Is the Blob Really Blameless?

How not to evaluate American grand strategy.

Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Former U.S. Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton attend the trophy presentation prior to Thursday foursome matches of the Presidents Cup at Liberty National Golf Club on September 28, 2017 in Jersey City, New Jersey.
Former U.S. Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton attend the trophy presentation prior to Thursday foursome matches of the Presidents Cup at Liberty National Golf Club on September 28, 2017 in Jersey City, New Jersey.
Former U.S. Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton attend the trophy presentation prior to Thursday foursome matches of the Presidents Cup at Liberty National Golf Club on September 28, 2017 in Jersey City, New Jersey. Rob Carr/Getty Images

Francis Gavin recently published a lengthy review of my 2018 book, The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy. I am flattered that he judged the book to be of sufficient importance and potential influence to warrant such sustained attention, even though his assessment is harshly negative. Gavin’s essay raises several important issues, and it would be a telling indictment if his criticisms were well founded. Fortunately, his main charges miss their mark while nicely illustrating the complacent mindset that I criticized in the book. Explaining why his objections are unconvincing will hopefully move the debate on U.S. grand strategy forward.

Francis Gavin recently published a lengthy review of my 2018 book, The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy. I am flattered that he judged the book to be of sufficient importance and potential influence to warrant such sustained attention, even though his assessment is harshly negative. Gavin’s essay raises several important issues, and it would be a telling indictment if his criticisms were well founded. Fortunately, his main charges miss their mark while nicely illustrating the complacent mindset that I criticized in the book. Explaining why his objections are unconvincing will hopefully move the debate on U.S. grand strategy forward.

Although Gavin offers up many complaints about the book, his critique rests on four main claims. First, he argues that apart from some obviously costly blunders in the Middle East, U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War has been a great success. Second, he claims the alternative grand strategy that I and others have recommended (variously termed “restraint” or “offshore balancing”) would be a disaster, which is why the foreign-policy establishment and the broader American public have rejected it. Third, he portrays me and my fellow restrainers as centrally placed figures with enormous potential to shape debates on U.S. foreign policy, not a relatively small minority confined mostly to a handful of universities. Given our alleged prominence, he suggests that our failure to convince the elite or the public to embrace our proposals is further evidence that our ideas are unsound. Lastly, he rejects my characterization of the foreign-policy elite as a mutually reinforcing community of individuals and institutions sharing a common worldview (namely, a commitment to the strategy of liberal hegemony), claiming instead that it is an intellectually diverse group of open-minded and dedicated professionals that holds itself to high standards and has only the best interests of the country and the world at heart.

Let me consider each of these criticisms in turn.

Has U.S. foreign policy been successful? 

In contrast to the assessment that I and many other critics have presented, Gavin believes recent U.S. foreign policy has been remarkably successful. Why does he think so? Because, in his words, the United States is still “far and away the most important player in international politics.” But this standard is much too easy: Given America’s overwhelming power position when the Cold War ended and the enormous geopolitical advantages it still enjoys, it would have required repeated disasters of truly epic proportions to erode U.S. primacy completely or even put the United States in a position of parity with any other country. At no point did I claim that the United States has come close to falling that far.

The proper question to ask is whether the United States has used its power wisely and in ways that have made the American people more secure and prosperous or whether repeated acts of omission and commission in the conduct of foreign policy have undermined the national interest in important ways. Unfortunately, as a recent Rand Corp. study makes clear, the answer is all too apparent. The United States stood unchallenged when the Cold War ended and was on good terms with the other major powers, including Russia and China. Today, it has antagonistic relations with Russia, faces a rapidly rising and increasingly hostile China, and Beijing and Moscow are effectively aligned together against the United States. Given these unfortunate developments, as well as the opposition that Washington faces from minor powers such as Iran and North Korea, foreign-policy experts from both major political parties are now issuing the usual strident warnings about the need to restore America’s deteriorating strategic position. If the past 25 years or so have gone so swimmingly, why are they now so concerned? The situation at home doesn’t look so great either.

Another way to answer this question is to consider what the architects of U.S. foreign policy said they were trying to accomplish during the Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama administrations and ask if they succeeded. Consistent with the strategy of liberal hegemony, these three administrations were openly committed to spreading democracy, human rights, open markets, and other liberal values while at the same time preserving America’s position of primacy.

Well, how did those ambitious efforts turn out? According to Freedom House, 2019 marked “the 14th consecutive year of decline in global freedom,” a trend that long predates the Trump administration. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual Democracy Index has chronicled a similar trend, and in 2017 it downgraded the United States itself from the category of “full” to “flawed” democracy. Globalization under U.S. auspices produced a major global recession in 2008 and a powerful backlash in the United States and Europe alike, and it was under siege well before President Donald Trump began launching his various trade wars. As realists had warned, projects like NATO enlargement have poisoned relations with Russia, laid the groundwork for subsequent conflicts in Georgia and Ukraine, and driven Russia and China closer together. (Gavin denies that anti-American balancing is even happening, but these and other examples demonstrate the opposite.)

Furthermore, the Clinton administration’s ill-advised strategy of dual containment in the Persian Gulf kept thousands of U.S. troops in the region during the 1990s, a situation that helped convince Osama bin Laden to attack the United States on 9/11. All three administrations devoted countless hours trying to achieve a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, only to come up empty-handed and humiliated. North Korea became a nuclear weapons state, and both India and Pakistan tested nuclear weapons and expanded their arsenals despite intense opposition from Washington. Iran has yet to cross the nuclear threshold, but it went from zero centrifuges in 2000 to roughly 19,000 before signing the now-defunct Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2015, and it is for all intents and purposes a latent nuclear weapons state today.

Mindful of these disturbing developments, Gavin tries another line of attack. He admits that U.S. policy in the Middle East has been a “disaster” but suggests that the United States has done very well in Europe and East Asia, which he calls “the world’s two most geopolitically important regions.” Major war has not broken out; some potential nuclear weapons states did not race to get the bomb, and America still has valuable allies in both areas.

There are two problems with this argument. First, if Europe and East Asia are the regions that really matter, then why did U.S. leaders let themselves get dragged repeatedly into Middle Eastern quagmires that cost trillions of dollars and thousands of lives and which made it harder for Washington to respond effectively in the more “geopolitically important regions”? Both the Bush and Obama administrations wanted to do more in Asia, for example, but they kept pouring time, attention, money, and scarce military resources into the Middle East instead, while allies in Asia and Europe looked on with growing dismay.

Second, U.S. policy in Europe and East Asia is hardly a great success story. True, World War III has not broken out in either region, but that was unlikely to occur no matter what the United States did and thus is hardly a meaningful mark of achievement. Nor has Germany or Japan acquired the bomb, which might have occurred under some scenarios but not under many others. Given what U.S. leaders believed their policies would achieve, however, the overall record is disappointing. NATO enlargement was supposed to create a Europe that was united and free and above all peaceful; instead, we have witnessed wars and frozen conflicts in the Balkans, Georgia, and Ukraine and a deteriorating security situation in the Baltic area, not to mention increasingly acrimonious relations with Russia itself. If U.S. policies were so successful, why did the Obama administration have to send more troops to Europe to reassure America’s prosperous but poorly equipped allies, and why did Trump ultimately do the same, despite his all-too-obvious skepticism about NATO’s value? U.S. engagement and NATO enlargement were also supposed to strengthen democracy in the region, yet Poland, Hungary, and Turkey are moving steadily away from liberal democracy, and others may follow suit.

As for East Asia, not only did North Korea successfully test a nuclear weapon while the United States was distracted by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but the strategy of liberal hegemony pursued by Clinton, Bush, and Obama played a major role in facilitating China’s emergence as a serious peer competitor. Deng Xiaopeng’s “Four Modernizations” began the process of unleashing China’s enormous potential, but the United States consciously aided its ascent, based on the hope that doing so would hasten its transition to democracy, turn Beijing into a “responsible stakeholder,” and bind it so tightly within U.S.-led institutions that future conflicts would be easy to manage. One is hard-pressed to think of another case where an overwhelmingly dominant great power deliberately facilitated the rise of the only country that could possibly pose a serious challenge to its privileged position. It is obvious that this approach failed, which is why U.S. leaders now worry about unfavorable power trends in Asia and are actively trying to build a balancing coalition to contain Chinese power. I share their concerns and agree with this prescription (and said so in the book), yet Gavin apparently regards the policies that led to this worrisome situation as a great success. They surely were for China—but not for the United States.

Gavin also suggests that I am opposed to U.S. primacy, saying that I appear to “prefer a world marked by balancing between great-power rivals to one where the United States is unchecked.” This is pure invention on his part: In fact, I have argued the opposite for years. My criticisms of the excesses of U.S. foreign policy stem from my concern that repeated errors have weakened America’s global position while at the same time squandering resources that could have been used to strengthen the country’s power base at home and benefit all Americans. Gavin and I both like U.S. primacy; where we differ is on the best way to preserve it.

Gavin’s last line of attack on this point is to suggest that recent U.S. foreign policy is no worse than it was in earlier historical periods and that it compares favorably with the performances of states like Russia and China. Regarding the first point, it is hardly a ringing defense, as I noted in my book, to say that the United States’ recent mistakes are no worse than some of its earlier follies.

As for the second point, there’s no question that some countries have done worse than the United States has over the past quarter century. But that’s not a convincing defense either, especially when other states have done markedly better. China has grown much more powerful, improved the lives of its people dramatically, avoided the quagmires the United States has repeatedly plunged into, and steadily gained international influence. Xi Jinping’s recent assertiveness has triggered growing alarm, which only shows that imitating America’s sharp-elbowed and insensitive approach to foreign policy is unwise. Vladimir Putin is a brutal autocrat, and Russia’s political order is mired in corruption, but even those of us who are repelled by his behavior must concede that he has played a weak hand well. Despite an aging population and a sclerotic economy that is smaller than Italy’s, his policies have made Russia a force to be reckoned with in several areas and at relatively low cost. The United States, by contrast, held mostly aces and still managed to lose many of the hands it played.

Would a different strategy have worked better?

Gavin’s second complaint is that the strategy of offshore balancing that I and restrainers recommend would be a disaster, and he offers up an extended counterfactual of assorted bad things that might occur if the United States stopped garrisoning the world and trying to force other states to embrace its values. I present a different set of counterfactuals in the book (and a few other places), suggesting that adopting offshore balancing in the 1990s would have 1) led to better (though not perfect) relations with Russia; 2) made the 9/11 attacks much less likely to happen; 3) reduced (but not eliminated) the risk of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; 4) kept the United States out of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; and 5) left Washington in a far stronger position vis-à-vis Beijing. As with all counterfactuals, neither of us can prove we are right. But we do know that the United States tried liberal hegemony, and we know how badly it turned out.

To bolster his counterfactual, Gavin falls back on the infamous 1930s analogy, perhaps the most moth-eaten trope in the mainstream foreign-policy establishment’s playbook. In his view, the interwar period demonstrates what happens when the United States withdraws from world affairs: You get the Great Depression, the rise of fascism, and eventually a catastrophic world war. He seems to think that this is a telling blow against my argument, but we do not know what form(s) U.S. involvement would have taken or whether it would have dampened or intensified the rivalries of the interwar period. Given the many tangled conflicts that were present in interwar Europe, the claim that inserting U.S. power into the mix would have guaranteed peace is hardly a slam-dunk.

Moreover, Gavin is attacking a straw man. Neither I nor any other advocate of offshore balancing is suggesting that the United States should adopt the same approach to world politics that it took during the 1920s and 1930s. None of us is calling for the United States to leave the United Nations or cut the defense budget to 1920s levels, and most restrainers believe the United States should stand ready to ally with others if doing so is genuinely necessary to prevent the rise of a regional hegemon in Europe, Asia, or the Persian Gulf. As noted above, that is certainly my view with respect to Asia.

What restrainers are saying is that the United States should stop squandering time, money, military personnel, and political legitimacy trying to spread democracy and liberal values around the world; stop subsidizing the security of wealthy allies that have the wherewithal to defend themselves; and stop pursuing hyperglobalization without regard for its damaging consequences at home and its impact on the balance of power abroad. We believe these adjustments would allow the country to concentrate its resources on the challenge that a rising China presents and help address the accumulating problems it faces domestically. Even if Gavin’s unprovable conjecture about the 1930s were correct, it is irrelevant to today’s debate about U.S. foreign policy.

Do restrainers have a lot of influence? 

Perhaps Gavin’s oddest claim is his suggestion that restrainers are not a distinct minority within the broader foreign-policy community but rather a group with considerable prominence and status. In his telling, the debate between us and the rest of the foreign-policy establishment is a fair fight among equal forces, and if our ideas have not been adopted by policymakers or the public, it is not for lack of a hearing. Instead, he insists, it is because the ideas themselves are obviously unsound.

His evidence for this claim is that I have an endowed chair at the Harvard Kennedy School, write a regular column for Foreign Policy, and have a fair number of Twitter followers. He points out that a few other restrainers have positions at elite universities and are also able to publish their ideas from time to time. Restrainers have not been silenced or marginalized, he suggests, and if our policy recommendations made sense, they would have been readily embraced by the body politic.

This argument is disingenuous because restrainers remain a small faction within the broader foreign-policy community. And while I have the good fortune to hold a professorship at Harvard and the opportunity to publish my ideas, such a position is hardly a direct line to policy influence. Consider that the economist Paul Krugman is in an even more favorable position than I am—he is the recipient of a Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences; has held distinguished professorships at Stanford, Princeton, and now the City University of New York; writes a regular column in the New York Times; and has 4.6 million Twitter followers. Yet he’d surely be the first to admit that his views on economic policy are frequently ignored by those in power.

Moreover, what about the rest of the faculty who teach foreign policy-related subjects at the Kennedy School? My colleagues include former Defense Secretary Ash Carter; his former chief of staff Eric Rosenbach; former Assistant Secretaries of Defense Graham T. Allison and Joseph S. Nye; former U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power; former Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns; former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers; and former National Security Council official Meghan O’Sullivan. One could add others, including the senior fellows whose ranks include former National Security Advisor Susan Rice and former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph Dunford. To be clear: I have great respect for these colleagues, remain on good terms with them, and am grateful for all I have learned from them over the years. But with the possible exception of the historian Fredrik Logevall, none of them could be described as an advocate of foreign-policy restraint.

The balance of power at Harvard is a good reflection of the situation in the foreign-policy community itself. There are no restrainers at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, at Stanford, or in Yale’s well-known grand strategy program. You won’t find any at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, where Gavin now teaches, and they are either absent or badly outnumbered at his former employer, the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. The picture is even more heavily slanted in the world of think tanks and lobbies inside the Beltway.

In his review, Gavin makes much of the Charles Koch Foundation’s recent efforts to promote a broader debate by supporting scholars and policy analysts with different views on U.S. grand strategy and helping to fund the new Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. These are encouraging developments, but their existence today hardly undermines the argument of a book dealing primarily with the period from 1993 to 2016. And my assessment then remains true today: “[O]rganizations and individuals committed to America’s global leadership role and to an ambitious foreign policy agenda are far more numerous and much better funded than groups arguing for greater U.S. restraint.”

Gavin also suggests that American voters have consistently rejected offshore balancing because they are content with the way things are. In his words: “It is also puzzling that pursuing a grand strategy that was so bad for so long would escape the scrutiny of the American voter.” There is no puzzle here at all: Foreign policy is a minor concern for most of the public most of the time, but even so, the mounting failures did not escape voters’ attention. As I noted in the book, all four post-Cold War presidents ran for office promising to do less abroad and more at home, and one of them—Obama—rose to the presidency in good part because he had opposed a war against Iraq that most of his Democratic Party rivals had supported. Each of these presidents acted differently once in office, but they all knew voters were not enthusiastic about liberal hegemony. Nor does Gavin challenge the considerable evidence I presented showing how the public’s views on foreign policy are sharply at odds with the views of foreign-policy elites or the chapter that explains how the foreign-policy establishment inflates threats, exaggerates benefits, and conceals costs to convince the American people to go along with policies that keep failing. The establishment’s stubborn efforts to keep substantial U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, even though 76 percent of Americans polled would like them withdrawn, are merely the latest evidence of this enduring disconnect.

Moreover, if liberal hegemony is such a stunning success and the American people are happy with it, then how are we to explain Trump’s triumph in 2016 or the improbable popularity of an avowed socialist like Bernie Sanders? Both men ran for president challenging the core principles of liberal hegemony, and their rejection of that flawed strategy was an important part of their appeal. Gavin and I agree that Trump has been a disaster as president and foreign policy is not the main reason he got elected in 2016. But the facts are clear: Trump ran for office saying U.S. foreign policy was a “complete and total disaster” and promising to “shake the rust off.” He was openly opposed by dozens of experienced foreign-policy experts from both political parties, yet he crushed the Republican primary field and won enough votes against a former secretary of state to end up in the White House. And foreign policy was far from irrelevant, as voting patterns in 2016 showed that “Trump made significant electoral gains among constituencies that were exhausted and politically alienated by 18 years of fighting [overseas].” The American people are much less enamored with liberal hegemony than Gavin maintains and increasingly open to alternatives.

The nature of the foreign-policy community

 Gavin’s defense of the foreign-policy establishment begins by cherry-picking a few quotations, such as my somewhat snarky remark that liberal hegemony has been a “full employment policy for the foreign-policy elite.” He approvingly quotes former Bush administration official Kori Schake’s declaration that the elite’s rejection of offshore balancing “isn’t a conspiracy”—thereby falsely implying that I said it was—and then proceeds to link the book to the conspiracy theorists analyzed in Richard Hofstadter’s classic The Paranoid Style in American Politics. His apparent aim is to convince readers that I believe members of the foreign-policy elite act solely to advance their personal ambitions and are engaged in dark plots to thwart the national interest.

This charge is baseless. Here’s what I actually wrote: “America’s foreign policy elite is not a conspiracy of privileged insiders who are consciously seeking to advance their own fortunes at the nation’s expense. On the contrary, the institutions examined in this book are filled with dedicated public servants who genuinely believe that U.S. dominance is good for the United States and for the rest of the world. At the same time, however, the pursuit of liberal hegemony appeals to this elite’s sense of self-worth, enhances their power and status, and gives them plenty to do. These individuals also operate in a system that rewards conformity, penalizes dissent, and encourages its members to remain within the prevailing consensus.”

I stand by that statement, which the rest of the book fleshes out in detail. The Hell of Good Intentions is thus squarely in the tradition of well-known works like C. Wright Mills’s The Power Elite, as well as the extensive literatures on bureaucratic politics, interest group politics, and the military-industrial complex, not to mention the work of historians who have explored the chronic tendency of the foreign-policy establishment to exaggerate threats.

Gavin dismisses my concerns about the lack of accountability within the establishment by saying tenured academics are even less accountable, but the mores of academia are not the issue. He writes that his own “sense as a historian, … immersed in the decision-making of foreign policy officials, is that most took their responsibilities quite seriously.” I agree, but once again, that isn’t the point. The real question is twofold: 1) Did a powerful and rarely questioned strategic consensus among key officials and the broader community of advisors, policy wonks, and pundits lead them to make repeated mistakes? and 2) Were those who conceived, sold, and implemented policies that repeatedly failed held accountable for their errors? On these questions, Gavin is silent. It is striking that his long and detailed review does not mention any important foreign-policy figure who suffered significant professional consequences for making important and repeated professional errors. Having acknowledged that U.S. policy in the Middle East has failed for many years, what is Gavin’s explanation for how Paul Wolfowitz could go from selling the disastrous Iraq War at the Defense Department to the presidency of the World Bank to being forced to resign that post amid accusations of ethical lapses and then to a senior sinecure at the American Enterprise Institute and membership on a State Department advisory panel?

Furthermore, what explains the Teflon-like durability of Elliott Abrams or John Bolton? Were the other Bush administration officials who deceived the country into a disastrous war subsequently ostracized within the establishment or considered ineligible for future service? Did the raft of pundits, public intellectuals, and so-called liberal hawks who supported the Iraq War pay any discernible price? Were the persons who ordered CIA personnel to commit acts of torture ever prosecuted? For that matter, who made the key errors of judgment that left the country vulnerable on 9/11? (You certainly won’t find the answer in the official 9/11 Commission Report.) Were the higher-ups whose actions led to the travesties at Abu Ghraib prison ever punished? Have the individuals who were convinced that helping China rise rapidly would create a more peaceful world and make the United States safer suffered any negative consequences for this enormously consequential misjudgment?

What about the officials whose well-intentioned interventions helped create failed states in Libya, Syria, and Yemen? Did they acknowledge these mistakes openly so that the country could avoid repeating them in the future? Apart from Obama himself, they haven’t. Instead, many of the officials who made these errors—even, as my title suggests, with good intentions—ended up landing lucrative and influential post-governmental jobs, from which they could position themselves for a return to power in some subsequent administration. If one believes, as Gavin does, that U.S. foreign policy has been a great success, then this degree of continuity is undoubtedly reassuring. But if one believes it would be better if the country learned from its mistakes and stopped recycling officials who have repeatedly failed to achieve their own stated goals, the absence of accountability is more troubling.

Trump’s chaotic approach to governing has shown that relying on amateurs, criminals, ideologues, and unqualified relatives is hardly a smart way to manage domestic affairs, foreign policy, or a pandemic response. Indeed, were I writing the book today, I would draw a sharper distinction between the career civil servants who provide valuable institutional memory and often bring valuable skills and considerable dedication to the conduct of foreign policy and the elected officials and political appointees who are primarily responsible for more consequential strategic missteps. As stated explicitly in the book, the need for accountability must be tempered by a degree of forbearance because all humans are fallible and “some officials learn and improve over time.” What is needed, therefore, is not a root-and-branch destruction of the entire foreign-policy establishment but the creation of a foreign-policy elite that is more open to different perspectives than was the case between 1992 and 2016 and also exhibits a higher degree of accountability.

A fair-minded judge?

 Gavin’s review is misleading in one final but noteworthy respect. He portrays himself as a detached historian floating above the fray, a neutral, nonpartisan observer who is ideally positioned to render an objective judgment on these matters. Because he has “never worked in government, held a paid job with a think tank, consulted for the private sector, or served on a political campaign,” he declares, he should be an “easy audience” for my argument. Such statements are meant to persuade readers that his criticisms come from a disinterested position and are therefore all the more telling.

This pose should fool no one. Gavin, who currently directs the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins, is a fully engaged partisan in America’s grand strategy debates, as even a casual survey of his own writings makes clear. He is a staunch defender of deep U.S. engagement all over the world, for the reasons laid out in his essay. That is his privilege, of course, and I have no problem with his holding views on grand strategy that differ from mine. Most of my Harvard colleagues and some of my best friends do too. It would be more honest, however, for him to acknowledge these differences openly, instead of portraying himself as someone without a dog in the fight.

But please, don’t take my word for any of this. If you have read this far and are still interested in my views on the future of U.S. foreign policy, I would encourage you to get a copy of The Hell of Good Intentions, read it, and then read Gavin’s review. When you are finished, ask yourself which perspective you find most convincing. I believe most readers will find my analysis and recommendations more persuasive, and Gavin might even agree with that prediction. After all, if he wasn’t so worried about restraint’s intrinsic and growing appeal, he wouldn’t have gone to such lengths to try to discredit it.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

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