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Stephen Walt and Esslinger ’16 talk Kissinger, Putin, and kinetic energy

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To kick off a new collaboration with KRLX News, The Carletonian Viewpoint is reprinting an interview conducted with Prof. Stephen Walt, a visiting speaker, in the fall of 2014 by KRLX News Director Max Esslinger ‘16.

KRLX: Foreign Policy, to which you contribute, is outspoken in its criticism of the president’s handling of foreign policy? Yet, in fixating on the president, is there a risk of overlooking more systemic shortcomings in the way the United States engages in foreign affairs?

Professor Walt: It does seem that there is a natural tendency in American politics to assign almost complete responsibility for foreign policy decisions to the person who happens to be in the Oval Office at a given point in time. And I think that we miss a lot by giving presidents either all the credit or all the blame, for a number of reasons. Firstly, this focus on the president ignores the fact that there is pretty strong bipartisan consensus on much of American foreign policy—the disagreements between Republicans and Democrats in this regard are really not that significant. The fact that most Democrats supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq is a pretty good example of this. Secondly, the president only controls the very highest levels of the foreign policy bureaucracy. The rest of this vast establishment does not change when the presidency switches from Democratic control to Republican control or vice versa. And it is this establishment, and its ability to constrain the president’s options in various ways, that partly explains why there is so much continuity between Barack Obama and his predecessors when it comes to foreign policy.

KRLX: In the same vein, you have frequently criticized the American foreign policy establishment for building support for activist policies abroad through what you describe as the inflation of threats and manipulation of public opinion here at home. You have also argued that the unusual openness of the American political system is partly responsible for this dynamic. Do you see any solution to this problem in the form of institutional reform, or is it simply the price that we pay for the relatively free system we enjoy?

Professor Walt: I think that the situation you describe stems, first and foremost, from the extraordinary power and security that the United States enjoys. If we really faced an imminent threat or were much weaker, we would have to come up with a set of institutions and systems that focused much more clearly on identifying vital interests and directing resources towards them. Yet, it is exactly because we are so powerful and secure that we can afford to be, and often are, rather careless in the conduct of foreign policy. That dovetails nicely with the very permeable nature of the American political system, in which it is fairly easy to gain influence for your point of view, whether in the form of campaign contributions or funds for think tanks. Such a system is naturally highly manipulable, especially in matters of foreign policy. And I think it is important to see the relationship between these two things. Because the US is so secure—and I think the American people actually grasp this fact—getting the country to do anything in international politics usually involves scaring people. You have to convince them that there really is a mortal danger to the United States arising in Anbar province or that Saddam Hussein really does have weapons of mass destruction. So, in a sense, given how secure we are, you have to exaggerate dangers. Former Secretary of State Dean Acheson once said that, in politics, advocacy “must be clearer than truth.” And he was acknowledging that, in our particular political system, you essentially have to exaggerate everything to get anything done. And I would add a second component to that, which is, if you keep a lot of what you are doing secret you can actually do a lot. If you have to do it in public and people aren’t really agitated, it is very hard to get anything done in the American political system.

KRLX: You have written that there are some general policies that can make the United States’ dominant position more acceptable abroad, including more sparing use of military force, greater cooperation with key allies, and the rehabilitation of America’s international image. However, many commentators have suggested that a variety of the administration’s policies— whether “leading from behind” in Libya or the reluctance to act in Syria—represent an attempt to transform the United States into exactly the kind of cautious offshore balancer you seem to envision. Why is this not the case?

Professor Walt: The Obama experience is certainly instructive. First of all, the overwhelmingly positive response he got when first elected—not just here in the United States but worldwide—was clear evidence that many people expected the president to make fundamental changes in the conduct of American foreign policy. I think that the biggest mistake President Obama made was that he did not provide a continued intellectual justification for what he said he was initially trying to do. He did not explain to the American people why his preferred approach to foreign policy was really going to be more effective. And because he failed to convincingly make his case, when he got tempted to do the wrong thing he usually ended up doing it. He escalated in Afghanistan in 2009 even though hardly anybody thought it was going to be a strategic game changer. He allowed himself to be pushed into the Libyan intervention, in part by people inside his own administration. And that looked great in a sense. If anyone deserved to be overthrown, it was Gaddafi. But you still have to deal with the aftermath, and what we should have learned in Iraq is that it is relatively easy to knock off dictators and change regimes, but much harder to run countries afterwards. This has had all of the predictable effects: the American public has become disillusioned, it has become harder to justify the administration’s policies to the American people, and Republicans have been further emboldened to beat Obama up politically. But in addition to not providing an assertive defense of what he was trying to do, the president has continued to believe—along with most of the people in his administration and the foreign policy establishment—that there are really no international problems that can be solved without the United States being centrally involved. I would suggest, on the other hand, that the United States is actually in a position in which we could put a lot of the burden of doing things on others. The recent f lare-up over ISIL in Iraq and Syria, for instance, is not a direct threat to American vital interests; it is a threat to populations within the region. Therefore, until the governments of Iraq and Saudi Arabia and Turkey want to take the appropriate steps to deal with the problem ISIL poses, the United States will be unable to do it alone. And I think that, in missing this point, the president is again falling into the trap that the United States has to do something about non-vital problems, even when what we are doing is not likely to work.

KRLX: Yet, even apart from the president’s handling of Mideast policy, there seems to be a growing sense that the existing, American-led global order is on its way out, and that the general confusion of American foreign policy somehow provides the evidence. Do you buy this idea? Are we witnessing the natural consequences of diminishing American power?

Professor Walt: If you look carefully at where the United States was committed when the Cold War ended and where we are committed today, the footprint has changed hardly at all.

If anything, it has increased. We are now committed to the East European NATO countries; we have a security partnership with India; we have de facto security partnerships with various Gulf states; we have a security role in Yemen, in Somalia, and in Central Africa. None of these things existed in 1992. So, the idea that the United States is in retreat is simply factually wrong. And if you look at 1992 as compared with 2014, you will see that Clinton and Obama are very similar. Obama has relied, as Clinton did, on using military force frequently but rather gingerly—cruise missiles, air strikes, special forces, things like that. Therefore, the idea that the United States has stepped away from security affairs in any substantive way is just wrong. It is true, however, that there is an enormous amount of kinetic energy in international politics right now, some of it produced by the rise of China, some of it produced by the multitude of ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, and some of it stemming from the continued instability in the global economy. So, we are living in a world that is less predictable, and in which smaller actors can get noticed and do various things. Yet, I think this would be the case no matter what the United States did. The idea that somewhat cleverer diplomacy or a more forceful response would simply put a lid on all of that is, I think, misleading if not fallacious.

KRLX: But in terms of the general political climate in Washington, isn’t there a great deal more credibility for and acceptance of the idea that the United States should engage in a radical reappraisal of some of its global commitments?

Professor Walt: I think you have to recognize that the two most significant developments of the last thirty years were China’s emergence as a major power and the collapse of the Soviet Union as a global rival. Those are still, to me, the two really fundamental events. Lots of other things are happening in various parts of the world that are important, but those are the two big shaping ones. And I think that we have still not come to terms with what that means for us. If you take a thirty or forty year perspective, the United States is going to shift a lot of its economic and strategic attention to Asia. And over time, we will likely return to the policy we had in the Middle East between roughly 1945 and 1990—very much an offshore balancing approach. Europe is then the final interesting question. I would argue that, for all of its current problems, it is both relatively stable and likely to remain democratic and mostly pro-American. And it is Europe’s good fortune that it does not face any really serious military threats right now, so I see no reason why we need to be actively involved there. In fact, I think that if the relationship between the United States and China grows more hostile, Europe will play little role in this equation and will, in fact, want to distance itself from the United States anyway.

KRLX: On the subject of China, Henry Kissinger claims in his latest book that, in East Asia, the United States is not so much a balancer as a central part of the balance. Do you see this balance, and renewed American commitment to it, as a potential antidote to the burden of choice that seems to sit behind many of the United States’ foreign policy fiascos?

Professor Walt: Yes, I do believe that the emergence of a so-called clear and present danger—China in this case—would produce some greater coherence in American foreign policy. It would compel the United States to subordinate less important problems to the larger problem. The United States made mistakes during the Cold War, of course, but our conflict with the Soviet Union provided a certain focus that helped to overcome some of the centrifugal tendencies in the American body politic. The bad news, of course, is that the way you get coherence is by having big danger out there. In some sense, I would rather live in a world where we faced no real dangers and could therefore afford to be sloppy, as opposed to a dangerous world with a disciplined American foreign policy. Finally, I do think that managing a coalition that is essentially designed to limit China’s influence is not going to be easy. China is going to have various means of discouraging Asian countries from being too close to the US, so we are going to face a big diplomatic challenge there. And to make that challenge even worse, it’s not just that we want to be able to stay there; we want our allies in Asia to do their fair share too. Managing these alliance relationships will therefore be a very delicate process. I would like to hope that some of the pathologies that dominate American foreign policy now would not be evident then, though I am not sure this will be the case.

KRLX: Many critics of the American stance towards China seem to frame the issue of checking a Chinese breakout in East Asia merely in terms of hotheaded regional rivalry. Yet, doesn’t the reasoning go beyond this? By denying China regional hegemony, isn’t the United States attempting to stymie China’s global ambitions before they can be fully formed?

Professor Walt: That’s basically right. The long-term concern for the United States would be a China that establishes a position as regional hegemon and therefore no longer has to worry about protecting itself at home. Such a China would be basically secure because it would dominate its own region in the way we dominate the Western Hemisphere. The reason that the United States can intervene essentially wherever it chooses is because we are not trying to protect ourselves from Mexico and Canada. We are very secure. If China were in a similar position, it could potentially choose to throw its weight around in parts of the world that we care about. And those parts of the world could possibly include the Western Hemisphere. The possibility that this might happen may be sufficient reason—assuming the cost is acceptable—to try to keep China preoccupied primarily with the things happening in its own neighborhood.

KRLX: In regards to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, you have written that Europe would easily have the capability to resist Russian power independent of the United States, but that American leaders choose to cling to NATO and perceive Russia as an existential threat. In your mind, what would the move away from NATO and Europe more generally actually look like, especially given the economic and political identity crisis that Europe seems to be facing?

Professor Walt: I think any future scenario would involve the United States remaining a member of NATO. I do think that expanding NATO was a mistake, particularly as far as we took it, because the countries that we are now formally pledged to defend are not countries that are in the direct interest of the United States. In terms of the future architecture of transatlantic relations, I can imagine the United States having no significant military presence in Europe but still committing itself to de- fending fellow NATO member states. Under such a scenario, American, and European leaders would generally understand that significant security challenges to the European continent would have to be met by Europe and not by the United States. Currently, the European members of NATO collectively spend at least four times as much as Russia does on defense. Now, if these coun- tries cannot protect themselves against possible pressure from Moscow, they are not doing a very good job of spending that money. The fact of the matter is that Russia is not a significant threat to NATO or any of its members, particularly if we adopt a set of policies that are less provocative than many of the ones that we have followed for the last twenty years or so. Of course, I would imagine close economic, political, and defense ties between the United States and Europe—with the United States always ready to protect Europe if it was really threatened—but we would let them stand on their own. Of course, the main challenge to Europe right now is to fix the economic malaise that has hit the continent and try to get the EU back on its feet as a strong economic and quasi-political union. That is far more important to Europe’s future than whether or not Russia ends up with a sphere of influence in Ukraine.

KRLX: Finally, do you see growing consensus on global climate change as an issue that can, in some way, overcome the logic of the international system? Does the potential consequence of climate change represent a uniquely global threat that can perhaps generate more extensive international cooperation in a general sense?

Professor Walt: It is not an issue that can really overcome the logic of international politics, in the sense that we will continue to face the same problems of collective action: disputes over who owes the most, who should bear the greatest share, who is most at fault, and so on. We already see this playing out at various climate change negotiations. Yet, it is certainly possible that this is ultimately going to be seen as such a potential long-term threat to human well being that it will spur the creation of unique institutional arrangements that, in combination with technological change, may allow us to alleviate or manage the problem. But there is always the possibility that the problem does not get solved. And there are plenty of examples in human history when people clearly saw a problem approaching and were nevertheless unable to marshal the political and technical solutions to address it. We can’t rule out that possibility in this case.

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