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Theory and International Politics: Conversation with Kenneth N. Waltz, Adjunct Professor of Political Science, Columbia University; February 10, 2003, by Harry Kreisler
This interview is part of the Institute’s «Conversations with History» series, and uses Internet technology to share with the public Berkeley’s distinction as a global forum for ideas.
Welcome to a Conversations with History. I’m Harry Kreisler of the Institute of International Studies. Our guest today is Kenneth Waltz, who was the Ford Professor of Political Science at Berkeley. He also taught at Swarthmore and Brandeis, and now is Adjunct Professor of Political Science at Columbia University. Professor Waltz is a former President of the American Political Science Association and a re cipient of its James Madison Award for Distinguished Scholarly Contributions to Political Science. He’s the author of numerous books including Man, the State, and War; Theory of International Politics; Foreign Policy and Democratic Politics; and, co-authored with Scott Sagan, The Spread of Nuclear Weapons.
Background … education … learning grammar … economics … literature and philosophy … influence of the Lewises … influence of economic theory
Being a Political Theorist … two kinds of theorists … studying philosophy of science … identifying a field of study … example of economics and the physiocrats … arguement against international politics as a field … evaluating usefulness of a theory … what a theory does … examining causal factors … explanation, not necessarily prediction
A Theory of International Politics … Man, the State, and War … relevance of philosophy of science literature … anarchy as organizing principle … unequal distribution of capability … changing the number of great power actors
The Idea of Structure in International Relations Theory … state interrelations vary … unipolar world: globalization or Americanization? … controversial view of bipolar world
A Unipolar World … unsurprising collapse of the Soviet Union … China’s perception of Soviet power … danger of unchecked power
Deterrence and Rogues … links among rogue regimes … Bush doctrine of preemption … preemption vs. prevention … Iraq and weapons … rogues are survivors … unlikelihood of Iraq losing control of nuclear weapons … deterrence works against states … nuclear vs. chemical or biological weapons … deterrence and nonstate terrorists … preventing nuclear terrorism … North Korea
Conclusion … preparing for the future
© Copyright 2003, Regents of the University of California
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Ken, welcome back to Berkeley.
Nice to be back.
Where were you born and raised?
In Ann Arbor, Michigan; and I went to high school there.
Looking back, how do you think your parents shaped your thinking about the world?
Not very much. My father never went to high school, and my mother never got out of high school. So they were not people of great political interest or insight.
Did you have any teachers when you were growing up who shaped your interest in politics or your writing skills?
I had an excellent English teacher in the tenth grade who taught me everything there is to know about grammar and word usage, and that was very valuable. It was not a lot of fun at the time, but it was a very valuable semester, and I treasure it.
I went to Ann Arbor High School, which was, then, such a good high school that if one was on the college preparatory program and got a C+ average, one then was automatically admitted to the University of Michigan.
What world events occurred during your growing up years? And did any of them particularly impact you?
The prolonged and deep Depression influenced everybody. What was going on in Europe kind of passed us over; that is, was not much talked about by history or social science teachers in high school. There was only one who really made much of it, which was rather surprising. And I was not especially interested … I was more interested in math and physics, and drama.
And rhetoric, and that sort of thing, than I was in politics or world events.
Where did you do your undergraduate work?
I started at Oberlin, and I graduated from Oberlin.
What was your major?
I started as a math major, almost completed it, and then shifted to economics.
What about economics attracted you?
Well, I thought I knew two things. One is, I didn’t want to have a career in which I taught. I didn’t want to have a career in which I was expected to write. So I thought economics would give me a variety of choices from government to business.
Then I went to graduate school at Columbia, in economics. I could see that I was not going to be a real economist. If you’re not attracted to a field enough to read beyond the requirements, just to read more because you’re curious and you want to know more than is required at any given course — if that’s not the case, then you’re in the wrong field. So I finally began to ask myself, what did I really enjoy most in college? And the answer was English literature and political philosophy. So I took a lot of English literature courses and loved it, but realized that I would never write a novel or a poem, and I would, therefore, be a critic — a very honorable profession, but it didn’t inspire me. So political philosophy won, and I’m very pleased it did.
Any teachers that you had at Columbia or at Oberlin that pointed you in either of these two directions?
The teacher and the wife of the teacher who influenced me most was John Lewis and his wife, Ewart Lewis.
And they were at?
They were at Oberlin
I took just two half-courses from John Lewis, one in theory and the other in American government, but I lived with the Lewises for a semester. Ewart Lewis was a highly knowledgeable person in the field of medieval thought, and published a book, a one-volume version by Knopf and two volumes published in England, called Medieval Political Ideas. We had very interesting kitchen conversations about the interpretation of Saint Augustine, for example, and I enjoyed all of that immensely. So when trying to make the final decision, my wife and I went back to Oberlin and visited the Lewises and talked about it. That confirmed, by then, a strong inclination, and I shifted from economics to political science.
Has your work been influenced by economic theory or is it merely that you were a student of economics in an earlier phase of your life?
It was influenced very much by a microeconomic theory. It really is built on a microeconomic theory, which I would say is the major influence. The second influence is anthropology, which I never studied formally as a student. But I read a great deal of anthropology, and the analogy is with segmentary lineage systems, or in Durkheim’s terms, mechanical societies rather than organic societies or solidary societies. The analogy is quite close.
What about political scientists, any teachers or intellectual influences that stand out, other than, obviously, the classical literature, which we’ll talk about in a minute?
I had very good professors in the field of international politics, but none of them were people who were attuned to theory in the sense that I have been talking about. Certainly, everybody dealt with those who were considered to be the major theoretically oriented people in the field, as we know, from Thucydides onward.
Next page: Being a Political Theorist
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Being a Political Theorist
Before we talk about your first book, what exactly does a political theorist do?
Thinks. There are two kinds of political theorists, really. One is a political theorist who writes about other people’s political theories. And that, of course, in the traditional political theory field, is what is done mostly. It’s a reconsideration of Hobbes on this point, or Locke on that point.
The other thing, if one wants to try to develop theory or promote its development, is to think about ways of doing that. [My] first book was really a sorting out book, and the second book was an attempt to develop a theory of international politics in a sense in which it had not been developed before.
Before we talk about those two books, help us understand, first, how does a person prepare to do theory? What kind of curriculum should one undergo to do that in a satisfactory way?
If you want to deal with theory as theory and not as the history of political philosophy — which, incidentally, is a part of the field that I love, and it’s a marvelous literature, but I didn’t feel inclined to rehash it — if one wants to develop theory, the direct route is to read a good deal of philosophy of science and take courses. Good courses are available in the philosophy of science. The first requirement, if you’re going to work on a theory or the improvement of somebody else’s theory, is to figure out what a «theory» is, which very few people seem to do. I’ve spent a lot of time reading the philosophy of science, because it’s a very difficult question: What is a theory? What can it do? What can it not do? How do you test its validity or seeming validity? It’s a profound and difficult subject in its own right. It also is a field in which there is great literature, and it was a pleasure for me to read in the philosophy of science, and not to have to read a lot more political science.
Are you allowed to say that as a former president of the American Political Science Association?
Well, I do!
So what does a theory do?
First, in order to have a theory, you’ll have to have a subject matter, because you can’t have a theory about everything. There’s no such thing as a theory about everything. So you’ll have to say, » I’m going to try to develop a theory of, in this case, international politics.» The first question is, how can you think of international politics as a domain in its own right, as something that you could possibly have a theory about?
And how do you decide that you can do that?
You will have to figure out a way of defining it as an autonomous field of study. The closest comparison is the development of economic theory, where, before the physiocrats (that is, before roughly 1760), economists wrote about all kinds of things, and mostly at the level of bookkeeping, of what we might now call accounting — family and business accounts, that sort of thing. It was only with the physiocrats, who greatly influenced Adam Smith, that the concept of an economy as something that could be studied in its own right developed. Once that concept existed, then it became at least possible to have a theory about how national economies work: what regularities appear, what repetitions occur, how you can think of it as a self-sustaining enterprise. The breakthrough is the physiocrats, and then the great follow-through was Adam Smith.
So if you’re going to do theory of international politics, then at one level you probably have to be grounded in the history of the domain, so to speak.
I don’t see how you can do it without knowing a good deal of history. But the main thing is to have a conception of international politics as something that can be studied in its own right. It’s something that, for example, two major figures in the field — Hans Morgenthau and Raymond Aron, a Frenchman — thought was impossible. How can you isolate international politics even for the purpose of study from everything else that goes on? Their answer was, you can’t. In that case, it’s not possible to develop a theory of international politics. International politics is something that’s influenced by everything else — a national economy, national politics, international politics — and it’s all interrelated, there’s no way of separating it. So the first requirement was to develop an idea of the structure of international politics, which would make it possible to think of international politics as a subject matter that could be studied in its own right. That’s what I did in The Theory of International Politics.
Now, how does one then evaluate a theory? Is «usefulness» a good way to evaluate a theory? How do you know when a theory is useful?
Whether or not a theory is useful is decided by the body of people who find it worthwhile to use the theory or to argue about the theory. As Steve Weinberg, who’s a Nobel Laureate in Physics and a very reflective physicist, has said, ultimately, the test of a theory is that people (meaning the people in the field) find it worth dealing with, arguing about, criticizing, trying to apply.
And the purpose of a theory is to explain what’s going on — how the order hangs together. Clarify that for us.
What a theory does is present a mental picture of a part of the world, and in that picture are identified the major causal factors at work. The theory specifies the relations among those, and the necessary relations as they’re necessary within the terms of their theory, among those major causal forces, which we often now refer to as variables, (adapting a scientific terminology that’s not always useful). That’s a simple way of putting it.
Then you can compare that picture and the supposed causal forces at work with the real world. That’s always a problematic exercise, because theory is very simple. What theories do is leave most everything out. You’re simplifying, you’re looking for what is salient, what are those central propelling forces. Obviously, they’re not the only forces at work, so you’ve got that problem that natural scientists have, too; but they can usually, or often, control for perturbations that come in from outside the system. Whereas in politics, in international politics in particular, you can’t. So it makes for endless argument and a lot of fun.
The theory has an economy about it, because at one level you can say, «Well, there’s so much going on in the world, let’s put it all into theory.» But that’s not the game here. In other words, there’s not a one-to-one relationship, this not an effort to replicate everything that’s going on.
If it were, then the ideal theory would be identical with the real world, right? And, instead, theory is a simple instrument which you hope to be able to use in order to understand and explain the real world. The emphasis is on explanation, not on prediction. Prediction is nice. If you can predict, fine. But the key requirement: if a theory is not able to explain what’s going on, then it’s not theory, or it’s a worthless theory. It’s not a theory at all.
Next page: A Theory of International Politics
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A Theory of International Politics
Let’s talk about your first book, Man, the State, and War. There, the problem was what?
The problem was very simple. For me, political theory was my major, and you had to have a second field. I chose international politics because, having worked in international economics, it gave me some kind of a start. But I was keeping it to a minimum.
There was a professor at Columbia at the time who was accustomed to making deals with people who are only minors in the field, that you could cover certain things and leave others aside. We worked it out: I would study European diplomatic history, imperialism, and so on. I would not do international law and organization, which I never found attractive. And then he got sick, so he could not appear for the oral exams of people who were minors.
The alternative was William T.R. Fox. So I went to see him and I explained the arrangement that I had made. He said he had never heard of any such arrangement. So he called up the departmental secretary, who knew everybody and everything that was going on in the department, and she said, «Yes, Professor Peffer did customarily make such arrangements with minor students.» And I can still remember this. Bill Fox, as I came to call him later, hung up, turned his chair toward me and said, «Nevertheless, if you’re going to do international politics, you’re going to do international politics.» I had no choice.
I had completed my reading in the minor field, I thought, and was going to spend the remaining few weeks on my major interest, political theory. And instead, I spent those few weeks reading as widely as possible, with my wife’s help. She was getting books out of the library for me in the field of international politics, generally. I could not make head or tail of it. It was a most confusing literature.
Finally it came to me. I still have somewhere the little piece of paper on which I wrote this down. book coverThe reason these people are confusing is because they’re thinking in different causal terms. Some are thinking that the causes of what goes on in international relations are rooted in human beings, what human beings are like. And others are saying the causes are found in states. That good states don’t fight wars, because they are democratic; bad states fight wars. And then the definition of good and bad varies; for a Marxist, it’s a socialist state that is the good state. For a liberal, a good state is democratic. So everything is rooted in what states are like.
And then there’s the third way of looking at it, that it’s at the international, political level that the causes are found, and although the causes do operate at those two other levels, they operate in this context, and the context is extremely important.
So, in summary, you labeled each a different image. So image number one looks to the causes of war in the nature of man.
Image number two looks at the causes of war in the nature of the state, whether it’s a democracy or authoritarian, or whatever.
An authoritarian government, dictatorship, or whatever; right.
But the third realm looks at international politics as a separate political domain.
So, hence, an opening to begin looking for a theory.
That’s right. I remember people, specifically a professor at Oberlin, George Lanyi, saying to me, «What’s going to be the sequel to Man, the State and War?» And I said, «I don’t have an idea about how I could write a sequel.» From 1959 until the late sixties, I didn’t have any sequel in mind. And then I began to think — I don’t know why these things develop in one’s mind; who knows? — I began to think of a way of asking myself, at least, the question of how might a theory of international politics be possible? And that’s when I began to read more widely in anthropology and very widely in the philosophy of science. I finally developed the notion. It took a period of years to develop a notion and fill it out, figure out ways of presenting it effectively and so on, and that is what one finds in the book Theory of International Politics.
We’ll talk about that in a minute. But I can’t resist asking you something about Man, the State, and War, because it appears, superficially, that in one sense you’re rejecting the first two images out of hand. But as I was rereading it, I saw things differently and I just want to be clear about this. You’re saying in Man, the State, and War that the underlying cause of war is the third image, whereas the first two images are immediate causes.
So there is a continuing interplay between them, even though, really, the thrust of the analysis is for the third image.
Okay. We can come back to those images in a minute when we’re talking about American policy.
You mentioned that you set about to create a theory of international politics. What did you conclude? Help us understand by talking a little about your theory. What is the nature of this realm of international politics?
The structure of the international political system is defined first by its organizing principle, which is anarchy. book coverSome people would think of that as a disorganizing principle, but it’s a principle that tells one how the major units of the realm relate to one another. The relation is one of anarchy, as opposed to hierarchy. It’s not an ordered realm. It’s not a law-bound realm. It’s an anarchic realm in which the various units have to figure out for themselves how they’re going to try to live with one another, and how they’re going to pursue, specifically, and manage, ultimately, their own security worries. It is described as a realm of self-help: if you don’t do it for yourself, you cannot count on anybody else doing it for you. They may help; they may not. You don’t know. You can’t count on that. You’re on your own.
The second defining principle is by the distribution of capability among those units, with the more capable ones, of course, shaping the realm, posing the problems that the others have to deal with. The analogy there, of course, is between international politics on the one hand and ologopolistic sectors of an economy on the other hand. It’s not a purely competitive realm. It’s one in which the major actors, those of greater capability, set the scene in which the others must act.
Now, in layman’s terms, in the first part of your analysis, what you’re saying is, «There’s no international police force. There’s no real international court. Therefore, these things can’t be adjudicated.» That’s really what you mean when you’re trying to help us understand the organizing principles. States have to act on their own.
They have to do it for themselves.
The second part is that the key comes from understanding the capability one actor has vis-à-vis the others.
So what, then, helps us understand the outcomes in a particular situation in the world? Are these the things we have to look at to understand what’s going on in the world?
Right. The first one, anarchy, remains. Unless, somehow, a world government is ever developed, international politics will be an anarchic realm. So that’s an invariable. It doesn’t vary, if you want to use those terms. The second part of the definition is where one finds the variation; that is, we’ve known worlds historically and, of course, we can also imagine them in the pure realm of theory, in which there are varying numbers of great powers.
Always, until World War II in modern history, there were five or so great powers contending. World War II eventuated in a world in which there were only two: the United States and the Soviet Union. States acting in those two different worlds face different kinds of problems. It’s interesting to recall the reflections, as it were, made in the arguments that were conducted shortly after World War II. That is, the difficulty, for example, that previous great powers — countries like Great Britain and France — had coming to terms with the fact that they were no longer great powers, that they were reduced to the level of major powers. The reduction directly affected their behavior. They had to adjust to a different kind of world that made a different kind of policy and different kinds of actions, appropriate or inappropriate. To use an old-fashioned terminology, they became not providers of their own security, but consumers of security provided by others.
Now, a simple distinction like that explains a lot. It explains how Europe could develop as a somewhat distinct political realm. France no longer had to worry about a possible war with Germany, or, as it had in previous times, a possible war against Britain. We worried about that, and the Soviet Union worried about that. And there wasn’t much they (France, Germany, Britain) could do about it. They could make marginal differences in the system, but they could not provide for their own security vis-?-vis the Soviet Union. They had to rely on an outside power, because the capability shifted so much in that way.
Whole new kinds of behavior become possible for the previous great powers, because they’re no longer great powers, just for that simple reason. And the United States assumed new responsibilities that it never dreamed of assuming. In the 1930s, to tell an American that America would begin to take the responsibility for the security of major parts of the world would have been laughable. Nobody could even imagine such a condition. But when the structure of international politics dramatically changed, we accommodated ourselves to that new condition.
Next page: The Idea of Structure in International Relations Theory
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The Idea of Structure in International Relations Theory
Why is it so hard in our perceptions of the world, and even [among] your political science colleagues, to understand the implications of structure in today’s world? One thinks of globalization. In an earlier phase, the word was «interdependence.» There is a penchant for finding new trends and then saying «the game is over» with regard to structure and these relational issues. Why is that?
It’s simply because the actors you observe — who is it doing things in the world — are states, and the interrelation of states. And those interrelations do vary. They’re sometimes closer, they’re sometimes looser. It’s states that do things, and especially it’s the states of greatest power who do things. So if you’re looking at immediate causes, that’s where you find the immediate causes.
It takes an act of the mind to conceive of how the conditions under which these actions and interactions occur influence the actions and interactions themselves. That’s not something that you open your eyes and look at and see, or read about in The New York Times every morning. It takes an act of thought to do that.
Globalization is a very interesting example of this, for what appears to us as globalization appears to much of the world, no doubt to most of the world, very simply, as Americanization. In other words, the world is no longer bipolar. It’s now unipolar. There is one great power and one only. This condition has not existed since Rome. That is, no country has dominated the relevant part of the globe since Rome, to the extent that we do. And, of course, Rome’s realm was a part of the world. Our realm is the entire globe.
Before we talk about this new position of the U.S. in the world, I want to ask you one thing. I know that you wrote quite a bit about the stability of the bipolar world. And that was unconventional when you wrote about it, because the very interactions between us and the Soviets were creating this Cold War fear that made people not want to accept what you were saying. It was structure that made you see the stability that was actually there, which many people were not seeing.
That’s right. Looking back, the article on stability of a bipolar world was published in 1964. It was strangely controversial. It made people mad. I first gave the paper as a talk to the Harvard/MIT Arms Control Seminar. There was a lively and heated discussion following the presentation of the simple idea that this has become a world of two powers, in other words, a bipolar world. People were saying, «No, wait a minute. Europe still counts.» Well, of course, Europe still counted, but not nearly as much, obviously, as it once did, and not merely as much as the United States and the Soviet Union. Ultimately, the world’s fate depended on the United States, the Soviet Union, and the interaction between them.
In economic terms, it was not a world of interdependence at all: the United States and the Soviet Union scarcely traded with one another. Militarily, the interdependence was close, because each could do grievous damage to the other. And in international politics, again, a realm of self-help; ultimately, that’s what counts.
Within, I’d say, certainly within ten years, probably less than ten years, it became accepted: «Yes, of course, the world is bipolar.» And that makes the really deep controversy by which this article was greeted all the more striking.
Next page: A Unipolar World
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A Unipolar World
Were you surprised when the Soviet Union disappeared?
Not especially. I had been giving lectures in the United States and abroad in which I pointed out — and this goes back to the middle to late seventies — that the Soviet Union was in a steady decline. If you recall, the 1980s was when Reagan and those who agreed with him were saying that the Soviet Union was catching up with us, they were going to pass us. «The Soviet Union has become the most powerful military country in the world» — Reagan, you know. «They passed us on all fronts — strategic and conventional alike.»
Well, the opposite was the truth, and one could see it. I mean, you can look at data. You could look at the demographic composition of the Soviet Union, with the Russian component sinking and the non-Russian component of the population rising. You could look at the extent to which the Soviet Union was falling behind in military technology — indeed, in technology across the board, and therefore in military technology as well. It looked to me as though the Soviet Union was on a losing course. You could also see it in the fact that the Soviet Union couldn’t adjust to change, agriculture being the best example. They just kept doing the same wrong things, year after year, decade after decade. It was a very static government, making changes very difficult, and then, of course, the change, when it did come, was a big and shocking one.
But I wrote, even in a book published in 1979, that the real question then in the world was, would the Soviet Union be able to keep up with the United States? I developed that idea in some publications and in a lot of talks. Again, it was very controversial.
I remember, especially, being in China for the first time in 1982, and presenting this analysis to one of the institutes, which I’ve now talked at over the years about four or five times. The last time was in 1996, and I reminded them of 1982. What they were saying was, «Hey, the Soviet Union is getting ahead.» In fact, that’s why China was moving toward the United States, because it felt that the United States was getting weaker, and in order to form a block of sufficient strength against the Soviet Union, they had to edge over toward our side. Again, perceptions of what the structure of international politics is at a given time strongly influence the policy that one follows. So I was saying, «No, the Soviet Union is getting weaker. The United State is getting relatively stronger.» And the people at this institute who were charged with thinking about this — this was the purpose of their institute, to think about things like this — had reached the opposite conclusion. They … well, they were wrong.
So we have this situation now in the contemporary world, where we’re in a unipolar world. The enormity of U.S. power — military, economic — in comparison to everybody else is quite amazing. What is the greatest danger of such a world?
The greatest danger was described very well by a French cleric, who died in 1713, who was also a counselor to rulers, who said: I have never known a country disposing of overwhelming power to behave with forbearance and moderation for more than a very short period of time. And we’ve seen this over and over again. It illustrates nicely how states fail to learn from history, from other countries’ experiences. Time and time again, countries that dispose of overwhelming power, as we now do, have abused their power. The key characteristic of a unipolar world is that there are no checks and balances against that power, so it’s free to follow its fancy, it’s free to act on its whims. Since there are very minor, very weak external constraints, everything depends on the internal politics of the country in question.
Now, it is possible, of course, to imagine that the internal politics would be a restraint. Checks and balances are supposed to work in the United States; it’s ingrained in our thinking. But, in fact, they don’t work very well, or at least in my view they are not working very well. They do not place effective constraints on what the government can do abroad. They do not place effective constraints on how much we spend on our military forces. In 1998, for example, we outspent the next eight big spenders. We’re now spending about as much as the next fourteen or fifteen. And, according to The New York Times, projecting the spending until next year, we will be spending as much as all the other countries in the world combined on our military forces. Now, what do we want all that military force for? Other countries are bound to ask that question. They do ask that question. And they worry about it, because power can be so easily abused.
So what is going to happen down the road? It doesn’t appear that others can organize against us. Is there a danger that we will shoot ourselves in the foot?
Exactly. The gap between the United States and others, technologically as well as militarily — the military gap is simply obvious. Nobody can miss it, right? But that’s based on our economy and our technological abilities. And the gaps have become so wide that no combination of other countries and no other country singly in the foreseeable future is going to be able to balance the power of the United States. Now, in the end, power will balance power, and there isn’t any doubt that the Chinese are smarting, very uncomfortable with the extent to which the United States dominates the world militarily. I’m not implying that it doesn’t bother other countries as well. But China, if it maintains its political coherence, its political capabilities, will have in due course the economic and the technological means of competing. But how far away is that? Certainly, twenty years. Probably more than twenty years.
Next page: Deterrence and Rogues
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Deterrence and Rogues
The perception of the Bush administration and the men of ideas around the Bush administration, however faulty, is that there is a new configuration in the world.
And in that configuration, the threat — even to the most powerful country in the world, but also the world in general — is the links among so-called rogue regimes. Rogue states are getting the capacity to act with weapons of mass destruction — nuclear, biological, and chemical — and there are links to transnational terrorist organizations. That is the primary rationale for the new preemptive strategy.
What is your analysis of that apparent configuration of power, as a Realist? Does a Realist say this is baloney, or what?
Well, I can tell you exactly what this Realist says.
In the first case, in the first instance, one wants to point out that the word «preemption» here is entirely misleading. «Preemption» by its dictionary usage, by its common usage among people who think about military strategy, is what occurs when you have good and very strong reasons for believing that the adversary is just about to strike. And you strike. This would make sense if you knew that, and knew it pretty much for sure, to strike first.
Now, we have no reason to think that Saddam Hussein is about to strike anybody — not anybody in the region, let alone Europe or the United States. I mean, that’s entirely fanciful. So it’s not a case for preemption. The question is, is it a case for prevention? The rationale of prevention is that over time, the adversary will become so strong that you’d better fight him earlier while he’s relatively weak and you can win easily, instead of waiting until he becomes strong, and then you would have a more difficult war. Well, Iraq is so weak! Its gross domestic [product] is $15 billion. We’re spending almost $400 billion on our military alone. I mean, it’s a pitifully weak country. Much weaker than it was in 1991, when we fought the Gulf War. And we know that. American military estimates bear that out.
So the question becomes the one that you posed: Might a country, such as Iraq, develop nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction and then share them with terrorists? The first point to make about that is they can’t use them, themselves. They are contained and deterred.
That is, the regime, they could not use it?
Right. No matter how often the Bush administration people say «containment and deterrence do not work,» it works as well as it ever did for the purposes that we always thought it was designed to accomplish. That is, it deters other countries from using their weapons in ways that would endanger the manifestly vital interests of the United States or those it supports. So the question reduces to: Might they give these things away? Well, I don’t think we have to worry about Saddam Hussein doing that, because if any terrorist ever got weaponry that they could not well get from sources other than Iraq, we would say, «Saddam Hussein did it,» and we’d slam him. He knows that.
It’s a funny thing, that over and over again, people say — and we hear it every day — that these rogues are undeterrable. «Do you want to rely on the sanity of Saddam Hussein?» George Bush has said, «I do not want to rely on the sanity of Saddam Hussein.» I do! This guy is a survivor. He’s been in power for thirty years. People who are insane do not maintain themselves in power against a host of enemies, internally as well as externally. I mean, they have been able — this is true of Kadaffy in the old days, who we used to think of as being very roguish (we don’t think of him being so roguish anymore). It’s true of Kim Song Il. It was true of his father. I mean, these rogues, these guys we call rogues, are survivors. How can you at once be foolhardy to the point of insanity and be a survivor in a very difficult world? It’s much more difficult than winning a second term for President of the United States.
These guys are pressed from all sides, as I say, internally and externally as well, and they survive. They’re crafty. They’re ugly, they’re nasty; I believe all those things. But they’re also crafty. You’ve got to carry them out in a box. They’ve got power and they want to hold it and they want to continue to hold it. They want to pass it on to their progeny, as a matter of fact. They have proved themselves able to calculate where that line is. Crossing that line means you’re going to be put out of business. To be a ruler, you have to have a country to rule. If you invite intense retaliation upon yourself, you’re dead, and your country is destroyed as a going political entity. Nobody’s going that far. These rogues are self-limiting.
What is your answer to people who would say that you are too focused on the state as a unit in addressing these current problems? Obviously, Iraq and North Korea are states, but when you begin to talk about al Qaeda and what they might accomplish, these are not states. They are units or entities that could obtain weapons, whether from North Korea or Saddam Hussein, that conceivably could steal them from the former Soviet Union, and could act in a way that would affect us and our national security, if not our relative position in the world. I guess what I’m trying to get at is, what should the greatest power in the world be doing about these [nonstate] threats, in a way that’s consistent with a Realist’s view of the world?
It’s almost impossible to believe that Saddam Hussein — and these states do act as units; you could say «Saddam Hussein,» you don’t always have to say «Iraq,» and the same for North Korea [and Kim Song Il] — that he would go to such tremendous lengths to acquire nuclear military capability [and then be willing to share it]. Remember the Israelis destroyed their nuclear facilities at Osirak in June of 1981. I mean, this goes back a long time. There has been a persistent sustained effort on the part of Saddam Hussein to acquire this military capability. Now, if he ever were to achieve it, he certainly would not want to share it with anybody. He would guard it. He would have only a small capability.
It’s possible to control a small amount of nuclear materials and a small number of nuclear warheads, a small number of delivery systems, in a way that is very difficult if you have hundreds, or especially if you have thousands, as we and Russia do. book coverIf you’re going to steal something, it’s a much better bet stealing it from Russia than it is trying to steal it from a new (and because new, necessarily very small) nuclear power. If you’ve got a lot of it, it’s hard to keep track of.
The United States has lost track of some of its nuclear material, which a lot of people overlook or forget about. They’ve got so damned much of it. How are you going to keep track of all of it? But, boy, if you have ten or twenty or fifty, that’s pretty easy to keep track of.
It’s also very easy to believe, and Saddam Hussein would have to believe this, that if somehow a terrorist got hold of the nuclear materials or nuclear warheads, we would say, «We have evidence that this came from Saddam Hussein.» Boom! Like that.
Now, let’s separate this from Saddam Hussein. Let’s say that al Qaeda or factions of al Qaeda would come to power in Pakistan, which is a possibility — a very divided country and so on. Would that situation change the equation in the sense that the rationality, which we can assume that Saddam Hussein has as a survivor in power, would that be the same of a group? Would they be socialized by state power? Or might they do things because of their ideology, a deviant form of Islam, which, at one level, seems to say that to die is good?
One of the striking things about nuclear deterrence is that it has worked, no matter what country we’re talking about, no matter what kind of government the country has, no matter what kind of ruler the country has had. The most striking case, of course, is Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution. It lasted from 1966 to 1976 in China, where China was in seemingly unheard-of chaos. And yet China, a country with a fair number of nuclear weapons at the time, managed to take care of those weapons very well indeed! The government separated foreign policy to a certain extent, and nuclear policy completely, from the Cultural Revolution.
The one thing about those governments — millenarian or whatever they may be like — is that they almost surely will want to stay in power. If they come to power, they will be deterrable. The difficulty is if irregular groups, terrorists, get control of weapons of mass destruction. Something like biologicals are much more of a worry (and chemicals to a certain extent, but biologicals, especially) than nuclear weapons, I think. Then they are not deterrable. We’ve always known that deterrence does not cover this kind of situation.
The cliché now is, of course, and has been for a long time, that you have to have «an address.» You can threaten retaliation against Iraq; you can’t threaten retaliation against terrorists, because you can’t find them. You don’t know where they are.
So if it is the responsibility of the most powerful country in the world, as part of its own interest, to do some of the management of the whole system, what is a sensible policy for addressing this threat, which might come from a transnational terrorist group that does not have power?
What indeed can one do about that? Everything possible to prevent nuclear materials, including nuclear warheads, from getting into their hands.
We do that to some extent. We’ve subsidized Russia to enable it to dismantle its nuclear weaponry and to guard the nuclear weaponry that it does have. That makes great sense, and we should do more of that. We should continue to deter and contain other countries that do or might have nuclear weapons. But if a country badly needs, and therefore, badly wants nuclear weapons, it is almost impossible in the long run to prevent that country from acquiring nuclear military capability.
If we declare a country to be a part of an «axis of evil,» and if that country is anyway in a perilously weak position, as obviously North Korea is, then we’d have to ask ourselves, if we were the ruler — no matter how nasty that ruler is — if we were Kim Jong Il, wouldn’t we conclude that, «My God, we’re likely to be attacked, and since we are weak, we’ll lose unless we have nuclear weapons, which have proved to be the greatest and, indeed, the only reliable deterrent the world has ever known»? Conventional deterrence has not worked very well. We can figure out why that is, but nuclear weapons have been a great deterrent. Now, if one were Kim Jong Il, it’s impossible to imagine that he would not want to do everything he can do, so you could make this less likely by making him feel less insecure. The more insecure you make him feel …
See, any fool can see that the only way you can deter the United States is with weapons of mass destruction. You cannot compete on conventional grounds. That’s absolutely impossible. Russia can’t do it. China can’t do it. Obviously, these rogue states — it’s just a fantasy. They could not even begin to, right? So if they believe that their security is directly in danger and even, indeed, specifically from the United States, the United States acting in conjunction with other countries in the area, they are going to do everything they can to acquire deterrent weapons — again, the best one being nuclear military means.
Next page: Conclusion
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One final question requiring a brief answer. Other than reading your books, how should a student prepare for this uncertain future, if they’re interested in international politics?
One good way of doing it is read The New York Times. In addition, I think International Security is an excellent journal.
What can you do? You can read, you can discuss, you can think. There’s not much more you can do. Or you can become politically active. Yes, of course, you can become politically active.
Well, on that note, Ken, I want to thank you very much for spending this time with us and sharing with us your intellectual journey.
Well, thank you. It’s been a pleasure.
And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.
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