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Kenneth Waltz, Iran and Nuclear Weapons

As I’ve been in the final months of completing my dissertation, I’ve had far less time to devote to the blog and topics that I’d like to spend more time thinking and writing about.  While it is now beyond the news cycle, Kenneth Waltz’s recent essay in Foreign Affairs was quite interesting, but also misleading.  At first glance, the policy prescriptive nature of the article was eye catching and challenging, and essentially continued his long-running debate with Scott Sagan and the rest of the international security studies community over the spread of nuclear weapons.  The problem with Waltz’s argument, however, is less about his particular conclusions, than the broader problems of academic theory, models in general (both formal and informal), and their relevance to policy in the first place.

The central premise of Waltz’s argument is that:

Most U.S., European, and Israeli commentators and policymakers warn that a nuclear-armed Iran would be the worst possible outcome of the current standoff. In fact, it would probably be the best possible result: the one most likely to restore stability to the Middle East.

In support of his argument, Waltz noted that existing policy debates cover three broad classes of scenarios, each of which constitute different outcomes to Iran’s ongoing nuclear drama.

  1. The first is the existing employment of sanctions and inducements in an effort to have Iran’s leaders terminate its existing programs and abandon its nuclear ambitions.  Waltz sees this as unlikely to occur, no matter what diplomatic tract is pursued because states with nuclear aspirations have demonstrated their tolerance for high levels of political and economic pain.  Moreover, the more severe the response to its nuclear plans, the stronger the incentive to acquire a nuclear capability becomes.
  2. The second path is one where Iran develops a breakout nuclear capability that is neither a fully tested weapon nor a strictly civilian energy program.  Instead, it is a rapidly convertible set of technical capabilities, materials, and doctrine that could produce an operational weapon in periods of crisis, but remain deniable, vague, and opaque otherwise.  Waltz argued that this is not an entirely unfamiliar strategy, pointing to the example of post-World War II Japan, as one where the normal path of development and testing has not been followed, but it is believed that a rapid conversion and development capabilities exists.  Interestingly, he noted that this approach may allow Iran to satisfy the U.S. and its allies with a commitment to the non-military use of nuclear power, while leaving Israel highly suspicious and likely to take unilateral action against Iran.
  3. The third and final path is the full-blown pursuit of a nuclear weapon, culminating in a public test that announces Iran’s entrance into the nuclear club.  While this outcome is the one that international community is working to prevent and has declared to be unacceptable, Waltz argued that if it occurred the likely outcome will be for the other powers to grudgingly accept Iran’s new position as a nuclear state.

Here, I’m less concerned with Waltz’s specific conclusions, than with trying to unpack the assumptions and logic behind his thinking.  Specifically, Waltz has always advocated for a systemic understanding of international politics, which often worked against making particular policy prescriptions, while others have regularly seen structural realism as a basis for real-world policy guidance.  In a sense, realists have attempted to play both sides of the science and policy divide, by arguing that they have a theory of international politics, not policy, which means it does not explain or predict individual cases, while simultaneously insisting that policy-makers would be foolish and naïve idealists for eschewing their policy advice, as if realism spoke with unambiguous consistency and clarity, constituting more than a set of framing assumptions for thinking about power in the third image of international system.  By looking at Waltz’s arguments, it is readily apparent why translating structural claims and perspectives into policy is so difficult.

One of the most interesting aspects of Waltz arguments is common to international relations and scholarship and much of social science in general – the conversion of ambiguous and disparate histories into data and cases.  Waltz noted that “history” shows states are willing to pay high costs to acquire and develop nuclear weapons, and that those who get them have been accepted into the global order despite earlier prostrations that such developments would be unacceptable by the established great powers.

While I think this correct, the belief ultimately rests on very scant evidence of dubious value.  First, the numbers of states that have entered into the nuclear club remain small, and in a statistical sense not enough cases have occurred to constitute a strong argument based on the numbers themselves.

Another problem is more difficult, serious, and pervasive in the social science.  Waltz’s argument rests on the experience of other nuclear states that each became nuclear powers under unique historical conditions with respect to their domestic politics and international system.  To what extent do the histories of Japan, North Korea, Israel, and other states have to do with the specific case of Iran?

This is essentially a question about the problem of generalization vs. particularization in the social sciences.  Its roots lie in the fundamental character of induction, and the belief that prior observations of a population provide a basis for shaping expectations about future observations of a similar population.  Structural realists are drawn to arguments that rest on the belief of universal claims about the character of politics because they include embedded assumptions about the permanence or stationary nature of the international system, e.g. the persistence of anarchy and universal aspirations regarding the preservation of independence or autonomy.  For as long as the basic structural properties of the internal system endure, and states are functionally undifferentiated, each time a state enters into the nuclear club is a discern able process is repeated, rather than a unique event with its own particular and local dynamics occurs.

Further evidence of this reasoning is seen in the phrase “the logic of nuclear deterrence,” used by Waltz and others, which again implies a general, universal way of thinking about nuclear weapons and their use (or non-use).  By casting the debate as one between those who believe in a universal logic or an irrational Iran, Waltz glossed over the real-world challenge—determining the particular decision-making heuristics employed by a real-world state.  Focusing on whether Iran is irrational is an unnecessary and likely wasteful distraction, because the real question is not whether Iran seeks to balance means and ends but how they make choices?  It is the process of their decision-making, the means by which options are discovered, evaluated, and selected is the ultimate arbiter of their rationality, not the final outcome.  Waltz assertion that Iran’s decision-makers may be rational is ultimately irrelevant, because the entire notion of the universally rational state is a convenient fiction that justifies the dismissal of the details of particular cases and allows for cross-case comparisons and the belief and perception of patterns.

This has important implications for models, which effectively operationalize theory.  Models, like the theories they represent are necessarily abstractions, stripped-down versions of the systems they represent that sometimes try to replicate real-world patterns of behavior , while at other times exaggerate some features and down-play others in an effort to explore the implications of a given theory or set of connected assumptions.  Models play an important role in policy by allowing for their users to peer into the future, just beyond the horizon of empirical experience by organizing data and projecting it forward, or simply by animating assumptions or conjectures.  Although none of this should be problematic, it can lead to significant errors in judgments and overconfidence when the artificial systems characterized by models are mistaken for the real-world.

In Waltz’s case, arguing policy matters from the perspective of structural realism confuses the benefits of theory as an aid for organizing conjectures about the international systems and illuminating world affairs through a single lens, with overconfident statements about the world that confuse statements about an international system bounded by the theory’s assumptions with an unbounded real-world.  Rather than limit his commentary about the international system to a set of conjectures regarding the structural forces at play that should be considered in any discussion of Iran’s nuclear options and ambitions, as well as potential responses, Waltz article mistook a narrow slice of international system for the whole thing.

On this point, Waltz is more of an exemplar of social science than an outlier.  A mentor of mine once noted that academia is like a game of piñata, where each researcher builds a theory or model and then invites others swing at it until it breaks.  Undergirding this process is something akin to the idea that ideas can always be improved and that “better” models always exist.  Thus, the tendency among scholars is to push one model over others in effort to show, or at least discover, its relative worth—determined by correcting for the past errors of old models, or reducing the areas in which problems are overdetermined and the merits of competing theories cannot be discerned.

In the policy world, however, the logic and use of models is somewhat different.  Rather than seek out a dominant model, policymakers are far more concerned about covering their bases and ensuring that the risks and rewards of their actions (or inaction) are understood.  This necessarily, requires considering many different perspectives and not being wedded or fully vested in one to the point that they dismiss alternatives.  Whereas the academy sees overdetermination as a limit to knowledge, policy sees it as empowering and a source of confidence—after all, if all theories provide the same prescriptive advice then decision-makers may be on firmer ground.

Here then the problem of Waltz’s argument becomes clearer to see.  By arguing that structural realism provides a better model for understanding the implications of nuclear armed Iran, Waltz has added a necessary provocation to the debate by introducing another level of analysis that looks beyond the labels and identities that shade our sense of right, wrong, justice, and fairness in the region by replacing known actors with nameless, faceless identical units seeking to bring balance to the region.  However, this perspective should not be regarded as a better model that trumps the advice or considerations of all others.  It is a complicating element, and one likely does more to highlight why the costs of working to deny or dissuade Iran from pursing a nuclear weapon may be higher than calculated, but structure alone does not determine the future of the international system, and other levels of analysis merit equal attention, e.g. concerns for the stability of the Iranian regime itself and whether a nuclear arsenal used for deterring regional rivals would become the spoils of an internal conflict.  Moreover, it is advice given without any specific knowledge of Iran itself, i.e. culture, history, leadership, etc., so it has the feel of a psychologist discussing a patient they have never actually observed, but is drawing from experience to speak in generalities.

Finally, there is a strange irony in the nature of Waltz’s argument.  Realists were among the most powerful critics of the neocons universal aspirations, arguing that it was foolish to assume that everyone in the world wanted what the West and U.S. had to offer.  Resorts to structural models as the basis of policy makes the same mistakes, however.  Instead of offering a model of the world where people possess universal affinities for democracy, free markets, and human rights, Waltz rests on the belief of universal rationality and logic with respect to the balancing of military power.  Given the stakes involved, his perspective must be included in the debate and not dismissed out-of-hand because it is upsetting or discerning.  But, like all models, it should not be accepted whole-heartedly either and mistaken for a complete characterization of the international system either, but rather be treated as an additional facet or lens through which events can be contextualized and options can be evaluated.

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