by Miriam Pemberton
Stephen Walt knew he had a problem. A single grand strategy had dominated U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War, and he was its leading scourge. He planned in his new book, The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy, to try steering the Hillary Clinton administration, and subsequent administrations, away from this strategy with a compelling critique of its flaws.
That plan came a cropper when the electoral college installed a president who seemed to adopt some elements of the critique, while being manifestly incapable of the focus, patience, and strategic competence to implement them.
Walt’s Plan B was to proceed with the critique, and his alternative proposal, while adding material showing that Trump’s rhetorical attacks on the conventional wisdom have masked all the ways that he has followed it in substance. (The departures, Walt shows, he has botched.) With this plan, the Harvard international affairs professor has, over all, succeeded admirably.
Walt and others have labeled the dominant strategy “liberal hegemony.” The foreign policy establishment viewed the end of the Cold War as the chance to spread democracy and prosperity around the world. As the lone superpower, and beacon of liberal values and democratic institutions, the United States was the “indispensable” choice to lead this effort. Diplomacy and other non-military tools would be accompanied by military force capable of removing dictatorial regimes and installing the infrastructure of freedom in their place. U.S. dominance would be preserved by such policies as NATO expansion and a commitment to maintaining a footprint of 800 military bases across the globe.
Walt argues against this strategy principally by walking through all of its demonstrable failures to achieve its goals—in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and so on.
His argument is something of a downer, which the title sums up. Most of the true believers in this strategy are full of enthusiasm to alleviate suffering and make lives better around the globe—and full of the can-do spirit that the United States is the exceptional nation to do it.
But Walt also lays out the less admirable motives these true believers need to own. Along with the hubris that allows U.S. policymakers to see themselves as the deliverers of light to the world is the career they built on these aspirational foundations. Walt points to the interlocking web of think tankers, corporate lobbyists, congressional allies, and foreign policy officials who depend on preserving liberal hegemony’s…hegemony. These interests drive the proponents to overlook or explain away one foreign policy failure after another. The other institutions privileging this worldview include the major media outlets—Sunday talk shows, newspaper op-ed pages—that rarely find room for voices that decline to go along.
Two recent developments buttress his case. This month a group of former Obama administration foreign policy officials published an open letter calling on the Trump administration to withdraw all U.S. military support from Saudi Arabia for its war in Yemen. The letter falls short of a full apology for the Obama administration’s role in creating this humanitarian crisis that has put millions, many of them children, on the edge of disease, violent death, and starvation. They describe their own support for this war as “conditional” in contrast with the current administration’s “unconditional” kind. Nor, in writing at least, do they see in this disaster a reason to question the legitimacy of the other interventions the liberal hegemony doctrine propelled them to undertake. But the letter indicates that such doubts may be seeping into formerly untroubled brains, as a possible prelude to public discussion.
The other recent development points in the opposite direction—providing new evidence that the doctrine’s power is, as Walt says, deeply entrenched and resistant to change. The congressionally mandated National Defense Strategy Commission has reported that despite the Trump administration’s 10 percent increase in Pentagon spending and despite a level of spending close to the record of World War II, the U.S. need for military dominance requires that Washington strengthen its global role and give the military more money.
Walt’s proposed alternative is the strategy of “offshore balancing.” It argues that the United States should pull back its aspirations for global leadership, especially exercised through military means, and confine its power projection to situations that threaten its vital interests, with a focus on the Western Hemisphere, Europe, Northeast Asia, and the Persian Gulf. Cutting an ever-expanding appetite for military spending would allow more money to be spent at home as well as abroad on the “long-term ingredients of power and prosperity: education, infrastructure and research and development.” To address real threats to its vital interests, the United States would rely as much as possible on financial assistance to local forces. It would reduce the “free riding” of allies on the U.S. military. The United States would no longer jump in to override local political arrangements, thus diminishing nationalist resentments and even terrorist responses, that arise from U.S. efforts to build the world in its own image. And it would reduce the global U.S. military footprint.
Among the virtues of this approach, Walt says, is its better alignment with what Americans actually want. Though foreign policy elites are mostly committed to liberal hegemony, polling indicates that most Americans favor shared global leadership and more attention to nation-building at home.
In his zeal to undermine the liberal hegemony doctrine, Walt fails to find much of anything it has done right. His treatment of the Iran nuclear deal emphasizes how much of the mainstream foreign policy community opposed it—and how much Trump’s decision to withdraw from the deal lined up with their views. For my taste he might also have expressed a little more appreciation for the difficulty of watching the suffering and oppression of people living outside the realm of vital U.S. interests—i.e. its self-interest—and declining to try to do anything about it. And beyond a sentence or two, he leaves to others the task of grappling with what kind of non-hegemonic help might actually alleviate this suffering.
But as an indictment of the hubristic dreams of mainstream post-Cold War foreign policy, and an argument for an alternative, he has, clearly and persuasively, made his case.
Miriam Pemberton is a research fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies qnd a member of the Overseas Bases Realignment and Closure Coalition.