Stephen M. Walt is a leading proponent of the Realist tradition in the field of International Relations. Currently the Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University Walt recently published The Hell of Good Intentions: America's Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy, a book highly critical of American Foreign Policy and of the elites responsible for shaping the latter. His previous books include The Origins of Alliances, Revolution and War, Taming American Power and the highly controversial The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policythat he co-authored with John Mearsheimer. In addition to his academic articles, he regularly contributes to the VOICE section of Foreign Policy Magazine’s website. To discuss the future of the world order, America’s relations with Europe, the status of Russia and a Realist’s assessment of the China challenge, Soli Özel, Institut Montaigne’s Visiting Fellow in international relationsmet him in March in his office at the JFK School. He spoke with Walt about his book, the themes that he brings up in it and in his essays.
You are a fierce critic of the existing liberal foreign policy consensus. You believe that in the post-Cold War era the understanding of America’s role in the world has been the cause of disaster for American foreign policy making and America’s standing in the world. You argue in your latest book that throughout the 19th century the US benefited from the protection of the British led world order, just accumulated power. It intervened only when there were problems in Europe, and it did so twice. But the US has been very interventionist in Latin America. Secondly, even a leftist critic like William Appleman Williams argues that there is this sense of "manifest destiny" in American foreign policy making. This sentiment is ingrained in American political consciousness. How can you take this ideological component away from American foreign policy?
Ideology is critical and two of the reasons the United States go off on these crusades now are:
- they are very powerful;
- imbedded within American political culture lies a set of liberal values that happen to be universal in nature.
If all human beings have the same rights, then the most powerful country in the world, which claims to believe in these principles, has a responsibility to go and help the Rwandans, the Libyans, the Bosnians, the Iranians, and so on, or anyone else whose rights are being denied. So, it’s relatively easy to talk a liberal country into these sorts of crusades especially when it is very powerful and does not face any real rivals unlike during the post-Cold War era. I also agree with your take on our past behavior. If you look at U.S. history, we are just about the most expansionist great power in the modern world. We started out as thirteen little colonies, yet we got quickly all the way across North America and we were not very gentle about how this was done. We killed the native population or confined them in reservations, conquered a bunch of land from Mexico and intervened repeatedly in Latin America.
The US were pretty selective and reluctant to get involved in great power affairs far away, until after World War II. That was the main difference and the secret of our success for a long time. Until WWII and during its aftermath, we had never taken on a global role and our interventions were relatively limited even in our own region. Now, people on the political left would probably not like this but the US should try to maintain a dominant position in the Western hemisphere. If other great powers such as a resurgent China started intervening near our shores, the US should forge alliances or close partnerships with other Latin American countries to prevent outside powers from establishing a significant presence in this hemisphere.
You also suggest that the US should slowly but surely walk away from Europe; the Europeans ought to take more of the responsibility for their own security. In fact, you say the US had done them a disservice by making them so comfortable that they became complacent and too dependent. There are others, though, who think it is important to maintain NATO at a time of growing Asian power.
I’d say two things: first, it is unlikely that Europe and NATO would be a vehicle for helping the US deal with China. Asia is a long way away from Europe, and it’s not a vital interest to the Europeans, who are looking forward to extensive economic ties with a prosperous China. If the US were going to be focused on balancing China in Asia, paying more attention to our various Asian allies and our own presence there should be the principal focus of American Foreign Policy. Europe does not have a military role to play in that problem and they would be reluctant to jeopardize their economic ties. So, if we went to NATO and said "we want you to get on board" coupled with efforts to contain China, the European reaction would be "NO". And quite sensibly.
The second point is: if you want to keep NATO going, it has to be organized around whatever the central concern of Americans is. And this concern is going to be China in the future. Therefore, the new Transatlantic bargain –-and I am not saying that it is going to happen but it might— will have to be: we Americans will remain committed to Europe. But the quid pro quo is that Europeans will agree to limit their economic dealings with China. Certainly, they do not engage in high technology trade with China particularly anything that has to do with military application.