Stephen M. Walt

Top 10 examples of “wishful thinking” in U.S. foreign policy

A realistic foreign policy seeks to deal with the world as it is, shorn of political illusions.  Realists emphasize that even close allies often have conflicting interests, that cooperation between states is difficult to achieve or sustain, and that the conduct of nations is frequently shaped by some combination of fear, greed and stupidity.  Above ...

BAY ISMOYO/Getty Images
BAY ISMOYO/Getty Images

A realistic foreign policy seeks to deal with the world as it is, shorn of political illusions.  Realists emphasize that even close allies often have conflicting interests, that cooperation between states is difficult to achieve or sustain, and that the conduct of nations is frequently shaped by some combination of fear, greed and stupidity. 

Above all, realists warn against basing policy on wishful thinking: on the assumption that all will go as we want it to. Yet the pages of history are littered with episodes where leaders made decision on the basis of false hopes, idealistic delusions, or blind faith. And I regret to say that there’s no shortage of this sort of wishful thinking today. As evidence, I offer here my "Top Ten Examples of Wishful Thinking in Contemporary U.S. Foreign Policy."

No. 1: China Won’t Act Like a Great Power

Although most foreign policy gurus recognize that China’s rising power will have profound effects on world politics, some still assume that a more powerful China will somehow act differently than other great powers have in the past. In particular, they maintain that China will cheerfully accept the institutional arrangements that were "made-in-America" after World War II. They also believe that Beijing will be content to let the United States maintain its current security posture in East Asia, and will not seek to undermine it over time.  Maybe so, that’s not how great powers have acted in the past, and it’s certainly not how the United States behaved in its own rise to world power (remember the Monroe Doctrine?). This illusion is gradually being dispelled, I think, but one hears its echoes every time some official says that the United States "welcomes" China’s rise.

Read the full article, "Wishful Thinking," here.

Also, I hope readers will send in their suggestions for other examples of "wishful thinking." Perhaps I’ll devote a future post to the other side of the equation — "worst-casing" — which can be just as serious an error as excessive optimism.

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

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