Argument
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The United States Couldn’t Stop Being Stupid if It Wanted To

For Washington, self-imposed restraint will always be a contradiction in terms.

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Sen. Chuck Schumer and Joe Biden laugh during the National Prayer Breakfast at the Washington Hilton February 7, 2013 in Washington.
Sen. Chuck Schumer and Joe Biden laugh during the National Prayer Breakfast at the Washington Hilton February 7, 2013 in Washington.
Sen. Chuck Schumer and Joe Biden laugh during the National Prayer Breakfast at the Washington Hilton February 7, 2013 in Washington. Chris Kleponis-Pool/Getty Images

Defenders of U.S. “global leadership” sometimes concede that Washington has overextended itself, pursued foolish policies, failed to achieve its stated foreign-policy aims, and violated its avowed political principles. They see such actions as regrettable aberrations, however, and believe the United States will learn from these (rare) mistakes and act more wisely in the future. Ten years ago, for example, political scientists Stephen Brooks, John Ikenberry, and William Wohlforth acknowledged that the Iraq War was a mistake but insisted that their preferred policy of “deep engagement” was still the right option for U.S. grand strategy. In their view, all the United States had to do to preserve a benign world order was maintain its existing commitments and not invade Iraq again. As former U.S. President Barack Obama liked to say, we just need to stop doing “stupid shit.”

Defenders of U.S. “global leadership” sometimes concede that Washington has overextended itself, pursued foolish policies, failed to achieve its stated foreign-policy aims, and violated its avowed political principles. They see such actions as regrettable aberrations, however, and believe the United States will learn from these (rare) mistakes and act more wisely in the future. Ten years ago, for example, political scientists Stephen Brooks, John Ikenberry, and William Wohlforth acknowledged that the Iraq War was a mistake but insisted that their preferred policy of “deep engagement” was still the right option for U.S. grand strategy. In their view, all the United States had to do to preserve a benign world order was maintain its existing commitments and not invade Iraq again. As former U.S. President Barack Obama liked to say, we just need to stop doing “stupid shit.”

George Packer’s recent defense of U.S. power in the Atlantic is the latest version of this well-worn line of argument. Packer opens his essay with a revealingly false comparison, claiming that Americans “overdo our foreign crusades, and then we overdo our retrenchments, never pausing in between, where an ordinary country would try to reach a fine balance.” But a country that still has more than 700 military installations worldwide; carrier battle groups in most of the world’s oceans; formal alliances with dozens of countries; and that is currently waging a proxy war against Russia, an economic war against China, counterterror operations in Africa, along with an open-ended effort to weaken and someday topple the governments in Iran, Cuba, North Korea, etc., can hardly be accused of excessive “retrenchment.” Packer’s idea of that “fine balance”—a foreign policy that is not too hot, not too cold, but just right—would still have the United States tackling ambitious objectives in nearly every corner of the world.

Unfortunately, Packer and other defenders of U.S. primacy underestimate how hard it is for a powerful liberal country like the United States to limit its foreign-policy ambitions. I like the United States’ liberal values as much as anyone, but the combination of liberal values and vast power makes it nearly inevitable that the United States will try to do too much rather than too little. If Packer favors a fine balance, he needs to worry more about directing the interventionist impulse and less about those who are trying to restrain it.

Why is it so hard for the United States to act with restraint? The first problem is liberalism itself. Liberalism begins with the claim that all human beings possess certain natural rights (e.g., “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”). For liberals, the core political challenge is to create political institutions strong enough to protect us from each other but not so strong or unchecked as to deprive us of these rights. However imperfectly, liberal states accomplish this balancing act by dividing political power; holding leaders accountable through elections; enshrining the rule of law; protecting freedom of thought, speech, and association; and emphasizing norms of tolerance. For true liberals, therefore, the only legitimate governments are those that possess these features and use them to safeguard each citizen’s natural rights.

But take note: Because these principles begin with the claim that all human beings possess identical rights, liberalism cannot be confined to a single state or even a subset of humanity and remain consistent with its own premises. No genuine liberal can declare that Americans, Danes, Australians, Spaniards, or South Koreans are entitled to these rights but people who happen to live in Belarus, Russia, Iran, China, Saudi Arabia, the West Bank, and any number of other places are not. For this reason, liberal states are strongly inclined to what John Mearsheimer terms the “crusader impulse”—the desire to spread liberal principles as far as their power permits. The same problem bedevils other universalist ideologies, by the way, whether in the form of Marxism-Leninism or the various religious movements that believe it is their duty to bring all humans under the sway of a particular faith. When a country and its leaders genuinely believe that their ideals offer the only proper formula for organizing and governing society, they will try to convince or compel others to embrace them. At a minimum, doing so will guarantee friction with those who have a different view.

Second, the United States finds it hard to act with restraint because it possesses a remarkable amount of power. As former U.S. Sen. Richard B. Russell, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and no dove, put it back in the 1960s, “[I]f it is easy for us to go anywhere and do anything, we will always be going somewhere and doing something.” When a problem arises nearly anywhere in the world, there is always something the United States could try to do about it; weaker states do not have the same latitude and thus do not face the same temptations. New Zealand is a healthy liberal democracy with many admirable qualities, but nobody expects the Kiwis to take the lead in dealing with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Iran’s nuclear program, or Chinese incursions in the South China Sea.

By contrast, whoever sits in the Oval Office commands a bevy of options whenever trouble arises or an opportunity beckons. A president can impose sanctions, order a blockade, threaten the use of force (or use it directly), and any number of other actions, and almost always without placing the United States at serious risk (at least in the short term). Under these circumstances, resisting the temptation to act will be extremely difficult, especially when a chorus of critics stands ready to denounce any act of restraint as a failure of will, an act of appeasement, or a fatal blow to U.S. credibility.

Third, because the United States has occupied the commanding heights of global power for more than 70 years, there are now powerful bureaucratic and corporate forces with a vested interest in maintaining its outsized global role. As former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned in his farewell address in 1961, the emergence of a powerful “military-industrial complex” during World War II and the early Cold War was a profound development that would permanently skew U.S. foreign policy in a more militarized and interventionist direction. That influence is especially evident throughout the world of foreign-policy think tanks, the vast majority of which are devoted to promoting U.S. engagement and defending a U.S.-centered world order. The result, as Zack Beauchamp observed a few years ago, is that “Washington’s foreign policy debate tends to be mostly conducted between the center and the right. The issue is typically how much force America should use rather than whether it should use it at all.”

Fourth, as I’ve noted before, the liberal United States is open to foreign influences in ways that many other countries are not. Foreign governments can hire lobbying firms to advance their case inside Washington and especially on Capitol Hill, or in some cases they can rely on domestic groups to press for action on their behalf. They can give generous donations to think tanks that will promote their cause, and foreign leaders can publish op-eds and articles in influential U.S. publications to sway elite and mass opinion. Such efforts won’t always succeed, of course, but the net effect will tend to encourage the U.S. to do more rather than less.

Moreover, the number of foreign voices whispering in the American ear grows every time the United States adds a new ally, “partner,” or “special relationship.” We used to have 11 NATO allies trying to shape U.S. policy toward Europe; we now have 29. Some of these states contribute significant resources to collective defense, but some of the others are weak and vulnerable and are more properly seen as protectorates than equal partners. Not surprisingly, these states are among the loudest voices insisting that the United States live up to its commitments and protect them, warning that U.S. credibility as a global power is at risk and any hope for a more benign world order depends on taking their advice. According to our many clients, the more deeply engaged the United States becomes, the more deeply engaged it must remain.

Make no mistake: I am not arguing for ignoring allies’ concerns or rejecting their advice out of hand. Allied leaders often have smart things to say about contemporary global issues, and it is easy to think of examples (Iraq, anyone?) where the United States would have been better off had it listened to French or German warnings instead of relying solely on its own counsel. But there can still be an unhealthy symbiosis between the interventionist impulse of much of the foreign-policy “Blob” and the self-interested advice that countries hoping for U.S. protection and assistance are eager to insert into debates on foreign policy. Not surprisingly, the United States’ foreign partners usually want Uncle Sam to do more on their behalf, and rarely recommend that the United States cut back a little.

Put these various elements together, and one can see why it is so hard for the United States to stop doing stupid stuff. Ideology, power, bureaucratic momentum, and other states’ desires to use U.S. power for their own ends combine to create a powerful predisposition to do something and a concomitant inability to set clear priorities and stick to them when temptation arises. To achieve the fine balance that Packer and others seem to want, more needs to be done to counter this predisposition instead of trying to defend or reinforce 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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