Stephen M. Walt

What London’s Underground Tells You About Grand Strategy

I haven’t blogged in a few days because I’ve been having a fascinating but very busy trip through the United Kingdom. My visits to Cambridge, the London School of Economics (LSE), and the European Council on Foreign Relations went very well — or so I thought, at least — and I’m grateful to colleagues there ...

Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

I haven’t blogged in a few days because I’ve been having a fascinating but very busy trip through the United Kingdom. My visits to Cambridge, the London School of Economics (LSE), and the European Council on Foreign Relations went very well — or so I thought, at least — and I’m grateful to colleagues there for hosting my visit and offering provocative queries and comments. And a special note of appreciation to the students who asked sharp questions: It’s always encouraging to talk to smart and passionate students who care about the real world.

I know Europe and the U.K. have been in the doldrums in recent years, and this article from the New York Times exposes the human consequences of persistent youth unemployment in telling detail. But I have to say that London looked fabulous. There’s a visceral and vibrant energy in the city, and some features of English life put the United States to shame.

I mean: What must city officials from Boston think when they ride London’s Underground and compare it to Boston’s own T? (For some reason, Bostonians are proud that it was the United States’ first subway — the problem is that it shows.) But of course that’s what happens when a country chooses to spend money building elaborate air bases in places like Bagram instead of spending that money closer to home.

By contrast, the London Tube is efficient and ubiquitous and is laid out with remarkable clarity — the graphic maps and visual aids are well-conceived and remarkably easy to navigate. Even New York’s subway system, impressive in its own way, seems rather crude, loud, and uncivilized by comparison.

After my talk at LSE, one of the attendees asked a great question: Why is it that politicians in the United States usually think it is safer to take a hard-line, flag-waving, decidedly hawkish approach to many international issues, instead of openly and consciously articulating a vision that emphasizes minding our own business (at least some of the time), embraces diplomacy first and military force last, and reminds Americans that their first duty is to each other. In other words, a view that thinks Americans should spend less time telling the world how to live until they’ve cleaned up some of their own enduring problems at home. I still think that is what President Barack Obama genuinely wanted to do when he took office, and look how hard it was for him to stick to that vision.

I didn’t give the questioner a great answer, and it puzzles me still. Some of the reason lies in the militarist roots of most nationalisms (where state and coercive power tend to be fused), and some of it lies in the natural tendency for those with great power to think they are uniquely virtuous and thus qualified to preach to others. But some of it is genuinely a mystery: Why are Americans so willing to pay taxes in order to support a world-girdling national security establishment, yet so reluctant to pay taxes to have better schools, health care, roads, bridges, subways, parks, museums, libraries, and all the other trappings of a wealthy and successful society?

This question would be easy to answer if the United States were facing a large and/or imminent threat: Sensible states sacrifice butter for guns when the wolf is at the door. But the United States is the most secure power in history and will remain remarkably secure unless it keeps repeating the errors of the past decade or so. When most of the world is spending a lot smaller percent of GDP on defense than the United States is, and when the country is already way ahead, a bit of readjustment shouldn’t be controversial — it should be bleeding obvious. Indeed, under present circumstances, civilian leaders in the Pentagon should be leading the charge to reduce defense burdens, instead of dragging their heels.

But moving in that direction will require some rethinking of America’s grand strategy. I’ll consider that topic in my next post. Next stop: Abu Dhabi.

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

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