It wasn’t supposed to be this way. At the end of the Cold War, the United States looked out upon a world in which it wielded unprecedented levels of power and influence. With its main ideological competitor vanquished, American policymakers were free not only to pursue their direct national interests, but also to pursue grand visions of remaking the world in the U.S.’s own image. As President George H.W. Bush and his national security adviser Brent Scowcroft recalled in their 1999 book, “A World Transformed,” during Bush’s term, the United States had found itself “standing alone at the height of power.” With the Soviet Union out of the picture, U.S. leaders had “the rarest opportunity to shape the world and the deepest responsibility to do so wisely for the benefit of not just the United States but for all nations.”
For the most part, this glowing vision of the future — based on a conception of free markets, democratic governance, and individual liberties — did not come to pass. Today, one can gaze Ozymandias-like upon the unsettling new world that U.S. leaders have helped bring forth. Attempts to impose new regimes at gunpoint on Iraq and Afghanistan have laid waste to those countries, killing hundreds of thousands of innocents and triggering a series of internal conflicts that may continue for decades to come. The Middle East, as a whole, is in the grip of a new generation of tyrants, while liberal democracy looks to be under increasing threat even in Western Europe and the United States. At the same time, a Chinese-promoted model of authoritarian capitalism is being offered to developing countries as a troubling alternative to liberal democracy.
“The objective of U.S. foreign policy over the past several decades has been to gradually transform as much of the world as possible through the promotion of electoral democracy, the rule of law, free markets, and by bringing other countries into institutions and alliances that are U.S.-led,” Walt told The Intercept. “This effort has been nearly a total failure. It hasn’t failed entirely, but in terms of stated objectives, democracy is in retreat around the world and is looking increasingly dysfunctional even in the United States itself.”
Emerging as the world’s sole superpower at the end of the Cold War, the U.S. had two possible futures to choose from. It could either cash in a peace dividend at home by gradually scaling back its Cold War-era alliance commitments, or it could embark on a bold project of “liberal hegemony,” intended to spread its own system of government and a rules-based international order across the world. Flush with confidence after the the collapse of communism, American elites chose the latter course.
The liberal impulse to define conflicts as moral crusades, rather than as clashes over interests or national security feeds an ugly annihilationist tendency in policymaking.
Even assuming the best of intentions for their project, the results have not been pretty. After a partly successful effort to halt genocide in Bosnia during the early 1990s, the “American Century” quickly ran aground amid a sea of ugly conflicts that failed to promote liberal values and may have actually undermined them. Rather than ushering in a new era of peace, the U.S. has found itself almost constantly at war since the so-called unipolar moment began. The failed pursuit of liberal hegemony also helped transform a manageable security threat posed by post-9/11 Islamist terrorism into a disastrous crusade to spread U.S.-style governance across the Middle East — an effort that has caused catastrophic harm to the people of that region. Meanwhile, the condition of permanent war, while failing to promote liberal values in other countries, has damaged those values in the U.S. by degrading civil liberties and boosting the fortunes of illiberal populists.
While Walt’s book takes aim at the specific failures of America’s foreign policy elite, Mearsheimer undertakes a more radical critique of the liberal foreign policy paradigm as a whole. While he accepts that liberal democracy is the best system to govern the U.S., Mearsheimer disputes the contention that American values are universal. Whereas, for example, Americans tend to prize individual rights above all, others may well have different ideas about what constitutes the highest good worth defending. These may include notions of communal well-being and social stability, alternative ideals that often run in contrast to the American focus on individual liberty.
Mearsheimer also argues that the belief in American exceptionalism, however well-intentioned, can easily lead to aggression. As a power that believes its values are universal, the U.S. seems to be unable to view illiberal states as completely legitimate, making it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to pursue good-faith diplomacy with them. Instead of working out a sustainable balance of power, the U.S. thus finds itself reflexively seeking to undermine the governments of illiberal countries like Iran and Russia, whose values it finds distasteful, even when the strategic benefit of doing so is unclear. This “liberal intolerance” of political difference has helped fuel bloody proxy conflicts that may have been avoided had the U.S. been more willing, at least on principle, to accept the sovereignty of its rivals.
The liberal impulse to define conflicts as moral crusades, rather than as clashes over interests or national security, also feeds an ugly annihilationist tendency in policymaking. A major example of this is the U.S. war in Afghanistan. After deposing the Taliban government in 2001, the United States refused to negotiate with the shattered remnants of the group. Negotiations with a defeated enemy would have been a pragmatic step that could have ended the fighting, solidified the new U.S.-supported government, and, perhaps most importantly, achieved the key strategic objective of preventing Afghanistan from again being used as a staging ground for terrorist attacks against the U.S.
Rather than define victory in these reasonable terms, the war against the Taliban was instead characterized as a moral crusade on behalf of human rights, feminism, and an array of other causes about which there can be no negotiation. Rejecting any compromise with an enemy it had defined as evil, the U.S. helped its local allies pursue a campaign of total annihilation against the Taliban and its supporters. Years later, Afghanistan is no closer to being a liberal democracy and the war is still raging there, at horrific human cost. The U.S., for its part, has given up on even defeating the Taliban and is instead simply trying to negotiate a face-saving exit. After flirting with a utopian idea of transforming Afghanistan in its own image and killing tens of thousands of Afghans in the process, the U.S. belatedly realized that the entire horrible endeavor has been essentially pointless.
Does this mean that the project of pursuing a liberal foreign policy has thus been a misguided crusade, spilling untold amounts of blood to impose an order that few outside the U.S. had asked for anyway? This is a tempting perspective to embrace given recent events. It’s not clear, however, whether liberal values are as contingent as Mearsheimer makes them out to be. During the Arab Spring, considerable numbers of people showed themselves willing to risk their lives to achieve basic freedoms of individual expression and conscience, in scenes which at the time resonated strongly with the American public. While the U.S. ultimately sided with the forces of authoritarian “stability” in Egypt, Bahrain, and Syria, the popular movements that arose in those countries showed strong support for at least some of the liberal values that Americans cherish.
That obscures the clarity of a so-called realist foreign policy — one that holds that the world must be dealt with as it is, absent any vague notions of values beyond pure national U.S. interests. Both Walt and Mearsheimer are viewed as deans of the realist school, to varying degrees. Pursuing such a realist foreign policy would likely mean an end to reflexive U.S. support of movements aimed at undermining dictatorial governments, though Walt’s book does leave the door open to strictly humanitarian interventions in certain cases.
Rather than seeing itself primarily as a global police officer or proselytizer for liberal values, in Walt’s view, the U.S. should move from liberal hegemony back to a more restrained strategy of “offshore balancing.”
“I do not rule out the use of American power to prevent genocides or mass killings, but I set a high bar,” Walt explained to the The Intercept. “We should be powerfully convinced that the tragedy is happening or about to happen, that we have military or other means that can prevent it an acceptable cost, and that there are good reasons to think that our actions will not make things worse. We must be very skeptical, however, when what we are trying to do is effectively large-scale social engineering. Any attempt to do that is going to have huge unintended consequences.”
Rather than seeing itself primarily as a global police officer or proselytizer for liberal values, in Walt’s view, the U.S. should move from liberal hegemony back to a more restrained strategy of “offshore balancing.” This strategy would focus less on global policing and more on intervening to ensure that no rival hegemonic power emerges in the three regions that are of great strategic importance to the United States — Europe, the Persian Gulf, and East Asia. This was the same logic that guided the U.S. to belatedly intervene in World War II, when it seemed that Germany might consolidate itself as a rival power dominating Europe.
In a very crude way, President Donald Trump rode to victory on a foreign policy platform incorporating realist ideas during the 2016 election. His campaign attacked America’s post-Cold War alliance system, denigrated the liberal internationalism that supported values-based interventions abroad, and called for a ruthless focus on America’s core economic and security interests. In a recent essay in the national security publication War on the Rocks, Devin Stewart, a senior fellow and director of the Asia program at Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, offered a serious, critical take on the emerging “Trump Doctrine” in foreign policy:
Trump’s ‘America First’ approach is a reversion to the idea of realpolitik and great power competition. It is better suited to a moment in which American power is much less dominant. The president takes each state-to-state relationship on its own terms. That’s why he’s often antagonistic with allies and friendly with threatening dictators …
Technocracy, meritocracy, and bureaucratic approaches are giving way to establishing top-level personal rapport, trust, and loyalty. Free trade ideology is giving way to trade as a means to enrichment. Building institutions gives way to questioning the utility of each institution. Moral diplomacy gives way to talking to anyone who will bargain. Careful speeches give way to saying anything that gets results. Saving sacred cows gives way to killing them or threatening to do so. Open markets give way to using U.S. markets, military, and migration as bargaining chips. Every relationship is subject to maximum leverage of what is possible.
The rise of a left-wing movement within the Democratic Party has highlighted the widespread uncertainty about what a progressive foreign policy should look like. Needless to say, there is little for progressives to celebrate in the approach championed by Trump. His xenophobic nationalism, corruption, and embrace of mercantilist policies have rightly been alienating to those who care about progressive values. Meanwhile, his uncritical embrace of the agendas of American client states like Saudi Arabia and Israel, as well as his use of foreign policy to manipulate domestic politics, significantly undermines his claims to be a realist as well.
It remains to be seen in what direction American foreign policy will head. Over the past few decades, as the world’s only superpower, the U.S. has been very fortunate to be able to externalize the costs of its failed policies onto others and carry on with minimal consequence. With the rise of China and the accompanying shift in the global balance of power, however, the United States may find itself forced to accept a less ambitious and more effectively “realist” approach by sheer necessity.
“The U.S. is eventually going to end up with a more sensible foreign policy than we’ve had,” Walt predicted. “The only question is how long it is going to take.”