- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
I’m in Williamsburg, Virginia, to give a set of lectures at the College of William and Mary. I’ll be speaking first to students on the virtues of theory and the vices of "simplistic hypothesis testing," based on the article I wrote with John Mearsheimer that was recently published in the European Journal of International Relations. Then a class presentation on the relationship between academia and the policy world, which will address issues I’ve discussed here. And then I wrap up with a public lecture this evening on "Why Does U.S. Foreign Policy Keep Failing?"
There are a lot of potential answers to that last question, and I’m sure each of you has your favorite candidate(s). My own list is a pretty long one (and no, it doesn’t start with the Israel lobby), but the one I’m thinking most about today is the irresponsibility of so many public officials. How can one retain any respect for most politicians these days, given their recent behavior? The GOP appears to be making a run at the world record for self-destructive political conduct, which wouldn’t be so bad if they were the only ones damaged by it. Unfortunately, their brain-dead fiscal brinkmanship is actively harmful to the U.S. economy and is doing more damage to U.S. credibility than a thousand Munichs. Not that it bothers people who are trapped in the Limbaugh/FOX News bubble.
As I’ve noted before, a key part of the problem is a lack of accountability within our entire political system, and maybe even our entire society. Politicians in gerrymandered districts aren’t accountable because they only have to appeal to a carefully selected set of voters who already agreed with the incumbents. (This is democracy inside-out: Instead of broad groups of voters selecting their political representatives, we have career politicians drawing district lines in order to cherry-pick the voters they want). Foreign-policy "experts" can launch disastrous wars and commit countless follies — and then land safe sinecures at various D.C. think tanks, from which they can plot their return to power and continue to lobby for the same policies that failed when they were in power. Top officials can admit they lied to Congress or screw up the Obamacare rollout and still remain comfortably in their posts. With rare exceptions, military commanders can continue to rise even when their battlefield performance is subpar. And it’s not like we’ve held Wall Street accountable for its own machinations either. Even universities tend to turn a blind eye to faculty misconduct unless it is truly egregious (and sometimes not even then).
Given all that, it’s probably hopeless to expect elected officials to show a lot of insight, courage, or backbone. Think about it: How many politicians can you name who seem to be genuinely admirable people, animated not by their own ambitions and ego but by a sincere desire to serve the public? Similarly, how often have you heard some leading political figure say a bunch of nonsensical things that they knew were not true, but did so because saying them was politically expedient?
By contrast, how many politicians can you name who have taken positions they knew might jeopardize their political futures, but did so because they truly believed it was the right thing to do? How many have openly admitted they were wrong about some weighty issue and actually seem humbled by this moment of fallibility? Whether one looks left or right, there just don’t seem to be many people with those qualities in our political life these days. I can think of a few, but not many.
I’m not naive about this issue: Politics is the art of compromise, and even principled leaders sometimes have to make trade-offs to advance a broader agenda. And clinging firmly to principle can be dangerous if the principles are loony (see under: Tea Party). But whether the issue is our inability to address basic fiscal issues in a responsible manner, our propensity to intervene in places of no strategic importance, our eroding infrastructure, or the growing gulf between privileged people like me (and you) and the rest of society, the country is crying out for some pragmatic people who are interested in Getting Things Done and have some idea how to do it.