Stephen Walt offers an interesting critique of John Bolton’s “unrealistic realism” this week. Bolton was on the Daily Show last week, offering his usual policy advice on Iran, namely, that the United States should do whatever is necessary to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
But what is interesting about Walt’s analysis is his discussion of how unrealistic such a policy is. According to Walt, any U.S. efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons will likely either involve the use of coercive diplomacy, which runs the risk of helping Iran to overcome internal political differences which might produce a more open government or runs the risk of involving the United States in another protracted ground war with no clear end in sight. Neither case seems particularly promising.
Yet Bolton’s dream of a world in which the United States is the sole nuclear power, able to cajole others into ceding to its demands, is—as Walt discusses—also highly unrealistic. Such a world would only create greater impetus for other countries to acquire nuclear weapons for themselves. And contemplating such a world only creates greater incentives for countries to acquire the deterrent capabilities (glossary) nuclear weapons afford. So, in essence, the greater the force the United States brings to bear on a country to end its nuclear program, the greater the pressure for that country to actually develop and deploy its own nuclear weapons.
It is worthwhile to recall that South Africa is the only country to ever give up its nuclear weapons after developing a nuclear weapons capability. And it’s even more important to remember that it did so not because it was under immense external pressure (or indeed threat) to abandon its nuclear weapons program. South Africa gave up its nuclear weapons because of (1) domestic political pressure to do so, and (2) because its external security situation no longer warranted the need for such weapons. Bolton’s proposed stance ensures that neither of those two criteria would be met in the case of Iran. Hardly a hopeful situation.