Review: Walt’s Hell of Good Intentions

Stephen WaltStephen Walt

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.

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  1. Walt is a minor theoretician with a big ego that doesn’t exactly correspond with his theoretical contributions. “Off shore balancing,” is that all he has to offer? Please give me something new to brag about! Just like his inflated bandwagoning amendment of alliance theory that was equally problematic and is all but fully abandoned in the scholarly circle as little worthy of theoretical attention, the problem with Walt is that like the emperor, clothes has fallen, irrespective of his good personal intentions. Only the Americo-centric authors like this one can be so enamored of Walt, not any one credible in Global South.

  2. It seems Mr. Walt has conveniently forgotten the numerous coups to replace elected governments with dictators.

  3. I don’t have time or the mentation to read Professor Walt’s book. My takeaway here is — unless Ms. Pemberton neglected to address it in her review — that he should re-read his and Professor Mearsheimer’s 2007 tepid-but-nonetheless-essential attempt to expose the real elephant in the room: neoconism and Zionism, two sides of a malign coin that threaten the world in small and large ways. My lament always is that the hapless people and land of Palestine must bear the brunt of this ultimate colonialist, psychosis-driven obsession for “full-spectrum dominance” here, there, and everywhere. The cancer continues to metastasize….

  4. In reply to Roberthstiver, sure the Jewish Lobby was a good exposure of the subject and politically admirable but it was hardly anything new and without any theoretical foundation, claiming they knew Israel’s national interests better than their politicians! I bet little of the Jewish Lobby can be found in this new book, based on this author’s review, and one wonders why? After all both Bolton and Pompeo have been on Adleson’s payroll and Trump’s son-in-law is Jewish lobby’s trojan horse as is his Jewish daughter. Walt in Jewish Lobby in fact empowered it to a higher prominence under the guise of critiquing it.

  5. “Fred,” as I acknowledge your comment received via my email system (oddly, it doesn’t appear on this page; I’ll copy-paste it below within this comment), I’m not sure that I follow your logic or flow. I have generally found Mearsheimer to be more outspoken and passionate than Walt about the omnipresence and dangers presented by the Lobby, so perhaps that’s why Walt is silent here. I can’t see that the 2007 M-W book needed a “theoretical foundation” in its time…Alison Weir’s “Against Our Better Judgment” has delved into that as surely others have done (and we need more Palestinian activists like Dr. Ramzy Baroud to step up and speak out). Pompeo and the clever, focused, evil Bolton are traitors to US — US!! — core national interests, and we — Walt, Paul Craig Roberts, Miko Peled and numerous other aware folk — must continue to resist and solidify the case that the USrael “entangling alliance” is fraught with ultimate disaster. I’m beginning to run on and run short on cogent thought…I’ll leave on this disturbing note: my most erudite e-correspondent refers broadly to Occupied WashDC as the “Adelson/Trump regime.” I agree. What a helluva fix our country is in, and the world with it….

    In reply to Roberthstiver, sure the Jewish Lobby was a good exposure of the subject and politically admirable but it was hardly anything new and without any theoretical foundation, claiming they knew Israel’s national interests better than their politicians! I bet little of the Jewish Lobby can be found in this new book, based on this author’s review, and one wonders why? After all both Bolton and Pompeo have been on Adleson’s payroll and Trump’s son-in-law is Jewish lobby’s trojan horse as is his Jewish daughter. Walt in Jewish Lobby in fact empowered it to a higher prominence under the guise of critiquing it.

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