Scattergun: Stephen Walt blasts away at US foreign policy


Stephen Walt stepped up to the podium yesterday before a capacity crowd at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies and proceeded to deliver a highly engaging, entertaining and detailed critique of US foreign policy. But Professor Walt is a hard man to please, it turns out.

Reflecting upon the past several decades of US foreign policy, Walt finds that the preeminent position occupied by the US at the end of the Cold War was so advantageous that the country’s national interests should have been more adeptly secured. Time and again, the US has simply underperformed: US leaders have failed to secure Mideast peace, they have failed to halt the development or testing of nuclear weapons in North Korea, India and Pakistan, they stood by as a numbers conflicts raged in Africa and watched passively as genocide tore through Rwanda, they acted belatedly in the Balkans and the region remains unstable, they do not enjoy positive relations with Russia, they have failed to craft new major trade deals, the response to 9/11 included the invasion and occupation of two countries that failed to result in clear victories or the accomplishment of political goals there, and the 2008 election of President Obama – which promised change – has done little to adjust the aggressive and misguided tendencies of his predecessor but he was still awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Structural factors

Professor Walt offers a two-part explanation for these failures of US policy that includes both structural and domestic factors. Strategy requires prioritization and tough choices, but the US has been tempted to act (when restraint might have been more prudent) simply because of its powerful position. This temptation to fix the world’s problems is exacerbated by the  expansive US global military presence that enables worldwide power projection, but also entails some level of responsibility which then presents a constant challenge to US credibility. Walt points out that, as compared to containment during the Cold War, many of today’s issues are “left overs” because they’re not the easiest problems to solve and many involve “social engineering” in heterogeneous and impoverished states.

Other structural challenges to US foreign policy success include a tendency to be opposed or balanced by other states such as China and Russia (think Syria), free riding by US allies and, even worse, the temptation of some allies to overreach when backed by the US (think Georgia vs. Russia) or the temptation of some leaders to pressure the US when it has become clear that Washington has become dependent on them (such as the Karzai regime).

Domestic factors

Moving on to domestic factors, Walt is even more pessimistic. He sees an overwhelming bias among US foreign policy institutions toward an activist foreign policy – with think tanks and lobbying organizations pushing for US action. He sees a propensity to exaggerate threats, noting the chances of being struck by lightning have been far greater since 2001 than death by terrorist attack. Real debate about foreign policy is limited and a consensus seems to have formed between neoconservative Republicans and liberal interventionist Democrats. Debates are even more limited due to a number of “taboo” subjects that cannot be discussed freely, including policies toward Iran and Israel.

Other factors include the shroud of secrecy that has grown since 2001, preventing Americans from acquiring knowledge of US actions abroad and therefore making them unable to either fully understand foreign reactions to US policies nor debate the effectiveness of those policies. Walt humorously pointed out the apparent lack of accountability in US foreign policymaking circles, where those who “got it wrong” remain respected voices (Kristol, Wolfowitz, Elliot Abrams, Tommy Franks) and few military leaders have been relieved of command for incompetence. An unhealthy relationship also exists between the military and policymakers, with the former often appearing to successfully “sell” their perspectives to the latter and, by extension, the public.

The system for staffing the foreign policy system in the US is incredibly poorly designed, according to Professor Walt. With a small permanent civil service bureaucracy, the top jobs are held be political appointees that must be confirmed. This results in high levels of turnover and puts less experienced people in positions of responsibility. The confirmation process is time consuming and, when combined with the long election cycle, results in much less focus by the general public on foreign policy issues

Finally, as he is wont to do, Walt saved some criticism for his fellow academics. He decried the “cult of irrelevance” in political science that has failed to bridge the gap between the Academy and policymakers and resulted in their replacement by think tank analysts.

Walt’s conclusions

Professor Walt sees some systemic “real world” pressures forcing adjustments to US foreign policy, including departures from Iraq and Afghanistan and a reduced appetite for counterinsurgency operations. These and similar problems are not easily fixed, and the urgency to fix them will decline as the US continues to extricate itself from these failed ventures. Walt predicts that the rebalancing of US security policy to Asia will prove more challenging than the Cold War policy of containment. Greater distances are involved and regional allies have more cross-cutting interests that do not always align with Washington’s. A successful policy will require diplomatic skill and finesse – precisely what the US lacks. No “renaissance” in US foreign policy is in sight, warned Walt. Europeans will do well to think of themselves and not rely on the US for guidance or advice on solving their security issues.

In the final analysis, the United States is simply not skilled enough to run the world.

But why, one might ask, should it?

It may occur to some “card-carrying realists” that Walt’s list of foreign policy failures include a fair number of items for which the solution involves precisely the activist/interventionist tendencies that he identifies as problematic. It’s puzzling that a realist should even care about many of them. Mideast peace? Irrelevant as long as oil flows from the Gulf, and increasingly less relevant as domestic energy production grows. African conflicts and genocide? Unrest in the Balkans? Not core national interests. Trade deals? The realist yawns. Warm relations with Russia? States will cooperate when national interests are aligned, and in this case they often are not. Nukes in North Korea, India and Pakistan? Realists assume rationality and the massive US nuclear deterrent is sufficient to deter and contain such states, as Walt himself argued several months ago regarding Iran. Invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan? While misguided, these did little to alter the balance of power – though it would have been nice to invest the trillion dollars in “nation-building at home” to improve infrastructure or shore up the economy instead.

Perhaps the expectations have become too high. Because the United States is the most powerful military and economic state in the system, it is expected to act like a hegemonic power. But the rapid evolution of technology and communications, the democratization of military technologies and its availability to the masses, and the intricate economic connections between state and sub-state actors from terrorist groups to multinational corporations have made “running the world” even more elusive than during the Cold War – when the nostalgic perception of control may seem stronger today than the historical reality. Maybe a “realist” foreign policy shouldn’t try to prevent genocide, ink trade deals, broker Mideast peace or try to cozy up to Russia (which the current administration has attempted several times, once with a real (albeit mislabeled) “reset” button). What should a US strategy look like?

Offshore balancing, baby

According to one realist, “offshore balancing is the ideal grand strategy for an era of US primacy. It husbands the power upon which US primacy rests and minimizes the fear that US power provokes. By setting clear priorities and emphasizing reliance on regional allies, it reduces the danger of being drawn into unnecessary conflicts and encourages other states to do more to help us” This is Stephen Walt’s prescription from his 2005 book, Taming American Power (page 223), in which he suggests a strategy with features that are strongly reminiscent of that pursued by the Obama administration.

With the rebalancing to Asia, the US is prioritizing: the administration is recognizing the importance of the rising great power threat and reducing its emphasis on global terrorism, which can be contained (rather than rolled back) through the use of Special Forces and targeted strikes from unmanned aircraft. The risks of creating new terrorists from these actions should be considered but, as Walt noted yesterday, the risk of a terror attack is low and don’t amount to an existential threat. For realists, states are the threats that matter and not sub-state actors.

The Obama administration has attempted to “lead from behind” and resist foreign interventions in Libya and Syria, and it stayed mostly on the sidelines during the Arab Spring. When action was required – whether condemnation of North Korea, action in Libya or sanctions on Iran – the administration has gone to the United Nations to make these actions more legitimate and less threatening to other states in the system. The 2010 QDR emphasized the creation of regional security frameworks and argued that partner capacities be enhanced through missile defense cooperation, arms sales and mil-mil training. The 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance declared that US forces would no longer be sized for large scale land operations suitable for security and stabilization operations. The US now emphasizes offshore naval and air capabilities for deterring the anti-access/area denial assets possessed by states such as China and Iran, in order to have the option to “kick the door in” as any good offshore balancer must.

Is the US approach perfect? Absolutely not. And many of Walt’s observations regarding US policymaking “inside the black box” are accurate, even though one might debate whether a card-carrying realist should even find such dynamics relevant. It’s difficult to remain within the strict academic confines of a particular theoretical perspective when taking on a commentator role.

But honestly, Professor Walt, cheer up a little. The current administration is moving (or being moved) closer to your preferred strategy of offshore balancing, at least as much as the US can pursue such a strategy with all its domestic and idealistic baggage. And keep bridging that scholar-policymaker gap – we’re huge fans.


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