According to Stephen Walt, Robert and Renée Belfer Professor of International Affairs at HKS, both Democrats and Republicans have been misguided in their pursuit of liberal hegemony. What would better serve U.S. interests? How should the United States focus its military commitments? Listen to this conversation with Professor Walt as he addresses these questions and discusses his latest book, The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy (October 2018).
Wiener Conference Calls recognize Malcolm Wiener’s role in proposing and supporting this series as well as the Wiener Center for Social Policy at Harvard Kennedy School.
Good day everyone. I’m Mari Megias, assistant director of communications for Alumni Relations and Resource Development at Harvard Kennedy School, and I’m delighted to welcome you to this on-the-record Wiener Conference Call. Today we are joined by Stephen Walt, who is the Robert and Renée Belfer Professor of International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School. He is going to lead our conversation about U.S. foreign policy and the failure of liberal hegemony. This happens to be the subject of his most recent book, titled, The Hell of Good Intentions, America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy, which was published in October of 2018. He has been a resident associate of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution, and a consultant for the Institute of Defense Analyses, the Center for Naval Analyses. and the National Defense University. He serves on various editorial boards of publications such as Foreign Policy, Security Studies, International Relations, and the Journal of Cold War Studies. He was elected as a fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He also blogs regularly at foreignpolicy.com. Steve, thank you for joining us today.
It’s a real pleasure to be joining everyone here and everyone online, and to talk about my new book. I thought I would start by saying a little bit about how I came to write it. In 2013, I was invited to come down and speak to the State Department, at a sort of luncheon program that they have every week. I was asked by the people who invited me to be provocative. I said, “Well, fine, I’ll talk about why American foreign policy keeps failing.” I thought that would be sort of a lively topic for the State Department. We actually had a terrific discussion. They were gracious, and I think actually quite open to a lot of the ideas that I presented. As I was flying back to Boston on the plane that night, I was looking over my notes and I said to myself, “This would make a nice little book. I have sort of 10 points here that would be 10 little chapters.” I estimated back in 2013 that it would take me a year to write the book. This was sort of a metaphor for American foreign policy.
The project turned out to be much more difficult than I anticipated going into it. I did have a full draft of the manuscript done in October of 2016, but like everybody else I woke up the day after the election in November, realizing that the world had changed at least in some respects. I was going to have to do a lot of work on the manuscript, which I did. In fact, my own view is that the subsequent book is better than the original one I had, and in some respects a Trump is a great test for the argument of the book. I’ll say a bit more about that in a minute. I really wanted to sort of summarize the key arguments in the following way.
The first question I want to consider is, what went wrong? We were very optimistic back in the 1990s about where the world was headed. That doesn’t seem to be the world we’re inhabiting today. I’ll try to lay out my views on what went wrong there. I’ve been arguing that we deserve a lot of the blame, that the United States is responsible for a lot of it. Not all of it by any means, but a lot.
Then the second question is, how can we do better? I’m going to lay out the case for a different strategy. Along the way I will explain why I think Donald Trump is not the president who is going to deliver this.
Let me start with the bad news. You’ll all remember the unipolar moment of the 1990s. The United States is dominant, the wind is at our back. Our only problems are a few pesky dictators, who haven’t really gotten the memo yet. The United States is on good terms with all the major powers, including Russia and China. Iraq was being disarmed. Iran had no nuclear enrichment capacity. We thought we had capped North Korea’s nuclear program as well. Globalization is proceeding rapidly with the formation of the World Trade Organization. NATO and the European Union are expanding, democracy is spreading worldwide. We have the Oslo Accords, meaning that we think we’re on the brink of a final peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. The American military seems unstoppable. The American economy’s actually doing pretty well.
Now, you fast forward to today. China’s power and ambitions have grown steadily. Russia has seized Crimea, relations with Moscow now are worse than at any time since the Cold War. Of course, Moscow and Beijing are increasingly aligned and cooperating against us. Democracy is now in retreat. According to Freedom House, a New York-based think tank, 2017 was the 12th consecutive year where global freedom declined. Since 1993, North Korea, India, and Pakistan have all tested nuclear weapons. Iran has acquired the capacity to build nuclear weapons if it ever wants to. It has all the technological capabilities it needs.
Needless to say, Middle East peace did not occur. Various efforts to finally broker a solution, were all failures. The United States is attacked on September 11th, we respond by invading Afghanistan and then Iraq. Both of these wars ended up being costly, open-ended disasters that among other things, means the U.S. military no longer seems quite so invincible.
Indeed, much of the Middle East is in turmoil now with our interference helping create failed states, in Libya and Yemen and Somalia and Syria. Now, one consequence is that back in 2016 when Donald Trump ran for president, he said in his first foreign policy speech that American foreign policy was a complete and total disaster. The problem was that a lot of Americans nodded their heads in agreement, and when they thought about the record there. I argue in the book that the taproot of many of these failures, was the strategy of liberal hegemony. I say liberal, not in the sense of being less doing or progressive, but because it seeks to promote these classic liberal values, democracy markets, rule of law, human rights. It’s one of hegemony, because it sees the United States as the indispensable nation that is uniquely qualified to lead that process and bring other states into a sort of web of institutions where those values are reflected.
When you think about it, this is a highly revisionist grand strategy. We’re not just defending American territory, and perhaps upholding a balance of power in a critical strategic region. Liberal hegemony sought to remake the world in America’s image. Change the political status quo in lots of parts of the world. Ideally through non-military means, but if necessary in some circumstances by using military force.
This sounds great to Americans, because we like all these values and we think others would be better off if they had them, but it actually turns out to be fundamentally flawed as a strategy. At first, it greatly inflates America’s defense requirements.
By 2016, for example, the United States was formally committed by treaty to defending more countries than at any time in the nation’s history. That protection allows our allies to free-ride, which many of them do. Well, and in some cases even to act recklessly, to do various things knowing that the United States will bail them out if they get into trouble.
Secondly, trying to spread liberal values all over the world threatens countries that aren’t democratic, that aren’t liberal already. They of course stand together to try and slow us down, stop us, fold our efforts in various ways. Most importantly, this strategy assumed that we knew how to create stable and effective democracies in the wake of regime change.
When we succeeded in toppling a dictator, instead of creating a flourishing democracy, we ended up with failed states and costly military occupations. We should have known better. Creating a workable democracy is a very difficult thing to do, particularly in a poor, deeply divided society with no democratic traditions. The belief that we could do this in places like Iraq or Libya, Afghanistan or Somalia or Yemen, I think, was just delusional back then.
One final point, globalization. The opening of markets to trade and investment around the world had real benefits for some people. Certainly for millions of people in Asia, lower and middle classes back there, but not for the lower and middle classes in the United States and in Western Europe. It’s good for the global 1 percent but not for lower and middle classes here in the United States. That’s also been part of the backlash we’ve seen in the last few years.
The bottom line here is that liberal hegemony was a failure. Now again the question is, well, why did we do this? Well, one reason was because of this remarkable position of power we found ourselves in at the end of the Cold War, which made this seem possible. It led to a certain amount of hubris, but of course when you think about it, we were already in such good shape. An ambitious strategy of trying to reshape the world wasn’t really necessary either. Now we were already in pretty good shape. I think we did it because there was a very powerful bipartisan consensus, in favor of it within the foreign policy elite. That’s really the heart of the book. This is a consensus not shared by the general public. By the foreign policy elite, I mean those people who actively work on foreign affairs all the time. It’s what Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security advisor called the blob. We’re talking about the formal institutions of government, the president, NSC, Departments of State and Defense, Intelligence Services, and organizations like the Council on Foreign Relations, that lots of people belong to and participate in foreign affairs. Think tanks like the Brookings Institution, the Carnegie Endowment, many, many others. Various special interest groups and lobbies that try to advance some foreign policy cause, whether it’s arms control or human rights or whatever. There’re dozens of those in Washington. People in the media who write on a regular basis on foreign affairs. I would put them in the foreign policy elite as well. Of course people like me who writes books and articles that shape opinion or at least try to, who sometimes serve in government and who train the people who go into these key positions.
I just want to make two points about these elite. First point, there are no formal membership requirements, no required degree, no bar exam you have to pass. You need a license to sell real estate in the United States, but you don’t need a license to practice foreign policy. All it takes is convincing enough other people who are already in the elites that you’re smart, knowledgeable, energetic, loyal, and useful. Second, it is a community and especially at the higher levels. As you rise up within it, the leading members know each other pretty well. They often belong to overlapping organizations. They’ve all served together in various capacities, and because it’s a community, professional success depends on your networks and especially on your reputation. Right, that’s really all important. When reputation is all important, then staying within the acceptable consensus is really critical. You don’t want to ever be seen as unsound, or holding a set of views that are outside the mainstream consensus. The most important part of that consensus is the idea that the United States will exercise leadership on virtually every issue of world politics, and has the right to interfere with any government we happen to dislike if we think we can get away with it. That spreading of course those liberal values, is good for us and good for the world. Questioning that basic view is not a smart career move if you want to rise in Washington.
Now, I don’t want to suggest that this is a complete consensus. There are sometimes disagreements in the blob over specific issues, like the Iran deal or whether to intervene in Syria. In general, voices embracing and supporting liberal hegemony in American leadership have been much louder, far more numerous, than voices saying the United States ought to act with a bit more restraint.
Now, one final point, why does the elite like this strategy so much? Well, I think partly because they genuinely believe in these principles. That’s the good intentions in the title of my book. It also of course increases their power and status, justifies bigger budgets, gives them plenty to do, even flatters their sense of self-worth.
I say in what is perhaps the snarkiest line in the book, that liberal hegemony has been a full-employment policy for the foreign policy elites. The only problem is that the American people have a somewhat different view. It’s clear from numerous surveys, they reject isolationism, but they also want actually a much more restrained foreign policy.
Consider for example, that the last four U.S. presidents were elected promising to do less in foreign affairs. Bill Clinton said that it was the economy, stupid. George W. Bush, he would provide a humble foreign policy. Barack Obama ran based on his opposition to the Iraq war, and he promised to do nation building at home. Of course, Donald Trump questions almost everything about American foreign policy. That’s not what these presidents do once they’re in office, but they understand what the American people are eager to hear during an election.
Now, that brings me of course, to the question of Mr. Trump himself. Wasn’t he going to drain the swamp? Challenge the blob, make America great again. I think the answer there is no. In fact, the chapter on Trump in the book is called “How Not to Fix Foreign Policy.” He has done a number of things very differently, especially in terms of his personal style.
He continues to question many orthodoxies on his Twitter feed, but if you look at the actual substance, it’s really not that different. We have a series of trade disputes or trade wars going on, but the resulting agreements that come out of all of these are very modest changes from what went before. That’s certainly been the record so far.
The American commitment to NATO, which he’s repeatedly questioned is still intact. His complaints about burden sharing, about the fact that the Europeans aren’t paying enough, go all the way back to Eisenhower. There is nothing new there. We have exactly the same set of commitments in the Middle East. If anything, we’re just doubling down on our traditional alliances there. He did abandon the nuclear deal with Iran, one of Obama’s big achievements. That is one of those issues that was really kind of a 50/50 split in Washington. He opted to go with the other side, but he wasn’t going against a real consensus.
Just like Barack Obama, Donald Trump sent more troops to Afghanistan in his first year as president. Still trying to get them out. Now, hasn’t managed to do so yet. Russia is still facing sanctions over Ukraine. China is still seen as our primary long-term rival. We still spend more on defense than the next seven or so countries.
I don’t want to suggest that Trump has done nothing differently, but I would argue that changes in his style are more substantial than the changes in foreign policy substance. That I think is his testimony to the power of the establishment, the power of the blob. Even a president who has very different views has trouble moving it very quickly.
Let me just wrap up briefly. This is how I end the book. By sketching out a better way to do business. Instead of liberal hegemony, we should adopt a more restrained strategy. Some of us have called it offshore balancing. It’s really the strategy the United States followed for most of our history.
It begins by recognizing we are still extremely secure here in the western hemisphere. That the main threat to the United States over the long haul would be a peer competitor. A rival country that dominated its own region, the same way the United States is the dominant power in the western hemisphere. A country that did that would be then free to project power around the world the same way the United States now does, including into the western hemisphere. Our main goal should be to prevent any state from dominating Europe, dominating Asia, dominating the Persian Gulf. Those are the key centers of power in the world.
To the extent that we can, we should try to pass the buck to other powers, so that we don’t have to bear most of the burdens. That’s what we have done at other points in our history. Not always, but that’s what we’ve done often quite successfully. What would that mean today? Well, China really is the only potential peer competitor, only potential regional hegemons.
We should be focusing most of our effort on balancing China in Asia. Among other things, this means we should be gradually reducing our military role in Europe, and Europe let take responsibility for its own defense. I can talk more about why I think that would be absolutely feasible, not by next week but over the next 5 to 10 years.
We should be reducing our military presence in the Middle East, and we should have normal relations with all the countries there. I would include Iran, instead of having special relations with some and no relations with others. One of the reasons that Russia has influence in the Middle East is that they talk to everyone. They talked to Iran, they have relations with Iran. They have relations with Israel, they have relations all the countries in the region, and in that case we should imitate them. We should get out of the regime change and nation-building business, and stay out. We’ve been trying it for more than 15 years, and we’re not getting better at it with practice. We should have put much more emphasis on diplomacy, and begin to think of military power, sanctions, and coercion. Not as our first impulse, but as a last resort. Finally, we shouldn’t abandon our liberal values, but the best way to promote them abroad is by setting a good example here at home. By making American society, the American economy and the American political system something that others admire and would like to emulate, as opposed to trying to force-feed it to them. I want to just emphasize this is not isolationism, because we’d obviously still be engaged economically with the entire world diplomatically, with the entire world and in some parts of the world still engaged militarily. We would not be returning to fortress America. Today’s foreign policy elite is likely to resist this. I think the long-term solution, will be to create a broader debate within that community. Eventually in some respects, build a different foreign policy elite with a different view of our interests and how to proceed.
To wrap up, we’re still a very lucky country. We’ve been able to survive a rather haphazard approach to foreign policy, and overly idealistic one, if you will. I like to think that this confirms a clip attributed to Bismarck, where he once said, “There is a special providence that looks after drunkards, fools, and the United States of America.” As a nation, therefore, I think we’re at something of a crossroads. down one road lies more of the same with essentially the same bad results, but down another road is an alternative approach to the world. That has served us actually quite well in the past, and I think it would do so again if it were adopted. In my judgment, it is not the foreign policy that Donald Trump is going to deliver. I think it is the foreign policy that actually most Americans actually want.
The question that I end the book with is simply, how long will it take before they get it? My guess is, it’ll be 10 to 20 years. I wrote the book to maybe trying to cut that to 15. With that, I will stop. Thanks for listening, and I’m going to be happy to respond to questions.
Q: Do you envisage a major correction, if leadership at the top of the U.S. administration changes in 2021, if Trump loses in other words? Do you believe that this would happen a lot?
A lot depends on whether or not obviously Donald Trump is a one-term president or a two-term president, despite what I’ve said, because I think in eight years you can really do a lot. It’s pretty clear that a number of countries are sort of hedging, to see if this is just an episode. Let me say a couple things.
First of all, I think a lot of it depends on who he’s replaced by. If you imagine Joe Biden eventually declaring he’s going to run, and eventually succeeding in getting reelected, you could imagine something of a restoration in an attempt to go back to a lot of the status quo in a number of different ways. If you imagine Bernie Sanders as our next president, then you’re likely to get a very different approach. It’s worth noting just as a footnote, that Trump and Sanders had rather similar views on foreign policy back in 2016. Sanders’ views were not very well articulated. I will also just add that the millennial generation, which is more and more active in politics and had a big impact I think on this last election, has a rather different view of where we ought to be as well. I don’t think you’re going to see a return to, say, the foreign policy I would have imagined Hillary Clinton would have pursued. The second thing I would say about this is that in some respects, there’s a broader structure of the world that is not going to have changed at all. China will still be regarded as a challenge, as a problem on both economic but, increasingly I think, on military terms regardless of who the next president is. The really big question, which is hard to anticipate is how many countries will have started hedging, or just making alternative arrangements. Partly because they don’t like some of the things Trump has done or said, but also because they’re saying to themselves, “If the United States can elect somebody like this once, even if there’s somebody who wants to return to the status quo, how do we know that the United States won’t elect somebody like this again?” And so can we really count on a country where the pendulum swings have gone from George W. Bush to Barack Obama, to Donald Trump in that many elections?” I do think in that sense, we’re not going to see a return to the world we had in 2014 or 2008 even if he turns out to be a one-term president.
Q: My brief comment and question is this, a foreign policy robust rarely gains traction at the national-electoral level, when people are concerned with parochial bread-and-butter issues. I speak primarily concerning my country, Canada, which has been accused as being somewhat of a free-rider. An element I do not necessarily disagree with, but that I suspect also reflects to the American people as well. There in perhaps is the crucible or the crux of the issue, because an ideal form of foreign outreach ought to be as you have suggested, strongly professional, non-partisan, robust and grounded within a sense of ontological verity. Being sensitive to the wide-ranging national interests in terms of their own personal parochial issues, which may be completely separate such as human rights that are suffering in certain countries. How best can one engage the citizen to encourage the citizen to recognize that a good foreign policy is actually long-term better for national civics and for national economies? Thank you.
That’s a big question. I certainly agree that in most countries and certainly in the United States, foreign policy rarely rises to being the dominant concern. It usually requires a sort of major national emergency to do that, so it’s like something like September 11th.
There’s overwhelming evidence to suggest that the American people normally don’t pay much attention to foreign policy, and therefore don’t usually vote for presidents. I think it helped Trump, but I don’t think it’s the main reason that he got elected. However, what happens abroad does affect us in a variety of ways. Certainly, I think the ways we’ve overreacted to dangerous and even exaggerated certain foreign dangers, has had a big impact here in the United States. I do think the American people have woken up to that in a variety of ways.
The declining support for what you might call a heedless internationalism, or this idea that we can go out and spread our values on the cheap, that it’s going to be easy to do, it won’t take much money. It will be quick and cheap, and all of that. I think they’ve figured out that, that’s basically not true, and it’s why you don’t hear people running for office, push that.
In terms of what one can do to try and instill a sort of greater understanding in the population, there are a lot of groups that try to do that. I certainly spend a lot of time speaking to citizens groups as well.
If I have a concern however, it’s that at least in the United States, most of the groups that try to promote greater citizen awareness of foreign policy have done so from the perspective of basically trying to combat isolationism. That was the great fear. You have to persuade Americans to get out there and do more things in the world. I guess I would like to persuade more Americans to do a little bit less in the world, not because we necessarily are trying to do harm, but because there are many parts of the world we don’t understand particularly well. Those parts of the world are resistant to various types of foreign interference, the same way we would be resistant to foreigners showing up and telling us how to do business here in the United States. I think there’s a process of education that still needs to take place, but it has to be a little bit different than the one that’s been conducted over the last 50 or 60 years.
Q: The title of your book is, The Hell of Good Intentions. Where might maybe these good intentions leave us in 20 years if there is no change?
Well, and again, the book is very critical of the foreign policy establishment, and actually does go to some length to name some names and try to hold certain people accountable. With rare exceptions, I think most of the people who’ve been conducting American foreign policy were not doing this for venal reasons, were not doing it for cruel reasons. They were doing it with a sense that a program of trying to spread our institutions, our values, our political system, our approach to economics around the world, was going to be good for the United States, create a peaceful or a more stable world, and would be good for the various countries that we were trying to affect. The late President Bush, Bush 41, put this very nicely. Where he says at one point in a memoir, that they found themselves at the pinnacle of power, at the height of power with this rare opportunity to reshape the world, to reshape the world for the benefit of all mankind. I think that’s what they thought they were doing. If we continue to do that though, the problem is that the good intentions weren’t enough. The results in place after place after place have been the opposite of what we intended. The opposite of what we wanted to produce. That’s why I began my little presentation by comparing sort of where we were in 1993, and where we are today.
Just one other example to this. The financial crisis that hit in 2008 began here in the United States with the collapse was mortgage markets here in the United States. Now that had real consequences here in the United States, as we all remember. I think it shaped our politics ever since, but it had even more profound consequences in some other places, most notably the European Union. Our absence in the financial crisis of 2008, I think the European Union doesn’t obviously go through the Eurozone crisis. I don’t think you get the Brexit decision, which I believe will be a disaster for Great Britain. There are an awful lot of things that happened with their point of origin being the United States. Not because of the United States was trying to actively harm the European Union, but because we did certain things whose implications we didn’t understand very well.
Q: How should western nations engage morally conflicted countries with morally conflicted foreign policy challenges such as those presented by Syria and Saudi Arabia?
That’s a great question. Two of them I think are the most vexing problems out there. I mean the Syrian civil war, the uprising in the Syrian civil war, I believe is one of those cases where reasonable people can disagree. I tend to adopt a sort of Hippocratic Oath version, “First do no harm.: I’ll make a couple of points about Syria. It is a myth that the United States was not involved in the Syrian civil war. That’s sort of become the understanding of why we chose not to get involved, and as a result a horrible series of things happened. In fact, the United States was involved in the very beginning. Not only did we openly call for Assad to step down—remember Obama saying, “Assad must go?”—but we also backed both directly and indirectly a number of the opposition groups. We helped turn what was initially a peaceful uprising into a much more violent uprising and ultimately helped fuel the civil war. Now we weren’t doing as much as some other countries were, but we were actively involved there. We also had a diplomatic role that was not particularly constructive either. That said, there is a genuine debate over whether or not we should have done more. I believe President Obama ultimately made a decision that doing more to oust Assad was actually going to make things worse. Now, that might’ve been the wrong decision, but I think that was the motivation behind it. Part of it was informed by what had happened after we help topple Muammar al-Gaddafi, and instead of getting a new, better Libyan government, we got anarchy. I think the concern in Syria was, if you got rid of Assad completely, you would either have to occupy the place with hundreds of thousands of troops. We’d be back in a situation like Iraq, or you would have empowered various al-Qaeda-like groups including Isis, and we would actually face a much worse problem there. As bad as the situation was, and as heinous as the Assad regime was, but that was a judgment call.
As I approach most of those complicated questions, it’s sort of asking myself first, “Don’t do anything you think is going to make things worse.” With Saudi Arabia, that issue was a little bit different. The central problem there is that we’ve had this very close relationship with Saudi Arabia for a long time, one not unlike our relationship with Egypt and not unlike our relationship with Israel, in which we essentially give these countries unconditional support. It doesn’t matter what they do, they’re going to have American economic aid, not like in the case of Saudi Arabia, but certainly diplomatic backing, arms sales, military support of various kinds. These countries I think have gotten to the point of taking that support for granted. That’s why, as I suggested in my remarks, I think the United States ought to be distancing ourselves somewhat from these countries, making our support more conditional, moving away from them or punishing them in various ways when they do things we obviously think are not in our interest or inconsistent with our values. Also reaching out to other countries, because that maximizes our leverage. In the Middle East, my fantasy is that when Secretary of State Pompeo lands in Riyadh to talk to our Saudi friends, that they know already that his next stop is going to be Tehran. When he’s in Tehran, I want the Iranians to know that his next stop is Tel Aviv. When he is in Tel Aviv I want them to know his next stop is Ankara where he will be talking to Turkey, because that’s what gives the United States leverage. That’s what gives all of those countries an incentive, to try and do things that we will like because somebody else might be offering us a better deal somewhere else. A situation we have now, American support is taken for granted and therefore we don’t have much influence over what they’re going to do.
Q: I think I’ve heard you say that you consider China to be the closest to appear to United States. I’m wondering if you could share a few policies that you think we as a country should be engaging in towards China and maybe highlight an approach to China that you don’t think is particularly productive. Thank you.
Okay, so I view China as a potential peer competitor. It’s not as powerful as the United States is yet. Its economy is still smaller than ours. Its military is substantially less powerful, and although it’s improving rapidly. It is important to realize China faces a number of challenges, internal and external, that will be really quite difficult for China to overcome I think in the next few years. The remarkable record of the past 30 or 40 years is going to be hard to sustain, I think for the Chinese.
A couple of areas, obviously we’re concerned along with our other allies in the region about China’s attempts to revise the territorial status quo in places like the South China Sea, to essentially make territorial claims that no one else including the International Court of Justice regards as legitimate. Then to enforce those by building up reefs and islands, and eventually in a sense militarizing the region by putting military bases there. Something that they at one point they promised they would not do. I think that’s going to be a continued source of friction for us. Then secondly, I think it is increasingly understood that when China joined the World Trade Organization with American encouragement, that they then didn’t follow all of the rules that they had signed up for. That some of their trade policies, some of their policies towards the protection of intellectual property rights have been in violation of that. Here I would give the Trump administration credit, for recognizing that problem and trying to address it in a more assertive way. I do not believe that the Trump administration has done so very skillfully. For example, if you wanted to get tough with China, it was a mistake to leave the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was a way of unifying countries in that region around our leadership. Second, it was also a mistake to pick trade fights with Japan, South Korea, Canada, Mexico, and the European Union simultaneously, instead of getting those countries together to collectively confront China, that would have been I think much more effective.
I think finally the long-term challenge here, is going to be at least as much a diplomatic challenge as a militarily one. By that I mean it’s maintaining a workable coalition in Asia that allows the United States influence and access there. When you think of it, we now have a set of allies and partners there ranging from India through Australia, to some degree the Philippines, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, this is a pretty unruly coalition. Their distances are vast. These countries are torn between their desire for security ties with us and their economic ties with China. Some of them, like South Korea and Japan, don’t like each other all that much. Managing that coalition I think is very important, but it’s also a very challenging diplomatic task. It’s going to require lots of American attention. It’s going to require skilled diplomats who knows the languages, know the histories, know the cultures of the region.
If I have a single great concern about the long-term effects of the Trump administration, it is that they appear to be sort of systematically dismantling our diplomatic capacity overall, including our capacity in Asia. This is not going to serve us well in the longer term.
Q: My question was going to be on the concept of free trade, and you were just addressing that. I’ll follow up with it, and ask you about the idea of economic nationalism. Whether you think that some of the issues that have been highlighted such as trade deficits and terrorists and that sort of thing, are in any way productive or there are ways that they can be modified or used better. diplomatic capacity overall, including our capacity in Asia. This is not going to serve us well in the longer term.
I am not an economist, although fortunately I hang out with a lot of them here at the Kennedy School. I’m going to rapidly exceed my professional expertise, but let me make sort of two points and then I’ll make a reference to one of my colleagues.
The basic point is from the early ’90s forward, this was a period where we really got obsessed with the idea of globalization or what my colleague Dani Rodrik likes to call hyperglobalization. We really did believe that just getting rid of as many barriers as possible to trade an investment was going to be good for everyone. I think what people fail to understand is a couple of things. First of all, that this would have in fact powerful dislocating effects. That even if free trade was good for the country as a whole overall, there were going to be sectors within it that were going to be damaged and damaged very rapidly, sort of faster than you could necessarily compensate, and that would have real political consequences. The second thing that we didn’t fully appreciate, was that different countries have different preferences based on their histories, their cultures, whatever, and trying to impose a sort of one-size-fits-all set of rules, “Here’s the set of rules that everyone who wants to participate in the international trade, has got to follow.” Because some aspect of the agreement would rub some people in some countries raw. I think you see that say with Brexit, as a manifestation of that.
Now that’s not an argument for protectionism or for mercantilism or whatever. It’s an argument for a much more measured approach to advancing international trade. That if we could roll the clock back 25 years, we should have pursued globalization and we should have pursued it more slowly, so that different countries could adjust to it as it proceeded. We should have probably allowed for somewhat more flexible arrangements to allow certain countries to preserve certain ways of life or practices or cultural preferences that they felt deeply about. Perhaps in another one of these calls, you can persuade Dani to come in and talk about his book. He can lay this out in much more detail and with much more sophistication than I did.
Q: Good morning or afternoon for you. Kind of a two-part question. What does it look like to change course at this point in U.S. foreign policy, both domestically and internationally, but in particular in terms of our relationship with our allies? Any pushback? Then, what would that look like in terms of actually kind of future peace and freedom in the world? Then the second part is, where do you see any traction, if you do, an influence from within or outside of the blob, or the traditional foreign policy apparatus?
Okay, so on the first one, I think we are at something of a plastic moment. One of those moments where some relations we’ve taken for granted, or they’ve been part of the landscape for so long, we just think of them as almost eternal part of the geography here. I actually don’t think America should be altering its relations in Asia very much. In the book, I emphasized, that should be the focus. I think what the Obama administration was trying to do was the so called pivot or rebalance to Asia, or was very much maintaining the current set of alliances. Perhaps deepening some of them, also possibly expanding them with new partnerships with countries like Vietnam and India. That would not be a dramatic change in our overall set of commitments. The most interesting case is the case of Europe, where NATO is almost an icon now. It is regarded as the centerpiece of American foreign policy by a number of people, and clearly the most successful alliance in our history. Perhaps somewhat controversially, I argue in the book that we should basically be ending our relationship in NATO. Not overnight, not out of a sense of rancor or resentment, but because the reason for which NATO was formed has gone. It was formed to contain the Soviet Union, to help Germany reform and become sort of acceptable member of the west, and to hold Europe together. Well, the Soviet Union is gone and Russia is not the kind of threat to Europe that the Soviet Union was. Just some numbers here. Europe has roughly 500 million people. Russia has 140 million. Europe’s combined economy is more than $17 trillion. The Russian economy is less than $2 trillion. In fact, the Russian economy, it’s smaller than that of Italy’s. Right, and then finally, NATO’s European members, not counting the United States, spend three to four times what Russia spends on the military every year. They don’t spend it very well. They’re very inefficient, and that’s partly because we’ve allowed them to be in it. In some cases, I think we’ve even encouraged them to be inefficient so that we could continue to run the alliance. I think if the United States made it clear that it no longer felt it had a deep security responsibility towards Europe, no vital interest in preventing someone from dominating Europe, because Europe can take care of its own security interests. If we did this over a 5 to 10-year period, while making it clear that, “We weren’t doing this because we were mad, we weren’t doing this because we thought Europe was a rival, and that we were going to continue to trade, invest, to visit and cooperate on areas where our interests are aligned,” then it would be the signal for Europe to finally sort of take over responsibility. Let me add just one other point out there.
In other parts of the world like Afghanistan or Iraq or elsewhere, we always talk about how we want to help these countries stand themselves up and then be on their own. The one place we don’t do that is Europe, which is prosperous, wealthy, democratic, and is our great success story. Yet we’re unwilling to give ourselves to sort of high five and say, “Job well done,” and say, ”We no longer have to be the first line of defense for Europe.”
To your second question on, what’s going on in the elite? Well, that is there is I think a plastic moment here that you’re starting to see, I think for the first time since really the post-World War II period. A genuine debate on what America’s role in the world ought to be, and what American grand strategy ought to be. We should have had that debate since the Cold War ended, but we really didn’t. After 25 years of not very much success and a fair degree of failure, I think we are starting to have that conversation. As I alluded at one point, the fact that Trump got elected on his foreign policy platform, the fact that Bernie Sanders was as popular as he was with his foreign policy platform, the fact that millennials aren’t buying these old arguments anymore…. If you look at some of the new members of Congress who seemed to have a very outside-the-box approach to a lot of political questions, I think we are at a moment where the elites are going to have to take notice of this, and you could see a gradual shift in sort of what the media and opinion is even within the foreign policy establishment.
Q: Can the decline of U.S. primacy be reversed? Should it be?
Well first of all, I think that the talk of decline is usually greatly exaggerated. That the United States actually still is in remarkably good shape. We still have the world’s only sort of global military forces. We still have a very large innovative economy, despite some of the economic problems we face. We’re still in the most favorable geographic position of any major power. Right, no enemies nearby. We are very fortunate to have Canada and Mexico as our neighbors, as opposed to say China, which has North Korea, Russia, India, Pakistan on its borders, and a bunch of other countries as well that it has somewhat delicate relations with.
The United States is still in remarkably good shape. I worry more about the sort of self-inflicted wounds, than what hostile powers are going to do to us. Now that said, the United States was in this very unusual position in the 1990s. Russia was completely prostrated. The Chinese had not developed as much as they have, and so that was a somewhat unusual condition. We’re not in that favorable situation, but we’re still in remarkably good shape. If we don’t make too many mistakes in how we run our political system here, I think we’ll be fine.
Q: So, out of the disasters you described in your book, which was the most disastrous, and what lessons does it provide for the future?
I think it’s pretty clear that the decision to invade Iraq, was the single biggest mistake we made. My colleague Linda Bilmes has estimated that the long-term cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars would be between $4 trillion and $6 trillion. Once you add everything up, the direct costs of the war, the cost of replacing equipment, the long-term health costs for veterans, things like that, $4 trillion to $6 trillion. The country could have done a lot of interesting and useful things with that money. I think it also triggered a process of destabilization elsewhere in the Middle East that has not been good for us. I mean no Iraq war, there’s no Isis. It further was a great opportunity for Iran to expand its influence in a variety of ways. That’s I think the single most obvious catastrophic blunder. I want to mention two others.
One is obviously the decision to expand NATO eastwards. Which again we thought at the time, or was sold at the time, as this way of extending peace in Eastern Europe, helping solidify democracy, et cetera. As people warned back the 1990s, it was going to inevitably worsen relations with Russia. I think it ultimately poisoned them along with some other things as well. Then eventually led to first the crisis in Georgia, and second was the crisis in Ukraine. Now there’s a much more difficult relationship with Moscow. That even though Moscow to me is not real great power rival in the same category as some others, it’s a problem. We made that problem worse with the best of intentions.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about Venezuela?
Yes well, Venezuela is actually quite an intriguing issue, because the problems that Venezuela is facing are entirely its own creation. Right, but it’s a really, I think a warning of how if you really get your political system screwed up, then what was once the most prosperous country in Latin America can become one that’s an economic basket case. Now, despite having lots of natural resources and actually quite a well-educated population, this really just shows you that if you get your politics wrong, you can get in really deep trouble.
The second thing that is interesting about this, is the opposition to the Maduro government now is not just the Venezuelan opposition, but yeah, that opposition and has been recognized by I believe about 50 countries, including most of the countries of South America. We were not the first to recognize the opposition leader Guaido. This is one of those cases where even though Latin Americans are understandably sensitive to American involvement, American interference, this is a case where the American role is more palatable because of course we’re traveling with a group of others. I think the danger in our response there is two-fold. One is that we all think we have to get out as a front, and because of our historic relationship with Latin America, I think that’s a mistake. We should be more willing to act with a certain amount of restraint, and let others take the lead here. The second thing is, we’ll have to recognize that it’s not just the eventual removal of the Maduro government, it’s then a process of political reconciliation and rebuilding in Venezuela, that will not be easy. If Maduro is removed as a result of outside intervention, I think that will actually worsen the polarization, worsen the divisions within Venezuela. In a sense this is going to have to be done by the Venezuelans, and our role should be as muted as possible.
Q: What is the role of the religious establishment and evangelicals enforcing a bias in U.S. policy. Do you have any comments on that?
Well, the nice thing about being in a democracy is everybody can have an opinion about anything. We have a system where anybody can get organized and express it. Evangelicals have had like every other American group, have had issues that they’ve weighed in on in various ways. We can agree or disagree with whether we think they were on the right side or if they were not. I mean, so some evangelical groups, not all, have weighed in on issues of birth control, and making it hard for the United States to support global efforts at population control and fertility control. I happen to think that’s a mistake, but it’s understandable why they would hold that view. Some evangelical groups, but not all, have been very strongly supportive of Israel for sort of theological reasons. There’s a whole theory based on particular readings of the Old Testament, about why they are supporting Israel, so called Christian Zionist. Then in some other cases evangelical groups, again not all, but some have been very active on promoting American engagement in places like Sudan for largely humanitarian reasons, and that, I think, is perfectly worthy as well. There are some places where I think the evangelical impact has been positive, and other places where I would personally tend to disagree with it. The one thing I just observe with the evangelical movement as an example, because of the way our political system is organized, because we have so many different groups with their own particular pet project. Whether it’s evangelical, the arms control advocates, the human rights advocates or business groups or whoever, if they all go to Washington and they all get like 10 percent of what they want, the American government in foreign policy gets very busy indeed. You’re doing a little bit of everybody’s pet project, and suddenly we’re everywhere. I do also have this belief that most people, including the Americans, don’t like being told what to do by others, right? Local loyalties, local affinities, local cultural practices are pretty deeply rooted. We have to recognize that a certain amount of humility is involved here, and interfering in other’s societies is generally a very complicated processes of social engineering. Like you go in there trying to do just one thing, you’re not going to do just one thing. You’ll do seven things, three of which may be good and four of which may be bad. I sometimes say to people, “Well, we’ll figure out how to run the state of Illinois really well, or we can manage elections in West Virginia, or we can have an election here in the United States that we all sort of say, ‘Oh well we are happy with the results.’” That’s when we can go off to Helmand Province and tell them how to organize it, but not before. All politics really is local and we should remember that.
Great well, thank you. On that note, we are out of time, so thank you to everyone who has called in for the Wiener’s Conference Call.