Paul Pillar has already mentioned the provocative Kenneth Waltz essay on Iranian nuclear weapons that has inflamed the segments of the Beltway foreign-policy establishment who bothered to read it. But I wanted to expand on a couple of additional points Waltz raises.
It probably bears observing, first, that when Waltz writes that Iranian acquisition of a nuclear arsenal “would probably be the best possible result,” he is defining “best possible result” in the exact opposite way that the Beltway foreign-policy establishment does.
As Waltz wrote in his debate with Scott Sagan on nuclear optimism versus nuclear pessimism, “a big reason for America’s resistance to the spread of nuclear weapons is that if weak countries have some they will cramp our style.” Iran is a weak country who, with a nuclear arsenal, would cramp our style. Waltz opposes America’s style. As he put it in a 1998 interview, “I’ve been a fierce critic of American military policy and spending and strategy, at least since the 1970s.”
Read in this context, then, what Waltz sees as a feature of an Iranian weapon is what the American foreign policy establishment sees as a bug: the fact that an Iranian bomb will cramp our—and Israel’s—style. The foreign-policy establishment desperately wants to preserve the option of doing an Iraq—or Iran—war every so often if they feel like it. An Iran with nukes makes invading Iran a totally different ballgame.
What Waltz is after is “stability.” He has long argued that nuclear balances produce stability because the prospect of escalation to war between nuclear states is so harrowing that states seeking survival—which he argues all states tend to do—peer into the abyss and back away.
Deborah Boucoyannis wrote a fascinating article in 2007 arguing that Waltzian realists, by dint of their appreciation and support for balancing power—and antipathy for unbalanced power—are in fact classical liberals in the same sense that America’s founding fathers were classical liberals. They were obsessed with drawing up a constitution that would balance the branches of the American government against one another, not because the presidency, or the Congress, or the courts was itself inherently malign, but because unbalanced power is dangerous anywhere. One can even see this theme in the writing of early American leaders’ thinking on foreign relations. Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1815 of his desire that nations “which are overgrown may not advance beyond safe measures of power, [and] that a salutary balance may be ever maintained among nations.”
This is what Waltz sees in the Middle East today: unbalanced power. If what you value is stability, then pushing the region toward balance, where no one can start a war with anyone else without risking his own survival, looks good.
Two other points. First, in order to get Iranian nukes to act as a stabilizer, Waltz has to argue that the Iranian regime is not suicidal, and that the primary reason it might like a nuclear weapon is for survival. I agree with this argument, and it bears pointing out that people as far away from realism as the neoconservative writer Eli Lake seem to agree as well. Unfortunately, the din of nonsense emanating from Washington seems to have convinced the American people that Iran would nuke Israel. In the recent poll from Dartmouth’s Benjamin Valentino, 69 percent of those surveyed said that Iran would be “very likely” or “somewhat likely” to use nuclear weapons against Israel.
Finally, this has been a useful insight into how detached popular commentary in America is from scholarship on the subjects pundits discuss. It was precious, for example, to see Commentary’s Ira Stoll scrambling to figure out who Kenneth Waltz was. For those with interest, he ranked third in a survey of international relations scholars that asked for a ranking of scholars “who have had the greatest influence on the field of IR in the past 20 years.” It’s a good thing that our architects and bridge-builders have a closer relationship with the engineering field than our foreign-policy pundits do with international relations scholarship.