The Hell of Good Intentions: America's Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy
a book by Stephen M. Walt
(our site's book review)
The Amazon blurb says that From the New York Times–bestselling author Stephen M. Walt, The Hell of Good Intentions: America's Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy dissects the faults and foibles of recent American foreign policy—explaining why it has been plagued by disasters like the “forever wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan and outlining what can be done to fix it.
In 1992, the United States stood at the pinnacle of world power and Americans were confident that a new era of peace and prosperity was at hand. Twenty-five years later, those hopes have been dashed. Relations with Russia and China have soured, the European Union is wobbling, nationalism and populism are on the rise, and the United States is stuck in costly and pointless wars that have squandered trillions of dollars and undermined its influence around the world.
The United States is stuck in costly and pointless wars that have squandered trillions of dollars and undermined its influence around the world
The root of this dismal record, Walt argues, is the American foreign policy establishment’s stubborn commitment to a strategy of “liberal hegemony.” Since the end of the Cold War, Republicans and Democrats alike have tried to use U.S. power to spread democracy, open markets, and other liberal values into every nook and cranny of the planet. This strategy was doomed to fail, but its proponents in the foreign policy elite were never held accountable and kept repeating the same mistakes.
Donald Trump won the presidency promising to end the misguided policies of the foreign policy “Blob” and to pursue a wiser approach. But his erratic and impulsive style of governing, combined with a deeply flawed understanding of world politics, are making a bad situation worse. The best alternative, Walt argues, is a return to the realist strategy of “offshore balancing,” which eschews regime change, nation-building, and other forms of global social engineering. The American people would surely welcome a more restrained foreign policy, one that allowed greater attention to problems here at home. This long-overdue shift will require abandoning the futile quest for liberal hegemony and building a foreign policy establishment with a more realistic view of American power.
Donald Trump won the presidency promising to end the misguided policies of the foreign policy “Blob” and to pursue a wiser approach—but he hasn't
Clear-eyed, candid, and elegantly written, Stephen M. Walt’s The Hell of Good Intentions: America's Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy offers both a compelling diagnosis of America’s recent foreign policy follies and a proven formula for renewed success.
"[The Hell of Good Intentions] offers a valuable contribution to the mounting debate about America's purpose . . . Walt persuasively contends that Washington's bungled interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya helped propel Trump, who has consistently derided foreign policy experts, to the presidency."—Jacob Heilbrunn, The New York Times Book Review
"The Trump-era establishment narrative ignores the fact that, despite his campaign rhetoric (“our foreign policy is a complete and total disaster”; “we’re rebuilding other countries while weakening our own”), the current president has not veered very far from the playbook of the bipartisan foreign-policy elite. Stephen Walt’s The Hell of Good Intentions: America's Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy helps explains why . . . Walt’s portrait of the Blob and those who inhabit it is nothing short of damning."—James Carden, The Nation
The beltway bubble
"Walt's book should be recommended reading for all those who work on US foreign policy, even if it may, on occasion, make some of us a little uncomfortable."—Financial Times
"[Walt] skewers the naiveté and idealism that has guided U.S. foreign policy . . . Walt, a clear writer and incisive thinker, has written a fine book . . . These sensible ideas deserve close attention."—Rajan Menon, The Boston Review
"A scholarly yet accessible read. Anyone interested in American foreign policy will want to reflect on Walt's thesis."—Daniel Blewett, Library Journal (starred review)
"Thought-provoking . . . This excellent analysis is cogent, accessible, and well-argued."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"Between a president bent on ripping up the international liberal order and a foreign policy establishment determined to reestablish ‘liberal hegemony,' Stephen Walt has laid out a real alternative, a foreign policy that rebuilds America at home and promotes peace through restraint and alliance building abroad. It’s a brilliant analysis that will define debate for years to come.”—Michael Ignatieff, President and Rector, Central European University
Stephen Walt has laid out a real alternative to liberal hegemony, a foreign policy that rebuilds America at home and promotes peace through restraint and alliance building abroad
“If we are to have a healthy and honest debate about the future of U.S. foreign policy—as increasingly we must—we need more books like The Hell of Good Intentions: America's Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy. Steve Walt has written an engaging and long overdue critique of the widely accepted canon. Regardless of whether you agree with his prescription, this is essential reading for those who care about our role in the world.”—Paul B. Stares, General John W. Vessey Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations
"This book will wake you up, shake you up, and leave you smarter. Walt takes aim at the bipartisan verities of Washington’s foreign policy establishment, skewering its conformity, self-righteousness, and shared illusions—and offers his own thoughtful prescription for a humbler, wiser and more effective US foreign policy. Members of the US foreign policy establishment won’t like this book. They should read it anyway. The fate of the nation may depend on it."—Rosa Brooks, Associate Dean for Graduate Programs, Georgetown University Law Center, author of How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything
Walt takes aim at the bipartisan verities of Washington’s foreign policy establishment, skewering its mindless conformity for conformity's sake
"Very controversial, expertly argued and engagingly written, this book will spark an indispensable debate about how to ensure that America’s foreign policy is aligned to America’s interests. A must read."—Moisés Naím, Distinguished Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, author of The End of Power
"Anyone who wants to understand why post-Cold War U.S. foreign policy has been plagued by disasters like the Iraq War should read Steve Walt’s brilliant new book. He shows with characteristic flair and sophistication that the taproot of the problem is America’s foreign policy elite, which is suffused with misguided ideas about international politics."—John J. Mearsheimer, R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science, University of Chicago
"American foreign policy is at an inflection point. The Hell of Good Intentions: America's Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy provides an insightful account of the crisis facing American foreign policy, but more important, it shows how this is a crisis of its own making, the result not so much of lack of imagination as that of blunders of well-meaning foreign policy practitioners. This is thoughtful and smart analysis, and timely contribution to the critical debate that is taking stock of American foreign policy, and is bound to decide its future direction—a must read for policy-makers and students of American foreign policy alike."—Vali Nasr, Dean and Professor of International Affairs, Johns Hopkins University, author of The Dispensable Nation
Much American foreign policy is the product of a suffocating consensus, notwithstanding the partisan combat that also characterizes American politics
"Much American foreign policy is the product of a suffocating consensus, notwithstanding the partisan combat that also characterizes American politics. Stephen Walt provides an illuminating and well-researched look at that consensus and persuasively explains how it keeps pushing the United States into the same costly mistakes abroad."—Paul R. Pillar, Non-Resident Senior Fellow, Georgetown University Center for Security Studies
"Sadly, Stephen M. Walt is right: the American foreign policy establishment has failed America. America’s standing in the world has sunk. All of us, both Americans and non-Americans, should read this book to help the country regain its once constructive global leadership. A must-read for decision-makers around the world."—Kishore Mahbubani, Professor, National University of Singapore, author of Has the West Lost It?
Walt says that "U.S. leaders opted for liberal hegemony because the foreign policy community believes spreading liberal values is both essential for U.S. security and easy to do. They convinced ordinary citizens to support this ambitious agenda by exaggerating international dangers, overstating the benefits that liberal hegemony would produce, and concealing the true costs. And because members of the foreign policy elite are rarely held to account, they were able to make the same mistakes again and again."
Because members of the foreign policy elite are rarely held to account, they were able to make the same mistakes again and again, ignoring the egregious costs in human life and dollars, causing the U.S. to shoot itself in the foot
As Walt sees it, "This book is highly critical of the foreign policy establishment, but the nature of my critique needs to be properly understood. America’s foreign policy elite is not a conspiracy of privileged insiders who are consciously seeking to advance their own fortunes at the nation’s expense. [Really, Walt?] On the contrary, the institutions examined in this book are filled with dedicated public servants who genuinely believe that U.S. dominance is good for the United States and for the rest of the world. At the same time, however, the pursuit of liberal hegemony appeals to this elite’s sense of self-worth, enhances their power and status, and gives them plenty to do. These individuals also operate in a system that rewards conformity, penalizes dissent, and encourages its members to remain within the prevailing consensus. . . . it is my hope that this book will help hasten the day when the United States adopts a foreign policy that actually enhances its security and prosperity and makes America’s core values more attractive to others. A foreign policy with those qualities would be closer to what the American people actually want, and easier to defend at home and abroad."
Hillary Clinton planned to prolong the agony of our idiotic foreign policies and wars as well as keeping political correctness going strong, while ignoring her incredible Libya and email disasters, shooting herself in the foot
Walt acknowledges that foreign policy was not the pivotal issue in the 2016 campaign for anyone. Such issues as race, class, and identity, and the political correctness craziness that accompanied it, pushed a substantial number of voters toward Donald Trump, who was also helped by a smoldering hostility toward the nation’s first black president and Hillary Clinton’s own besmirched reputation. Other debacles—such as the Iraq and Afghan wars—were costly, self-inflicted wounds.
Trump made all the right promises about getting out of our wars, but when it got down to doing it, he chickened out
Trump, for his part, made all the right promises about getting out of our wars, but when it got down to doing it, he chickened out. The shadow government must have thrown a scare into him. He pulled out of Syria in protest, but it's the Iraq and Afghan wars that were the critical issues. Trump's instincts were often bad, but not about our failed liberal hegemony policy. He needed to stand strong and realize that the foreign policy elite's conventional wisdom has been anything but wise for the last 20-some years. But Trump is not a thinker, a realizer, or brave. He has ego where principles and knowledge should be, bluster where strategy should be, and impulsiveness where wisdom should be.
Globally, as our liberal hegemony revealed itself as a hollow promise that messed up the world even though it followed the CW, dictatorships proved to be resilient, many young democracies slid back into authoritarian rule, and U.S.-led efforts at democratization and regime change produced failed states—and ISIS—instead. While we were trying to get other nations to adopt our ways, ironically, we were abandoning many of our core values. We abandoned our hopes for privacy and ownership of our own private data as the Patriot Act was installed with our leaders telling us it is too dangerous to honor centuries old privacy traditions. There are terrorists everywhere so we must stick our noses into everything, everywhere in the world, we were told. We were supposed to be too afraid to resist—we were supposed to be happy to give up privacy in exchange for security. And yet it's been shown that we are now LESS secure than before the Patriot Act, the NSA eavesdropping, and the war on terror. See On Western Terrorism: From Hiroshima to Drone Warfare and Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance.
We kill one terrorist, his friends and family all swear vengeance on us so now there are ten terrorists, not one terrorist—the U.S. military has become a terrorist factory, ramping up the number of terrorists by the day
It has developed that the people of the world have not been buying the lies we have been selling. When asked whether people are most worried about the USA or Russia, most say the USA. When asked whether people are most worried about the USA or about terrorism, most say the USA. And when evaluating our phony War on Terror, we find that since we started it, terrorism has increased, not decreased. Obviously, most people see our War on Terror as a War OF Terror. WE are the terrorists, attacking countries unprovoked just to get at their oil and minerals. We kill one terrorist, his friends and family all swear vengeance on us so now there are ten terrorists, not one terrorist. The U.S. military has become a terrorist factory, ramping up the number of terrorists by the day.
U.S. neocons' imperialism and warmongering is out of control yet the Congress tasked with stopping such abuses is mute—something smells rotten in Washington! The game is rigged.
"Just get used to the fact: Big Brother IS listening."—Business Week
'Just get used to the fact: Big Brother IS listening' says Business Week
Our government watches your every move
Once they create the technology, can the thought police be far behind NSA's outrage of spying on us decent citizens?
Fly #353242252 reporting: Citizen #312,756,972 doesn't seem to be hiding a thing—my conclusion is that she's clean; but just to be sure I think I'll hang around a bit longer!
When Trump told audiences that “our foreign policy is a complete and total disaster,” he was telling the truth. The unaccountable elite in this country are consistent: They never acknowledge their mistakes, they continue to go on talk shows spewing the same tired, incorrect ideas. They never get a consequence for misleading the country—they are unaccountable. The persistent failures abroad never happened. They stay with the unchanging CW regardless of how ridiculously incorrect it is. They live in a dreamworld as children misbehaving in Neverland, with no consequences, spankings, scoldings, or even mild reprimands. These eternal children never change the CW because in their world of pundits and think tanks and high salaries, the CW (e.g., liberal hegemony) is right because they say it is, as long as the shadow government, which Walt denies, and the CIA censors at media outlets, which Walt denies, give their okay.
Trump was right when he proclaimed that our foreign policy should be about making things better for us, not for them. He rightly ridiculed nation building as something the countries where our military goes want no part of. Trump also targetted globalization, saying it cost U.S. jobs. Trump advocated a self-centered, highly nationalist foreign policy that abandoned efforts to spread our values and focused instead on securing short-term advantages for the U.S. Given Trump's past, it is unsurprising that he was out to get us the "best deals."
Foreign policy 'experts' spread propaganda on talk shows, and people with different ideas were either not invited or ridiculed
Stupid foreign policy persisted because instead of being a disciplined meritocracy that rewards innovative thinking and performance, the foreign policy community is composed of conformists, inbred professionals whose beliefs, values, ideas and policy preferences have changed little over the past three decades, even as the debacles and fiascoes kept collecting. Also, most Americans do not buy what these dogmatists were selling. And sell they did—foolish pundits propagandized on talk shows.
Instead of rewarding for results, foreign policy conformists are inbred professionals whose horrid results are ignored—the movie Deliverance highlighted similarly inbred idiots
Walt explains how Trump or someone could turn the situation around: Offshore balancing is a strategic concept used in realist analysis in international relations. It describes a strategy in which a great power uses favored regional powers to check the rise of potentially-hostile powers. This strategy stands in contrast to the dominant grand strategy in the United States, liberal hegemony. Offshore balancing calls for a great power to withdraw from onshore positions and focus its offshore capabilities on the three key geopolitical regions of the world: Europe, the Persian Gulf, and Northeast Asia. Military expert Andrew J. Bacevich agrees with this approach.
Offshore balancing was the strategy used by the United States in the 1930s and also in the 1980–1988 Iran-Iraq War. John J. Mearsheimer argues that when the United States gave Lend-Lease aid to Britain in the 1940s, the United States engaged in offshore balancing by being the arsenal of democracy, not the fighter for it.
Meaningful and positive change won't ever occur unless a well-organized and politically viable reform movement emerges, one that can undermine the elite's foolish support for liberal hegemony and generate a more open and longterm discussion on such issues. One leader could never do it alone, especially one like Trump. At least with him, however, things are WYSIWYG since his feelings get projected on the Twitterverse, because he seems utterly unable to put a damper on his impulsivity, and because it fulfills a deep need to be the center of attention, like a small child.
At least with Trump, things are WYSIWYG since his feelings get projected on the Twitterverse, because he seems utterly unable to put a damper on his impulsivity, and because it fulfills a deep need to be the center of attention, like a small child
Walt describes how the U.S. military worried about getting into a Vietnam War-like quagmire in Iraq and Afghanistan, and then to show just how blinded they had become by liberal hegemony propaganda, they went ahead and did exactly that in BOTH theaters. He who is unable to learn from the mistakes of the past is doomed to repeat them. And repeat them we did.
If only Trump had lived up to his campaign promises! But neither Obama nor Dubya did either, so what else is new? Somalia and Yemen military conflicts were too inviting for us to pass up, and we didn't—another failure. So we went to Libya and failed there as well. Are you starting to see a pattern? The Hell of Good Intentions: America's Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy looks into the U.S.'s good intentions and places blame on the bad ideas and strategies guiding our military actions.
These elite American foreign policy professionals should get out of the thinking and advocacy and punditry business and open a shoe store or a Burger King restaurant somewhere where they will cease causing so much harm. None of them have the wisdom, compassion, or respect for human rights needed to lead the world according to the tenets of liberal hegemony—OR offshore balancing.
These elite American foreign policy professionals should get out of the thinking and advocacy and punditry business and open a shoe store or a Burger King restaurant somewhere where they will cease causing so much harm
The 2018 edition of Freedom House’s annual report on Freedom in the World warned us that democracy faced its most serious crisis in decades, with 71 countries suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties, with only 35 registering gains. This marked the 12th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. "Many emerging democracies have failed to meet their citizens’ hopes for freedom … just as the world’s established democracies, including the United States, have grown increasingly dysfunctional,” says Hoover Institution's Larry Diamond.
As mentioned, we were supposed to be too afraid to resist—we were supposed to be happy to give up privacy in exchange for security. And yet it's been shown that we are now LESS secure than before the Patriot Act, the NSA eavesdropping, and the war on terror. And yet our privacy is not being returned to us, Google and Facebook are still making a mint off OUR data without even asking, and NSA surveillance continues apace—they may as well burn the Constitution.
Privacy is not being returned to us, Google and Facebook are still making a mint off OUR data without even asking, and NSA surveillance continues apace—they may as well burn the Constitution
Obviously, Trump is champing at the bit to be the demagogue that leads our authoritarian government. He respects strongmen around the world. If there is any evidence he respects democracy, no one has uncovered it
And democracy itself is losing popularity: one sixth of the U.S. population in 2015 are okay with authoritarian rule. Our young are not impressed with our dysfunctional democracy. Part of this is because it is now an oligarchy that just uses the democracy label to keep the sheep pacified and calm. Obviously, Trump is champing at the bit to be the demagogue that leads our authoritarian government. He respects strongmen around the world. If there is any evidence he respects democracy, no one has uncovered it. And U.S. actions at home and abroad have undermined our country's idealistic democratization objectives around the globe and helped ignite the populist backlash that led the way for Donald Trump to occupy the White House.
One sixth of the U.S. population in 2015 are okay with authoritarian rule
One sixth of the U.S. population in 2015 are okay with authoritarian rule—wherein fascistic stormtroopers will be goosestepping their way to our door
The colonists rebelled against aristocratic thinking when they rejected England's rule by King George, so why are we not rebelling against oligarchal rule in modern USA?
To sum up, liberal hegemony is a massive failure from every perspective, and yet none of the wheeler dealers in Washington seem to possess the gonads to replace this massive boondoggle. Some lie and try to tell us it is not a failure. Others put their heads in the sand. But everyone wants an effective replacement that works. But no one dares to act. It's like 100 mice wanting to bell the cat to provide warning to mice before they get gobbled up. Everyone wants it done, but no one wants to be the one to do it.
Liberal hegemony is a massive failure needing replacement but we all fear to act, just like the mice who all want the cat belled but none dare to do it
When Walt tells us there is no secret cabal running U.S. foreign policy—it is hiding in plain sight, our B.S. detector went off. The definition of the word secret is not "stuff we can easily find in academia, the media, or the Internet in general, or by traveling around to some country for a day or two." If there was a secret cabal running U.S. foreign policy, it would not be detectable by any of those means and they would not be informing Walt of their existence—especially because Walt has wisdom and morals, but a cabal would seek amoral conformists, so they would not reveal themselves to him. The shadow government is probably not a conspiracy or secret cabal, but it is certainly secret. It could exist in many forms, from buddies at the Council on Foreign Relations to a loose-knit club of neocons to . . . ? Perhaps it is a network of power brokers—elite neocons with many beliefs in common. This may be a good explanation of the powers-that-be's obsession about Liberal Hegemony. See Shadow Elite: How the World's New Power Brokers Undermine Democracy, Government, and the Free Market
"America’s neoconservatives: Beginning in the mid-1990s, this influential network of hard-line pundits, journalists, think tank analysts, and government officials developed, purveyed, and promoted an expansive vision of American power as a positive force in world affairs." These are Walt's words, belying his belief that influential networks must be secret cabals or conspiracies. He highlights the fact that the neocons made one disastrous bungle after another, and yet these neocons were never held to account. Walt rightly says that officials need to be accountable for their decisions and if they had been, we would no longer be cursed with idiotic Liberal Hegemony ideas. All neocons got rewarded for their blunders, just like the jackasses who precipitated the 2008 financial crisis walked off with golden parachutes.
Dr. Janine R. Wedel, an anthropologist, studied neocons like they were African tribes; her unaccountable neocon core concept is much like Walt's neocon network; See Shadow Elite: How the World's New Power Brokers Undermine Democracy, Government, and the Free Market and Unaccountable: How Elite Power Brokers Corrupt our Finances, Freedom, and Security
Walt, this Professor of International Affairs at Harvard University who writes for Foreign Policy and Foreign Affairs (Published by the Council on Foreign Relations) has written some impressive books and articles. This book, The Hell of Good Intentions: America's Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy, is probably his best. It is wise, well reasoned, and not afraid to tell the powers-that-be when their positions are stupid and naive. Liberal hegemony was a dumb foreign policy plan from the get-go, and Walt's offshore balancing, which eschews regime change, nation-building, and other forms of global social engineering, is the right way to go.
The elites not only mess things up when they attempt global social engineering, they do the same with domestic social engineering. They dream big, plan big, make big programs, and then screw the pooch bigtime. Walt's realism is refreshing—as is his restraint. It must have been tempting to tell the idiots in charge that they are *&%$#*&%$# damned fools that are *&%$#*&%$#ing up the world. Which is entirely accurate.
The most persistent and accurate complaint about liberals' big plans is that they do it from a position of irresponsibility and unaccountableness—like spoiled children. Walt cites this issue very clearly in this book. Liberals judge each others' plans using intentions as a criterion. No matter the effect of their programs and plans and social engineering, if it has good intentions, it's a good plan. If it has good intentions, it should be continued. This insane perspective on planning has cost our country trillions of dollars.
Unless American citizens start defecating money, the debt has put us all in deep doo-doo; liberals have cost us trillions of dollars but we have nothing to show for it
And it is utterly unscientific. Where were they in science class when the scientific method was explained and observation-to-conclusion includes question-hypothesis-analysis-experiments in between, and only when hypotheses are validated by peers who can reproduce your results do they become accepted science and communicated results? (The reproducibility of published experiments is the foundation of science.) THERE IS NO ASPECT OF SCIENCE WHERE GOOD INTENTIONS ARE AN ACCEPTED CRITERION FOR ADOPTION OF ANYTHING. Liberal hegemony was poorly conceived, poorly executed, and had horrid results, yet the neocons kept cheering each other on, pretending the results were nonexistent, giving one another raises and bonuses for their boondoggles. The whole thing is obscene.