Wishful Thinking

Top 10 examples of the most unrealistic expectations in contemporary 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 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 decisions on the basis of false hopes, idealistic delusions, and blind faith. And I regret to say that there’s no shortage of this sort of wishful thinking today. As evidence, here are my “Top 10 Examples of Wishful Thinking in Contemporary U.S. Foreign Policy.”  

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, but that’s not how great powers have acted in the past, and it’s certainly not how the United States behaved during 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.

2. Using the Big Stick Will Bring Big Benefits

Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. leaders have repeatedly exaggerated the efficacy of using military power, and tended to assume that a little bit of military power will produce large, predictable, and uniformly beneficial results. In 1999, the Clinton administration thought a few days of air strikes would cause Slobodan Milosevic to fold — in fact, it took weeks of bombing and Russian diplomatic intercession to end the Kosovo War. In 2002, the Bush administration assumed that the rapid ouster of the Taliban would solve our problems in Afghanistan, and in 2003 it thought toppling Saddam Hussein would trigger a radical transformation of the whole Middle East. More recently, the Obama administration’s decision to intervene in Libya seems to have been based on the hope that Muammar al-Qaddafi’s support would quickly dissolve as soon as NATO jumped into the fray. It might have been nice if it had, but it was wishful thinking to assume it.

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3. It Won’t Take Long to Achieve Results

A closely related form of wishful thinking is to assume that a particular policy goal will be easy to achieve, and that it won’t take long to see concrete results. Obama thought he could get a two-state solution in the Middle East in his first term, and believed he could get Israel to stop building settlements just by making a speech or two and by talking tough during Netanyahu’s first visit. Ooops. The president later told us that the “surge” in Afghanistan would bring decisive results within a year. Obama also seemed to think that sending Iran a few friendly video messages would turn the U.S.-Iranian impasse around; when that didn’t work, they decided that ratcheting up sanctions would convince Tehran to fold instead. Wishful thinking, in every case.

4. Our Allies Will Do More if We Ask Them To

For the past five or six decades, U.S. leaders have repeatedly pushed U.S. allies to make larger contributions to common projects like Iraq or Afghanistan, and to do more of the heavy lifting in their own regions, with at best modest success. You’d think we’d know better by now, but each new administration seems to succumb to this familiar form of wishful thinking. For reasons well explained by the theory of collective action, U.S. allies have usually chosen to free-ride, because they understand that they can get away with it. So they make the minimum contribution necessary to keep us on the hook, and let Uncle Sucker do a disproportionate share of the work. And we let them.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images 

5. We Have Just Fought the Last War  

Now, this kind of wishful thinking is a hardy perennial: the end of every major conflict is heralded as ushering in some new era of peace and prosperity. World War I was “the war to end all wars,” and World War II was supposed to make the world “safe for democracy.” Victory in the Cold War was said to have ushered in a peaceful “new world order” (or even the “end of History!”), and so on and so on. And once we’re finally out of Iraq and (someday) Afghanistan, no doubt plenty of people will claim that all our problems are now over and that we won’t have to do anything like that again.

There is evidence that the total level of global conflict has declined in recent years, but only a cockeyed optimist would believe that the danger of international conflict — including great power conflict — has been eradicated forever. I’d like to think so too, but I’m a realist.

6. Spreading Democracy is Easy

A central tenet of both neo-conservatism and liberal internationalism/interventionism is the idea that democracy is both the ideal form of government but also one that is relatively easy to export to other societies. Never mind that democratization tends to shift the distribution of power within different societies, thereby provoking potentially violent struggles for power between different ethnic or social groups within society. Pay no attention to the fact that it took several centuries for stable democracies to emerge in the Western world, and that process was frequently bloody and difficult. And you should ignore the fact that U.S. efforts to spread democracy in the past have a decidedly mixed track record, yet this continues to be a central pillar of U.S. foreign policy.

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7. Anti-Americanism Can Be Cured By Skillful “Public Diplomacy”  

Ever since 9/11, there’s been a tendency to assume that anti-Americanism in the world was mostly due to poor marketing, and that it would decline if we just came up with a better sales pitch. So the Bush administration appointed a former advertising executive to work on polishing America’s “brand” (without success). This response is understandable, because Americans (and some other countries) don’t want to admit that a lot of the opposition they face isn’t due to a misunderstanding about what they stand for or what they are doing. On the contrary, opposition has arisen because other societies do understand what we are doing, and they don’t like it anymore than we would if someone were doing the same thing to us.

To be sure, President Obama is more popular in many parts of the world than President Bush was (admittedly a low bar to clear), but in the areas where opposition to U.S. policy is most apparent (i.e., most of the Middle East), he has had little positive impact. Bottom line: To believe that you can fool people into liking policies that are contrary to their interests is a pernicious form of wishful thinking, because it discourages us from asking whether it is the policies themselves that ought to change.

8. The United States Is a Benign Hegemon

Americans tend to see their own global role in glowing terms: Because we think our intentions are noble, we tend to think that most other countries ought to appreciate what we are doing. In short, we see ourselves as a benign hegemon, and we are quick to assume that other states appreciate us and want to be like us. Although some countries are undoubtedly grateful for U.S. protection, and some people admire certain aspects of American society, we probably exaggerate the degree to which other societies either welcome U.S. dominance or want to emulate U.S. society. Weaker actors often resent being dependent on a stronger actor’s good will, and especially if the stronger actor is constantly telling others what to do and using its power arbitrarily. Yet weaker actors may not always tell us what they really think, precisely because the United States is stronger and they still hope to get things from us. In short, it may be wishful thinking to believe that the United States is as popular as Americans think they deserve to be, and it may go a long way to explaining why we aren’t doing very well in places like Afghanistan or Pakistan.


9. We Can Control Our Foreign Policy Agenda

During a presidential campaign, staffers and transition team members draft memos and position papers laying out what the new administration is going to do once in office. But once in power, they invariably end up wrestling with issues they never anticipated and sometimes get blown off course completely. This shouldn’t really be surprising: International affairs is unpredictable and there are almost 200 other countries out there whose actions may suddenly impinge on U.S. interests. So George W. Bush came into office intending to focus on great power politics and to avoid “nation-building,” but then he got blindsided by 9/11 and ended up neck deep in nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan. Similarly, Barack Obama’s foreign policy team didn’t expect to be dealing with transitions in the Arab world, along with a tsunami and nuclear meltdown in Japan.

More than any other realm of public policy, international affairs demands a capacity to improvise, and to deal with events that were wholly unforeseen. And that’s why an overly ambitious foreign policy is usually a mistake: you need to leave some capacity in reserve to deal with the unexpected.

10. Everything Will Be OK after the Next Election

Despite the low regard that Americans have for politicians, there is a surprising tendency to assume that everything will be OK once we toss out the current leaders and bring in a new team. When Bush was elected in 2000, some of my Republican friends were positively gleeful in announcing that the “grownups” were back in charge once again. They saw the Clinton team as a bunch of amateurs who didn’t know how to do foreign policy, and they were certain that Bush’s victory had put the pros back where they belonged. (It would have been nice if it had been true, but Bush’s first term managed to make Clinton’s performance look good.) And then in 2008, it was the Democrats’ turn to go euphoric about Obama, and to argue that his administration would quickly reverse Bush’s blunders and lead the United States back to its rightful position as the (much-loved) Leader of the Free World.

Both hopes were illusory, of course. As I’ve noted before, there’s just not that much difference between the Democratic and Republican foreign policy establishments, which means that tossing one party out doesn’t affect the mainstream consensus on foreign affairs. Furthermore, the other forces that drive U.S. policy (interest groups, lobbies, alliance commitments, legal constraints, geopolitics, etc.) don’t disappear just because there’s a new resident at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Which is why Obama’s policy on a host of issues is remarkably similar to Bush’s (especially in the latter’s second term), even in those areas (e.g., Guantanamo, war powers, etc.) where candidate Obama took a different view.

There’s a flipside too: Instead of indulging in wishful thinking, one can also err by assuming that difficult problems are insoluble and therefore not worth addressing. In other words, “worst-casing” can be just as serious an error as excessive optimism.

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

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