How Israel Can Learn to Love the Iranian Bomb

The academic giant Kenneth Waltz, who died recently, could make Israeli policy-makers think again about the threat posed by Iran gaining nuclear capacity. He argued that nuclear weapons rationalize decision-makers.

Ilai Saltzman
Ilai Saltzman
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Ilai Saltzman
Ilai Saltzman

It is not very often that an academic giant in any scientific discipline passes away with very little coverage in the general media. Other than some International Relations and foreign policy blogs, Kenneth Waltz’s recent passing a few weeks before his 89th birthday went underreported. It is natural, perhaps, since he was chiefly known for his academic work, but it is still disturbing considering his unparalleled contribution to IR and political science in general and the realist school in particular. He was one of the most perceptive and original thinkers of his time and his works still generate interest and controversy today, not least thanks to his against-the-tide thinking about how the world should respond to Iran's efforts to go nuclear.

Waltz rose to prominence after writing two of the most innovative international relations texts of his time. In Man, the State and War, Waltz consolidated the concept of the three “images”, depicting a multi-focal approach for the analysis of international politics. For any IR student, the distinction between the “first” (individual), “second” (state) and “third” (system) images has become as obvious and natural as breathing. But more than just reaffirming these analytical concepts, Waltz reframed and repositioned IR as a scientific discipline as opposed to the more philosophically-based school advocated by political realists such as Hans Morgenthau and E.H. Carr.

He utterly objected to any existing attempt to blame human nature, and especially the ambiguous and fuzzy notion of the lust for power, for any global political occurrence. Instead, he argued that it is the international system, and its fundamental anarchic nature, that determines general outcomes. This is why world politics is, historically, a chain of recurrent events such as wars, peace agreements, arms races and so forth, and that different states led by different statesmen act rather similarly regardless of their ideological and political beliefs or settings.

Waltz's second seminal book, Theory of International Politics, not only put forward one of the most sophisticated prescriptions for the construction of theories in any positivist discipline, but also developed his own conceptual treatment of international politics. He introduced neorealism or structural-realism, which became by far the most influential IR theory, essentially arguing that it is the anarchic nature of the international system that causes states to behave in a self-self fashion in order to uphold their survival. Waltz perfected the existing treatment of balance of power theory, alliance formation, arms-races and the prevalence of peace and war in general.

His work quickly proliferated and influenced generations of IR scholars, even outside the realist school who either adopted his approach or criticized it and suggested alternative explanations. It is virtually impossible to find a study that doesn't address or responds to Waltz’s work. He was an ardent critic of the Vietnam War and his approach to American foreign policy can be best described as advocating pragmatism, caution and restraint. Waltz did not believe that American predominance was endurable and argued, instead, that it was just a matter of time until peer-competitors would emerge in either the regional or global setting. Indeed, one needs only to think about the rise of China in East Asia and Africa, and Russian attempts to reclaim some of its lost authority in Soviet-era spheres of influence including the Middle East – not least, Syria - the Caucasus and Eastern Europe.

Waltz made one of his most controversial claims in the early 1980s when, confronting the proliferation of nuclear weapons, he argued that, counter intuitively, “more may be better.” This unusual approach to nuclear proliferation is extremely relevant to Israel's security challenges when it comes to Iran's nuclear program. Waltz recently proclaimed in an article published in Foreign Affairs that the emergence of a system of nuclear deterrence involving Israel, the United States and Iran could actually stabilize the Middle East.

While some may argue that the Iranian regime is irrational and thus incapable of participating in a nuclear deterrence mechanism similar to the one Americans and soviets shared during the Cold War, Waltz's answer is that nuclear weapons rationalize decision-makers and their policies whether they like it or not. Nuclear deterrence, according to Waltz, supersedes all preexisting ideological or political traits and imposes pragmatism and caution instead. In other words, foreign policy adventurism is possible before but is significantly less likely after acquiring nuclear capabilities.

As the 1962 Cuban missile crisis or numerous Indian-Pakistani standoffs throughout the 1990s proved, the possibility of nuclear escalation actually prevents inter-state conflict from deteriorating despite the magnitude of the political or ideological rivalry. The Iranian leadership is, in fact, well aware of this chilling effect as it engages the international community. When playing the nuclear wildcard thus far, Tehran pursued a calculated and responsible approach to the extent that even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had to declare that the "red line" he drew in the UN was not crossed yet.

Waltz would never suggest that nuclear proliferation resolves the root causes of any given conflict, but only that nuclear weapons have a major soothing effect nonetheless. For Israeli policy-makers and strategic planners this means that while Iran's possible acquisition of nuclear weapons is not the most gratifying development, it may increase regional stability in the long-term. Considering the operational and political obstacles preventing the complete stopping of Iran's nuclear program, and taking into consideration Tehran's commitment to it, Jerusalem must be creative and - like Waltz - think "out of the box" in anticipation of the "day after" scenario.

Ilai Z. Saltzman is the Schusterman Visiting Assistant Professor of Government, Claremont McKenna College and a board member of Mitvim - the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, a progressive foreign policy think tank.

Demonstration in Israel against bombing Iran.Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

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