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Where U.S. Foreign Policy Should—and Shouldn’t—Go From Here

What is the purpose of U.S. foreign policy? Are there fundamental changes in the world that demand a corresponding change in approach?

Into this earnest and reflective conversation enter Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, each with a new book, each making his long-standing argument about the failures of U.S. foreign policy with renewed ferocity. Walt’s is called The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy; Mearsheimer’s is The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities. The titles give clear hints of the cases they lay out: against democracy promotion, humanitarian intervention, nation building, and NATO expansion; for restraint and offshore balancing.

Walt’s contains an extended attack on the foreign policy community, painting a dark picture, across multiple chapters, of a priesthood gripped by various pathologies, leading the country astray. Mearsheimer, meanwhile, turns to political theory to explore the relationship among liberalism, nationalism, and realism. Liberalism, he says, cannot alter or abolish nationalism and realism, and where the three meet, the latter two will prevail over the former. (Although he takes pains to stress that he is talking about liberalism in the classical sense, not as it is understood in American politics, his repeated assaults on “social engineering” reveal that he may mean it both ways.) For Mearsheimer, analysis of the three isms ultimately provides an alternative route to arrive at the conclusion that a strategy of liberal hegemony is bound to fail—and has, in fact, failed for the United States.

Both authors make a number of fair points. But their books also suffer from a failure to distinguish between clear mistakes—such as the war in Iraq—and flawed outcomes flowing from imperfect options, which are the norm in a messy business like foreign policy. They also too frequently succumb to the temptation of caricature, playing up interventions and playing down institution building, which was a more persistent and widespread feature of the United States’ post–Cold War approach. The biggest disappointment, however, is that neither author really engages with the new debates currently preoccupying the foreign policy community or the vexing questions about U.S. strategy going forward.


Walt and Mearshermeir have provided the sort of iconoclasm that is essential to public discourse, forcing proponents of a forward-leaning foreign policy to sharpen their arguments, think about mistakes, and face hard questions they would rather gloss over. Mearsheimer has been especially powerful, including in this new book, in pointing out that too many liberal internationalists have failed to contend with the enduring power of nationalism and identity. Recent history has proved him more right and the American foreign policy community more wrong. On this and many other points, practitioners owe these scholars (and the academy in general) a fuller hearing and more thorough consideration—even if they don’t end up agreeing with them. By the same token, these scholars (and the academy in general) owe policymakers a presumption of good faith and honest service—even if they find plenty of fault with their decisionsThis is what makes the new dimension of Walt’s argument so troubling. Walt defines the object of his scorn—the “foreign policy community”—as those “individuals and organizations that actively engage on a regular basis with issues of international affairs.” It is hard to come up with a broader definition than that. But then Walt names names. Lots of names. He fills pages with lists of think tanks, advocacy organizations, foundations, and specific individuals who compose “the Blob,” a term originally coined by Ben Rhodes, who was deputy national security adviser in the Obama administration, but embraced and invoked repeatedly by Walt. And although the phrase “good intentions” appears in the title of his book, he ascribes anything but. After an obligatory proviso that “most foreign policy professionals are genuine patriots,” Walt zeroes in on what he sees as a key motivation for their decision-making:The busier the U.S. government is abroad, the more jobs there will be for foreign policy experts, the greater the share of national wealth that will be devoted to addressing global problems, and the greater their potential influence will be. A more restrained foreign policy would give the entire foreign policy community less to do, reduce its status and prominence, . . . and might even lead some prominent philanthropies to devote less money to these topics. In this sense, liberal hegemony and unceasing global activism constitute a full-employment strategy for the entire foreign policy community.Full disclosure: Walt would certainly assign me a place in this group. So I cannot be entirely objective in assessing his ad hominem indictment. But experience and common sense tell me that it is simply wrong. Walt has not spent time working in the Pentagon or the State Department or the Situation Room, alongside Foreign Service officers and civil servants—and, yes, political appointees—who believe sincerely that an active foreign policy serves the national interest and the cause of global peace and progress. If he did, I’m convinced he would revise his view about what drives these officials.It’s true that there is a bias for action in government. But Walt would learn how much practitioners struggle with the decisions they face, and how they earnestly debate the merits of doing something more, less, or different. He would be surprised, contrary to his claim, that unorthodox ideas really do get a hearing in Washington, including Walt’s own ideas about pulling back from the Middle East, and that the reason his proposals don’t become policy isn’t because they aren’t considered. He would find evidence that the causal chain runs in the opposite direction from the one he assumes: policymakers don’t advocate a more ambitious approach because foreign policy is their career; they tend to make foreign policy their career because they believe it can accomplish ambitious things. Practitioners do themselves no favors when they caricature academic critics; the same applies in reverse.Walt is wrong that the intentions and motives of foreign policy professionals mean their views are immutable, that they cannot learn, adapt, and grow.Walt’s assignment of bad faith to the Blob causes him to miss the churn in the community since 2016. He makes reasonable points about the ways in which the Washington foreign policy conversation has too often been gripped by groupthink, how conventional wisdom can harden and why departing from it can be difficult, and how a number of basic assumptions about geopolitical trends and the innate appeal of democracy have been taken for granted for too long. But he is wrong that the intentions and motives of foreign policy professionals mean their views are immutable, that they cannot learn, adapt, and grow.Both Walt and Mearsheimer have neglected the recent shifts in the center of gravity of the Washington foreign policy consensus. The debates of 2018 are not the debates of 2002. Their passionate case against the U.S. invasion of Iraq, for example, seems frozen in time. Most in the foreign policy community would oppose another conflict of choice in the Middle East. The debate now is over how to pursue an effective counterterrorism strategy that relies less and less on direct military force. The same goes for their argument for the need to emphasize investments at home: since 2016, liberal internationalists have been reflecting much more explicitly on the relationship between foreign policy and domestic policy.


It’s often hard for policymakers—even those sympathetic to some of the critiques—to know what to do with Walt and Mearsheimer. They make promises about their approach, including rosy results from drastic actions such as military withdrawal from Europe, with a certitude that resembles the exaggerated portrait they paint of liberal internationalists. And their style of argument inflames the problem of incumbency: they blame U.S. decision-makers for every problem, tragedy, and unanticipated side effect, while taking for granted every achievement reached or disaster averted. Sins of commission count, whereas sins of omission don’t, or at least not very much, so that action leading to unintended consequences is treated differently from inaction leading to unintended consequences. The intervention in Libya contributed in unanticipated ways to the refugee crisis in Europe, but the lack of intervention in Syria may have done so, too.

These disconnects contribute to a core challenge: virtually every argument policymakers make in response to the scholars’ critique has to lean on counterfactuals. If Washington hadn’t expanded NATO, would what is happening in Ukraine today be happening in the Baltics or Poland instead? If it had pulled out of Japan in the 1990s, what kind of hand would it have to play against China now? “The alternative would have been worse!” is never a fun argument to resort to in a debate, and yet sometimes it’s just the right answer. Consider the cases of postwar Germany and Japan, which Mearsheimer downplays with a fleeting reference halfway through his book. Imagine the second half of the twentieth century if the United States had followed Walt’s and Mearsheimer’s prescriptions for these countries in 1945, by withdrawing U.S. forces and letting Europe and Asia solve their own problems. The regions would look far different, and possibly far darker, today.It is difficult to embrace an approach that counts the 1930s as a success.Walt’s and Mearsheimer’s basic strategic premise appears to be that U.S. withdrawal would probably make the world more dangerous, but given its geography and its power, the United States could both avoid the resulting risks and manipulate them to its advantage. Setting aside the grim quality of this logic, it’s not at all clear that it’s right. Walt cites the first half of the twentieth century as proof that offshore balancing—the hands-off approach to regional security that he prefers—has a “reassuring history.” But is there anything reassuring in two catastrophic world wars that inevitably drew in the United States? It is difficult to embrace an approach that counts the 1930s as a success.There are other reasons for the Mars-Venus quality of the conversation between policymakers and these two scholars. Walt and Mearsheimer can gloss over the expense of bringing U.S. troops home from around the world and then sending them back out when trouble arises, while policymakers have to take those costs into account. Walt and Mearsheimer can downplay the instability that would come from a country like Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, while policymakers think about worst-case scenarios, including a regional arms race and the possibility of the bomb falling into the hands of terrorists. They can argue for stripping liberalism out of U.S. foreign policy, but policymakers have to deal with the fact that the United States’ system, and not just its strategy, points toward liberalism. That is, authoritarian governments face pressure not just from the U.S. government but also from U.S. society.


But in a way, all that is something of a distraction. The battle lines between the realists and the liberal internationalists have been so well drawn, the debates so well rehearsed, that it is hard to add much to them now. Fighting over how things would have looked today had Washington adopted the Walt and Mearsheimer approach over the last 25 years is not as productive as debating what it should do for the next 25. And even as they insist that it would be easy for policymakers to get things right if only they followed a few simple rules, both authors have remarkably little to say about the central debates in U.S. foreign policy today—the vexing questions that the Blob has been wrestling with since 2016.The first is how to shape a deteriorating U.S.-Chinese relationship so that it advances U.S. interests without turning into outright confrontation. The “responsible stakeholder” consensus in the American strategic community, premised on integrating China into a U.S.-led order, has come apart. The emerging theme is that Washington got China wrong, and the watchword of the day is “strategic competition” (although competition to what end is not clear, especially if one assumes that China, unlike the Soviet Union, is not destined to fail). It has been disorienting to watch the pendulum swing so fast from a benign view of China to a dark one.Walt basically throws up his hands, writing that “Asia may be the one place where U.S. leadership is indeed ‘indispensable.’” (For someone who must hate the words “indispensable” and “leadership,” that is quite a statement.) If Walt has to carve out an exception for the biggest national security issue of our time, this suggests that his overall approach may need rethinking. Mearsheimer, who was a China hawk before it was fashionable, has argued in the past that realism and restraint have to diverge when it comes to China. But in this most recent book, he is so fixated on destroying “liberal hegemony” that he comes close to rooting for China’s continued rise, seeing an increasingly powerful China as less of a threat to international stability than sustained American unipolarity. That may or may not be sound as an argument from the perspective of the international system, but it is not particularly useful for U.S. policymakers looking out for national interests. Nor does either author help policymakers prepare for competition on an emerging field of play that is as much about economics, technology, and ideas as it is about traditional security considerations. That is a serious gap in their analysis, as geopolitics unfolds across an expanding range of domains—cyberspace, space, economics and energy, and so on.The battle lines between the realists and the liberal internationalists have been so well drawn, the debates so well rehearsed, that it is hard to add much to them now.This flaw leads to a second hard question, inextricably tied to the first: To what extent are the United States’ main competitors systematically exporting their illiberalism, and what are the implications for U.S. strategy? Observers such as Kelly Magsamen and her co-authors at the Center for American Progress are increasingly emphasizing that both China and Russia have an overriding objective of maintaining their authoritarian models, which creates incentives for them to increase the pressure on liberalism abroad as a means of reducing the pressure on their regimes at home. As Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution has put it, China and Russia “share the objective of targeting free and open societies to make the world a safer place for authoritarianism,” and therefore U.S. foreign policy needs to privilege the defense of democracy in the context of great-power competition.

Both Walt and Mearsheimer presume that the United States’ major competitors are acting largely according to realist dictates, that domestic politics isn’t a major factor. As a result, they offer a backward-looking critique of the American “impulse to spread democracy,” as Mearsheimer puts it, without really addressing the challenge of defending democracy against increasingly ambitious, organized, and effective dictatorships. The foreign policy community’s emerging diagnosis may be wrong or overstated, but if it is, neither of these two authors explains why. They don’t deal with the range of practices that U.S. competitors are pursuing to put pressure on the American economic and political system, from direct election interference to the strategic use of corruption and state capitalism as tools for building leverage and influence. And if the emerging diagnosis is right, would their preferred strategy of unraveling NATO, pulling out of Europe, and telling like-minded allies to bid for U.S. affection really be a logical next step?

Mearsheimer does posit that pursuing “liberalism abroad undermines liberalism at home.” But his modern-day examples of domestic consequences (wiretapping, government secrecy, the “deep state”) relate to the war on terrorism, which was hardly a liberal project. That raises a third hard question: Given their constrained bandwidth, how should decision-makers deal with the gap between the objective threat posed by terrorism and the subjective threat felt by the American public? Both Walt and Mearsheimer develop an elaborate caricature of a bloodthirsty foreign policy community dragging a more pacifistic public into foreign military adventures. But when it comes to fighting terrorism abroad, the public—encouraged by politicians who themselves are skeptics of liberal internationalism—sees terrorism as an urgent, even existential priority that requires the use of military force. The foreign policy community is increasingly responding to that demand rather than driving it.

Consider Obama’s experience with Iraq. He had taken a page out of the Walt/Mearsheimer playbook by pulling every last U.S. troop out in 2011. Then, in the summer of 2014, the Islamic State, or ISIS, swept into Mosul and shot to the center of the American public consciousness. Those of us on the president’s national security team had vigorous debates about whether and how to respond with U.S. military force. But that debate was quickly swamped by public sentiment: after the beheading of two American journalists, the public demanded action, swift and decisive, not to contain ISIS but to defeat it. In that instance, the public was more right, more quickly than the professionals. But the broader dynamic remains: the political dimensions of the terrorism issue, and its susceptibility to demagoguery, mean that policymakers have to place it in a different category from other national security challenges, and objective measures of the threat have their limits. In debates about strategy and resources in the years ahead, figuring out how to manage this dynamic will be essential. It is a blind spot for both Walt and Mearsheimer.

Another blind spot concerns a fourth question that policymakers are presently grappling with: In light of both rising geopolitical competition among states and the diffusion of power away from states, how do policymakers design effective mechanisms to address major threats shared by all? Cooperation is required to tackle climate change, pandemic disease, the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and the risk of another global economic crisis. At least in the context of mobilizing this kind of collective action, Mearsheimer misses that the motivating theory for many in the foreign policy community may actually be closer to classical republicanism—with its emphasis on institutions, interdependence, and the rule of law—than to classical liberalism. And neither Walt nor Mearsheimer provides a convincing explanation for how such cooperation will come about without U.S. leadership, or without sound rules rooted in sound institutions, or without taking into account the roles of nonstate and substate actors.

Walt and Mearsheimer offer surprisingly little guidance on the future of humanitarian intervention.

They do both pay homage to effective diplomacy, but neither gives a credible account of how a significant U.S. retrenchment would enhance, rather than detract from, the United States’ ability to conduct it. Walt, for example, seems to like the Iran nuclear deal, but he gives little credit to the role that crippling sanctions, combined with the credible threat of military force, played in helping bring it about. The demonstration of reassurance and resolve in the service of diplomacy is a key advantage of having U.S. forces deployed globally, and it raises the question, Which does Walt value more—making it harder to make mistakes like Libya or making it easier to engage in successful diplomacy like Iran?

The final area where Walt and Mearsheimer offer surprisingly little guidance is on the future of humanitarian intervention. After the last 25 years, Washington is grappling with the question, What is the right set of conditions, if any, for U.S. military intervention on humanitarian grounds? Criticizing past interventions is a central pillar in both scholars’ cases against liberal internationalism. And yet neither comes out and says that such interventions should never be attempted. Mearsheimer’s critique of the Libya operation is not that the United States shouldn’t have intervened to stop a massacre. Instead, he simply declares that the threat of a massacre was a “false pretext”—in other words, it was all made up. This provides a convenient way for him to avoid the real question.

As for Walt, he is surprisingly supportive of the use of American power to “prevent wars, halt genocides, or persuade other countries to improve their human rights performance.” Indeed, he would “countenance using force to halt mass killings when (1) the danger was imminent, (2) the anticipated costs to the United States were modest, (3) the ratio of foreign lives saved to U.S. lives risked was high, and (4) it was clear that intervention would not make things worse or lead to an open-ended commitment.” These are the same criteria that policymakers have applied to each of the humanitarian interventions the United States has pursued over the last quarter century. (Iraq belongs in a separate category because it was not a war waged on humanitarian grounds.) The various post–Cold War interventions mainly met the first three criteria. Walt provides no more guidance on the fourth, which is where most of the debate over whether to act (Libya) or not act (Syria) takes place, and where most of the difficult tradeoffs lie. There is also the problem that neither scholar considers that humanitarian interventions can also have strategic motives. Letting Syria burn didn’t just risk a massive loss of life; it also risked destabilizing not one but two areas (Europe and the Persian Gulf) that both Walt and Mearsheimer consider vital.


This list of hard questions is hardly exhaustive. The Trump era, along with broader changes in the international environment, has put many assumptions back up for debate. Walt, especially, sees this moment as a golden opportunity for progressives, libertarians, and academic realists to join together to defeat the liberal internationalists. The real trend appears to be going in a different direction. A number of recent meditations, including foreign policy commentaries by Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, point the way toward a kind of convergence of the left and the center. This convergence will hardly be complete, but some common priorities are coming into focus: an elevated concern for the distributional effects of international economic policy, a concentration on combating corruption and kleptocracy and neofascism, an emphasis on diplomacy over the use of military force, an enduring commitment to democratic allies. Perhaps most important, the left and the center share a growing recognition and appreciation of the fact that many successes of the liberal project have been profound—such as the advances against global poverty and disease and the enduring peace between France and Germany, which formed the European Union rather than being doomed to compete.

None of this is to discount the role that Walt and Mearsheimer can and should play in the debates to come. Their focus on first principles is especially important at a moment when so much is up for grabs. Their admonition to think differently is useful in a time of rapid change. Walt and Mearsheimer, for their part, should welcome the chance, in good faith and with goodwill, to engage with policymakers on the difficult questions about how to approach the decades ahead.

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