It’s difficult to exaggerate the degree to which Stephen Walt demolishes Josh Muravchik in their realism vs. neoconservatism exchange in the September National Interest. The prompt concerns which, of realism or neoconservatism, will best answer the threats that the United States will face in the future. As such, the debate really turns on which of realism and neoconservatism has proved a better predictor of past threats, and has provided the best recommendations for response to those threats.
Muravchik lands a couple of blows on realism. The reality of realism is and always has been in serious question, which is to say that there’s a tension between the normative and descriptive claims of realists. Walt waves this away with an “of course realists call out what they believe are mistakes”, but the problem does run deeper. Hans Morgenthau includes an anecdote in the first chapter of Politics Among Nations about French and British consideration of military assistance to Finland in 1939. Such assistance would have put the Allies at war with both Germany and the USSR. Morgenthau mocked French and British concern for international law as unrealistic, which is fair enough, but he didn’t explain how international law and norms of justified intervention could guide the behavior of two great powers. If France and Britain, then why not the world, and if the world, then where is realism? Thinking along these lines might lead to a whole new research program…
Muravchik also notes that realists failed to predict the fall of the Soviet Union. This is reasonably fair, although Kenneth Waltz in Theory of International Politics did wonder whether the Soviet Union could keep up with the United States. Perhaps more to the point, neoconservatives also failed to predict the fall of the Soviet Union on anything approaching the timeline that the collapse actually occurred. The number of neoconservatives who believed, in 1984, that the USSR would be gone by 1992 can be counted on the fingers of no hands. Muravchik might object that neoconservatives, at least, believed that the lifespan of the Soviet Union was limited, but then realists also believe that the structure of the international system (by which I mean polarity) can change over time. Moreover, neoconservatives were strongly committed to the idea that the Soviet Union was much, much stronger than conventional analysis suggested; this was the motivating concept behind Team B, and animated the rhetoric of the first Reagan administration. Far from expecting that the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse, neoconservatives seemed to believe that it was competing quite well against the United States. Indeed, a young scholar named Stephen Walt wrote a book called Origins of Alliances, arguing that the global balance of power was not nearly as dire as neoconservatives (and offensive realists) would portray it. Ironically enough, Walt departed in important ways from realist analysis in the book, but that’s a story for another day.
So yeah, Muravchik lands a couple of glancing blows. Walt then proceeds to beat Muravchik like a red-headed stepchild. First, Walt calls out Muravchik’s nonsensical “history” of neoconservativsm, which essentially portrays every successful policy endeavour of the United States in the 20th century as falling under the rubric of neoconservatism. This claim has been common among neoconservatives since Robert Kagan’s Dangerous Nation, which argued that the United States has always, evidence and appearance aside, been a neoconservative nation. As Walt notes, it is indeed strange that neoconservatism could have such a critical impact on foreign policy decades before it was coined, and especially odd that it gets credit for originating the successful policies of liberal internationalism, which neoconservatives have always bitterly criticized. Muravchik gives neoconservatives credit for both Wilson and Roosevelt/Truman, without noting that there’s considerably divergence between the two approaches, and that both (but especially the latter) involve exceptionally heavy doses of the institutionalization of international life, something that actual neoconservatives are allergic to.
And then Walt gets to Iraq. Read it yourself; a summary does no justice. The real coup de grace comes with this:
Finally, Muravchik claims neoconservatives “treat purely moral concerns . . . as a higher priority than would realists,” yet his response evinces little concern for ordinary human beings. He expresses no remorse at the suffering that neoconservative policies have wrought and seems mostly concerned that the neocons are now “taking their lumps” over Iraq. What matters to him is political standing in Washington, not the hundreds of thousands of needless Iraqi deaths, the millions of refugees who fled their homes, or the tens of thousands of patriotic Americans killed or wounded. So let us hear no more about the neoconservatives’ “moral” convictions. Amid such company, the realists who opposed the war can stand tall.
Indeed; the moral component of neoconservatism has always been the appearance of moral rectitude, rather than any practical effort to achieve moral goals. This makes it particularly appropriate for creatures of the Beltway, who endure no real costs for their moral postures.
In any case, the exchange is well worth reading; it reminds me a bit of Walt’s dispute with formal model/rational choice types in International Security, which is collected in Rational Choice and Security Studies. That’s also worth reading, but only for political scientists.