Stephen M Walt, who teaches international relations at Harvard’s Kennedy School and writes a column for Foreign Policy magazine, is no stranger to controversy. In September 2002, at a moment when both liberal hawks and neoconservatives were cheering for the George W Bush administration to topple Saddam Hussein, he helped organise an open letter signed by over two dozen international relations scholars that appeared as an advertisement on the New York Times Op-Ed page, declaring “War With Iraq Is Not in the US National Interest.” Next, in 2006, he and John J Mearsheimer published a lengthy essay in The London Review of Books that was called “The Israel Lobby.” It caused an international furore, and an expanded version became a best-selling book. Now, in The Hell of Good Intentions — the title seems to take aim at the former United Nations ambassador Samantha Power’s impassioned book about the historical failure to prevent genocide, A Problem From Hell — Mr Walt denounces America’s pursuit of a “liberal hegemony.”
Like Edmund Burke, who warned, “I dread our own power and our own ambition; I dread our being too much dreaded,” Mr Walt views America’s recurrent bouts of missionary zeal with consternation. As a longstanding member of the realist school of foreign policy, which has traditionally subordinated considerations about human rights and morality to a balance of power, Mr Walt might be expected to wax enthusiastic about Donald Trump, who has espoused a “principled realism” and condemned the foreign policy establishment. He, however, exhibits as much disdain for Mr Trump’s bellicosity as he does for the liberal internationalists that he indicts here. Mr Walt’s book offers a valuable contribution to the mounting debate about America’s purpose. But his diagnosis of America’s debilities is more persuasive than his prescriptions to remedy them.
According to Mr Walt, the dominant narrative after the conclusion of the Cold War was that history was on America’s side, even, as Francis Fukuyama put it in a famous 1989 essay in The National Interest, that so-called history had ended and all that remained was economic materialism. Globalisation would lead to what Karl Marx had called in the Communist Manifesto a “universal interdependence” among nations; warfare would become a thing of the past. America’s mission was to push other states to protect human rights and to help them transition to democracy.
In Mr Walt’s view, “despite minor differences, both liberal and neoconservative proponents of liberal hegemony assumed that the United States could pursue this ambitious global strategy without triggering serious opposition.” But the very steps that America took to enhance its security, he suggests, ended up undermining it. He reminds us, for instance, that George F Kennan warned in 1999 that NATO expansion eastward was a “tragic mistake” that would, sooner or later, ignite Russian nationalism. Under Vladimir Putin’s leadership, Russia became a revanchist power that launched cyber attacks on the Baltic States, seized Crimea, invaded Ukraine and interfered in the 2016 American presidential election. In Walt’s telling, “the energetic pursuit of liberal hegemony was mostly a failure. … By 2017, in fact, democracy was in retreat in many places and under considerable strain in the United States itself.”
Mr Walt persuasively contends that Washington’s bungled interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya helped propel Donald Trump, who has consistently derided foreign policy experts, to the presidency. But so pervasive is the influence of the foreign policy elite, he argues, that it has managed to capture Mr Trump himself. In Afghanistan, Trump ditched his campaign vows and bolstered American force levels, claiming that they would engage in counterterrorism rather than nation-building. Mr Trump has presided over an approach toward Russia and China that is driving them into each other’s arms, precisely as realist doctrine would predict. With foreign policy hawks like the national security adviser John Bolton and the secretary of state Mike Pompeo on the White House team, Walt perceptively observes that, far from being an isolationist, Trump has enabled a return to the confrontational unilateralism of Dick Cheney.
So how to rescue the superpower from its own miscues? Mr Walt advocates what is known as offshore balancing. Offshore balancers, he says, believe that only a few areas of the globe are worth fighting to protect, with the Western Hemisphere paramount among them. When it comes to Europe, Northeast Asia or the Persian Gulf, America would intervene to uphold a balance of power only in extremis, and preferably after a war had already begun. Mr Walt notes that while this may sound like a radical idea, it once was the guiding precept for American foreign policy.
In truth, any president who announced such a strategy would immediately initiate a free-for-all around the globe as local potentates tested Washington’s resolve. Mr Walt also makes the easy assumption that America can remain a pre-eminent power, but the mounting national debt and Mr Trump’s steady conversion of the country into what amounts to a rogue state could lead to a very different outcome. Soon Americans may discover that the only thing more vexing than exercising dominance is forfeiting it.
The hell of good intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of US Primacy
Stephen M Walt
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
384 pages; $28
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