- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
My nominee for the "most callous statement recently uttered by a prominent U.S. diplomat" goes to George Shultz, who was interviewed by New York Times reporter Deborah Solomon a couple of weeks ago. Solomon asked Shultz a few questions about his role "stumping for the war" and serving as chairman of the "Committee for the Liberation of Iraq." Shultz reveals that the committee never actually met and that he didn’t even know who all the members were, which seems like a pretty cavalier approach to a major foreign policy decision. Solomon asks him if he has any regrets about the invasion (he doesn’t, though he wishes it had gone quicker). And then, after some not-very insightful questions about whether the Bechtel Corporation (which Shultz used to head) made money from the war, there is the following exchange:
Solomon: ‘It’s been seven years since we invaded Iraq, and there is so much sorrow in the world. I don’t see things getting a lot better.’
Shultz: ‘You ought to come out to California. We have problems out here; but the sun is shining, and it’s pleasant here on the Stanford campus.’
I grew up about 4 miles from Stanford and did my undergraduate studies there. Shultz is absolutely right: It’s a very pleasant place, and I’m sure it’s even nicer when you’re a multi-millionaire. But to dismiss the death and destruction that the United States wreaked on Iraq — as well as all the other suffering that occurs elsewhere in the world — with a blithe reference to California sunshine strikes me as emblematic of the indifference that underpins a lot of American meddling around the world. So long as the sun is shining where we are, we don’t care all that much about what our foreign policy decisions are doing to other people. And then we get surprised and irate when some people in some far-flung part of the world resent what we are doing, and when a few of them try to do what they can to pay us back.
The United States continues to interfere in lots of places around the world in part because most Americans — and especially privileged individuals like Mr. Shultz — are immune from the immediate consequences of these actions. We borrow the money to pay for foreign wars, and we rely on sacrifices by an all-volunteer force. We fail to see the connection between our heavy-handed diplomacy and penchant for using force and the persistent anti-Americanism that occurs in the places where we’ve interfered most often. And when you’re the 800-lb gorilla in the international system, you can allow your foreign policy to be swayed by well-connected "letterhead" committees that never actually meet and whose funders and motives remain hidden. Great power allows states to behave irresponsibly, in short, because others suffer the consequences and future generations get stuck with the bill.
What’s most striking about Shultz’s offhand comment is that it came from someone with a long record of public service and generally sensible views on a lot of foreign policy issues. He was hardly a "chicken-hawk," having served in the Marines in World War II, and his tenure as secretary of state helped rescue the Reagan administration from some of its worse excesses and internal divisions. But for men (and women) like him, the world is a stage on which to operate, and the consequences for others are just "collateral damage."
Needless to say, statements like that are why I tend to look at the world through a realist lens. However much we may deplore it, most leaders worry primarily about their own positions and their own country’s narrow self-interest, and they don’t spend much time or attention thinking about whether what we are doing is good for others. There isn’t a lot of altruism in the conduct of foreign policy, even though great powers always tell themselves that their motives are pure and that they are really acting for the greater good. It would be nice if things were different, but that ain’t the world we live in.