Another day, another email from Stratfor, a global intelligence service subscribed to by many government and industry leaders (and indirectly by those of us on my father’s email distribution list). While I glance at most of Stratfor’s reports, I tend to focus on the ones offering special insight into Middle East geopolitics.
That, and Stratfor’s weekly ”this month only” offers. Who knew that a Stratfor marketing year could have 52 months?
If Stratfor gets to “free,” throws in a Ginsu knife, and compensates me for the time in took to undo all of the damage that a hacker from Anonymous caused when he breached Stratfor’s on line security safeguards, then perhaps I’ll reconsider my decision not to subscribe. (Full disclosure: I used to subscribe to Stratfor. Once Anonymous breached Stratfor’s computer system and I started getting Nigerian, Egyptian, Algerian and Samoan credit card charges, I reconsidered the wisdom of subscribing to an intelligence service that didn’t seem, well, too intelligent. It’s one thing for Israel and the U.S. to drop a little worm into Iran’s computer network, but when a 27-year-old in Chicago can get personal emails and credit card information from an organization comprised of former government intelligence officials whose business model is to sell their intelligence and security capabilities, then I figure my money can be better spent losing money blogging.)
But that’s enough about me. Let’s talk about Kenneth Waltz.
Stratfor recently noted his passing and described Waltz as ”one of the (world’s) most influential academic and international relations theorists.”
Here is some of what Stratfor had to say:
… Many of Waltz’s ideas are still actively debated in contemporary geopolitics. During the Cold War, in 1981, Waltz famously argued that nuclear proliferation — rather than the decommissioning of nuclear weapons — would lead to lasting peace as the number of states with nuclear deterrents rose….Waltz stood by his view of nuclear proliferation as a deterrent, and ultimately an arbiter for peace, until the end of his life. In the summer of 2012, he argued that the West should allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon as part of a regional balance of power that would help to maintain broader Middle East peace and stability. Arguing that Iran’s political leadership, despite its rhetoric, is inherently rational and not suicidal, Waltz saw the likelihood of Iran using a nuclear device against a target like Israel as relatively low…While the view that Iran sees a future nuclear arsenal as a defense mechanism fits largely within Stratfor’s regional understanding, it does not provide a complete picture of the competition for power that exists between Iran, Turkey and the Sunni Arab states. Waltz’s theories, part of a larger body of international relations theory, inform Stratfor’s geopolitical framework. But so do empathetic analysis, rigorous economic and geographic study, and a holistic, non-dogmatic approach to the global system.
Now I don’t pretend to understand where “empathetic analysis, rigorous economic and geographic study and a holistic, non-dogmatic approach to the global system” gets us in analyzing either a country determined to build the ultimate U.S/Israel attack-deterrent, a 28-year old dictator-descendant who threatens Austin with nuclear ruin — look out Willie! — and is receptive to Dennis Rodman’s diplomatic efforts, or even a merry band of Tsarnaevs intent on acquiring a rogue regime’s W.M.D.’s.
But here are my thoughts, and they are offered to you free, unhacked, and with no special offers:
Theorists are interesting. They have unique ideas. They challenge our conventional thinking. But their theories need to be mixed into the complexities of the world as it is today, not the world they theorize we will have tomorrow, next year or next century. (We’d be better off using the Congressional Budget Office to predict geopolitics. If the C.B.O’s analysis proves incorrect — and their failures are certainly more predictible than their successes — at least we’re not surprised and the world isn’t placed at risk.)
Theories rest on assumptions.
Key Waltz’s key assumptions seem to be that the world will always be dealing with rational actors, that governments will remain stable and predictable, that W.M.D. knowledge or the weapons themselves won’t get distributed to less rational actors, and that the technology behind weapons of mass destruction and the ways we fight wars will remain relatively static.
Here is an alternate theory: The ONLY way we can lessen (not eliminate) the chance for catastrophic wars and terrorism is to create more interconnectedness and dependencies so that the leadership of countries like Iran or North Korea will believe they have more to gain politically and economically by both avoiding the type of actions the U.S. fears and working to align their interests with ours. Iran, North Korea, and countries like them, don’t have to be our friends. They just have to choose not to be our enemies.
No one can pretend to have the perfect formula for every geopolitical situation. Imagine WW 2-era theorists trying to project their theories to 2013 based on the military tactics and weapons of 1945. Why should anyone assume that 68 years from now we won’t be dealing with the same type of theoretical unknowables?
Building coalitions to try to effect the change we want, and using a mix of incentives and disincentives, helps us to better avoid military actions that have (historically) eliminated immediate risks and vulnerabilities but that have also created the type of unanticipated long-term consequences the U.S. seems to specilaize in: Our Iraqi 30 day-victory cum multi-year hornets’ nest is certainly fresh in our memories, but it wasn’t that long ago (1979 to 1989) that U.S. efforts to support fundamentalists fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan led to al-Qaeda establishing a base there — a base used to organize and plan our 9/11 catastrophe.
While we can’t avoid taking military action in every conflict or potential conflict, we certainly need to more deeply consider the “days after” and the grave risks than can befall us if we allow theories or theorists to substitute for thoughtful decision-making grounded in the complexities of an ever-changing world.