Last month, the world of foreign affairs lost one of its greatest thinkers. Kenneth Waltz is a seminal author for any student of International Relations theory and European Geostrategy is the living proof, with the editors having interviewed the professor in the past.
Waltz made a big contribution to International Relations but more specifically to the Political-Realist school of thought in International Relations. He brought to what was largely an intuitive and mindset approach, the scientific rigour that could only previously be found in foundational Realist philosophers. Waltz is today known as a neorealist because his approach was partly detached from the classical realists like Hans Morgenthau or Edward Carr in that it downplayed human agency or the political character of individual states in foreign policy outcomes. The innovation that authors like Machiavelli or Hobbes brought to political science was instead based on the belief that Man could indeed shape foreign policy but that this agency was bound to be as morally ambiguous as human nature, therefore justifying in the extreme, securitarian and even draconian approaches to foreign policy conduct.
Waltz systematised this approach by claiming that the key to the comprehension of the international political system was not so much the acceptance that men can be evil but that forces greater than men work against their best intentions in the long term. Because he emphasised this ‘structure’, neorealism is also known as structural realism.
To leave the abstract, let us then focus on an objective problem of current international politics: the Iranian nuclear programme. Waltz is a relevant author not just because of his theoretical work but also because one of his main contemporary and controversial contentions was that a nuclear-armed Iran would be fundamentally a positive development for stability in the Middle East and in the world at large. In a Foreign Affairs article entitled ‘Why Iran Should Get the Bomb’, Kenneth Waltz sustains that nuclear weapons would make Iran the regional equal of the United States and Israel, and therefore lead to geopolitical restraint, dialogue and ultimately détente. Waltz apparently seems to use a Cold War model to argue much what Henry Kissinger had argued in the 1950s and early 1960s with the Soviet Union in mind; namely that power parity forces actors to act rationally.
Why is this controversial? Because on the topic of Weapons of Mass Destruction proliferation, the overwhelming majority of political scientists differ considerably from Waltz, in that they believe that ‘the fewer [weapons] the better’. Governments have for the most part sought to implement this very vision and non-proliferation initiatives have multiplied. This tendency can be easily observed not far from us in Europe: The European Union’s guiding document on security – the European Security Strategy – lists Weapons of Mass Destruction proliferation its second biggest threat (only after terrorism) and the Union has even issued an ‘EU Strategy Against Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction’. Barack Obama in his Prague speech of 2009 put forth the vision of a nuclear-zero security environment, and all permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – incidentally those with the most and longest experience in handling Weapons of Mass Destruction – express the same priorities.
Indeed, on this very basis, conventions multiply that seek to better achieve nuclear non-proliferation: Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty, Australia Group, Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, Proliferation Security Initiative, Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty, Zangger Committee, Nuclear Suppliers Group, Hague Code of Conduct, Wassenaar Arrangement. Additionally, the EU has recently been spearheading the project of a Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone to prevent future conflicts from escalating to unbearable costs for the regional players as well as those who might indirectly be affected – i.e. Europe.
Why then does Waltz oppose these efforts? Implied in his article is the essentially structuralist assumption that regardless of the self-interest of actors involved in limiting nuclear arsenals – possessors benefitting from fewer maintenance costs as well as diffusing existential threats, and non-possessors levelling the strategic playing field – technological development is unstoppable and geopolitical anarchy a constant. Whereas a classical realist would see an opportunity for advancement of symmetric national interests, Waltz assumes only that since the international arena is ultimately anarchic, there is no point in trying to artificially suppress the flows of history at all.
Are then all the efforts aiming at proliferation prevention based on a wrong premise? If Waltz were right that would mean the West had spent the last decades making bad diplomatic investments: Iran would acquire the bomb and so would Turkey and the Arab states, South Korea and Japan would follow North Korea; why not acquiesce to a Venezuelan bomb while we’re on the course? For one certainly cannot embrace another precedent undermining the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty while simultaneously continuing promoting the Treaty. One conclusion thus is certain: proliferation is an either/or policy.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, much of its arsenal was plundered and the West was left to worry about how to manage insecure warheads and laid-off technical expertise. Initiatives such as the Proliferation Security Initiative have been created precisely to deal with such threats and much Western capital has been invested in dealing with the nasty consequences of Weapons of Mass Destruction programmes. Who then is to finance the clean-up of Middle East programmes if regimes there collapse? If proliferation is allowed on grounds of stability, who would assume responsibility for Middle Eastern brinkmanship wreaking havoc in the world’s natural gas and oil markets? More to the point: if structural factors are paramount, is it not a logical assessment that Iran, given its geography and dimension, cannot truly be threatened with invasion or annihilation by any state? Why then the need for nuclear deterrence? One can certainly empathise with the likes of Israel, which is small and existentially threatened, but Iran cannot make the same claim.
Of course this is strategic forecasting via scenario building, in reality it is not known what Iran actually plans to do with its nuclear programme. Thus the crux of the issue is ‘trust’: how can geopolitical and economic stability best be achieved? By spreading Weapons of Mass Destruction in a multipolar system or by restricting them?
For Waltz’s theory to work, enormous faith would have to be laid upon the shoulders of too many men. In a utopia, all abide by the same standard, which is also why one finds few of these throughout the planet; thus, generally speaking, the best policies are the ones that do not require universal consensus to perform efficiently… And let us remember that Max Weber taught long ago that legitimate violence has historically worked best as a monopoly.
Perhaps Waltz’s arguments are helpful in explaining why proliferation will not succeed entirely in today’s world but like the fuel and fire adage teaches us, on deciding government policy, caution must always trump recklessness.
As important as Kenneth Waltz’s legacy will be for International Relations theory and Political-Realists in particular, on this specific issue the author diverted from the best traditions of the very school of thought he ascribed to belong.
• The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone.