Stephen M. Walt

The black cloud

I don’t want to be a killjoy, but a troubling thought occurred to me last night. If — repeat, if — Obama’s economic team has in fact managed to ward off a major depression — even at the price of greatly increased long-term debt — will that make it harder for them to institute various ...

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I don’t want to be a killjoy, but a troubling thought occurred to me last night. If — repeat, if — Obama’s economic team has in fact managed to ward off a major depression — even at the price of greatly increased long-term debt — will that make it harder for them to institute various long-term reforms that really ought to be considered?  

Don’t get me wrong: unlike some rightwing critics like Rush Limbaugh, I’m not hoping for failure. Avoiding a lasting depression is a very good thing for all sorts of obvious reasons, not least of which is reducing the suffering of Americans who would be poorer the longer the downturn lasted. But if you are one of those people who think that the United States had been living beyond its means for some time, and that certain aspects of our society need more fundamental rethinking (and here I’d include an overly ambitious foreign policy), then there’s a black cloud in this potential silver lining.   

A few months ago, support for major reforms was enhanced by the sense that the United States really was in serious trouble. Obama’s team clearly hoped to take advantage of this perception, just as the Bush administration took advantage of 9/11. As Rahm Emanuel famously put it, “no crisis should go unexploited.” But if people start thinking that the United States is out of the woods, business-as-usual priorities and the politics of gridlock will quickly reemerge.  

My concern, as you might expect, is that a new sense of complacency will derail any attempt to rethink U.S. foreign policy priorities and bring long-term commitments back in line with resources. Trade and budget deficits will persist, important domestic priorities will be neglected, and eventually other countries will wake up and realize that U.S. foreign policy didn’t change that much after all. And the opportunity to move toward a more realistic foreign policy will have been lost. We’ll get there eventually, of course, but more slowly and painfully than we should.

Chris Hondros/Getty Images

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

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