We are a public forum committed to collective reasoning and imagination, but we can’t do it without you. Join today to help us keep the discussion of ideas free and open to everyone, and enjoy member benefits like our quarterly books.
The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy
Stephen M. Walt
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28.00 (cloth)
There was a moment, if you recall, between the end of the Cold War (1991) and the start of the Great Recession (2008) that the air was suffused with optimism about the spread of U.S.-style liberalism. Back then it was commonly believed that the United States could use its overweening power—economic, military, and political—to shape the world so that democracy, human rights, economic interdependence, and durable peace would prevail. This sunny, even teleological, disposition defined Francis Fukuyama’s celebrated article (and later book), “The End of History,” Charles Krauthammer’s “The Unipolar Moment,” and Thomas Friedman’s breathless paean to globalization, The Lexus and the Olive Tree (1999). During these years NATO and the European Union admitted many new members. The outlook for democracy in Boris Yeltsin’s Russia was judged to be bright. And China, it was thought, would become a “responsible stakeholder” in the international community.
Now, international relations scholars such as Walt, Mearsheimer, and Bacevich are chanting, with increasing volume, “We told you so.”
Now, we are in an entirely different moment. Forecasts about the dissipation of U.S. preeminence have become routine. So have warnings about the atrophy of democracy, as witnessed by Steven Levitsky’s and Daniel Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die, Yascha Mounk’s The People Vs. Democracy, and Madeleine Albright’s Fascism: A Warning—all published this year. Illiberal parties and movements—of the left and right, not a few of the latter xenophobic—have surged across Europe, and Britain’s exit from the EU nears. Globalization faces a backlash, as intolerant nationalism makes headway from Brazil to Budapest.
And it is in this context that another group of scholars are chanting, in unison and with increasing volume, “We told you so.” There is John Mearsheimer’s recent The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities, Stephen Walt’s just-published The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy, and Andrew Bacevich’s brand new Twilight of the American Century. The message of these thinkers has now become commonplace in the international relations literature: the United States should ditch its commitment to liberal internationalism, reduce its defense spending and worldwide military commitments, direct the savings toward festering domestic problems, and insist that its wealthy allies in Europe and Asia take the lead in defending themselves rather than relying indefinitely on U.S. forces stationed on their soil. Those belonging to this school of thought—call it restraint-based realism—have also long been skeptical of democracy promotion, nation-building, and armed humanitarian intervention. They believe that these schemes, marked by millenarianism and ignorance about the history and culture of other countries, have failed, sometimes—as they predicted with Afghanistan and Iraq—disastrously.
Of these, Walt’s new book perhaps best reflects the chastened spirit of our times. In The Hell of Good Intentions, Walt presents a withering, if by now familiar, indictment of post–Cold War U.S. foreign policy. The record, he writes, has been marked by “visible failures and devoid of major accomplishments” and “both the overall condition of the world and America’s status within it had declined steadily and significantly between 1993 and 2016.” Not one to mince words or skirt controversy, Walt presents a broadside against liberal internationalism and democracy promotion, and he skewers the naivete and idealism that has guided U.S. foreign policy. Walt calls not just for introspection and humility, but for defenestrating the foundational principles—and people—that have informed U.S. foreign policy for the past quarter century. Tinkering, he warns, won’t cut it.
Walt’s discussion of the U.S. foreign policy establishment—its variegated composition, the networks connecting its members, the sources of its influence, and its abiding beliefs and utter conformity—is among the most convincing and entertaining aspects of the book. He makes the case that “the blob,” as he calls it, wields extraordinary influence and that its members thrive professionally even after they enable outsize blunders—they “fail upwards.” Think of the individuals who campaigned for the needless, disastrous 2003 Iraq war and assured us that it would bring democracy not just to Iraq but, eventually, to the entire Middle East. You’ll still find them at top think tanks, prestigious conferences, top universities, in lobbying groups, on television, and in the op-ed pages of leading newspapers—even in government.
The liberal internationalist agenda is appealing, but Walt argues it rests on three wrongheaded assumptions.
For Walt, as for Mearsheimer, the follies and fiascos of the last twenty-five years owe to this inbred establishment’s blinkered commitment to liberal internationalism, a worldview that unites Democrats and Republics and liberals and conservatives alike and that was embraced by Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. During these three presidencies the guiding assumption was that the United States should, for reasons of principle and self-interest, use its unrivaled power to spread liberal values across the globe. In practice, this meant engineering a world in which most countries, ideally all, embrace democratic ideals, human rights, global governance, markets, and the rule of law. Not only would such an international order preserve U.S. preponderance, it would also be safer because—and this belief has been central to the liberal internationalists’ credo—democracies don’t wage war on their fellow democracies. They also don’t slaughter their citizens and produce the bloodletting and upheaval that can culminate in civil wars and shattered states.
A world of democratic states, united further by the mutually beneficial ties of trade and investment, would approximate the ideal Immanuel Kant envisioned in his 1795 essay “Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch.” This, in stylized form, is the utopia that Walt believes still inspires the U.S. foreign policy elite. Moreover, he argues that they have proven adept at peddling it to the American people by manipulating patriotism and by exaggerating threats. In this sales pitch, not only is liberal internationalism a noble undertaking, but also one that can be realized without undue burdens, whether in blood or treasure. Remember, for example, the warnings that Saddam Hussein was consorting with Al-Qaeda and building nuclear weapons; the rosy predictions in 2003 that Iraqis would welcome the U.S. forces dispatched to topple Hussein with open arms; and the assurances that war-battered Iraq could be rebuilt using revenues from its oil wealth.
For those who dismiss such examples—for those to whom the Kantian blueprint still seems appealing—Walt argues that, in fact, the liberal internationalist agenda rests on three wrongheaded assumptions. The first is that other countries will welcome U.S.-style liberalism, notwithstanding the world’s political and cultural diversity. The second—widely shared by U.S. foreign policymakers and influential members of the media, academia, and think tanks—is that the United States can successfully promote democratic politics worldwide, thanks to unipolarity. The democracy building programs of organizations such as the U.S. Agency for International Development, the National Endowment for Democracy, and the International Republican Institute emerged from this belief. And when tougher measures are required, the foreign policy establishment believes that U.S. military force can vanquish despotic regimes, win hearts and minds, and impose democratic polities. U.S. foreign policy mavens also expect—and this is the third assumption underlying liberal internationalism—that the end of the Cold War will eventually render obsolete balance of power politics, spheres of influence, and nationalism based on blood, soil, and faith.
Despite the billions of dollars spent promoting it, democracy failed in twenty-seven states between 2005 and 2015.
To Walt, these assumptions constitute a fundamental misunderstanding of the forces shaping the world and therefore inevitably produced fiascos. Consider democracy promotion and nation building. The invasion of Afghanistan, and more so Iraq, was based on confidence that peerless U.S. military power could demolish oppressive governments and clear the way for nation building that would culminate in a democratic order—all without crippling complications or excessive costs. Yet in Afghanistan and Iraq, stability, to say nothing of democracy, are nowhere on the horizon, despite the colossal commitment of U.S. soldiers and money for almost two decades (almost 7,000 servicemembers have died as a result of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the ultimate costs are reckoned at $5.6 trillion). Instead, both countries remain sites of instability and venues for extremism, human trafficking, and drug smuggling. Not only has the Taliban not been defeated, it controls large chunks of Afghanistan. And in Iraq, Iran’s influence is at an all-time high. In regards to the anticipated global trend toward liberalism, Walt notes that despite the billions of dollars spent promoting it, democracy failed in twenty-seven states between 2005 and 2015.
Even the 1995 and 1999 humanitarian interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo—generally seen as successful—created fragile “Rube Goldberg solutions,” says Walt. And it has been far worse for the 2011 humanitarian intervention in Libya, which promised human rights delivered at the tip of the spear. Post-Gaddafi Libya’s anarchy and violence menaces states across North Africa. Regional powers—the Gulf monarchies and Egypt—have intervened in the melee with human rights being the last thing on their minds. In 2016 the World Bank warned that Libya’s economy verged on collapse, and the penury and violence have combined to make the country a launching-off point for impoverished people who desperately try reach Europe on makeshift boats.
The consequences don’t stop there. The resulting refugee influx has boosted right-wing nativist European movements, even in well-established democracies, while China and Russia feel betrayed that the UN Security Council resolution that authorized the Libya operation morphed into regime change. They see humanitarian intervention as another manifestation of U.S. power clad in the alluring garb of human rights and will likely veto such U.N. resolutions in the future.
Still, the U.S. foreign policy establishment thrives professionally even after they enable outsize blunders—they “fail upwards.”
What about that assumption regarding balance of power politics and spheres of influence? They were supposed to become passé, right? Well, consider how the architects of NATO expansion believed that it would bolster the security of its new Central European members and, along with membership in the EU, help consolidate their nascent democracies. They assumed that Russia’s leaders would see the alliance’s eastward march as benign and defensive, not as a gambit to exploit their country’s weakness by pushing a Cold War alliance toward its frontier. Yet NATO’s enlargement did contribute to a rupture with Russia. The Russian leadership had steadfastly opposed NATO expansion (yes, even under Yeltsin; it is wrong to dismiss it as Vladimir Putin’s fixation); and once Russia gained strength it push back—in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014. (And, in many ways, in Syria now.)
Not only has the U.S.–Russian relationship soured, Putin has aligned with China, selling it energy and top-shelf armaments and conducting joint military exercises. Both countries see liberal internationalism as an ideological offensive undertaken by the United States in order to intrude into their internal affairs and those of neighboring states. Russian arms have helped China acquire the muscle it needed to press its territorial claims in the South China Sea. A Pax-Sinica looms as Chines power and influence increase amidst declining confidence in U.S. global leadership.
Sounds pretty dire, right? Walt, a clear writer and incisive thinker, has written a fine book. But his critique amounts to an overstatement. Ironically, the realist appears oddly idealistic in his treatment of liberal internationalism. Democracy promotion, humanitarian intervention, global governance, and human rights have undoubtedly influenced U.S. foreign policy, as has the belief that the United States has a uniquely noble mission in the world. But on numerous occasions, during the Cold War and after, the U.S. government has been quite willing to dispense with liberal precepts and to play the game of power politics. The proposition that U.S. leaders naïvely made substantial sacrifices to advance human rights amounts to an urban legend.
Walt, the hardboiled realist, seems to accept at face value the lachrymose verbiage that laces State Department press briefings.
In fact, successive administrations, Democratic and Republican, have collaborated with various regimes with abysmal human rights records, including Saudi Arabia (Trump may have set a new standard in overlooking Riyadh’s brutality, but he builds on a solid foundation) and Egypt (its current strongman, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, has packed his jails with dissidents, uses torture, and shot more than 800 unarmed protesters dead in August 2013). Turkey and Central Asian autocracies—including, in the wake of 9/11, Islam Karimov’s police state in Uzbekistan—also come to mind. Before Washington painted Gaddafi as a monster in 2011, it saw fit to “render” terror suspects to his regime in prior years, fully aware of his long track record of torture. And in Yemen, starting with Obama, the United States has backed (through arms and other means) a Saudi-Emirati war that has shredded the principles of international humanitarian law. Repeated bombings of non-military sites have killed thousands of civilians there while a naval blockade has subjected millions of Yemenis to cholera and famine. There has not been a word of condemnation—not under Obama and certainly not under Trump. The United States itself is guilty of bad behavior: following 9/11, the United States resorted to torture and rendition and, especially under Obama, used drone strikes for targeted assassinations, employing permissive criteria. The International Criminal Court? Fine for bringing bad guys to book—but Americans are off limits. International legal norms? Dispensable in 1999 (Kosovo) and 2003 (Iraq)—and arguably for drone strikes.
None of this makes the United States an evil state—far from it—but it is less exceptional than it thinks it is. Walt is aware of the gap between avowed principles and actual practice, but nevertheless portrays U.S. foreign policy as impelled by democracy and liberalism and human rights. The hardboiled realist seems to accept at face value the lachrymose verbiage that laces State Department press briefings. A bit of Antonio Gramsci might have helped him—perhaps some Reinhold Niebuhr as well.
For his part, Walt does not depict a record of unmitigated failure. When the United States relies on cooperative diplomacy and deemphasizes the blunt instrument of force, he notes, it has achieved impressive successes. These include the removal of nuclear weapons from Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine following the collapse of the Soviet Union; the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, aimed at improving security at weapons of mass destruction (WMD) sites in the former U.S.S.R.; the 2003 deal that led to the dismantling of Libya’s nuclear installations; the Paris Agreement on climate change; and the nuclear deal with Iran, formally the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. But these, in his view, are exceptions.
His vision of a prudent foreign policy instead rests on three concise generalities. One element is restraint, which reduces to not being involved militarily the world over and appreciating the limits of military force and the value of diplomacy and multilateral cooperation. The second is offshore balancing: moving U.S. forces to pivotal regions, which he identifies as Europe, East Asia, and the Persian Gulf, rather than basing them permanently on the land mass of these areas. And the third element is devolving responsibility to allies so that they are forced to invest more in their self-defense and acquire the wherewithal to thwart a challenger until U.S. forces arrive.
Those who want a new approach to the world must do more than point out past blunders.
These sensible ideas deserve close attention, even if the blob will surely (and unfairly) brand them as appeasement, isolationism, or worse. But those who seek to transform U.S. foreign and national security policy must do more in order to prevail amidst strong headwinds, which is why Walt’s failure to develop detailed recommendations proves frustrating. What amount of defense spending will be required to actualize offshore balancing; how much money will be saved, and how? What should be the composition of a U.S. military designed to implement the policy of restraint? What if the U.S. military does indeed lose its supremacy? What if regional allies react to offshore balancing not by beefing up their armed forces but by appeasing aggressors? What if U.S. allies’ efforts to strengthen their militaries prove insufficient to deter, let alone defeat, powerful states bent on dominating their neighborhoods? Some of these questions have been raised by the more thoughtful critics of restraint. William Wohlforth and Stephen Brooks, for example, propose a modified version of a brawny internationalism that they call “deep engagement” in their recent book, America Abroad: The United States' Global Role in the 21st Century. But, alas, Walt fails to address them in any detail.
One cannot reasonably expect Walt to have written a soup-to-nuts operating manual for his restraint-based strategy. That is a complicated, Herculean task. Still, a scholar of such evident intelligence and erudition could surely have done more on this front, perhaps as part of a full-on engagement with the smarter versions of deep engagement. In consequence, although The Hell of Good Intentions works as critique of current U.S. policy, it does not do nearly as well in proposing a new plan of action. Many of Walt’s criticisms are well known by now, and those who want a new approach to the world must do more than point out past blunders. To beat the blob, they must also explain what an effective anti-blob offensive would entail, who its generals and foot soldiers will be, and what they propose for the future. That work remains to be done.
Rajan Menon is the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor of International Relations at the Colin Powell School, City College of New York/City University of New York, Senior Research Scholar at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, Columbia University, and a Fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
Twenty years of cruel anti-immigrant policy have left thousands of asylum seekers in limbo, detained in offshore prisons or in mainland commercial hotels.
The lawless—and ongoing—administration of the prison by four American presidents underwrites the broader democratic crisis we face today.
Racial redress should be modeled on the global anticolonial tradition of worldbuilding.