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The Fall of American Primacy?

Discussion between Soli Özel and Stephen Walt

The Fall of American Primacy?
 Soli Özel
Senior Fellow - International Relations and Turkey
 Stephen M. Walt
Professor of International Affairs at the John F. Kennedy School of Government

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.

I thought that the rise of China and the American focus on China plus the diminishing American interest in Europe would combine together in order to reinforce each other.

If the Europeans were sufficiently concerned about losing the American connection, this might be a realistic suggestion. I’ve been skeptical. I thought that the rise of China and the American focus on China plus the diminishing American interest in Europe would combine together in order to reinforce each other. It is possible that the Europeans would be so concerned about the loss of American protection, the American "insurance policy" if you will, that they would be ready to make additional compromises and line up with us. If an American warship got threatened or sunk by a Chinese submarine whose diesel-electric engine was built in Germany, this is not going to play well in American politics. Still, the Europeans may get increasingly worried on their own about China and there may be a bond there.

Finally: as you suggested, there are some Europeans who are increasingly concerned with China’s trade practices, and there is a growing consensus in the US around a more confrontational trade policy vis-à-vis China. Businesses worry about the costs of a trade war, but I think they recognize China had not been playing by the rules. The problem is that the Trump administration’s approach was not as effective as it could have been. Instead of staying in the Trans-Pacific Partnership and working with our Asian and European allies to present China with a united front, Trump has begun trade disputes with nearly everyone. 

What about Russia? You say if we had not pushed so aggressively for NATO enlargement, then their profound historical fears would not have been resurrected. But Russia is not simply a defensive power, it can also be an aggressive power. How do you deal with the Russia issue?

There is a lot to say on this subject. Great powers are very sensitive about what happens around their borders, regions that had traditionally been their concern. Therefore, it was naïve to the point of incompetence for the US – and the EU – to believe that we could continue to expand NATO and the EU eastward into Russia’s traditional sphere of influence – including Georgia and Ukraine – and expect them not to react. It appears that it never even occurred to the Obama administration that Russia might actually do something to derail the movement of Ukraine towards the EU, which Moscow clearly saw as the first step toward a broader security relationship. We should have anticipated that they would want to do something to stop that process. It is pretty clear that the West badly mismanaged the post-Cold War relationship with Russia. This is not to say Russia is blameless, or to imply that annexing Crimea was legal or legitimate. It was not. But Good lord, look at all the things we’ve been doing over the past twenty-five years.

Secondly, we have also exaggerated the long-term threat that Russia poses. It has done more with its interference in domestic politics through Facebook and social media than it has done with its army. That’s likely to continue to be the case because by all the normal indicators of power Russia is in decline. Its economy is dependent on gas and oil sales, its population is aging and declining, and it’s missing out on most of the technological developments that will drive prosperity in the future. This is not a future superpower. Russia’s economy is now smaller than Italy’s or Canada’s. And here’s a pro-tip: you don’t take over the world with an economy that is the size of Italy’s.

Great powers are very sensitive about what happens around their borders, regions that had traditionally been their concern.

NATO’s European members spend three to four times what Russia spends on defense every year. They don’t spend it very well, but these states clearly have the wherewithal to protect themselves. And the irony, here, is: it would be good for Europe, Russia and the United States to try to work out a deal, yet it is probably impossible under Trump because his own relationship with Russia is so tangled and so tortured. It would be good for Europe if Russia stopped interfering in Ukraine and stopped threatening the Baltic states or interfering with Europe’s domestic politics. It would be good for Russia if they did not have to worry about the continuous Eastward movement of Western political institutions. If NATO and EU expansion stopped for the foreseeable future, that would be good for Russia. Lastly, it would be good for the United States if Moscow and Beijing started to be drifting further apart as opposed to being pushed together.

So, there is a deal here that could be good for all three parties concerned. 

China; has it arrived? Is it really the ascendant power? Like the Germany of the 19th Century, France of the 18th Century or Napoleonic France? The Soviet Union? Are we in a Second Cold War or is this something different?


I don’t think we are in a Second Cold War. I don’t think China has the capabilities that the Soviet Union had after World War II yet. The Soviets had acquired their own nuclear weapons. They did have a large conventional army. The actual threat it posed may have been exaggerated somewhat but it was hardly trivial or imaginary. Communist ideology attracted millions of sympathizers around the world. It did have a magnetic appeal to many people. Therefore, it was understandable that many worried this ideology would spread, particularly in the era of decolonization. So, there were many reasons to take the Soviet challenge seriously.

China is not yet in that category.

The level of animosity between the two societies even now is not as great as it was between the Soviets and Americans during the Cold War.

I often say that when American hedge fund billionaires start buying condominiums in Shanghai so they have some place to go if things go south here in the US then you’ll know that something has really changed. That doesn’t seem to be happening.

The level of animosity between the two societies even now is not as great as it was between the Soviets and Americans during the Cold War. Think the 1950s-era McCarthyism in the US and some of its analogues in the Soviet Union. Finally, there is a lot of uncertainty still whether or not China’s rise is inexorable; whether or not they’ve just done the easy part going from being a very poor country $150/capita in 1978 to roughly $9,000/capita now. That’s remarkable but there are lots of countries that made that transition, then got stuck. People call that the middle-income trap. Going from $10,000/capita to $30,000 that’s hard to do. The US is now $50-60,000/capita so there is a long way to go for them to be as wealthy as the US ultimately is.

Moreover. their demography will be a considerable challenge over the next several decades. Their population is going to shrink and the median age will rise dramatically.

I will say HUAWEI.

Yes, it’s not that they have not developed some industries that are very good in what they do. The question is whether they can do that across the board, in every important economic sector. Xi Jinping said he would like to turn China into the leading country in a whole series of critical technologies. There is also a little bit of blue smoke and mirrors going on when people point to Chinese technology and say that this will give them somehow this magical ability to do all sorts of things. They say that if we rely on Huawei technology, it is really a Trojan horse and it will infect all our societies. Someday someone in China will be able to flip a switch and turn off the American economy because we are relying upon some Chinese software. I think this is pretty far-fetched. If that’s something they are able to do down the road, it will be because we were not paying attention, not because they had this magical strategy.

If this does not scare you, then Belt and Road doesn’t either?

The Belt and Road initiative is again overhyped. It’s not going to be the reliable tool of influence China is hoping for. The principal way that makes it a source of influence has been through bribery. When the Chinese come in and invest in a country, there is a lot of money being paid to various people along the way. They like having that investment come in because it enriches them. They may want to do nice things for China because they want to keep that money flowing in. But that’s about it. After China builds a dam or a railway or some port facilities, they can’t threaten to take it apart and ship it back to China if the host country doesn’t do what they demand. Remember, there is also a long history of Western countries investing in other economies and then discovering that  didn’t give them full political control.

Two of your recent articles in Foreign Policy were about Syria. In the first one, you laid out your original position and then asked if a few years later it was still valid. Then, in the second piece you answered your own question in the affirmative. I remain unconvinced that the position you took, which highlighted that not doing much because we cannot do much, was the right position.

I view the Syrian situation as one where reasonable people could disagree on what the American course of action should be. It was a hard call. The Obama administration felt it was a hard call. There were people in the administration who argued that we needed to do more, be more actively involved backing the opposition to Assad. We did back it, by the way, but we did not go "all in" to overthrow Assad.

I believe what stayed Obama’s hand was Libya. There was a mess there and if you have created a mess you bear some responsibility.

The Powell doctrine right: "You break it you own it"

Exactly, so you should be extra careful about what you decide to break. Powell’s real message was about Iraq: "don’t do this unless we absolutely, positively have to". But there is another concern: "don’t make things worse". Yes, we created a mess in Iraq and that led to the formation of ISIS. Although what was happening in Syria was only partly related to what we had done in Iraq. The question was whether doing more in Syria would make that situation better or make it worse. And Obama’s judgment and my judgment -which could be wrong- was that for the US to get more actively involved at that stage would have made things worse. If we removed the Assad government we would have created anarchy there. We’d have to put in 100 thousand troops or more to police the place.

They would then have become the objects of an insurgency in the same way that it happened in Iraq. Jihadis would have been strengthened and seen the West or the United States once again intervening, trying to run roughshod over Muslim societies. We would have had an even bigger mess on our hands.

Powell’s real message was about Iraq: "don’t do this unless we absolutely, positively have to".

So, rightly or wrongly, Obama made the decision that getting more deeply involved was not going to fix the problem instead it would make it even worse. Ultimately, the only solution in Syria was to let Assad win. That’s an outcome nobody should be happy with. But in terms of ending the war, ending the suffering, generating some stability, and creating the conditions for the Syrians to go back to their home and rebuild, it’s better than the alternatives.

My final question has to do with the US in three parts: one is China. Graham Alison, wrote Destined for War: Can the US and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap?. Others have argued that declining powers are even more dangerous than rising powers in terms of an outbreak of war. Do you have that concern? Secondly, you’ve written a lot about Israel and Palestine and you and your co-author John Mearsheimer have been severely criticized for your book on the Israel Lobby. With this freshman cohort in Congress that issue has been rekindled. It stirred up debate in the Jewish community. The general reaction is also a lot milder. Why? The third part is about your book. It is not just an indictment of the existing foreign policy approach. It also makes suggestions about what the proper policy should be: "off-shore balancing". What are the odds that the next administration would heed at least some of your advice? President Trump raised important and sometimes very valid questions. How much do you think those questions are going to be understood, appropriated and raised again by an alternative administration?

I don’t think there is an iron law that declining powers become more bellicose or aggressive or suggests that they invariably lash out to hang on to what they’ve got. I was not persuaded by Allison’s analysis of the historical record, which led to his gloomy conclusion. Big shifts in the balance of power create considerable potential for trouble, but it’s not necessarily the declining power that starts the conflict. It is interesting that for all of his limitations as a foreign policy President, Trump thus far has not been especially interested in serious military action. So far, he’s more bark than bite.

One sees this as well in Trump’s policy toward Iran. He left the nuclear deal, announced a new policy of "maximum pressure", and has a couple of real Iran hawks – John Bolton and Mike Pompeo  in top positions. They would all like to see regime change there, but I don’t think Trump wants to use military force, and certainly does not want to invade a country of more than 80 million people. This confrontational policy is extremely short-sighted, but I’m not as concerned about the danger of all-out war. I don’t think the risk is zero, I don’t think we are on the brink of war either. I hope I’m right.
On Israel-Palestine; First of all, when we wrote our book, what we were saying was new and controversial and we got a lot of "attention" for it. What has happened over the next ten years is that more and more people recognized we were right. Even though we were heavily attacked at the time, what we were saying was obvious to anybody who had looked closely at American Foreign Policy in the Middle East for the past 25 years, or to anybody involved in these issues in Washington. All one had to do was look at the Obama administration and the opposition they faced trying to get a two-state solution. Obama and Kerry bent over backwards to accommodate the Israelis and they still got hammered by the Israel lobby and the Netanyahu government.

There is also a generational change happening in the US. You have a new generation in Congress, unwilling to subscribe to the old orthodoxies. A big shift is taking place in the American Jewish population along generational lines. Younger American Jews are not as interested in Israel as their parents were and they are much more critical of the Israeli government. And a big reason for that is the realities on the ground. Israel isn’t a vulnerable David facing a dangerous Arab Goliath; it is a powerful, nuclear-armed country that is using its might to suppress Palestinians’ rights. Because of the occupation and the rightward drift of Israeli domestic politics, it has become much harder to defend the "special relationship". It still has very powerful set of organizations and groups here in the United States, both Jewish and evangelical, but they are defending a much less appealing product now.

"Why should the United States be spending 3.5% of GDP on national security defense when Germany won’t spend even 1.5% and can’t put an army on the field any longer?"

Finally, the third part: To what extent are we going to get a more sensible foreign policy? I think there are very powerful forces moving in that direction. They just have a long way to go. Our foreign policy elite is not that smart. We have an elite that got accustomed to trying to run the world, trying to shape local politics around the world. I say in the book that liberal hegemony trying to reshape the world is a full employment policy for our foreign policy establishment. It gives them lots to do. It hasn’t worked very well but it kept them busy and they are very strongly committed to it but young Americans are not interested in these sorts of crusades.

As China emerges as a more serious rival, the US is no longer quite as unconstrained as it was during the so-called unipolar era when we thought we could do anything and not have any costs or risks. Now we have to start making choices, decide what’s more important: Asia or the Middle East? Africa or Europe?

A realist would say we are back in the era of Great Power politics. In a world where you face rival great powers, you have to be strategic and set some priorities. That’s actually good because it forces us to stop doing some of the stupid things we’ve done and focus on what is most important. Finally, I do think that now for the first time since the end of the Cold War we see a genuine debate over a lot of these questions in journals of opinion, in op-ed columns. Some of this is due to Trump. He came to power and questioned all these orthodoxies, such as his statement that maybe it would be better for Japan and South Korea to have their own nuclear weapons and not rely upon us to protect them.

These were heretical thoughts, which is why he was opposed by both Democrats and Republicans in 2016. Once he started raising these things up he made it possible for more knowledgeable or sophisticated people to say "hey he has a point. Why should the United States be spending 3.5% of GDP on national security defense when Germany won’t spend even 1.5% and can’t put an army on the field any longer?". Yet, as soon as there are problems in Ukraine they call Washington and expect us to fix their problems. We’ve got other problems.

And over time, the US will move away from liberal hegemony and move towards a more off-shore balancing approach.

It’s not that we dislike the Germans or that we don’t trust the Germans. We just think that the Germans could actually defend themselves, especially if they coordinated defense policy with other states in European Union. Is this such a crazy idea? Not really. Whether he intended to or not, Trump has made it easier to raise these questions and I believe that you will see a very lively debate about the fundamental principles of American foreign policy in the next election and beyond. And over time, the US will move away from liberal hegemony and move towards a more off-shore balancing approach.

I wrote my book so that this process would take 15 years - as opposed to 30.


Copyright : MANDEL NGAN / AFP

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