November 22, 2018 | By Brian Hanson, Stephen M. Walt

Deep Dish: Stephen Walt’s Guide to Realism

US foreign policy since the end of the Cold War has been a resounding failure, argues Stephen M. Walt in his new book “The Hell of Good Intentions.” What’s worse, the failure is our fault, a direct result of America’s chosen grand strategy of liberal hegemony, he says. But Walt has an alternative, as he explains in this week’s Deep Dish podcast.



Brian Hanson: This is Deep Dish on Global Affairs, going beyond the headlines on critical global issues. I'm Brian Hanson, and my guest today thinks that US foreign policy since the end of the Cold War has been a resounding failure. What's worse, that failure is our own fault, a direct result of America's chosen grand strategy, and he has an alternative. Here with me is Steve Walt from Harvard's Kennedy School. He has a new book out called, "The Hell of Good Intentions: America's Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy." Welcome, Steve, great to have you here.

Stephen Walt: It's nice to be talking with you, Brian.

Brian Hanson: Let me just start by saying that I think this is an incredibly important debate. Clearly, the world is going through a period of transition, as is US foreign policy. The decisions that the US makes are going to be critically important in the world. I'm really glad that you engaged this set of debates with a really serious contribution. I want to start out by drawing out the argument of your book. In brief, you argue that US foreign policy has been a disaster since the end of Cold War, and the primary reason is that the US has pursued the strategy that you call liberal hegemony. What is liberal hegemony?

Stephen Walt: Liberal hegemony is a grand strategy that basically seeks to transform the world in America's image. It's liberal not in the sense of being left wing, but in the sense of trying to promote sort of classic liberal values, democracy, liberty, human rights, open markets, rule of law, all of those things. It's hegemony because it seeks to do that basically by using American power, that the United States must lead this process, must use the various instruments of government to spread these ideals as far as possible.

Peacefully if we can, but if necessary using military force. That has basically been the grand strategy we've followed under Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama. And then the question is, of course, what Donald Trump is ultimately going to do with that. And I do argue in the book that this strategy has been if not a complete failure, almost a complete failure in various ways.

Brian Hanson: Let's dig into that, because I think for a lot of people listening to this show that that list of values that shape this policy sound pretty appealing. As you said, it sounds like the US. What are the most important policy mistakes that this approach has led us to make?

Stephen Walt: Well, first of all, I agree with you. Those are terrific values, and I'm delighted to live in a country where they are reasonably well established. But I think one way to see this is simply compare the world of the early 1990's, shortly after the end of the Cold War, with the world we're in today. In the early '90s, the United States was on good terms with most of the major powers, maybe all of the major powers. Iraq had been disarmed, Iran had no nuclear enrichment capability. We thought we had capped North Korea's nuclear program. Globalization is spreading, democracy is spreading. NATO is beginning to expand, the European Union is expanding.

Everyone is filled with this extraordinary optimism that old style power politics is gone, and we're heading into a new world. There's even the Oslo Accords in the Middle East, suggesting that we're going to finally have peace between Israelis and Palestinians. If you compare that to the world of today, China's power and ambitions have grown, Russia has seized Crimea, our relationship with Moscow now worse than at any time since the Cold War, and Russia and China cooperating closely. Democracy is now in retreat around the world. According to Freedom House, this is the 12th consecutive year when global freedom has declined.

North Korea, India, and Pakistan have all tested nuclear weapons, Iran is essentially a latent nuclear power, and our efforts to bring peace in the Middle East have all been humiliating failures. I haven't even mentioned the Iraq war yet, but of course we get attacked on 9/11, we invade Afghanistan, then Iraq. And neither of those things work out particularly well either. When I say that American foreign policy has largely been a failure, that's the kind of thing I'm pointing to. Then I'll say more about what exactly we did wrong that produced that, if you'd like.

Brian Hanson: Good. Yeah, let me do that. And let me push you a little bit on this, because the contrast between 2003 and the contemporary period is very compelling. You just laid out that contrast really well. My question is, is the liberal hegemony grand strategy really underlying those changes? Because a good realist, as I know you are, would say, you know, the reemergence of great power rivalry, it really never went anywhere. Countries develop more capabilities.

So it's not surprising we're at increasing odds with great powers. Different countries have different value systems. As you know, John Mearsheimer is arguing this in his book about the role of nationalism and the reemergence of great power conflict. And it's not surprising that these kinds of conflicts are reemerging, and one could argue they would have emerged no matter what the US had done. So help me connect what contribution the pursuit of liberal hegemony made to the current state of affairs.

Stephen Walt: It's a great question. Some of these negative developments, like China's continued rise, I think would have occurred regardless of what the United States did. We might have affected the rate a little bit, but it would have happened regardless. But our fingerprints are over a lot of the other failures. In particular, this idea of spreading the American system, if you will, far and wide threatened of course non-democracies. So NATO expansion, moving NATO progressively eastward into Russia's sphere of influence, declaring that this was an open-ended process, interfering in various ways in the so-called color revolutions in Eastern Europe, all of this alarmed Moscow.

And no matter how many times we said none of this was directed at them, they of course didn't believe it. So one of the reasons we have a substantially worse relationship with Russia today is the fact that we did a variety of things that really threatened Russia's security interests in ways that I think we would have understood if someone was doing them back here in the Western Hemisphere. But we didn't recognize it then. Similarly, the effort to promote regime change in a variety of places, obviously Afghanistan and Iraq first, but subsequently in Libya, with the aim of trying to create representative liberal democracies over the longer term I think has been a near total failure.

And you could point also to American involvement in places like Somalia or Sudan and Yemen as equally unsuccessful efforts to do this. Then one final thing, which I didn't say much about, is the United States was active in promoting globalization throughout the 1990's. I believe in an open international trading order, but I think it's now pretty clear that we rushed that in a variety of ways. We pushed it a little bit too far and a little bit too fast. More importantly, it simply didn't deliver as promised. The envision was that this was going to create great prosperity for the United States and for others.

I think it's clear that it was very good for the Asian lower and middle classes, it was very good for the 1% here in the United States and in other parts of the world. But the people who were largely left out were the sort of lower and middle classes in the United States and Europe. It's one of the things that has fueled this sort of emergency of populism there. You put all of that together, this optimistic effort to sort of turn the rest of the world into a harmonious carbon copy of the United States, or at least something very much like the United States, simply didn't work very well.

Brian Hanson: In addition to those policy failures, what have the consequences been for the United States itself, and its role in the world?

Stephen Walt: Just for one thing, it's cost us a lot of money. The cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars alone is somewhere in the order of five to six trillion dollars, when you add up the full cost of everything those wars are going to produce. Moreover, it's been an enormous distraction. American leaders from Clinton, to Bush, to Obama and beyond have had to spend enormous amounts of time trying to figure out what to do in Afghanistan, what to do in Iraq, what to do in Syria. Should we be more actively involved in the Ukraine or not at a moment where there were pressing domestic needs here in the United States, and a lot more attention should have been devoted to them.

I think you can also make the argument that some of these policies contributed, not the sole cause, but contributed to the financial crisis in 2008, which was enormously harmful to the United States as well. So you put all of this together, and again this particular strategy of trying to sort of manage the world, and in particular to shape local politics in lots of different places, has squandered a lot of resources, cost enormous time, and led us to neglect things that we should have paid more attention to here at home.

Brian Hanson: So if liberal hegemony has been such a tremendous across the board failure, as you paint it, why do you believe this strategy has persisted? I mean, it's really striking that, as you point out, we've had two Republican presidents and two Democratic presidents even before we get to President Trump who followed similar policies currently fit into your definition of liberal hegemony. And yet, as you also mentioned in the book, each successful presidential candidate since Bill Clinton, regardless of party, has run on a platform of doing less in US foreign policy. Yet once they're in office, they haven't. So what's going on here? Why the persistence?

Stephen Walt: Part of it is sort of, to paraphrase Bill Clinton in another context, we did this because we could. The United States was and is very powerful, and extremely secure, here in the Western Hemisphere no great power rivals anywhere nearby, protected by these two enormous oceans. That allowed the United States to not worry very much about defending the American homeland, and be able to project power all over the world and interfere in various ways. So part of the reason is simply we were in a position where we could, and partly we were very optimistic at the end of the Cold War.

Everything seemed to be going well. The wind was at our back. This was going to be easy to do, or so we believed. And finally, and this is a point that John Mearsheimer does make in his book, this is wired into sort of America's political culture. We're a very liberal society, liberalism is a universalist philosophy that thinks that all human beings have the same rights, and therefore if some country somewhere isn't guaranteeing those rights to its people, we should go change that. All of that's in the background. My argument in the book is that it's because the foreign policy elite in the United States was deeply committed to this strategy.

They saw it both as desirable in its own right, they thought it would be good for the United States and good for the world. But as I say perhaps a bit snarkily, it's also a full employment policy for the foreign policy elite. It gives them a lot to do, it enhances their power and status, gives them a greater claim on the budget. And if you look at that elite closely, you see that there is in fact an overwhelming consensus within the establishment behind trying to run the world.

Brian Hanson: Why is that? Usually in other policy domains we're used to having, you have big debates about alternative positions, alternative approaches to policy. Why is there, I think Ben Rhodes used the very colorful phrase "The Blob" to describe the foreign policy elite. Why is The Blob so homogenous? Why aren't there other voices?

Stephen Walt: Well again, it's not that there are never any debates. There was a debate over the Iran nuclear deal. There's been I think a fairly lively debate over what to do in Syria as well. But there is also an enormous consensus within this establishment. You know what the main principles might be, that NATO is almost sacred, democracy and human rights should be promoted, although we have to occasionally turn a blind eye to our allies. Iran, Russia, China are now very bad, American leadership is central, absolutely important, cannot be given up, and so on and so forth. There's a pretty broad consensus, and it is a consensus behind using American power to try and shape politics in every part of the world.

There is no part of the world that we don't regard as an important interest. And in particular, to try and push other societies through a variety of means to becoming more democratic, more like us, and if possible, to become embedded in a set of institutions or alliances that the United States has helped design and pretty much leads. That's I think a pretty powerful consensus within that group. I can say a little bit more about why I think that consensus exists in a second.

Brian Hanson: Yeah. Why do you think that consensus exists?

Stephen Walt: The foreign policy elite is an unusual community. First of all, it has no membership requirements, in the sense that you don't have to get a particular degree, you don't have to pass the bar exam, you don't have to pass medical boards. You don't need a license to practice foreign policy, you just have to be recognized and accepted by other members of that elite as smart, energetic, loyal, sensible, and all of those things. Second, it is a community where people know each other, particularly as you ascend. The higher up you get, everybody knows each other personally.

Given those two qualities, of course your success professionally depends on your reputation and your networks. And of course if your success depends on reputation, then there's an extraordinary incentive to remain within the consensus, not to do or say anything that might lead people to question your judgment, question your political values, or anything like that. That consensus for the last 25 years at least has been very much in favor of this strategy I've talked about, where American leadership is essential, and the United States has to run the world.

I try and show that by looking at three different task forces, bipartisan efforts to explain what American grand strategy should be. One in 2006, one in 2013, and one in 2016. What's interesting about these three task forces is they're all done by bold-faced names in the foreign policy elite, they're bipartisan, and the conditions under which they are written are very different, before and after the financial crisis, for example. And yet, the answer in all of these, the recommendations are essentially identical and interchangeable. No matter what the condition of the country is, the foreign policy elite wants to stick to the same strategy.

Brian Hanson: It's interesting, as you know, the Chicago Council does an annual survey of public opinion on foreign policy issues. We've been doing it since 1974. One of the questions that we ask every year, and have long time series data on is, do you think the United States should take an active part in or stay out of world affairs? Over those years, Americans always poll at over 50%. One of things that was interesting in this year's poll that we just released in October is that we had some of the highest levels we've ever recorded on that.

As you go down those elements of the liberal hegemony foreign policy, whether it be trade, relationships with allies, working with international institutions, sets of agreements, we saw this year some of the highest levels of support we've ever seen before. Does that indicate that there is, in our democracy, that this is also reinforced by the public? What role does the public play in this?

Stephen Walt: I actually think the public plays a different role here. There's a section in the book which I call mind the gap, which basically talks about the gap between elite attitudes and public perceptions. And I use, by the way, some of the Chicago Council's surveys.

Brian Hanson: Thank you.

Stephen Walt: Going back decades now, it's been clear that there is a substantial gap between what the public wants in foreign policy and what elites want. As you said, the public is opposed and has been for a long time to real isolationism. They don't want fortress America, they don't want the United States to disengage. They want the United States to play an active role. But notice that that's a question that of course comes with no cost associated with it. There's no constraint. Do you want the United States to play an active role or not? Well of course Americans are going to say they want to.

But once you start asking more detailed questions, and you ask people to consider alternatives, recognize that there might be an opportunity cost, there is a gap between what elites say and what the public says. Just one example, in 2013, 80% of Americans believed "We should not think so much in international terms, but concentrate on our own national problems and building up strength here at home." So one of the problems the foreign policy elite has is convincing the American people to embark on this ambitious foreign policy, this ambitious grand strategy.

They don't really need the public's active support, what they need is the public's tolerance, because most Americans actually don't care that much one way or the other about foreign policy unless something really big and important happens. So part of the book also tries to explain how the elite goes about making sure that public opposition doesn't coalesce, doesn't form, and doesn't slow down what they're trying to do.

Brian Hanson: That creates a perfect transition to the one character that we haven't talked about in this historical move forward, which is Donald Trump. Certainly, he during the campaign railed against this traditional US foreign policy agenda, post-war agenda, railed against US overreach in the domestic affairs of other countries, talked about turning attention back to the United States. What do you see there? Is he getting US foreign policy right?

Stephen Walt: Well, he understood, and I think he intuited that the American people understood that American foreign policy had gone badly off the rails. He said in one of his first big foreign policy speeches, "American foreign policy is a complete and total disaster." He also took dead aim at the foreign policy elite on a number of occasions, including the elites in the Republican party, who were very critical of Trump for understandable reasons. They understood he was of a different order as well. And as you pointed out a while back, Trump in that sense was not unique. All of his predecessors had run for office saying they were going to do less.

Bill Clinton said, "It's the economy, stupid." George W. Bush talked about an end to nation building and a humble foreign policy. And of course, Barack Obama got going because he had been sort of one major candidate who had opposed the Iraq war back in 2002, 2003. Once in office, they tend to behave very differently. What I find interesting about Trump, and I lay out in a chapter about him, is that he's in a sense the worst of both worlds. He's ended up in terms of the substance of his policy doing very much what his predecessors did. But he's done it in a completely chaotic and incompetent style.

So his style in foreign policy is radically different, as is his style in many other areas of politics. But the substance of American policy has changed far less than I think many people realize. It's really not just the President's Twitter feed, you have to look at what the United States is actually doing, and that is not as different. In that sense, Trump is like his predecessors. He ran in one position, and he's governing in a slightly different way.

Brian Hanson: Let me dig into that a little bit. What do you see as the most important continuity? Lots of people point to pulling out of Paris, undermining the Trans-Pacific Partnership right off of the bat. What are the continuities that you see that are so important?

Stephen Walt: Well, let's just start with trade. Remember that multilateral trade agreements have always been somewhat controversial in the United States. Hillary Clinton said she was opposed to TPP during the campaign as well. He has I think put globalization on probation, but his skepticism about some of these trade deals is hardly unprecedented in American history. He's been very critical of NATO, and in particular NATO burden sharing. But of course so was Obama, so was Bush, so was every President going back to Eisenhower. And as of this conversation, NATO is still intact, the United States is still there.

In fact, in some respects we're deepening our commitment to some NATO countries. In the Middle East, he has essentially doubled down with all of our traditional Middle Eastern allies, with Egypt, with Saudi Arabia, with Israel, with Jordan. So in that sense, there's no real sea change, he's just continuing past policies as well. His counter-terror policy is identical to his predecessors, maybe with just a few more bombs. Just like Barack Obama, he's sent more troops to Afghanistan, having said in the campaign we were going to get out of the nation building business.

We are still in it, and with more troops under Donald Trump as well. So there are some real differences. I think he is almost entirely indifferent to the traditional human rights agenda, although occasionally we will use that as a club to bash countries we don't like. But in terms of the actual substance of American policy, the substance is not as different under Trump as listening to his speeches or following his Twitter feed might lead you to believe.

Brian Hanson: One of the things I really like about your book is not only do you have a consistently argued critique of what's come before, you actually put out a positive agenda of what you think should guide US grand strategy. You capture it in a phrase called offshore balancing. What is offshore balancing, and how does it work?

Stephen Walt: Offshore balancing has been America's traditional grand strategy. It was our strategy for much of the 20th Century. In fact, I think both our handling of World War I, World War II, and the Cold War were consistent with that. It's a realist grand strategy that says the principal national security dangers to the United States would come if any other country were able to be in the same kind of position the United States is. That is to say, be a strong, powerful economy like ours, but also dominate their particular region the same way we dominate the Western Hemisphere, where we face no serious challengers.

A country in that position in some other part of the world would be free to project power around the world the same way we do, because they wouldn't have to worry about protecting their homeland, just as we don't worry really about protecting Minnesota from invasion or anything like that. So traditionally, the United States didn't want any power to control all of Europe, didn't want any power to control all of the industrial might of Asia as well. And we fought World War I, World War II, and waged the Cold War to prevent that. Today, the only country that could possibly be a regional hegemon is China.

So I argue we need to be focusing most of our strategic energy on managing China, and in particular making sure that it cannot dominate the countries nearest. I don't mean conquer them, I mean be able to sway them or coerce them or compel them. And that means the United States would remain very actively engaged in Asia. By contrast, there's no potential hegemon in Europe. Russia is actually too weak to dominate it. There's no European country that could possibly dominate all of Europe. So we don't have to do very much there. We could conceivably withdraw from NATO, let the Europeans handle European security.

And similarly, the Middle East is incredibly divided now in a variety of ways. There's no country that could possibly dominate the Middle East. We certainly couldn't do it when we were there in force during the Iraq war. So the United States should basically militarily go back to the policy we had from 1945 to roughly 1990, where we had interests in the Middle East, but we didn't have a lot of military forces there. We only sent them there if they were absolutely necessary. That's what I mean by offshore balancing. We only intervene when the balance of power breaks down in some critical area. Most of the time, we try to get others to do most of the heavy lifting, and we get in at the last minute decisively to shape events, but only when we have to.

Brian Hanson: So let me jump in and let's open up those three regions that you talked about, starting with Asia and the rise of China. We do have a military footprint in that region in many ways, including onshore troops in places like Japan and South Korea, bases in Philippines. What does this imply for those deployments? Are they consistent with your strategy, or should they change?

Stephen Walt: No, they're completely consistent, because if you look again at China, and its rapid rise, and its expanding military power, and what appear to be expanding ambitions as well, the United States needs to be there. Now, one of the things that we also see is countries in the region, from Japan to South Korea to Vietnam to Australia to India, are increasingly interested in having the United States there precisely because they're worried about China's rise as well. And this is not all that different from the Cold War, when these countries were also worried about Russia or the Soviet Union, and to some degree at least for a while also China as well. So this is a pretty familiar balance of power situation.

I would just note one thing. This is going to be a tricky diplomatic challenge for the United States, because managing that coalition, a coalition that conceivably could run again from India through Australia and all the way up to Japan is really an immense diplomatic task. Therefore, it's going to require a lot of American expertise, a lot of American attention. Certainly a certain amount of military power, some of which we already have there. And the ability to persuade those allies to do their fair share as well, because if they don't, it will be hard to sustain public support for it here in the United States. But again, one of the reasons that offshore balancing is very clearly not an isolationist policy is it mandates American involvement in critical parts of the world when the balance of power might be upended.

Brian Hanson: So Steve, China as it's rising is incrementally increasing its claims around the Asian region. Probably most visibly the building up the islands in the South China Sea, even building military capabilities on those islands. At what point should the US be engaging? How should we view that activity, and should we be actively trying to discourage it, challenge it? What do we do as China builds up its regional capabilities?

Stephen Walt: Our primary goal it seems to be is to be retaining solid, reliable, reasonably effective diplomatic and military relations with other countries in the region, which are often quite capable themselves. Japan has actually a pretty capable military. It could be stronger, but it's pretty good. South Korea has quite capable military forces in its own area as well. The real task for us is to not have China be able to slowly persuade its neighbors to distance themselves from the United States. What's really going to happen here is a competition for influence in Asia, where we will try to retain the allies that we currently have, possibly form some new ones, deepen those relationships if necessary.

And China will try to find ways to get those countries to distance themselves from Washington. They can do that in part with economic pressure, they can do it by accusing the United States of doing various things over time. One of the reasons I think it was a mistake, for example, for President Trump to leave the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement was it had a critical strategic role. It was part of maintaining the American diplomatic economic presence in Asia. And some Asian countries such as Japan, Prime Minister Abe had worked very hard to sell the agreement in Japan itself. When we backed out, we undercut him, and that's the kind of thing that will cause Asian countries to lose confidence in the United States, any maybe start thinking about alternative arrangements.

Brian Hanson: Some people argue that China's already winning this competition. For your strategy, what would be the key indicators that you would look at to determine how this is going? And are there any kind of definitive, if X happens that means we have to fundamentally increase some sort of activity or some sort of effort to win over those allies?

Stephen Walt: The primary thing that will hold that alliance together is the shared concern about the possibility of Chinese dominance. And again, I'm not suggesting that China will go on some of imperial rampage and try to conquer all of these countries. Rather, it would try to establish a relationship with most of its neighbors that's not unlike the American relationship with most of our neighbors in the Western Hemisphere. We're not trying to conquer any of them, but we expect a certain amount of deference, and we don't want them forming strategic partnerships, hosting military bases, or something like that for a hostile power.

What would worry me in Asia is if you started seeing Asia leaders distance, saying they didn't want to actually have a strategic relationship with the United States any longer, they didn't want to allow the United States to maintain military facilities there. That they were going to either be completely neutral, or they might actually start welcoming a closer strategic relationship with China. I think that's unlikely in a number of cases, but there's some countries that have flirted with this idea, even the Philippines has flirted with this idea a little bit in the past.

Now, sometimes countries in Asia will do this as a way of sort of getting our attention. If you don't thinking you're getting enough support from Washington, then you threaten to realign. And I think we have to view some of those threats with a certain amount of skepticism. This just underscores my point that this is going to be a very complicated set of diplomatic relations, and we are going to need lots of smart, well educated people who are very familiar with these countries, very familiar with their cultures, very comfortable dealing with them. And then we're going to have to shower them with a lot of high level diplomatic attention. This is a much a sort of political and diplomatic problem as it is a purely military problem, although it has a military dimension to it.

Brian Hanson: Okay, let me take us to Europe. Europe, as you described it, Russia certainly is more belligerent in its neighborhood. Putin has active designs on disrupting alliances and relationships inside Europe, and between the US and Europe. Why is that something that we shouldn't really worry about?

Stephen Walt: Well it's not that we shouldn't worry about it. We obviously should be pushing back in certain respects. But if you take a somewhat longer term perspective here, Europe is easily capable of handling the security challenges it faces, at least in terms of the resources it has. Whether it can handle them politically is a somewhat different question. Let's just focus for a second on Russia. Europe combined population of about 500 million people. Russia's is only about 140 million, it's aging rapidly, it's actually going to shrink over time. Europe has a combined economic strength of $17 trillion, something roughly the equivalent of ours. Russia is $2 trillion.The Russian economy is actually smaller than that of Italy right now.

And finally, NATO's European members, not counting the United States, just Europe, spend three to four times what Russia does on the military every year. They do not spend it very well, they waste a lot of money, it's not directed at amassing combat power in ways it could be. But the idea that Europe somehow lacks the wherewithal to stand up to Russia if necessary I think just doesn't bear much scrutiny. So if the United States wants to, we should gradually reduce our commitment to Europe, make that clear to the Europeans. Not because we're angry, but because we want them to be self-reliant. We believe they're capable of doing that.

And this I think of as a process to take slow, at least a decade, because it will take a while for the Europeans to get their act together as well. One final point here, and it's kind of an ironic one. The current bad relationship with Russia is in really no one's interest, and trying to find a way to settle that and improve it would be in everyone's interest. It would be in Europe's interest if Russia were not interfering in Ukraine, and if it wasn't trying to intimidate the Baltic states, if it wasn't interfering in European politics. It would be in Russia's interest to have sanctions lifted, and to no longer be worried about NATO continuing to move eastward. Russia would like that.

And it would of course be in America's interest if Russia and China were not cooperating as closely. So there's a win-win-win here, and the irony is that I think Donald Trump may even have understood that at some relatively crude level. But he has gotten his own relations, and the relations with his entourage and his businesses so entangled with Russia, and cannot tell a straight story about it, that he's no longer in a position to do anything about this. And we'll probably have to wait till another President in order to do this rather sensible strategic move.

Brian Hanson: One of the things that some people are concerned about with the US playing a less active role in Europe, in the rebalancing in Asia, has to do with nuclear weapons and the potential for proliferation even by our allies at this point. If we're not going to do the heavy lifting we were doing before, if our nuclear umbrella, our willingness to use nuclear weapons to deter an attack on our allies is reduced, that they could, looking at their own long-term security interest, decide that that is something that they should pursue. Some people are concerned about it, with the argument that the more folks who have them in their hands, the more likely they are to be used. Do you share that concern, either on the potential of proliferation or its impacts?

Stephen Walt: Yes and no. I certainly acknowledge that there is some possibility that if the United States were not providing such a blanket security all over the world that some countries might start contemplating getting nuclear weapons. I don't think that's automatic, but it's certainly a potential concern. I would just note, though, that of course the strategy we've been following, liberal hegemony, did not stop proliferation either. And in fact, threatening other countries with overthrow gives them a huge incentive to think about getting nuclear weapons. That's why North Korea went out and got them, in my view. That's why I think Iran has at least thought about it seriously as well.

So in a sense, the strategy we've been following did generate some proliferation, an alternative strategy might generate proliferation too. I kind of think it's a wash. I might add that the countries that might get nuclear weapons, at least in some cases, it might not be as worrisome as others. The second point is that of course proliferation is not a good thing, and I hope we can continue to restrict it, but it's not necessarily a disaster either. There have been doom and gloom predictions every time a new country joined the nuclear club, and thankfully so far none of those doom and gloom predictions have come about.

And I think it's mostly because it doesn't take a genius to figure out that using a nuclear weapon is probably suicidal, and would ruin your whole day. So even leaders that we don't like very much, we don't trust very much have shown themselves to be pretty sensible in how they've actually used nuclear weapons. So in the worst case, if there was a modest increase in proliferation as a result of the United States following a different strategy, I don't think it would be a catastrophic threat to global stability.

Brian Hanson: So Steve, as we close, I want to ask a final question which is, if you had the opportunity to sit down with President Trump or maybe his foreign policy team, he said, "Steve, I read your book, really interesting points in there." What would be the single most important policy area that you would encourage the Trump administration to take a different approach on, and what that would be? We want to explore this, where should we start? Where's the most important thing that we could do to shift our policy? What would you recommend?

Stephen Walt: That's a great question. I think the hypothetical is unlikely to come, certainly. I think the most immediate thing I would recommend is that the President announce that, after a careful review, he's decided that the United States has no business trying to determine the future of Afghanistan, and that the United States is going to withdraw its military forces there. So that would be immediate. I don't think that's ultimately the most consequential step we could make, but that would be the most obvious one. We have been there 17 years. No one is optimistic about it ever reaching a positive conclusion. So in a sense, we're just wasting money there.

Then the second more general point is that I would encourage the President to think long and hard about where the United States has truly vital interests, and where its interests are more optional. Where the United States needs to be committed militarily, that means committing American forces possibly to fight and die, and where it doesn't. In those areas, we would remain engaged economically, we would certainly remain engaged diplomatically. But where we could, readjust some of our international commitments to things that really do defend vital interests as well.

And the last thing I would do is I would tell him to, for God's sake, hang up his telephone and stop tweeting about foreign leaders. Because I think Trump has done enormous damage to our international image simply by the way he talks about other countries, and the way he tries to humiliate foreign leaders, which doesn't resonate well in those societies. And again, there's surveys from around the world showing that the United States was pretty well respected at the end of the Obama administration in most countries around the world.

And that sense of people having a favorable image of the United States has plummeted under President Trump. That's kind of soft and ineffable, but I think it does matter. You do want it to be easy for other governments to cooperate with us, and they won't do that as readily when their populations don't think well of the country. That's one thing a President can really affect by his own personal conduct.

Brian Hanson: Well Steve, thanks so much for being on Deep Dish, and also writing your new book, "The Hell of Good Intentions." As I said upfront, I think this is one of the most important discussions to have in our country today, and I appreciate that you've engaged on it. And thanks for taking the time to share it with us.

Stephen Walt: My pleasure, it was really talking with you, Brian.

Brian Hanson: And thank you for tuning into this episode of Deep Dish. If you like the show, do me a favor and tap the Subscribe button on your podcast app. You can find our show under Deep Dish on Global Affairs wherever you listen to podcasts. And if you think you know someone who would like today's episode, please tap Share, and send it to them as well. I'd like to invite you to join our Facebook group at Deep Dish on Global Affairs. You can ask our guest follow-up questions about anything you heard today, or submit questions for upcoming guests and episodes. That's Deep Dish on Global Affairs on Facebook.

And as a reminder, the opinions you heard belong to the people who expressed them, and not the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. This episode of Deep Dish was produced by Evan Fazio. Our audio engineer is Andy Zarnecki. I'm Brian Hanson, and we'll be back soon with another slice of Deep Dish.


The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. We convene leading global voices and conduct independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization. All statements of fact and expressions of opinion in blog posts are the sole responsibility of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Council.


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