The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy, Stephen M. Walt, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 400 pages

At the end of the Cold War, the United States appeared to be standing on the precipice of a new era of peace and prosperity as the world’s sole superpower. Intoxicated by the sense that American primacy would allow them to remake the world as they wished, U.S. leaders embraced liberal hegemony. They aimed to discourage others from challenging American power and sought to spread democracy and liberal economics within an American sphere of influence that encompassed most of the world.

We can’t know what the world would have looked like if they had chosen a differentcourse. But we do know that, today, relations with Russia and China are bad, and getting worse. There is now open talk of a new Cold War—with both nations, a feat that we mostly managed to avoid in the last Cold War. Meanwhile, nationalist movements are on the rise, and the European Union and other multilateral bodies seem unsteady, at best. And, last but not least, the Middle East remains in turmoil—more than 16 years after George W. Bush sent U.S. troops into Iraq. There is violence and suffering everywhere, it seems—and there is no end in sight.

Indeed, according to a panel of 12 experts commissioned by Congress to review U.S. foreign policy, “the security and wellbeing of the United States are at greater risk than at any time in decades.” The nation, they continue, “confronts a grave crisis”; “the strategic landscape is growing steadily more threatening.”

In The Hell of Good Intentions, Stephen Walt traces many of these problems to the very policies that these men and women advocate. U.S. power has allowed American officials to pursue ambitious foreign policy goals, even when those goals are unnecessary or doomed to fail. And “liberal hegemony…failed because it rested on mistaken views of how international politics actually works.” In particular, he explains, “it exaggerated America’s ability to reshape other societies and underestimated the ability of weaker actors to thwart U.S. aims.” It also rested on the willingness of the American people to support the strategy indefinitely, even as the costs rose and the benefits became less apparent.

Although Walt allows that “most foreign policy professionals are genuine patriots who seek to make the world a better place,” as a group they operate as “a dysfunctional caste of privileged insiders who are frequently disdainful of alternative perspectives and insulated both professionally and personally from the consequences of the policies they promote.”

Donald J. Trump seemed to agree. Since the Cold War, he said in late April 2016, as he closed in on the GOP presidential nomination, “foolishness and arrogance…led to one foreign policy disaster after another.” He pledged, if elected, to “look for talented experts with new approaches, and practical ideas,” not “those who have perfect résumés but very little to brag about except responsibility for a long history of failed policies and continued losses at war.”

Trump might have been more successful at changing U.S. foreign policy if he had had a better understanding of what it was, and what, exactly, was wrong with it. Before he embarked upon his quixotic presidential campaign, or any time since, he would have benefited from having read anything that Walt—or, for that matter, countless other serious critics of U.S. foreign policy—had been writing for years. Before he appointed John Bolton as his national security adviser, or tapped Mike Pompeo to be his secretary of state, Trump might have questioned whether the policies that they advocated were likely to deliver better results than those favored by their Bush 43 or Obama predecessors.

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Instead, Trump and his team mostly fell into the same bad habits, favoring military power and threats over diplomacy and peaceful global engagement. His embrace of the American military, and often of American militarism, is reflective of the foreign policy establishment’s activist bias. “The United States,” Walt explains, “routinely errs on the side of doing too much rather than too little.”

The U.S. military isn’t merely the favored instrument of this activism; oftentimes, it seems to be the only one. According to the 12-member National Defense Strategy Commission, “U.S. military power has been indispensable to global peace and stability—and to America’s own security, prosperity, and global leadership.” Later the report avers that America’s unmatched military strength—as opposed to its vibrant economy, dynamic culture, or cherished values—“has given the United States unrivaled influence on a wide range of global issues.”

Walt credits the Cato Institute, my intellectual home for the past 15 years, as “the only major inside-the-Beltway think tank that consistently challenges” the bipartisan elite consensus. Otherwise, notes Vox’s Zack Beauchamp, “Washington’s foreign policy debate” typically revolves around “how much force America should use rather than whether it should use it at all….”

Others have commented on these tendencies. “Because Washington think tank analysts and public intellectuals mostly answer to political masters,” explain Benjamin H. Friedman and Justin Logan, “they have no incentive to buck the conventional line…. They focus on operational questions about how to implement [liberal hegemony] unlike academic analysts, who debate the merits of alternative grand strategies.”

These alternative grand strategies—including “restraint” or Walt’s preferred approach, “offshore balancing”—challenge the claim that the United States must maintain preponderant military power not merely to deter attacks against itself, but also to discourage other countries from taking steps to defend themselves and their interests.

Whereas Trump and many of his supporters decry this as feckless free riding, abetted by foolish U.S. policies, the defenders of these very policies explain that they are functioning as intended. The promise of security that America extends to others, explains the Brookings Institution’s Robert Kagan, encourages U.S. allies to “spend less on defense and more on strengthening their economies and social welfare systems.” Hal Brands, a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and the author of American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump, agrees. American protection, Brands writes, “allows other countries to underbuild their militaries.”

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This approach finds little favor among Americans struggling to reconcile the nation’s ambitious ends with massive, but still limited, means. Americans can be counted on to “support the troops” at sporting events or when boarding flights at airports. They can even be roused for the occasional short, sharp war. But they’ve soured on protracted and indecisive conflicts in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. There is, in other words, some public support for the use of force, under precise circumstances, but not in the service of vague principles of international order and the wellbeing of allies.

Walt understands this well. “Given the country’s providential geopolitical position and fortunate history,” he explains, “convincing Americans to pursue liberal hegemony should be a tough sell.”

“To make that sale,” he continues, “its advocates have to convince the public that liberal hegemony is necessary, affordable, and morally desirable.” The case typically involves inflating the threats, exaggerating the benefits, and concealing the costs.

“If Americans become convinced that minor problems are really existential hazards, they will squander vast sums chasing monsters of their own imagining,” Walt writes. “Even worse, policymakers may take preventive actions that are in fact counterproductive….”

Next, defenders of liberal hegemony maintain that it “will enhance U.S. security, increase American prosperity, and spread basic liberal values.” Indeed, there is almost nothing that isn’t made better by American military power.

“Threat inflation makes liberal hegemony seem necessary; overstating its benefits makes it seem desirable. For its advocates, the last line of defense is to claim that the strategy is cheap.”

Critically, this entails dismissing the massive opportunity costs of American military power. Perhaps no one understood these better than President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who, in the depths of the Cold War, noted that “every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”

Ike generally believed that such expenditures were necessary to fight and win the contest with the Soviet Union, but he was constantly reminding “his fellow citizens,” Walt writes, “that they would face a bleaker future if they ignored” the inherent tradeoffs “that overly ambitious foreign policy goals entailed.”

Blowback is another cost of America’s overseas military adventurism. This is a sensitive topic, and Walt handles it well. “Most societies,” he writes, “have trouble recognizing that their own actions might be the cause of some other group’s hostility …. But … concealing the role U.S. policy plays in provoking foreign opposition encourages Americans to understate the full cost of liberal hegemony.”

Indeed, assorted villains have routinely justified attacks on Americans or U.S. interests on the grounds that they are merely responding to American aggression. That such claims are only partly true is irrelevant; the point is that they find receptive ears among many foreign audiences. Even some of the most fervent defenders of liberal hegemony admit as much. For example, in the run-up to the war in Iraq, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz explained that anger at American pressure on Iraq, and resentment over the stationing of U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia, had “been Osama bin Laden’s principal recruiting device.”

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For the most part, the American foreign policy elite hasn’t been called to task because the United States is so powerful and wealthy that even big mistakes don’t bring about our ruin (at least not all at once). What’s more, “error-prone experts ‘fail upward’ and become more influential over time” while “people who do get things right can go unrecognized and unrewarded, and they may even pay a considerable price for bringing unpleasant truths to light.” Related, the debate is stacked against advocates of restraint and non-intervention, and in favor of the interventionists.

Reversing these trends won’t be easy. “Bad ideas persist,” Walt notes, “when powerful interests have an incentive to keep them alive.” Upton Sinclair said it best: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Those who seek to change U.S. foreign policy must, therefore, work to build “a countervailing set of organizations and institutions that can do battle in the marketplace of ideas.” Such an undertaking, Walt admits, “will require significant financial resources.”

But there are no shortcuts. An alternative foreign policy establishment can’t be obtained on the cheap. “It will be especially important to recruit, mentor, and support a cadre of like-minded younger experts and provide them with sustainable career paths so that aspiring foreign policy wonks do not have to embrace the current consensus in order to have successful careers.” The magnitude of the challenge is apparent when one considers that the advice comes from a tenured professor at one of the leading public policy schools in the country. Under present circumstances, it would be irresponsible to advise promising graduate students to reject liberal hegemony in favor of alternative grand strategies.

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On the surface, Donald Trump’s and Stephen Walt’s shared dissatisfaction with the foreign policy elite suggests a wider agreement on what is wrong with U.S. foreign policy, and what needs to be done to fix it. Anyone expecting to find affirmation of Trump’s America First-ism, however, will be disappointed by this book.

“Trump’s impact,” Walt concludes, “has been almost entirely negative…. [The] captain of the ship of state is an ill-informed and incompetent skipper lacking accurate charts, an able crew, or a clear destination”…. “[He] has abandoned hard-won positions of influence for no discernable gains and has cast doubt on whether the United States can be relied upon to carry out a successful foreign policy. Instead of ‘making America great again,’” Walt concludes, “Trump has accelerated its decline.”

The president’s supporters are sure to be turned off by such language. Walt won’t be appearing on Fox and Friends. Similarly, his call for diplomacy, mutually beneficial trade, and peace will likely be dismissed by Trump’s hawkish defenders as the sort of woolly-headed idealism one expects from a Harvard professor.

But anyone believing that U.S. foreign policy should be reoriented toward realism and restraint should focus their ire at Trump, and the Trump administration, not Walt.

Walt’s preferred alternative to liberal hegemony, offshore balancing, might not go far enough for those anxious for fundamental change. He believes, for example, that blocking “the rise of a local hegemon,” a primary concern for offshore balancers, still requires a substantial global military presence. Asia, in particular, he writes, “may be the one place where U.S. leadership is indeed ‘indispensable.’”

Still, Walt probably isn’t wrong when he predicts “offshore balancing would cause less conflict and human suffering than liberal hegemony.” It just may be that that bar is too low.

And Trump hasn’t raised it. Although his defenders might claim that his policies were, in fact, a dramatic departure from those of his predecessors, Walt is unimpressed. “Trump’s handling of defense policy,” Walt writes, “was simply ‘business as usual,’ with a bit more money and a few more bombs.”

Indeed, Trump often evinces considerable enthusiasm for all things military—from “his generals” to the various air campaigns and special operations raids that have claimed countless lives. He boasts about the tens of billions of additional dollars shoveled into the Pentagon’s coffers. Meanwhile, he is utterly disdainful of diplomacy and American soft power.

But Americans should prefer those instruments over war. The United States should be a status quo power, and status quo powers favor peace over war. Accordingly, Walt writes, “Putting peace at the top of America’s foreign policy agenda is hardly something for which U.S. leaders need apologize.”

Could a future presidential candidate run and win on such a platform? We don’t yet know. Trump proved that one could challenge some of the most cherished beliefs of the foreign policy elite and still get elected, but he failed to actually change U.S. foreign policy, in part because he didn’t seem truly committed to doing so. Indeed, the past two years have shown just how difficult change can be. But this book offers useful suggestions that could help, and is an important contribution to the wider debate over the present and future of U.S. foreign policy.  

Christopher Preble is the vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.