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The Hell of Good Intentions: America's Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy

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, 291 pp.

Stephen Walt’s work is especially intriguing given the international relations developments in the last week of 2018; he uses a critical eye to examine the foreign policy record of the United States since the end of the Cold War in his most recent work.

Following the fall of the Soviet Union, Walt argues, the United States could have proceeded with a more restrained grand strategy as tensions and security threats were reduced in the resulting unipolar world. But, as he articulates, the opposite occurred, and the United States engaged in a foreign policy called “liberal hegemony.” He asserts that this policy of liberal hegemony, although a “costly failure,” has been followed by each successive US administration for the last 25 years. His assessment of this dynamic and the foreign policy community that works to continue this effort makes The Hell of Good Intentions a must read for international relations students and academics alike.

Walt’s book is a critique of what he terms the foreign policy establishment and their “deep engagement” posture toward international relations. His argument is that this established bipartisan elite, largely residing in the Beltway of Washington, DC, has managed to sustain a robust posture for the United States in the international arena—even as the execution of this policy has been less than ideal. Walt’s thesis asserts that the momentum for liberal hegemony is sustained by its advocates exaggerating international dangers, overstating the benefits, and concealing the true costs, and all the while there are few accountability measures for those furthering this posture.

Walt posits that in addition to a lack of accountability, the tolerance for any dissenting opinion is limited due to the pervasive nature of the interest in spreading democratic values and a democratic system of government to all parts of the world. This grand idea for our policy can only be accomplished by the indispensable nation that is the United States of America. Any opinion advocating a more limited posture, Walt writes, is construed as weakening US credibility and is isolationist thinking. In this book, Walt warns that this liberal hegemony policy is solely focused on remaking the world in America’s image—rather than focused on protecting the best interests of the citizens of the United States.

Interestingly enough, Walt begins by recounting his original intention for this work and his idea that it would be an assessment of US foreign policy at the end of the first year of what would be Pres. Hillary Clinton’s administration—the underpinning assumption being that the liberal hegemony policy would be alive and well in 2018. His intriguing assessment is that the American people’s loss of patience for the foreign policy status quo surfaced in November 2016.

Supporting the main argument for this work, Walt offers thorough analysis for each aspect of his thesis and bolsters his assessment with 69 pages of citations. The format of the book makes the content easy to navigate, and I could easily envision this book incorporated into a foreign policy course, especially given the critical argument opposing the popular bipartisan international relations policy.

His analysis is not above some critique, most notably his assessment of the military and military senior leaders in support of liberal hegemony. As an example, he cites the escape of Osama bin Laden through the failure of the senior military commander to order Rangers to secure Tora Bora in 2001 (which, in fact, is a task akin to securing the Rocky Mountains). Walt does, however, make up for this evaluation by offering a harsh assessment of the media in supporting the liberal hegemon policies’ lack of accountability. In the end, his overall analysis is well supported, and he does make compelling arguments in this work.

In keeping with the original purpose for the book, Walt includes a review of foreign policy for the president who was actually elected in 2016 rather than the one most thought would win. There is an entire chapter dedicated to how President Trump has gotten it all wrong. Initially intended as a critique of the anticipated Hillary Clinton administration, Walt instead carefully lays out the first year of US foreign policy under the Trump presidency and how Trump’s record does not stray too far from the practices of the previous US heads of state since the end of the Cold War. This chapter of the book is far from unbiased and at times digresses into simple Trump bashing, although the points Walt articulates are consistent with the previous thesis of the book and acknowledge areas where the current administration deviates from the status quo. He also examines how the election of President Trump was partially a reaction by the American constituency to the previous status quo and that Hillary Clinton, in the eyes of the voters, represented a policy of more of the same.

Stephen Walt closes the book with a chapter dedicated to his own proposal for a sustainable approach to US foreign policy. His recommendations are grounded in ideas that would protect the interests of the United States but reduce reliance on deep engagement as in policies of the past. Offshore balancing anchors his thoughts on how the United States could approach the world in the future. Refreshingly, he acknowledges the challenges this approach would face with a rising China and other states’ desire for influence within their respective regions. Walt’s evidence in support of offshore balancing is not as thorough as his dislike for liberal hegemony, but his book is clearly thought-provoking reading—especially as President Trump takes measures to reduce our military footprint across the globe toward the end of 2018.

COL Patrick T. Budjenska, US Army

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

 
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