The cold war ended but history marches on. Iraq didn’t work out, the Taliban is still standing in Afghanistan. Even before the 2016 election, nationalism was resurgent in the US and abroad. America on a never-ending . The short-lived reality of the US sitting atop a unipolar global order is over.
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When in April 2016 Donald Trump that “our foreign policy is a complete and total disaster”, he struck a chord with many Americans. The hard-headed idealism and diplomacy of Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush had given way to overreach and romanticism. Flyover country mourned its dead and nursed its wounded while the children of the elites remained safely ensconced on the sidelines, awash in the gains of a globalized economy. Casualty counts in battleground states likely made Trump’s presidential ambitions a reality.
Enter Stephen Walt and , which places the onus of US decline on its foreign policy establishment, hegemonic liberalism as an article of faith, and a lack of accountability for collective failure. As Walt sees it, it is easier to be wrong with a chorus standing behind you than to be right at the price of being branded an outlier.
According to Walt, the Trump presidency 'provides a textbook case for how not to fix things'
As he rankles and finger-points, Walt’s prose flows smoothly. With its “pox on both your houses” sensibility, The Hell of Good Intentions is worth the read even if its embrace of Nixonian “offshore balancing” as a strategy will likely find few takers in the corridors of power. The distance between “American leadership” and is not that great.
A , Walt is no stranger to controversy. A 2007 book, , co-authored with John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, won the pair ; it is unlikely The Hell of Good Intentions will earn many more. Still, the book provides further connective tissue for Trump’s ascendance and the acceptance of “America first” by broad swaths of the electorate, if not the establishment.
As is to be expected, Walt is unsparing of both neoconservative and muscular liberal approaches to foreign affairs. He reminds us that the Iraq war and its aftermath was a bipartisan failure, however noble (or not) the intentions of its architects. Although George W Bush was president, and backed the invasion. Then they each ran unsuccessfully for president and served unremarkably as secretaries of state.
Walt also chronicles the lack of evolution among unrepentant hawks. Marco Rubio continues to argue that “”. Lindsey Graham blames Barack Obama for “”. Thousands of dead later, Jeb Bush still thinks “”. Each also aspired to the White House. To think what might have been.
As for Trump, Walt minces few words. As he frames things, the US “continues to embrace a flawed strategy but its implementation is now in the hands of the least competent president in modern memory”. According to Walt, the Trump presidency “provides a textbook case for how to fix things”.
If Walt needed further proof, the weeks following the midterm elections and the emergent blue wave have provided ample backup – from Trump’s to his dyspeptic telephone conversation with Prime Minister Theresa May, to reports of North Korea’s , to the president’s . Trump frequently thunders but with the notable exception of the negation of the Iran deal he seldom persuades and less frequently endears.
Lying to Canada’s Justin Trudeau adds neither luster nor credibility. Even before the murder of , Walt took Trump to task for “while turning a blind eye toward the prince’s reckless” ventures in Yemen.
As his policy of choice, Walt calls for offshore balancing, a strategy that would primarily rely upon “regional actors to uphold local balances of power and commit the United States to intervene with its own forces only when one or more of those balances was in danger of breaking down”.
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The suggestion echoes the Nixon doctrine. Against the backdrop of Vietnam, Richard Nixon announced that the US “would assist in the defense and developments of allies and friends” but would not “undertake all the defense of the free nations of the world”. In other words, not every crisis warranted American troops and firepower.
Not surprisingly, Walt narrowly defines national interests and observes that American actions can engender resentment and blowback. Nation-building and attempts at counter-insurgency have a way of stepping on too many toes. Troops are not always warmly welcomed even when they are invited, as Osama bin Laden and 9/11 gruesomely reminded us.
Walt, however, is also not immune from soft-pedaling would-be malefactors. The author acknowledges that Iran “mastered the full nuclear fuel cycle” and came “within striking distance of a weapons capability”, but he readily discounts the possibility that Iran harbors ambitions as a regional hegemon.
Likewise, he once saw a promising future between the US and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. , in 2010: “My own view (even before I visited) is that the improvement of US-Libyan relations as one of the few (only?) success stories in recent US Middle East diplomacy.” Gaddafi ended up sacked and killed, in the midst of civil war. The debacle of Benghazi followed.
In the end, Walt’s contribution is in reminding us of the folly of grand ambitions. Ultimately, “doing something” can be far costlier than watching and waiting.