More, Less, or Different? Where U.S. Foreign Policy Should-And Shouldn't-Go from Here

By Sullivan, Jake | Foreign Affairs, January/February 2019 | Go to article overview

More, Less, or Different? Where U.S. Foreign Policy Should-And Shouldn't-Go from Here


Sullivan, Jake, Foreign Affairs


More, Less, or Different? Where U.S. Foreign Policy Should-and Shouldn't-Go From Here The Hell of Good Intentions: America's Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy BY STEPHEN M. WALT. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018, 400 pp.

The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities BY JOHN J. MEARSHEIMER. Yale University Press, 2018, 328 pp.

Since November 2016, the U.S. foreign policy community has embarked on an extended voyage of soul-searching, filling the pages of publications like this one with essays on the past, present, and future of the liberal international order and the related question of where U.S. grand strategy goes from here. The prevailing sentiment is not for just more of the same. Big questions are up for debate in ways they have not been for many years. What is the purpose of U.S. foreign policy? Are there fundamental changes in the world that demand a corresponding change in approach?

Into this earnest and reflective conversation enter Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, each with a new book, each making his long-standing argument about the failures of U.S. foreign policy with renewed ferocity. Walt's is called The Hell of Good Intentions: America's Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy; Mearsheimer's is The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities. The titles give clear hints of the cases they lay out: against democracy promotion, humanitarian intervention, nation building, and nato expansion; for restraint and offshore balancing.

Each of the two books does add something new. Walt's contains an extended attack on the foreign policy community, painting a dark picture, across multiple chapters, of a priesthood gripped by various pathologies, leading the country astray. Mearsheimer, meanwhile, turns to political theory to explore the relationship among liberalism, nationalism, and realism. Liberalism, he says, cannot alter or abolish nationalism and realism, and where the three meet, the latter two will prevail over the former. (Although he takes pains to stress that he is talking about liberalism in the classical sense, not as it is understood in American politics, his repeated assaults on "social engineering" reveal that he may mean it both ways.) For Mearsheimer, analysis of the three isms ultimately provides an alternative route to arrive at the conclusion that a strategy of liberal hegemony is bound to fail-and has, in fact, failed for the United States.

Both authors make a number of fair points. But their books also suffer from a failure to distinguish between clear mistakes-such as the war in Iraq-and flawed outcomes flowing from imperfect options, which are the norm in a messy business like foreign policy. They also too frequently succumb to the temptation of caricature, playing up interventions and playing down institution building, which was a more persistent and widespread feature of the United States' post-Cold War approach. The biggest disappointment, however, is that neither author really engages with the new debates currently preoccupying the foreign policy community or the vexing questions about U.S. strategy going forward.

BAD FAITH AND THE BLOB

Walt and Mearsheimer have been fixtures in the foreign policy debate for a long time. Setting aside their joint polemic on U.S.-Israeli relations, published in book form in 2007, the two have provided the sort of iconoclasm that is essential to public discourse, forcing proponents of a forward-leaning foreign policy to sharpen their arguments, think about mistakes, and face hard questions they would rather gloss over. Mearsheimer has been especially powerful, including in this new book, in pointing out that too many liberal internationalists have failed to contend with the enduring power of nationalism and identity. Recent history has proved him more right and the American foreign policy community more wrong. On this and many other points, practitioners owe these scholars (and the academy in general) a fuller hearing and more thorough consideration-even if they don't end up agreeing with them. …

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