REPORT: The Hell of Good Intentions: A Conversation with Stephen Walt

Stephen M. Walt. Photo Credit: CATO Institute 

By: Meghan McGee, Reporter

On Wednesday, October 17, 2018, the Cato Institute hosted realist icon, Stephen M. Walt, to discuss and debate his newest book, “The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy”. The talk was moderated by Christopher Preble, Vice President of Defense and Foreign Policy Studies at Cato, with commentary by Stephen Wertheim, a Visiting Scholar at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies.

At the end of the Cold War, the United States emerged as the “winner” and the spread of liberal democracy seemed inevitable. However, despite the unipolar moment, today’s U.S. vision of the world has fallen short as relations with Russia and China have soured, the Middle East is in turmoil, and democratic institutions both at home and overseas are being eroded. With this is mind, Walt proposes that the failure of American leadership is a result of Washington’s foreign policy elites, lovingly called “The Blob”.

So, Walt asks “how did we get here?” According to Walt, the U.S. deserves most of the blame as its commitment to liberal hegemony, revisionist grand strategy, and attempts to make the world “in our image” have resulted in failure. Walt highlights the main flaws of America’s grand strategy. First, he highlights that America’s ambitious grand strategy inflates the need for defense spending because of its commitments to allies across the globe. Second, as a result, this allows allies to “free ride”—spend less on their defense because they are under the American security umbrella. Lastly, any non-democratic regimes that are opposed to this influence are sanctioned and sometimes threatened by force, increasing the likelihood of chaos and regime change. The U.S. thought its principles of democracy, freedom, and human rights could be universally applied but perhaps American primacy had gone too far.

For a traditionally realist scholar, Walt unexpectedly spoke extensively about the power of individuals. He believes that the powerful consensus amongst Washington elites, regardless of party-line, has resulted in a lack of diverse thinking in American foreign policy. Walt calls out the entities by name: from think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute and the Council on Foreign Relations to governmental organizations such as the Central Intelligence Agency and the U.S. Department of State, even academics at prestigious universities (such as our own Georgetown). Walt includes neither the Cato Institute nor himself in his criticism.

Walt’s criticism stems from the fact that there is “no educational requirements or certifications” to practice foreign policy. Instead people just need to convince someone in an office that they are “energetic, smart, and loyal” to a cause. He argues that anyone can network their way into this community of policymakers as long as they have a good reputation. There are a few ideas Walt highlights to emphasize the homogeneity of the Washington foreign policy community. For instance, the idea that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is beneficial to the US, or the idea that our commitment to our allies is untouchable. Other common ideas include not criticizing Israel, an unwavering support for the spread of democracy, and the centrality of human right to American influence. In Walt’s opinion, to question the conventional thinking in regard to American foreign policy can be damaging or even fatal to a potential career in the Washington. Walt points to the fact that it was hard for elites to call for restraint during a unipolar moment when it appeared liberal democracy had beat out communism.

While polls have shown that the American public wants a more restrained foreign policy, Walt argues elites continue on the same path because they are not held accountable when these policies fail. Walt uses former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz, as an example of someone who despite the failures of the Bush Doctrine continues to be employed in Washington. When asked about the present, Walt stated he believes that though President Trump’s “style” is different than his predecessors, he is still carrying out the wishes of the Washington elite.

Walt’s policy recommendations include offshore balancing, buck-passing, and setting a good example of democratic principles and human rights at home before pushing other states to implement them. One element missing from his recommendations is the specifics as to what offshore balancing with China would look like. He also did not address Russia (and potentially China’s) intervention in American electoral process. Can American primacy be a pushback against these adversarial actions on the domestic level? The commentator, Stephen Wertheim, did not highlight these points either.

Overall, Walt’s commentary was thought-provoking and did not receive much pushback from the audience which likely consisted of current and future “Blob” elites. I do find it fascinating that Walt—one of the most read theorists amongst aspiring foreign policymakers—didn’t also see himself as part of the problem for why so many elites think in the same way. Walt proposes there be more diversity of thought in the foreign policy community and believes the Cato Institute is one of the places that is making an impact. Despite the dreary analysis of current problems in America’s grand strategy, he was optimistic about the U.S. capability to do good in the world.

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