On January 14th, 2019, the CISG hosted a lecture by Prof. Dr. Stephen Walt from Harvard Kennedy School, who presented his new book, The Hell of Good Intentions, on the state of U.S. foreign policy and international affairs. As a representative from the school of Defensive Realism, his lecture was a proposal for a more realist approach to foreign policy in times of global disorder. As Prof. Walt stated in his initial remarks, his lecture was meant to address the two big questions of contemporary politics: How did the current turmoil in international relations emerge after the world had reached a period of optimism in the post-Cold War era when a future of peace and prosperity seemed all but inevitable? And how can we do better?
Prof. Walt’s answers to both of these questions revolved around the same core thesis: According to Walt, most predicaments of recent U.S. foreign policy, from never-ending wars in Afghanistan to alarmingly worsening relations with Moscow, can be traced back to one thing – the undisputed supremacy of liberalism that the U.S. foreign policy establishment has been clinging to for decades. According to him, the prevailing “liberal hegemony” that sees the U.S. as the indispensable nation to bring peace and stability to the world has led to dangerously ambitious and misguided foreign policy efforts. Since the early 1990s, the U.S. foreign policy establishment has tried to spread liberal values, in particular democracy and open markets, in the belief that liberal values were universal and the arc of history would lead towards democratization and liberalization. They did so, Walt argued, without being equipped in the very least to successfully carry out such a massive undertaking on a global scale and in-depth knowledge of the societies involved. As a result, these efforts have used up immense amounts of resources, helped create failed states in Libya, Yemen, and Syria, undermined U.S influence around the globe, and created new threats from non-democratic states who fear U.S. interferences in their internal affairs.
In the second part of his lecture, Walt elaborated why he doesn’t consider president Trump to be the person to overcome the challenges of U.S. foreign policy. According to Walt, Trump came to power in part due to his promise to break with the pursuit of liberal hegemony and withdraw the U.S. from its role as the world’s police. However, despite the current president’s wildly different personal style of governance, Walt sustained that the grand strategy hasn’t radically changed. Instead, he maintained, Trump’s erratic and boorish approach to foreign policy combined with his deeply faulty understanding of international relations and politics is making the volatile global situation even worse: “Right now, we have reached the worst of both worlds,” he argued, as the U.S. “is still following the ideology of liberal hegemony, but with an incompetent skipper at the top.”
Walt’s proposal for a renewed U.S. foreign policy envisions a full break with the ideology of liberalism and a turn to the realist concept of “offshore balancing”: This would entail shifting burdens to allies and focusing on keeping other powers from rising to dominance in Europe, Asia, or the Persian Gulf, which he describedas the “only real threat” to the United States, while renouncing risky global social engineering endeavors such as nation-building and regime change. The goal, he said, should be to maintain regional balances by using allied powers to contain the rise of potentially hostile powers, to put more emphasis on diplomacy and use the show of force only as the last resort, and “not to create more failed states”.
Walt concluded his diagnosis of U.S. foreign policy and the plea for “a more realistic vision of American power” with a call for Europe to take control of NATO and European security. Arguing for a „deliberate, collaborative retreat from Europe„, Walt laid out his vision of what Washington’s role in NATO should be: a backup entity who serves as a residual guarantor and helps prevent rivalries within Europe.