In Academia, Neorealism Is Dangerous

Robert G. Kaufman Professor of Public Policy, Pepperdine University
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William F. Buckley, the great conservative author, pundit, and founder of National Review, harbored no illusions about “progressive” intellectuals. As a conservative professor with no illusions about my native Bostonians, I venerate the wisdom of Buckley’s famous dictum: “I am obliged to confess I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University.”

Professor Stephen Walt of Harvard – a prominent author, commentator and former dean of the Kennedy School of Government – exemplifies what Buckley meant.

Start with Walt’s delusions of grandeur. Walt proclaims himself “consistently right” while usually being consistently wrong. Walt propounds a neorealist theory of international relations in dangerous defiance of the historical record. Walt claims that all states behave essentially alike regardless of the internal character of their regime. So the United States need not concern itself whether Germany is democratic, authoritarian or totalitarian, or whether Angela Merkel, the Kaiser or Adolph Hitler lead it.

Walt fatuously defends appeasement during the 1930s as a strategy that nearly succeeded, while bizarrely criticizing a Reagan administration that won the Cold War.

Walt castigates neoconservatives, including George W. Bush, and their enablers for the chaos in Iraq rather than Obama’s precipitous withdrawal that Walt cheered. Walt sees no danger in a nuclear Iran because he believes that a virulently anti-American revolutionary regime in Tehran will calculate cost and risks the same way as the United States or Sweden. Walt advocates American strategic retrenchment, oblivious to the gathering discord and chaos it has already invited.

The neighbors of Russia, China and Iran know better. Yet Walt and his neorealist collaborator, John Mearsheimer, blindly blame democratic Israel exclusively for the absence of peace without mention of the intransigence of Israel’s despotic enemies seeking to eradicate it.

Walt’s fallibility hardly represents his worse shortcoming. Reasonable people disagree. The vitality of American democracy depends on robust, unbridled debate codified in the First Amendment. That mandates welcoming rather than chilling the expressions of alternative points of view.

Most liberals and conservatives honor that principle. Peter Beinart and Jonathan Chait – vociferous liberal opponents of the Iraq War – nevertheless defend the legitimacy of their neoconservative critics to actively participate in the debate over Iraq and American foreign policy generally.

Unfortunately, Professor Stephen Walt and politically correct sensibilities reigning on campus exude contempt for the virtues of free speech. Walt has displayed an increasing and alarming propensity to delegitimize, discredit and silence contrary opinion. Take, for example Walt’s execrable book co-authored with John Mearsheimer in which they insinuate that the pernicious machinations of the “Israeli Lobby” rather than honest conviction account for the intensity of American support for Israel. As Walter Russell Mead observes, massive evidence controverts Walt’s and Measheimer’s fevered Oliver Stone-type conspiracy theory with regard to Israel. Most Americans support Israel because of their genuine belief that it serves America’s moral and practical interests.

Consider, worse, Walt’s latest foray to banish his critics to oblivion rather than debate them on the merits. Writing in Foreign Policy on June 20, Walt laments why “a reasonably rational society” would even pay neoconservatives even “scant attention.” Walt assails the media for even providing outlets for “the vacuous analysis of Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney and Bill Kristol.” He ascribes the pernicious persistence of neoconservatives to their “shamelessness,” money, a “mainstream media obsessed with balance,” and the excessive reluctance of liberals to criticize neoconservatives.

Professor Walt’s stifling version of political correctness, so prevalent on campuses, also has disturbing support in certain precincts of the Obama administration, flirting with muting conservative talk radio and television under the “Fairness Doctrine.”

No one can legitimately accuse Professor Walt of being “obsessed with balance” or accuracy. Walt wants nothing less than to deprive neoconservatives of a prominent place in American political discourse.

Robert G. Kaufman is a professor of public policy at Pepperdine University.