Can America Ever Escape Its Failing Foreign Policy?

A bad strategy leads Washington into errors—but Washington doesn't care.

America’s current foreign-policy framework has produced a string of failures. Iraq and Afghanistan were expensive messes; Libya and the Balkan interventions, destabilizing wars of choice; we’re plainly overextended in Europe and can never seem to realize our long-promised pivot to Asia. Many of our allies carp about the need for U.S. “leadership” and growing threats in their neighborhoods while spending pittances on their own defense; at the same time, the publics in the same countries appear to resent our efforts to defend them. We have amassed all the downsides of empire, while seeing few of its benefits. And within many Washington foreign-policy circles, the solution to the problems our approach has created is to double down. Indeed, while most public discussion has focused on the shortcomings of one major party’s candidate for the presidency, few seem concerned that the other major party is poised to nominate a candidate who was an enthusiastic cheerleader for all of the serious foreign-policy blunders I listed above. Perhaps the United States simply has no alternative to its current strategy.

Not so, argues Stephen Walt. In a keynote address to the Charles Koch Institute’s Advancing American Security conference today in Washington, D.C., the Harvard professor made a bracing case for a different direction, a U.S. foreign policy far more restrained than today’s adventurism yet far more engaged than the isolationism of, say, Sakoku-era Japan. By remaining aloof from many of the world’s friction points, the United States would be able to invest more in its own affairs, building a firmer foundation of national power.

In Walt’s view, the United States enjoys advantages that almost no other great power in history has had. We are separated from all other major states by two vast oceans, and enjoy unquestioned supremacy in our entire hemisphere. We have the world’s largest and most dynamic economy, which underwrites the world’s strongest military. We can resort to nuclear weapons in the event that all these fail to protect us. We face few serious existential threats from other states.

It is precisely this tremendous advantage, says Walt, that has enabled us to sustain our current approach in spite of its many failures. Under this approach, which he brands “liberal hegemony,” America seeks to dominate every region of the globe while advancing liberal goals: open markets, democratic governance, international rule of law. The push for global dominance has enabled allies to cut back on military spending and free ride on our commitments to their defense. The desire to advance democracy, sometimes at the point of a gun, has had particularly damaging effects—the regimes we wish to change feel threatened and do unpleasant things like pursue nuclear weapons, while the regimes we do change require replacement, which often means occupation, which stirs resentment and violence. It’s a foreign policy with few successes and serious costs.

The alternative to liberal hegemony, Walt says, is a strategy of “offshore balancing.” Under this approach, the United States seeks to prevent the emergence of a rival hegemonic power in three key regions of the globe: Europe, Northeast Asia and the Persian Gulf. (In a clever touch, the menu at the lunch included foods from each of those regions, plus some all-American cheeseburger sliders.) Washington preserves dominance in its own hemisphere, and leans on local states first to check the rise of potential hegemons, since they have an even deeper interest in blocking their ascent. It continues active trade and diplomacy around the world, and prepares a military centered on air and sea power, with modest, more scalable ground forces. For today’s policymakers, that means drawing down from Europe (where the locals already spend four times more on defense than Russia) and pushing for a limited rapprochement with Iran, which is a mere potential hegemon.

Asia is more complicated: China has the power and possibly the ambition to push for dominance in its region, and its local rivals are far apart, fractious and, in some cases, feeble. This can make Walt and his frequent coauthor John Mearsheimer sound like China hawks at times: our Asian friends may need American aid and even American force to put paid to Peking’s pronunciamentos. China has deeper economic interests around the world than the last major potential hegemon, the Soviet Union, which may also incline it toward foreign adventures. And China’s growing strength may ultimately need to inform American policy in the Persian Gulf as well: while Iran can’t be allowed to achieve hegemony there, it would also be an error to harry it into Chinese arms.