Americans that US interests and those of the other country – in this case, Israel – are essentially identical.
After reading their essay and then seeing the public reaction to it in such places as Foreign Policy Magazine, I found the character assassinations leveled at them most astounding. In July/August issue of FP Magazine Aaron Friedberg called their work a “stunning display of ignorance,” that they were being “irresponsible” and “slanderous.” In other areas their arguments were perhaps even more misunderstood, straw men were erected and the typical charges of anti-Semitism were leveled against them personally. These attacks aside, I was most intrigued by a rhetorical question in the comments section of the following FP Mag. issue:
After all, how could two realist thinkers suggest that US foreign policy has been influenced by a domestic lobby? Doesn’t realist international relations theory teach that a state makes decisions based exclusively on an assessment of the international balance of power? Don’t realist denigrate the “regime question,”… Surely, then, shouldn’t they be totally uninterested in the views of any domestic group?
This brings up an interesting question about theory. If states tend to operate under balance of power logic, then how could the US have subordinated its security interest to the Israel lobby? I think we can answer this question in a number of ways that maintain the relevance of realist theory. First, states “tend” to operate under such logic, they don’t always do so. Their rational interests can be subordinated to miscalculations, in this case precipitated by influential pressure groups. Second, when a state achieves such a level of unrivaled military, economic and technological supremacy as the US has, typical security concerns are greatly diminished, the likelihood of a great power war can be seen only as a distant prospect, and power can be exercised on the basis of other interests like humanitarianism. It almost seems as if the US has stepped outside the traditional anarchic realm of international relations while the rest remain trapped, and more importantly, subject to our erratic and unconstrained behavior. To modify Waltz, we are even freer “to do any fool thing we care to.” And indeed, in my opinion, we have. Its only a matter of time before we see some effective counter-balancing behavior against us.

As for Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, any debate about the future of US-Israel relations must include their work. In the words of Zbigniew Brzezinski, they “have rendered a public service by initiating a much-needed public debate.” I tend to agree with him.

Here is a video of Walt and Mearsheimer talking about the issue.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Brzezinski, Hulsman and The Applications of Neo-Conservative Theory

In his testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Zbigniew Brzezinski provided us with some prescient insights into Southwest Asia’s “spreading and deepening quagmire.” He notes the dangers of further entanglement in an area, referred to in The Choice as “The Global Balkans.” He then outlines the mechanisms by which war would be provoked with Iran, visualizing “a downward slope” towards a wider clash with Islam in general, the variety of which Samuel Huntington envisioned in The Clash of Civilizations.

Note that the unintended consequences of our actions have been to empower Iran, elevating its aspirations to that of a regional hegemon. In terms of the structural analysis of realist theory this makes perfect sense. The Iraqi government had formerly served to balance Iran’s ambitions. And, as all states aspire to regional hegemony in order to maximize their security, this should have been easily predictable to anyone who had given this slightest attention to balance of power thinkers.

But of course our lovable administration had not been paying attention to these thinkers. Instead as Francis Fukuyama noted in America at the Crossroads, they attended to a relatively new wing of neo-conservatives, represented by Robert Kagan and William Kristol. John Hulsman here comments on these developments, noting that if the administration fully integrates the ideas of this new brand of neo-conservatives we will soon be fighting five wars simultaneously.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Waltz On Theory and the International System

Well now, to start off, my first post will lay out ideas about the relevance, purpose and limits of theory in general. Here to help us out with this task is Kenneth Waltz. In “Evaluating Theories” Waltz provides an understanding of theory in this way:
a picture, mentally formed, of a bounded realm or domain of activity. A theory depicts the organization of a realm and the connections among its parts. The infinite materials of any realm can be organized in endlessly different ways. Reality is complex; theory is simple. By simplification, theories lay bare the essential elements in play and indicate necessary relations of cause and interdependency- or suggest where to look at them.
The general idea here is that a theory necessarily has its limits. A theory cannot explain everything. It also has an interdependent relationship with the facts it utilize. Facts themselves are seen as “theory laden:” a result of the limitations of our knowledge of the external world. This however, is what gives theory its importance. While we cannot know reality directly, theories provide us with a basis for conceptualizing the external world so that we can understand it to some degree. Without them we would be lost in a whirling chaotic blur of seeming illusions.

Waltz himself describes the world of international relations in terms of system structure. This particular system is devoid of hierarchy. There is no authority that can impose rules and regulate behavior. Thus, anarchy is the central “organizing principle.” Anarchy socializes every state into the same aggressive behavior types. No state can escape from the fact that it must provide for its own security, which leads to competitions between them, and ultimately to security dilemmas like the cold war arms race. Promoting peace in this system has little to do with pacifism, and more to do with fear balanced in mutual deterrence. As war is sometimes necessary to achieve balance in the system, war ironically is an effective means of achieving a peaceable state of equilibrium. Whether or not our current actions in Southwest Asia can be rationalized in this way is questionable. As Waltz mentions,
because states exist in a self-help system, they are free to do any fool thing they care to, but they are likely to be rewarded for behavior that is responsive to structural pressures and punished for behavior that is not.
So, the question remains: are we being rewarded or punished?


This blog should ideally serve as a forum for the free expression of reasoned and rational insight into the realm of international relations. Through an analysis of past and present events, our goal should be to evaluate the applicability of theory in general, as well as the applicability of specific theories to the field. While my own bias is towards the “third image” realism of such thinkers as Waltz and Mearsheimer, I also believe the acknowledged limits of realism can be supplemented by “second” and “first image” theories of international relations. To paraphrase Joseph Nye, the international system has traditionally been conceptualized in terms of a two-dimensional chessboard. However, with the introduction of international regimes, non-governmental organizations, transnational corporations and international terrorists exercising increased influence in the international system, this two dimensional concept seems to require a third to cope with such developments. Given the diversity of thought within the internet, I suspect there should be no problem encountering a variety of ideas about how the world operates.