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On U.S. Foreign Policy: Should America Be Doing Less In World Affairs?

"The Hell Of Good Intentions," by Stephen M. Walt. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
"The Hell Of Good Intentions," by Stephen M. Walt. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

With Meghna Chakrabarti

Stephen Walt on U.S. foreign policy failures. He says it all traces back to what Walt calls a “liberal hegemony” and the idea that the U.S. can spread democracy without accountability. Walt says it’s time for a more restrained approach.


Stephen Walt, professor of international affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Author of “The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy.” (@stephenWalt)

Interview Highlights

Defining “liberal hegemony”

“It’s a shorthand term for the grand strategy the United States has been following since the end of the Cold War. It’s liberal not in the sense of being left wing versus right wing, but liberal in the sense that it seeks to promote the classical liberal values of individual rights, democracy, free markets — things like that. And it’s hegemony because it sees those things can only be spread around the world if they’re done under American leadership, at America’s behest and through the active use of America’s power — in some cases, including the use of military power. So when you think about it, this is a strategy that doesn’t seek to preserve the status quo. It actually wants to revise politics all over the world, make more countries like the United States, do that peacefully if possible, but if necessary using other means as well. And that has basically been the objective of every American president since the end of the Cold War.”

On the unipolar world after the Cold War

“It’s not like the United States never made any mistakes, even in the Cold War, which the Vietnam War would be probably the most obvious example. But after the Cold War ends, when the United States is really in this remarkable position, it’s hard to argue against efforts to spread American values everywhere, because it doesn’t seem like it’s going to cost much, everybody already thinks the world is headed in that direction as well. You have people like Frank Fukuyama talking about the end of history. You have Tom Friedman of the New York Times suggesting that the American model is really the only one that can work in a globalized world, and therefore the rest of the world is just eager to become like us, it’s really going to be quite easy to do.”

On the U.S. in Central and South America

“If you look at the Cold War cases, unfortunately, in Central America the United States was hardly on the side of democracy. We were perfectly happy to support dictators in Central America if they were anti-communist. And similarly the overthrow of [Mohammad] Mosaddegh [in Iran]. Mosaddegh was democratically elected. It was a case of getting someone who was popular within Iran removed so we could have a tame client returning to Shah. In the context of the Cold War, in other words, the United States was quick to shelve a lot of its democratic ideals when it had national security imperatives or communist imperatives. After the Cold War, once the unipolar moment arrives, there is this much greater sense that we can do lots of things in lots of places easily. We can expand NATO eastward and it won’t cause any problems. We can start thinking about transforming the Middle East as we ultimately do. We can take on new security obligations in the Middle East, in Europe and in Asia. We can do that all simultaneously. And all of this is going to be sort of a virtuous cycle: markets will spread, democracies will be implanted, China will be brought into this new democratic fold, it will become democratic eventually, of course, and we’re all going to live happily ever after in a truly wonderful world led by the United States.”

On the notion that powerful forces are spreading that power for the good of others

“Great powers always have a sort of justifying story that they tell. We’re also just a very liberal and very idealistic country. We believe strongly in our values. And I should make it clear that I like democracy, human rights and the rule of law and, for that matter, living in a market economy as much as anyone. I’m very glad that that’s the way the United States is run. But what I think all of these views miss, however, that spreading your own ideals, no matter how much you like them, into other societies — societies that have very different histories, that have very different values, that are often divided along religious lines, along sectarian lines and, in particular, don’t want to be told how to organize their own affairs by someone coming from abroad, no matter what their intentions are — that gets forgotten. And of course that’s one of the reasons this problem has gone so badly.”

On the decline of democracy

“The easiest way to see this is look at the world we had in 1993, when we expected everything was going to go swimmingly, and the world we’re in today. Back in 1993, the U.S. is on good terms with all of the major powers, including Russia and China. Democracy is in fact spreading into Eastern Europe and in parts of Latin America. Iran has no nuclear enrichment capability at all in 1993. Iraq has been disarmed after the first Gulf War. The Oslo peace process is underway, so we’re thinking that maybe we’re going to get peace in the Middle East. Extraordinary optimism there. Now fast forward to 2018: the relationship with Russia and China is worse than it’s been since the Cold War. There’s been no progress toward peace in the Middle East; in fact, most people believe the two-state solution that the United States has actively promoted is farther away than ever. Iran had as many as 19,000 centrifuges before signing the nuclear deal, but they’re essentially a latent nuclear power. Oh — India, Pakistan and North Korea have all tested nuclear weapons. And finally, democracy is in retreat in lots of different places. Freedom House reported last year that it was the 12th consecutive year of a decline in global freedom. So when you have President Bush saying that that’s our goal, to end tyranny in the world, that goal doesn’t seem to be working out. One final point — The Economist magazine last year in its democracy index downgraded the United States from being a full democracy to a flawed democracy. So it seems to me if the project here was to spread American values far and wide, that project has failed, and with quite significant geopolitical consequences for us, along with the costs we’ve seen in a variety of different places.”

On how American endeavors have been sold to the American public by the foreign policy elite

“One of the points that I make in my book is that the foreign policy elite, and especially the presidents and the executive branch, have all sorts of advantages in selling policies to the world. I point out that there’s actually a pretty significant gap between what the American people actually say they want — they want a more restrained foreign policy. They don’t want to engage in all of these crusades around the world. So how do you convince them to go along? Well, you do the things that the Bush administration did, but, again, it’s not unique to the Bush administration. You inflate threats. You pretend enemies are 10-feet tall and have to be dealt with immediately. You exaggerate the benefits — so by doing Iraq, by doing Libya, lots of good things are going to come of all of this. You try to conceal the costs, so you use an all volunteer force so you don’t have to draft anybody and you don’t raise taxes to pay for any of these adventures. All sorts of things designed to make sure that the American people don’t really notice in any visceral, visible way what’s happening. And then finally this community tends to be a rather self-protective one. So you don’t hold people accountable for failures. And it doesn’t matter how many times you may screw up as a practitioner of foreign policy in the United States, it’s really hard to lose a position within that elite.”

From The Reading List

Excerpt from “The Hell of Good Intentions” by Stephen Walt


In March 2013, a member of the State Department’s Policy Planning staff invited me to speak at the department and requested that I “be provocative.” Happy to comply, I titled my talk “Why U.S. Foreign Policy Keep Failing.” A lively but friendly discussion followed, and it occurred to me afterward that my remarks might form the basis for a short book. I estimated it would take about a year to write.

Like the men and women responsible for U.S. foreign policy in recent years, I badly misjudged the difficulty of the task I had undertaken. Nonetheless, a full draft of the manuscript was complete in October 2016 and I anticipated the book would appear near the end of Hillary Clinton’s first year as president. The timing would be ideal, I thought, as I expected Clinton to repeat many of her predecessors’ mistakes, making a hard-hitting critique of U.S. grand strategy both timely and valuable.

Donald Trump’s unexpected victory in November 2016 was an awkward surprise in more ways than one, but it was also an ideal opportunity to test my core argument about America’s foreign policy elite. Candidate Trump had challenged many enduring orthodoxies about U.S. foreign policy, and he was openly dismissive of (and dismissed by) Democratic and Republican foreign policy experts alike. Once in power, however, Trump discovered that overcoming the foreign policy establishment was much harder than he had expected. Trump’s presidential style is obviously different from his predecessors’ and he has altered U.S. policy in some significant ways, but the foreign policy revolution that he promised back in 2016 remains unrealized. This book will help you understand why.

In some ways, this work is the logical continuation of a research program that I began pursuing in graduate school. In “The Origins of Alliances” (1987), I argue that proper understanding of the causes of international alliances could explain why the United States and its main allies were significantly stronger than the Soviet bloc, and could reduce concerns that key allies would realign with the Soviet Union if the United States did not constantly reassure them. “Revolution and War” (1996) explores the international effects of domestic revolutions and argues that efforts to overthrow revolutionary powers often contribute to spirals of hostility and thus make war with them more likely. “Taming American Power” (2005) explains why both friends and foes were concerned about America’s dominant position after the Cold War, shows how other states were trying to counter U.S. power or exploit it for their own ends, and argues that the United States could have defused such efforts by adopting a more restrained foreign policy. And in “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy” (2007), John Mearsheimer and I show how a powerful domestic interest group can influence U.S. foreign policy in significant ways, to the detriment of broader U.S. national interests.

Each of these works cast a skeptical eye at important elements of U.S. foreign policy and tried to show how it could be improved. The present book develops that theme in detail, focusing on the enduring role that elite foreign policy institutions play in shaping U.S. strategy and managing America’s relations with the wider world.

In particular, this book seeks to explain why the United States spent the past quarter century pursuing an ambitious, unrealistic, and mostly unsuccessful foreign policy. Having won the Cold War and achieved a position of primacy unseen since the Roman empire, why did U.S. leaders decide to maintain a military establishment that dwarfed all others and expand an already far-flung network of allies, client states, military bases, and security commitments? Instead of greeting the defeat of its principal rival as an opportunity to reduce America’s global burdens, why did both Democrats and Republicans embark on an ill-considered campaign to spread democracy, markets, and other liberal values around the world?

This strategy – sometimes termed “liberal hegemony” – has been a costly failure. Yet three successive administrations – under Clinton, Bush, and Obama – clung to it, even as the costs mounted and the quagmires multiplied. Why did Washington persist in the face of repeated setbacks, and how did the foreign policy establishment convince the American people to support policies that were neither necessary nor successful?

Part of the explanation is America’s remarkable combination of wealth, power, and favorable geography. Because the United States is the world’s most powerful nation, faces no threats in the Western Hemisphere, and is protected from the rest of the world by two enormous oceans, it can intervene in distant lands without placing its immediate survival in jeopardy. Yet this explanation is not the whole story, because those same favorable circumstances would also permit the United States to reduce many of its overseas commitments and focus more attention on problems at home.

Instead of pursuing a more restrained grand strategy, U.S. leaders opted for liberal hegemony because the foreign policy community believes spreading liberal values is both essential for U.S. security and easy to do. They convince ordinary citizens to support this ambitious agenda by exaggerating international dangers, overstating the benefits that liberal hegemony would produce, and concealing the true costs. And because members of the foreign policy elite are rarely held to account, they were able to make the same mistakes again and again.

This book is highly critical of the foreign policy establishment, but the nature of my critique needs to be properly understood. America’s foreign policy elite is not a conspiracy of privileged insiders who are consciously seeking to advance their own fortunes at the nation’s expense. On the contrary, the institutions examined in this book are filled with dedicated public servants who genuinely believe that U.S. dominance is good for the United States and for the rest of the world. At the same time, however, the pursuit of liberal hegemony appeals to this elite’s sense of self-worth, enhances their power and status, and gives them plenty to do. These individuals also operate in a system that rewards conformity, penalizes dissent, and encourages its members to remain within the prevailing consensus.

In short, most of the men and women examined in this book tried to advance the national interest as they saw it. Unfortunately, the strategy they pursued with such energy and dedication was fundamentally flawed, and their mistakes were sometimes egregious. With the best of intentions, America’s foreign policy elite did great harm to others and considerable damage to the United States itself. And unless and until a new elite emerges with a different view of America’s role and a greater willingness to pursue a strategy of restraint, the errors of the past twenty-five years are likely to be repeated.

A single book cannot produce a revolution in U.S. foreign policy. But it is my hope that this book will help hasten the day when the United States adopts a foreign policy that actually enhances its security and prosperity and makes America’s core values more attractive to others. A foreign policy with those qualities would be closer to what the American people actually want, and easier to defend at home and abroad.

Stephen M. Walt

Brookline, Massachusetts

Excerpted from THE HELL OF GOOD INTENTIONS: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy by Stephen Walt. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on October 16th 2018. Copyright © 2018 by Stephen M. Walt. All rights reserved.

New York Times: “Is the World Becoming a Jungle Again? Should Americans Care?” — “President Trump seems determined to upend 70 years of established American foreign policy, especially toward Europe, which he regards as less ally than competitor.

“The Trump turnabout has set off a fervent search on both sides of the Atlantic for answers to hard questions about the global role of the United States, and what a frazzled Europe can and should do for itself, given a less reliable American partner.

“The German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, speaking before a conference of all Germany’s ambassadors last month, argued for a stronger European foreign and defense policy in the face of a suddenly uncertain future.

“‘The rules-based international order’ is eroding in a world where ‘nothing can be taken for granted any more in foreign policy,’ he said.”

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