Stephen M. Walt

The Greatest Gifts: A Christmas Post

It’s the holiday season, and with it comes the tradition of gift-giving. These acts of generosity warm the cold months of winter and provide us with tangible signs of affection from our loved ones.  Although a spirit of kindness and altruism is part of the process, an element of self-interest is often present too. Parents ...


It’s the holiday season, and with it comes the tradition of gift-giving. These acts of generosity warm the cold months of winter and provide us with tangible signs of affection from our loved ones.  Although a spirit of kindness and altruism is part of the process, an element of self-interest is often present too. Parents sometimes give their kids presents designed to encourage some worthy activity (e.g., a new musical instrument, a worthwhile book to read, a new camera for a child interested in photography), and spouses sometimes give presents intended to repair a rift or from which they expect to benefit either directly or indirectly.  (Confession: I have on a few occasions given my wife CDs that were secretly intended for my iPod. Not that I got away with it….).

Given that international politics is a competitive realm-and sometimes brutally so-you wouldn’t expect to see a lot of selfless generosity.  But it does occur at times, and the week between Hanukah and Christmas seemed like the perfect opportunity to offer up a list of the "greatest gifts" that one country ever bestowed on others.  I make no claim that this is a complete list-or even the best one-and I hope readers will send in their own alternative suggestions.  Also, because this is foreign policy, some noteworthy "gifts" were wholly unintended.  In international politics, some gifts are actually blunders rather than deliberate acts of generosity, even if others benefited greatly from them.

So in no particular order, here are ten of the "greatest gifts" in modern foreign policy.

 1. The British Campaign against the Slave Trade, 1807-1867.  High on any list of foreign policy altruism would be Great Britain’s lengthy campaign to eradicate the slave trade.  As ably analyzed by Robert Pape and Chaim Kaufmann, this may be the clearest case of "costly moral action" in international history.  At its peak the anti-slavery campaign may have cost the British roughly two percent of GDP, even though Britain derived few, if any, strategy or commercial benefits from the effort.  Instead, it was done for essentially moral reasons, reflecting the critical influence of abolitionist forces in British domestic politics.

2. The Marshall Plan, 1947.   There was an obvious element of self-interest here, as the U.S. officials understood that European economic recovery was essential to prevent the spread of communism and to America’s own economic growth.  Yet the decision to provide $13 billion in additional economic assistance (at a time when U.S. GDP was roughly $250 billion), was nonetheless a far-sighted and creative act of statesmanship.  Sometimes giving gifts to others does leave you better off.   Can you imagine the U.S. Congress pledging a similar percentage of national income (i.e., more than $600 billion) to an economic relief program today?

3. Hitler’s Declaration of War against the United States, 1941.  This falls under the category of "unintended gifts."  Although President Franklin Roosevelt wanted to get the United States into the fight against Nazi Germany, isolationist opinion stymied his efforts until Pearl Harbor.  Yet after the Japanese attack on December 7, a "Europe first" strategy would have been difficult to sell had Hitler remained strictly neutral, and had he been clever enough to adopt a conciliatory position towards Washington.  Public anger at Japan would have forced Roosevelt to focus on the Pacific, despite its lesser strategic importance.  Thus, Hitler’s declaration of war was in fact a great gift to Roosevelt, thought it was hardly an act of deliberate generosity.

4. The U.S.-Israel "Special Relationship."  I’m sure readers would be disappointed if I left this one out, and it belongs on the list in any case.  There’s been self-interest involved here too-at least during the Cold War-but providing an annual subsidy equivalent to about $500 per Israeli citizen, along with consistent diplomatic backing, is a remarkably generous gift, especially when one considers the other costs it imposes on the United States (alienated friends, heightened risk of terrorism, more complicated regional diplomacy, etc.)  The late Yitzhak Rabin said it best: American support for Israel is "beyond compare in modern history."   It is also be one of those gifts that now does more harm than good, because it enables policies that are jeopardizing Israel’s long-term future.  At this point, it’s a bit like loving parents who give a teenager a high-powered Harley and promise to replace it no matter what: they shouldn’t be surprised if some reckless driving follows.

5. The Presidency of George W. Bush.  Another unintentional gift, in this case given to America’s adversaries around the world.  The Bush team downplayed the risk of terrorism and was caught off-guard on 9/11, missed Bin Laden at Tora Bora and starved the Afghan recovery effort, went to war on false pretenses in Iraq and bungled the occupation, tarnished the U.S. image by mishandling Katrina and making torture an officially sanctioned policy, and led us into the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.  I wonder if they ever got a thank-you note from America’s current and future rivals, who must have looked on with a mixture of shock, awe, and gratitude.

6. Martyrs in the Cause of Peace and Justice.  A list of this sort should also take note of those who gave their lives in the service of peace and justice.  In addition to soldiers who have fought for just causes, and leaders like Nelson Mandela who ended apartheid and avoided the civil war that many feared for South Africa, there are also a legion of diplomats and private citizens who sacrificed their lives–the ultimate gift–attempting to advance the cause of peace and understanding.  The names are far too numerous to mention and some remain obscure, but I am thinking of heroic figures such as Raoul Wallenberg, Dag Hammarskold, Folke Bernadotte, the eight Jesuit priests murdered in El Salvador in 1989, Dorothy Stang, Rachel Corrie, papal envoy Michael Courtney, Francisco Mendes, and many, many others.

7. Generous Givers.   No country today is really generous in providing development assistance, but credit should be given to those who devote a relatively large percentage of their national income to this task (at least compared to others).  Sweden, Luxembourg, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands head the list of aid donors as a percentage of national income, devoting between .8 to 1 percent of national income to this mission.  The United States ranks 22nd, by the way, coughing up a measly .18 percent of gross national income.

8. Nuclear Weapons and the "Long Peace."  Nuclear deterrence doesn’t make war impossible, but its hard to argue that it has not been a formidable barrier to it.  Unlike John Mueller, I think the Cold War could easily have gone "hot" without the sobering effects of nuclear weapons, even if both superpowers amassed far larger arsenals than they needed, and they are a major reason why the second half of the 20th century was much less bloody than the first half.  And while we’re talking about the "long peace," I’d give an honorable mention here to Mikhail Gorbachev and the "new thinkers" in Soviet foreign policy, whose initiatives were central to ending the Cold War itself, even though the end-result (i.e., the breakup of the Soviet Union) was not exactly what they had in mind.

9. The Post-war "Truth-tellers" in Germany.  German power posed a problem from Europe from 1870 onward, and a fatal combination of flawed institutions, dangerous ideas, and-in the person of Adolf Hitler-a murderous individual, plunged Europe into two catastrophic wars.  Yet in the aftermath of World War II, scholars, artists, and visionary leaders came together to confront Germany’s past and revise the self-justifying history that had fueled its earlier misconduct.  Had intellectuals in Germany acted in the 1950s as they did in the 1920s, and devoted their efforts to white-washing Germany’s role in starting both wars and trying to deny responsibility for the Holocaust, the entire history of postwar Europe would have been different.  Instead, historians like Fritz Fischer and Imanuel Geiss offered unvarnished and damning accounts of Germany’s misdeeds, a process reinforced by other scholars like Jurgen Habermas and novelists like Heinrich Boll and Gunter Grass.  The idea that history should be "de-nationalized" has grown in other contexts as well-from the "New Historians" in Israel to men like Saburo Ienaga in Japan-and constitutes a potential barrier to the xenophobia that has caused so much suffering in the past.  A nation may be a "group of people united by a shared mistaken view about the past," but correcting the self-serving myths that sow the seeds of future conflict is an invaluable gift.

10. The International Civil Aviation Organization.   Even realists understand that institutions can help states with compatible interests coordinate their behavior and achieve more desirable outcomes, and anyone who boards an airplane benefits from the work of this relatively obscure organization, which oversees the complex arrangements that regulate air traffic in a world where the thousands of planes take off and land every day.  Why do I include it today?  Simple.  If somebody wasn’t managing global air traffic, how could Santa fly safely?

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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