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A review of The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy, by Stephen Walt. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 400 pages, $28)

Liberal Hegemony’s High Costs

The Harvard international affairs expert’s work provides intellectual ammunition for those who want to understand how U.S. foreign policy has gone astray.


- September 2nd, 2019
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Foreign policy is very much an insider’s game. A handful of journals, scholars, and think tanks control its direction. Influential figures in both parties have formed a substantial consensus on the importance of preserving U.S. primacy over all contenders, the need to promote democracy and other liberal values, the vulnerability of the “international system,” and the corresponding necessity of U.S. leadership in every corner of the globe to secure the “rules based international order.”

As a professor of international affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Stephen Walt has a front row seat to the discussions, debates, and human types that dominate U.S. foreign policy. His assessment is bleak. With the leading lights of both parties wedded to the consensus that he calls “liberal hegemony,” the world’s predicted embrace of democratic capitalism and peaceful relations has not materialized. Instead, liberal hegemony has yielded long and inconclusive wars in the Middle East, regime change operations that have led to failed states in Libya and Yemen, U.S. military spending that dwarfs that of the rest of the world, resentment and passive resistance from our ostensible allies, along with increasing hostility from Russia and China.

In short, Walt makes a persuasive case that liberal hegemony is not succeeding, even on its own terms.

Walt is no stranger to controversy, having earlier touched the political third rail in an article that later became a book he co-authored criticizing the substantial and distorting influence of the Israel lobby. His latest work is no less ambitious or controversial, but looks at foreign policy as a whole: its assumptions, its culture, its practitioners, and its failures.

A Blinkered Bipartisan Consensus

Walt details the practice of liberal hegemony since the end of the cold war, when the United States found itself in the position of being the “sole superpower.” He explains that “the pursuit of liberal hegemony involved (1) preserving U.S. primacy, especially in the military sphere; (2) expanding the U.S. sphere of influence; and (3) promoting liberal norms of democracy and human rights.” This approach continued through the Clinton, Bush, and Obama presidencies, in spite of their superficial differences. Indeed, the bipartisan hostility to Trump shows how much consensus on foreign policy prevailed before his election, in spite of the heated debate over the Iraq War in the mid-2000s.

The early fruits of liberal hegemony include the ill-fated Somalia mission and the later intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo. But most infamously, liberal hegemony provided justification for the Iraq War and contributed to the never-ending Afghanistan campaign. In both cases, liberal hegemony did not counsel limited punitive expeditions, nor would it conceive of classifying certain areas of the world as ungovernable “shitholes” that needed to be cordoned off and avoided. Instead, we would stay until these countries were stable democracies—100 years if need be. As George W. Bush ambitiously put the matter in his second inaugural address, “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.”

One legitimate criticism of this strategy, for which we have real time confirmation, is that in addition to not achieving results in places like Iraq, Somalia, and Libya, these expansive aims have left little reserve for dealing with a genuine emerging competitor: China. Indeed, far from being prepared and equipped to counter a rising China, the NATO expansion counseled by liberal hegemony has driven the otherwise-declining power of Russia into China’s arms, while, at the same time, short-sighted free trade policies have expanded China’s economy while deindustrializing our own.

Walt acknowledges that Trump’s election was based in part on the American people’s rejection of the legacy foreign policy consensus. He is nonetheless critical of Trump on a number of grounds. For starters, and perhaps understandably for an academic, Trump’s style and apparent disorganization garner the lion’s share of criticism. In addition, Walt notes—correctly in my view—the apparent contradictions between Trump’s stated “America First” foreign policy minimalism and his acquiescence to the “blob” on issues like increasing troop levels in Afghanistan, bombing of Syria for its alleged use of Weapons of Mass Destruction, and his departure from his earlier ambition for more businesslike relations with Russia.

The author also notes that Trump’s hiring has not matched his stated aims. The high turnover among appointees, the hiring of unskilled amateurs like Rex Tillerson to head the State Department, as well as the appointment of philosophically hostile people like Nikki Haley and John Bolton to handle important foreign policy positions could not realistically have been expected to turn the behemoth foreign policy apparatus in the right direction.

Our Sclerotic Foreign Policy Professionals

In spite of these criticisms, Walt could be more sympathetic to the fact that Trump finds much inertia and passive resistance among the career foreign policy staff in the State Department, Department of Defense, and various intelligence agencies, while also facing the active weaponization of intelligence agencies against him in order to preserve the status quo. Indeed, one may view the entire Russian collusion episode not only as an attempted coup, but also as a partially successful attempt to manipulate Trump into maintaining implacable hostility to Russia desired by his critics on both the Left and the Right.

The author does provide a useful explanation of why all this wrongheadedness persists. In the past, foreign policy was less professionalized. Connected members of the Eastern Establishment—bankers, lawyers, and businessmen—might be tapped for the OSS or a stint in the State Department. The high water mark of American foreign policy success was arguably when corporate attorney Dean Acheson could be given a critical position because of his reputation and intelligence. This has been replaced in recent decades by the near-exclusive dominance of lifelong “foreign policy professionals,” who have engaged in a step-by-step acquisition of various credentials and associations.

Walt’s work is an important critique of the smart set. It exposes the high costs and meager benefits of “liberal hegemony,” as well as this philosophy’s apparent indifference to the security and prosperity of Americans.

One benefit of the past practice is that the amateurs from the business world had wealth and unrelated employment in the private sector to fall back upon if they happened to stray from the conventional wisdom. In other words, they could afford to be independent. By contrast, Walt describes the current practice of foreign policy professionals moving from professional schools, to think tanks, to various defense contractors, and then back to government as rewarding a combination of networking, card-punching, self-promotion, and towing the party line rather than a vindication of any particular ability or history of success on their part.

As the careers of people like John Bolton or Douglas Feith illustrate, rarely is one excluded from this world for something minor, like losing a war or making a completely wrongheaded prediction. In Walt’s words, “Instead of being a disciplined meritocracy that rewards innovative thinking and performance, the foreign policy community is in fact a highly conformist, inbred professional caste whose beliefs and policy preferences have evolved little over the past twenty-five years, even as the follies and fiascoes kept piling up.” Walt’s discussion of the insider politics and culture of the modern foreign policy professionals is one of the more useful and interesting aspects of his book.

Toward a New Realism

Walt concludes his study with an invitation to return to foreign policy realism and, more specifically, the idea of the United States as a “balancer.” This is less ambitious and costly than the status quo and is a product of the tradition of foreign policy realism, which is distinct from a more robust “isolationism.”

Balancing would limit U.S. attention to rising “hegemons” like China and critical national interests like open sea lanes in the Persian Gulf. Balancing would also exclude peripheral cases like who governs Yemen or whether Moldova is a democracy.

Walt, however, does not seriously consider how the blessing of geography renders much of this limited balancing also unnecessary. After all, whoever controls the Middle East will still need to sell its oil. And whether Japan or South Korea are in China’s orbit or ours, neither diminishes our practical invulnerability due to a combination of the large ocean barriers to any would-be adversary, especially when this is combined with our large nuclear arsenal. As illustrated by the U.S. rise in the 19th century or China’s rise today, husbanding wealth and minimizing foreign involvement is a reliable formula for preserving national strength that can be called upon when needed.

In spite of this criticism, Walt’s work is an important critique of the smart set. It exposes the high costs and meager benefits of “liberal hegemony,” as well as this philosophy’s apparent indifference to the security and prosperity of Americans. Walt comments on a telling passage from Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass as follows: “‘For the United States to continue to act successfully abroad,’ writes Haass, ‘it must restore the domestic foundations of its power.’ Improving the lives of ordinary Americans is of secondary importance; what matters to the foreign policy elite is preserving America’s capacity to shape events around the globe.”

Liberal hegemony, in spite of its high cost and lackluster record, gives a patina of “fighting evil” through its high-minded rhetoric, which taps into our collective national pride from defeating the Axis in World War II. Walt is skeptical. Acknowledging economic reality in the age of the managerial class, Walt suggests that much of this do-gooderism may arise from no small amount of self-interest: “A more restrained foreign policy would give the entire foreign policy community less to do, reduce its status and prominence, decrease the importance of teaching foreign policy in graduate schools, and might even lead some prominent philanthropies to devote less money to these topics. In this sense, liberal hegemony and unceasing global activism constitute a full-employment strategy for the entire foreign policy community.”

Pervasive group think, failure, and a sophisticated propaganda effort to shore up its prestige and power are the hallmarks of an elite that may soon find itself displaced. Walt’s work provides useful intellectual ammunition for those who want to understand how our foreign policy has gone astray and how our country can remain strong, independent, and secure by changing course in a more realistic and restrained direction.

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