Stephen Walt’s lucid essay contains several intriguing ideas for America’s foreign-policy makers; some of his specific suggestions, especially on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, deserve serious consideration. But if linked to his broader intellectual scheme, which is imperious and often contradictory, they are likely to prove ineffective.
Walt casts his call for a mature foreign policy within a neo-realist mold. In his view, the objective of American international strategy is to preserve the global primacy of the United States by solidifying its power and obtaining worldwide acquiescence to its supremacy.
The pursuit of this goal—defined mostly in military terms that leave economic and human security issues unaddressed—is fraught with difficulties. First, American interests in the 21st century may in fact center more on global stabilization than on the maintenance of hegemony. The latter can yield perpetual disorder; the former may be key to safeguarding American interests in the long term. Second, the underlying premise of cementing unipolar inequality in the global system is a far cry from the democratic norms the United States purports to relay to other parts of the world. Surely no other major country would want to collude in the institutionalization of its own subservience.
The strategic options that follow all revolve around the way to secure continued American dominance. Walt’s critique of George W. Bush’s hegemonic measures and their counterproductive ramifications is incisive, as is his analysis of the limits of selective engagement. However, his strategic alternative of offshore balancing may very well suffer from the same defects and more.
All these strategies are euphemisms for enhancing American superiority. But Walt’s variant proposes measures to augment American power by consciously reducing its responsibilities. If Walt has his way, the United States will expect others to maintain order on its behalf, intervening only if its position is threatened; it will plot to keep pretenders at bay by persuading them to collaborate in their own perpetual subjugation.
Protestations aside, such an approach is both isolationist and condescending. One can hardly expect others to share his ostensible concern for human rights, democratic governance, economic prosperity, and the reduction of violence when their own sensitivities are ignored, their self-esteem is belittled, and they are treated as objects to be wooed, cast aside, or subdued at the whim of the United States. Indeed, the patronizing nature of Walt’s thinking defies its own purpose. It is simultaneously moralistic and devoid of values.
In this context, the specific measures that follow, some of them particularly refreshing and long overdue, cannot succeed. There is a great deal of merit in jettisoning preemption in favor of military restraint and in cooperating in global regulation rather than going it alone. But these proposals would be more convincing if they were more heartfelt and less utilitarian. There is also a great deal of logic in seeking to undermine counter-alliances; to openly advocate a latter-day version of divide and rule is, to put it mildly, counterproductive. Improving the tools of public diplomacy is indispensable today, but it would be useful if accompanied by a genuine effort to appreciate other cultures and concerns. Walt is absolutely right when he links diplomacy to enlightened policy. And if all the moves he suggested had indeed been implemented—from preventing the genocide in Rwanda to signing the landmines convention—the world would be a much better place today. The fact remains that these measures were not undertaken in the past and Walt’s framework does not provide a reason why they ever should.
The prescriptions generated by a strategy of offshore balancing falter in the face of two insurmountable obstructions. The first is obsessive U.S.-centrism. In his attempt to offer a corrective to Bush policy, Walt nurtures an internal discourse that effectively excludes the rest of the world. The second is a propensity to confuse objectives with outcomes. Policies aimed at fairly resolving festering conflicts elsewhere may ultimately fortify the standing of the United States; if they are undertaken with this goal in mind they may well fail.
These weaknesses in Walt’s approach are best exemplified in his treatment of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Walt justifiably argues for an active American approach to the resolution of this century-old dispute, and he ties the achievement of regional security and progress in the fight against terror to its success. What he ignores is a long history of intense joint Israeli-Palestinian attempts, both formal and informal, to reach just such a goal. The Ayalon-Nusseibeh People’s Voice campaign and the detailed Geneva Initiative spell out the parameters of a just two-state solution and incorporate all the proposals raised by Walt and more. All call for concerted American involvement now. To stress, however, that such intervention be undertaken primarily to promote American interests minimizes existing bilateral and multilateral efforts and reduces the prospects for the renewal of negotiations. (It is useful to recall that the “road map” was originally drafted by the European Union and hardly modified when adopted by the Quartet.)
The kind of direct engagement envisaged in Walt’s piece, entailing the formulation of a consistent policy and the allocation of military as well as economic resources, is at odds with his strategy of offshore balancing. The plea for an assertive American initiative contradicts the call for self-restraint and action by proxy. What has been lacking on the Israeli–Palestinian front is not the definition of substantive goals but a workable international plan with American participation to bring about their implementation. The only way Walt’s laudable specific proposals can have a constructive effect is to consciously separate them from his overall program to fortify American hegemony and carry them out in concert with European and Arab countries. American global leadership may be enhanced by an Israeli–Palestinian accord and the emergence of a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel. But it is not advanced by the adoption of Walt’s conceptual apparatus, which may prove more of a hindrance in a successful resolution and is definitely not needed for its attainment.
The most creative aspects of Steven Walt’s analysis diverge from his rigid model. A modicum of modesty coupled with a serious review of American interests in a truly global context would yield far more satisfying results. If the United States could be less concerned with its reputation and more with its actions, less with its supremacy and more with its reliability, and less with amassing force and more with the worthy utilization of its power, then the global scene would look very different than it does today.
As Walt argues, a mature American foreign policy may be the answer. But this would require that the United States acknowledge that the rest of the world has grown up. American policymakers would do well to ignore Walt’s advice to behave like parents who see other countries as children who need to be tamed either through force or compulsion. Instead, by nourishing independence and sustainability and by forfeiting control in return for ongoing respect, they should begin to treat them like adults.