How the United States is Losing the Great Game A recent book describes American foreign policy as an egregious mistake sustained by a dysfunctional elite.

The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy

By Stephen M. Walt (2018, Farrar, Straus and Giroux) 384 pgs. with index and illustrations

With U.S. foreign relations in disarray–quarrels with allies, abandoned arms limitation treaties, inexplicable changes in troop deployments–The Hell of Good Intentions provides the relief of clear analysis vividly expressed. Stephen M. Walt, the Robert and Renée Professor of International Affairs at Harvard University, is a prolific scholar of foreign relations. He writes regularly for Foreign Affairs and publishes widely circulated opinion pieces. The Hell of Good Intentions is a scathing denunciation of what he sees as the false premise, abject failure, and unmerited persistence of “liberal hegemony” as the activating principle of post-Cold War foreign policy. Defying conventional wisdom, Walt urges its abandonment. “Offshore balancing,” a policy of restrained global ambitions and defined strategic priorities, should be the replacement. Continuing to pursue liberal hegemony, he warns, is almost certain to accelerate the nation’s decline.

Advocating the complete redirection of the nation’s foreign policy is a more than bold endeavor. As the co-author, with John J. Mearsheimer, of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, Walt is familiar with notoriety and harsh attacks. Mearsheimer and Walt argued that the lobby played an outsized role in propelling the disastrous war for regime change in Iraq, spurred U.S. hostility to Iran, and defended settlement activity that contradicted the long-term interests of both the United States and Israel. The international outcry was huge. Fortunately, Walt has the thick skin and sharp wit that will be needed to answer defenders of the liberal hegemony he excoriates in this book.

Victory in the Cold War left the United States on a pinnacle of power, from which, Walt writes, it could have used a “peace dividend” for urgent domestic needs and assumed a less interventionist posture internationally. Instead, the successive administrations of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama interpreted what appeared to be superpower status as an invitation to adopt liberal hegemony as the dominant strategy.

The Hell of Good Intentions is a scathing denunciation of what he [Stephen M. Walt] sees as the false premise, abject failure, and unmerited persistence of “liberal hegemony” as the activating principle of post-Cold War foreign policy.

Walt defines liberal hegemony as an effort to recreate the world in the image of “democracy, markets, and other liberal values.” As the dominant credo of the foreign policy elite, liberal hegemony reflected the narcissistic assumption that other nations want to imitate the United States and can be made to cooperate without excessive expense or bloodshed. Absent the challenge to contain the USSR, the gigantic United States military could make short work of much smaller “rogue nations.”

Walt succinctly lists what he sees as the globe-spanning failures of post-Cold War liberal hegemony:

 

In Europe, open-ended NATO expansion poisoned relations with Russia, helped spark the frozen conflicts in Georgia and Ukraine, and drove Moscow closer to China. In the Middle East, “dual containment” [of Iraq and Iran] kept thousands of U.S. troops in the Gulf after the 1993 Gulf War, where their presence helped inspire the September 11 attacks. Subsequent U.S. efforts at regime change in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya led to costly debacles as well, and U.S. support for anti-government forces in Yemen and Syria failed to produce stable, pro-American governments.

 

The strategy of liberal hegemony failed, in Walt’s view, because it was not rooted in understanding of or respect for the varied aspirations of other nations, the realities of global power politics, or the real costs of aggression. Claiming to advance freedom and democracy, the push for liberal democracy brought instead Abu Ghraib, secret renditions, Guantanamo, greatly increased domestic surveillance, and other markers of state repression. Seeking to impose liberal democracy abroad has undermined it at home.

The Hell of Good Intentions tells the story of liberal hegemony’s extensive failures in the period 1993-2016 and analyzes why, despite failures, it remained the dominant strategy. Building on the author’s extensive earlier works on international relations, this book details how the foreign policy community, “the Blob,” as dubbed by President Obama’s deputy national security advisor, keeps a bad strategy center front, avoids accountability, and promotes the careers of individuals who have made egregious unacknowledged errors. Walt credits many of the individuals within the Blob as “genuine patriots who seek to make the world a better place, at least as they would define it.” (112) Taken as a whole, however, “today’s foreign policy elite is a dysfunctional caste of privileged insiders.” (95)

Walt defines the foreign policy community as “those individuals and organizations that actively engage on a regular basis with issues of international affairs.” (95) Identifying the people and priorities of a dizzying array of governmental and nongovernmental agencies, think tanks, websites, publications, lobbyists, and more, Walt finds resources and expertise that could underwrite extensive research and sharp debate. Instead, the Blob tends to create an echo chamber of support for an activist foreign policy. The route to success within the foreign policy community is through conformity, even around poorly reasoned assertions or explicit lies. The near-universal support within the Beltway for the 2003 Iraq invasion is astounding. Walt concludes “the most consistent voices opposing the invasion were outside Washington and had little or no effect on the decision.” (111)

Walt documents the tremendous disparity between foreign policy insiders and outsiders. The insiders “are far more numerous, well-funded, and influential in Washington than groups or organizations that favor greater restraint, less intervention, more burden-sharing with key allies, and, overall, a more realistic foreign policy.” (112-13) The much louder megaphone for an activist foreign policy has several amplifiers. Government agencies, perpetually in competition for funds and prestige, put a premium on demonstrating a need for action. The funders of the large membership organizations such as the World Affairs Councils, including “NATO, Raytheon, Northrup Grumman, Goldman Sachs, and the German Marshall Fund,” support the Councils’ opposition to isolationism because it dovetails with their own commitment to U.S. global leadership. (114)

Influential think tanks that take contrary positions on domestic social policy, such the “the Brookings Institution, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Heritage Foundation,” nevertheless all “lean strongly in the direction of a greater U.S. engagement” (115). Walt examines each of the major foreign policy institutes, foundations, special interest groups, and lobbyists. Despite differences of emphasis, their perspectives converge in a dismally uniform support for liberal hegemony which drowns out the much weaker challengers, “a handful of left-wing or antiwar organizations” and, in another quadrant of the political spectrum, the libertarian Cato Institute. (118)

Walt documents the tremendous disparity between foreign policy insiders and outsiders. The insiders “are far more numerous, well-funded, and influential in Washington than groups or organizations that favor greater restraint, less intervention, more burden-sharing with key allies, and, overall, a more realistic foreign policy.”

Similarly, the most influential media outlets and academic institutions favor an interventionist foreign policy. Walt traces the trajectory of foreign policy columnists across the top tier of the “establishment press,” The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post. He finds that they offer only token expressions of conflicting voices, such as libertarian or realist, but they “have been doubling down on mainstream hawkish pundits instead.” (121) Within the right-wing media, such as Fox News, Breitbart, and Drudge Report, Walt found strong criticism of foreign policy decisions taken by Democratic presidents coupled with unwavering commitment to U.S. military primacy. As was true for the think tanks and lobbyists, there are dissenting voices within the media. Walt acknowledges a few of them, such as Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, who provide “well-informed critiques of America’s imperial tendencies.” Alternative views exist, but only if “one knows where to look.” (122)

Despite the powerful community of interest favoring liberal hegemony, interventionist foreign policies are not an automatic sell to a general public wary of the costs of foreign entanglement. Since most people do not follow foreign policy, however, “a core of elite support is sufficient provided the rest of the population goes along.” (138) Taking advantage of their overwhelming preponderance within the media, the proponents of liberal hegemony have used the techniques familiar to commercial advertising: inflate threats, exaggerate benefits, and conceal the costs. The marketplace of ideas, Walt argues, is “rigged.” Information about foreign policy is especially vulnerable to manipulation because the public has not the capacity for independent evaluation that might be possible for a local policy conflict. Governments use and misuse security classification, and top officials make selective leaks to build a case. The Bush administration, for example, “used a well-orchestrated campaign of leaks and false statements to convince Americans that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling biological and chemical weapons, actively seeking a nuclear bomb, and in cahoots with Osama bin Laden.” (140) All lies.

Specific foreign policy initiatives are reinforced culturally through the ongoing celebration of nationalism and militarism as archetypal expressions of patriotism. Walt recounts a surreal example first reported by The Washington Post in 2015. To increase public support and recruitment, the Defense Department “paid at least fifty professional sports teams a total of $10 million to conduct patriotic ceremonies at games.” (142) This stunt was exposed, but the conventional wisdom remains, excluding principled opposition to an aggressive foreign policy and all but the most academic questioning of “the basic right of the United States to use force wherever and whenever it wishes.” (143)

Walt argues that this influential consensus has persisted despite repeated, painful evidence that U.S. intervention is usually unwelcome, often resisted, and invariably more expensive in human and financial costs than predicted. Nothing, it appears, was learned from the U.S. defeat in Vietnam in the 1970s or that of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The reasons for this systemic refusal to learn and change direction are complicated. Policymakers, Walt shows, are not held accountable: “For example, the disastrous war in Iraq should have discredited and sidelined the neoconservatives who conceived and sold it, as the war showed that most, if not all, of their assumptions about politics were deeply flawed.” (187) But that is not what happened. Even today, with a president whose campaign rhetoric denounced the war in Iraq, John R. Bolton, an early advocate of that war, is the National Security Advisor. [Editor’s note: John Bolton served as President Trump’s National Security Advisor from April 2018 to September 2019. He was either fired (according to Trump) or resigned (according to Bolton). In June 2020, Bolton released a book entitled The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir, a highly critical account of his time with the Trump administration.]

Blatant cover-ups abound. Walt concludes that the 9/11 Commission, tasked with investigating “the worst attack on U.S. soil since Pearl Harbor,” was intentionally hobbled by inadequate funding, stonewalling by Bush administration officials, and a bipartisan leadership that finessed a nonpartisan whitewash. Thousands of people were killed in spectacular synchronized attacks, but no one in either the Clinton or Bush administrations was even criticized. Similarly, the investigations that followed the revelations of torture at Abu Ghraib “assigned blame entirely to local commanders or enlisted personnel.” (189) Walt expresses particular ire at the talent of the neoconservatives for “failing upward.” (188) Walt marvels that Elliott Abrams’s illegal and unsuccessful performance in Iran-Contra, lying to Congress, and fomenting an armed coup in Gaza did not tarnish his prestige as a foreign policy expert. As if further evidence of Abrams’s zombie-like persistence in positions of authority were needed, he is now the special envoy to Venezuela.

Systematically anticipating and countering objections, Walt presents a tightly-reasoned brief for offshore balancing, the skillful manipulation of the global balance of power.

Instead of covering up mistakes and holding no one accountable, Walt insists that the United States can and must make a major change in direction. U.S. foreign policy should return to first principles and be evaluated by the demanding metrics of whether it makes the country “safer and richer, and whether it promotes certain core values.” Systematically anticipating and countering objections, Walt presents a tightly-reasoned brief for offshore balancing, the skillful manipulation of the global balance of power. Pulling back from most global security commitments, the United States should “deploy its power abroad only when there are direct threats to vital U.S. interests.” (261)

In this reckoning, there are only three vital regions beyond the Western Hemisphere: Europe, Northeast Asia, and the Persian Gulf. Europe and Northeast Asia are important for “industrial power and military potential” and, “at least for now,” the Persian Gulf remains key for oil and gas. (261) The U.S. objective within each region is to maintain the balance of power and prevent the emergence of a regional hegemon. No other nation on earth should enjoy the overwhelming dominance the United States exercises in the Western Hemisphere because then it could threaten the United States.

Offshore balancing relies on the closely calibrated allocation of military might. When there is “no potential hegemon in sight,” the United States stays away. The local forces are to be the “first line of defense” because the local balance of power is in their interest. Should the local forces prove inadequate, the United States is to deploy only that military force needed to restore the balance of power. The United States should stay “offshore” as much as possible, “get its allies in the region to do as much of the heavy lifting as possible and go back offshore once the threat has been defeated.” (263) Regime change is off the agenda, but the use and timing of military force, when needed, is on­—however much is required to restore the balance of power.

Saving U.S. money and lives is a central advantage of offshore balancing. Neither isolationist nor defeatist, “offshore balancing would prolong America’s current position of primacy, as it avoids costly and counterproductive crusades and allows for greater investment in the long-term ingredients of power and prosperity: education, infrastructure, and research and development.” (263) As allies in Europe and Asia cover more defense costs in their respective regions, the problem of “free-riding” on U.S. spending would lessen. Offshore balancing can avoid the chaos and “ungoverned spaces” which follow in the wake of regime change, and it should reduce terrorism by not fostering “nationalist resentment.” (264)

There is a great deal to admire in this critique of liberal hegemony and declaration for the very different strategy of offshore balancing. “Make peace a priority” urges Walt. Peace, not war, is in the national interest, promotes investment, and is morally preferable. He is outraged that

 

in the threat-driven, credibility-obsessed, overly militarized world of contemporary U.S. foreign policy, one is hard-pressed to find a prominent politician, pundit, or national security expert who will talk unapologetically about their passion for peace. (277-78)

 

Offshore balancing would increase the role of diplomacy and negotiation, which would in turn require better educated and more professionally trained people in the diplomatic corps, and fewer political appointees. Relying on military force only as a last resort, and then only with the limited aim of restoring the balance of power and other reforms, might “reverse the creeping militarization of U.S. foreign policy that has been under way for many years.” (275) Walt envisions a deemphasis on the “War on Terror” that would make possible a restoration of civil liberties lost in its name. Many favorable outcomes are possible, but Walt has demanded realism.

Is offshore balancing realistic? Neither its achievement nor its operation seems altogether plausible on the terms Walt sets. He has demonstrated that the strength of the current foreign policy elite relies on its positions in government and on a well-funded, long-established network of think tanks, media outlets, university centers, and other means of promoting policies and developing advocates for an activist foreign policy. Winning support for offshore balancing, Walt explains, requires a “countervailing set of organizations and institutions that can do battle in the marketplace of ideas.” (285) The funding for institutions promoting an activist foreign policy, however, comes from corporations and institutions that see their interests tied up with global leadership by the United States. Whether or not there is a parallel set of corporations and institutions to support a campaign for offshore balancing is unclear.

One of Walt’s criticisms of liberal hegemony is that it is unrealistic to think that other nations want to adopt an American form of democracy. But it also seems unrealistic to think that in an international conflict anyone would be able to accurately gauge when and to precisely what extent local allies required assistance to restore the balance of power.

One of Walt’s criticisms of liberal hegemony is that it is unrealistic to think that other nations want to adopt an American form of democracy. But it also seems unrealistic to think that in an international conflict anyone would be able to accurately gauge when and to precisely what extent local allies required assistance to restore the balance of power. Walt’s notion of U.S. forces moving beyond the horizon after a conflict seems a bit like the toddler who “hides” by putting hands over eyes. It is not convincing that resentment against U.S. intervention and its consequences would be assuaged by keeping it sporadic and targeted.

This is a fascinating book, especially important because it strips the function of foreign policy to first principles of national security and prosperity. The author argues that the United States’ pursuit of liberal hegemony wastes resources and arouses resentments that endanger the United States. But is not the strategic goal of offshore balancing nothing less than the continuation of the United States’ position as the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth? Since U.S. prosperity is based on command of a far disproportionate share of the world’s resources, is it reasonable to expect that other nations would invariably support the U.S. version of global balance? The ambition of the new policy rivals, in scope, that of the liberal hegemony which Walt so ably dismisses as unrealizable.

Walt identifies China as the most likely potential hegemon in Northeast Asia. China’s rise, he argues, poses a danger because a too-powerful China could challenge the United States, even in the Western Hemisphere. He emphasizes that although offshore balancing, or working through the other nations in the region, should be the first priority, maintaining a balance of power in Asia may well require an onshore troop presence. To this nonspecialist, the containment of China seems unlikely. China’s program of multi-continental economic development and military expansion might collapse of its own weight and internal contradictions. The nation’s determination and success in engineering its own version of the balance of power in Asia appears strong. The strategic use of loans in Ecuador, Venezuela, and elsewhere may prove to be investment failures, but China’s participation in the Western Hemisphere is already more than hypothetical. Its rapid rise is a useful reminder that not everyone wants the same offshore balance.

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