With this allusion to the Boston Marathon bombing that had occurred three days earlier, Harvard Kennedy School of Government Professor Stephen Walt introduced the subject of April 18th’s Harrington Lecture held in Jefferson Academic Center at Clark University.
In his talk “Follies, Failures and [#$%@]-Ups: Why is U.S. Foreign Policy So Dysfunctional?” Walt outlined reasons why United States foreign policy since the end of the Cold War has been “mostly one of disappointments and sometimes costly failures.”
Citing as examples the U.S. failure to establish Western-style democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan, develop cordial relations with Russia and Iran, and prevent the acquisition by several countries of nuclear weapons, Walt attributed the inability of the U.S. to achieve its foreign-policy goals to two factors, one international, the other domestic.
The first factor considers the United States’ position in the international community. With the balance of power strongly in its favor, the U.S. likes to think it can accomplish anything, a national mindset that has made it difficult to establish priorities and choose which conflicts to address, Walt said. He characterized the majority of post-Cold War conflicts as especially difficult to resolve because they often required some form of social engineering in countries at once poor and ethnically heterogeneous.
Walt explained that U.S. primacy also elicits a variety of problematic responses from members of the international community. Nations perceiving U.S. power as a threat sometimes join forces in hope of keeping the U.S. in check. Other countries see United States’ strength and wealth as justification for relying unduly on the U.S. for protection, or for expecting the U.S. to shoulder too much of the financial and military burden needed to resolve international disputes. Some countries, assuming the U.S. will bail them out if they get into trouble, act recklessly, while leaders or regimes sponsored by the U.S. may attempt to retain that support by threatening to resign or collapse the country, he said.
On the domestic front, Walt faulted the United States’ foreign-policy establishment, portraying its culture as having a strong activist bias that defines American interests broadly and often perceives those interests to be under threat. Policy makers are pressured by various influential private organizations to adopt policies privileging the organization’s agenda whether or not it benefits the country as a whole. Walt said that in such an environment, the diverse perspectives necessary for healthy policy debate are lacking, and discussion of some topics, such as policy positions on Israel or Iran, is almost taboo. He accused the foreign-policy community of resorting to a combination of threat-mongering and withholding information to mobilize the public support necessary to carry out an activist agenda.
Contributing to this dysfunction is what Walt sees as a lack of accountability in the U.S. foreign-policy community for its members’ mistakes, in part because of what he describes as an “incestuous relationship between policy makers and many of the people who are supposed to hold them to account.” In the latter group he included think-tank members and academics recruited by policy makers to serve as observers or advisors, roles that can sometimes conflict with their responsibility to remain impartial.
Also troubling to Walt is what he called “the cult of irrelevance” in academia, described as the academy’s internal bias against scholars who want to apply their expertise to real-world problems, and privileging instead those who focus on theoretical approaches.
Finally, Walt highlighted the system of staffing the foreign-policy community as a hindrance to effective policy making. He cited as examples frequent staff turnover in response to changing administrations and appointees chosen more for whom they know and what campaigns they donate to, rather than for their depth and range of knowledge.
Walt, who characterizes himself as a realist, concluded his remarks by admitting that much of the dysfunction he describes is not easily remedied. And while noting that the U.S. now appears to be losing its enthusiasm for counter-insurgency warfare and nation-building, he fears the tendency to forget the mistakes of the past will hamper the nation’s ability to achieve its foreign policy goals for the foreseeable future.