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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Hell of Good Intentions

America's Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy

Stephen M. Walt




ON JANUARY 20, 2017, Donald J. Trump became the forty-fifth president of the United States. It was the culmination of a political odyssey that had defied the experts’ predictions from the day he announced his candidacy. Hardly anyone expected him to do well in the Republican primaries, and pundits repeatedly reassured the public that his early successes could not be sustained. Yet he swept the Republican field aside and won the GOP nomination despite strong opposition from a number of top Republican leaders. He trailed Hillary Clinton throughout most of the general election campaign, performed poorly in three televised debates, and was endorsed by hardly any major U.S. newspapers. Days before the election, pollsters generally saw his chances as bleak, judging the probability of a Clinton victory to be 70 percent or higher.

Yet he won, and in singular fashion. He defeated a large field of Republican rivals, many of them with far more experience in politics and representing a range of familiar conservative views. He defied the established norms of U.S. political campaigning—refusing to release his tax returns, making vulgar comments about female journalists, openly mocking a handicapped reporter, and scorning the grieving family of a decorated U.S. soldier who had given his life for the country. He told supporters the entire election might be “rigged,” threatened to arrest his opponent and “lock her up” if he won, and survived the exposure of well-documented accounts of past sexual predation and the release of an audiotape exposing deeply misogynistic attitudes.

Most remarkable of all, he won in the face of fervent opposition by established figures in both political parties. Prominent Democrats opposed Trump for obvious partisan reasons, but in 2016 a sizable number of Republican politicians declined to endorse his candidacy, and a handful—including former secretary of state Colin Powell—endorsed Clinton. Nor did he win the support of any living president, including George Bush père et fils.

As the campaign wore on, by far the most unified and fervent warnings about Trump came from the ranks of America’s professional foreign policy elite. He was of course opposed by foreign policy experts in the Democratic Party, such as former secretary of state Madeleine Albright; and Hillary Clinton’s supporters included literally dozens of familiar insiders with impressive foreign policy credentials, including Jake Sullivan, James Steinberg, Kurt Campbell, Anne-Marie Slaughter, and many, many more.1 But opposition to Trump was, if anything, more vehement on the Republican side. In March 2016 the former State Department counselor and Johns Hopkins University professor Eliot A. Cohen organized an open letter signed by 122 former national security officials that denounced Trump’s views on foreign policy, described him as “fundamentally dishonest,” and judged him “utterly unfitted to the office.” A few months later, fifty top Republican foreign policy experts—including former ambassador to India and NSC aide Robert Blackwill, former deputy secretary of state and World Bank president Robert Zoellick, former National Security Agency chief Michael Hayden, and former head of the Department of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff—released a public letter saying they would not vote for Trump and warning that he lacked “the temperament” to lead the country and would be “the most reckless president in American history.”2

It was hardly surprising that Trump’s ascendancy alarmed the foreign policy establishment. Not only had his conduct during the campaign raised doubts about his character and judgment, but he had repeatedly challenged some of the most enduring shibboleths of U.S. foreign policy. He had openly questioned the value of NATO and raised doubts about whether he would fulfill the treaty obligations the United States had undertaken toward its European allies. He had accused allies in Asia and Europe of “not paying their fair share” (which was not by itself a controversial claim) and said it might not be a bad thing if countries like South Korea or Japan built their own nuclear weapons. He had praised Russian president Vladimir Putin as a “strong leader” and refused to condemn Russia’s seizure of Crimea, its aggressive use of cyber-weapons, or its support for the Assad regime in Syria, which had killed several hundred thousand civilians in a long and bitter civil war. He called the multilateral agreement that had capped Iran’s nuclear program “a terrible deal” and threatened to launch trade wars with China, Mexico, Canada, and South Korea. He also gave lengthy interviews on foreign policy that revealed a shallow, even ill-informed knowledge of international affairs.3

Among other things, Trump’s startling victory revealed considerable public dissatisfaction with the foreign policy of the past three U.S. presidents. Far from rendering him unappealing or unfit for office, Trump’s “America First” rhetoric took dead aim at the grand strategy that had guided the foreign policies of the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations. Instead of viewing the United States as the “indispensable nation” responsible for policing the globe, spreading democracy, and upholding a rules-based, liberal world order, Trump was calling—however incoherently—for a foreign policy he claimed would make Americans stronger and richer at home and less committed, constrained, and bogged down abroad.

To be sure, foreign policy was not the biggest issue in the 2016 campaign. Issues of race, class, and identity drove a substantial number of voters toward Trump, who was also aided by lingering hostility toward the nation’s first black president and Hillary Clinton’s own tarnished reputation and tiresome familiarity after more than two decades in the public eye. Media fascination with Trump fueled his rise as well, and he proved to be a far more effective marketer and user of social media than any of his rivals. It would be a mistake, therefore, to see foreign policy as the taproot of Trump’s victory in 2016.

Yet foreign policy was far from irrelevant. For starters, a consistent theme of Trump’s message was opposition to globalization in all its forms. He claimed that Washington had been negotiating “bad trade deals” with other states for decades, beginning with NAFTA in 1993, China’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001, and especially the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in Asia and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with Europe. According to Trump, this “false song of globalism” had cost millions of Americans good jobs and left the American economy far weaker. Globalization had also encouraged what he termed “senseless immigration policies” that threatened America’s core identity and allowed dangerous criminals and violent extremists to enter the U.S. homeland.4 If elected, he promised, he’d tear up those bad trade deals, “build a wall” with Mexico, keep “extremists” from coming to America, abandon the Paris Agreement on climate change (a phenomenon he claimed was a Chinese hoax designed to stifle U.S. businesses), bring the jobs lost to globalization back to the United States, and “make America great again.”

Equally important, a long string of foreign policy failures under the previous three presidents reinforced Trump’s antiestablishment message and cast doubt on Hillary Clinton’s claim to be an experienced leader with the judgment and seasoning needed in the Oval Office. Trump repeatedly criticized her performance as secretary of state, pointing out that as a senator, she had supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq, backed the ill-advised toppling of the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, and called for deeper U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war. Clinton may not have deserved all of Trump’s gibes, but she could not counter his attack by citing a compelling list of undisputed foreign policy achievements, simply because there weren’t any.

In fact, the track record of U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War was difficult—maybe impossible—to defend, and certainly not in a way that American voters could relate to and understand. Instead of a series of clear and obvious successes, the years after the Cold War were filled with visible failures and devoid of major accomplishments. President Barack Obama had even suggested that modest achievements were all one could reasonably expect, telling an interviewer in 2014 that his approach to foreign policy “may not always be sexy … But it avoids errors. You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while you may be able to hit a home run.”5 There were precious few home runs in the years since the Cold War ended, however, and plenty of pop-ups, strikeouts, and weak ground balls instead.

Some of these failures were missed opportunities, such as the bipartisan failure to capitalize on the Oslo Accords and achieve a lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Other debacles—such as the Iraq and Afghan wars—were costly, self-inflicted wounds. In a few cases, what were advertised as farsighted and constructive U.S. initiatives—such as the decision to expand NATO or the policy of “dual containment” in the Persian Gulf—ended up sowing the seeds of future troubles. None of these decisions made Americans more secure or prosperous.

Nor was the United States successful at spreading its preferred political values. The collapse of the Soviet empire was a striking vindication for America’s democratic ideals, and many observers expected these principles to take root and deepen around the world. These idealistic hopes went unfulfilled, however: existing dictatorships proved resilient, several new democracies eventually slid back toward authoritarian rule, U.S.-led efforts at regime change produced failed states instead, and, over time, it was the United States that began to abandon its core principles. In the years after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, top U.S. officials authorized torture, committed war crimes, conducted massive electronic surveillance of U.S. citizens, and continued to support a number of brutal authoritarian regimes in key regions. The 2008 financial crisis exposed deep corruption within key financial institutions and cast doubt on whether U.S.-style free-market capitalism was the best formula for sustained economic growth. Meanwhile, America’s democratic order was increasingly paralyzed by ideological polarization and partisan gridlock, and new democracies increasingly modeled their constitutions on examples from other countries rather than on the United States.6

By the time the 2016 election ended, in fact, the United States no longer seemed to be a particularly attractive political or economic model for other societies. Instead of being a beacon for liberal ideals and a model of enlightened democratic rule, the country had become an inspiration for such leaders of xenophobic nationalist movements as Marine Le Pen in France or Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, who greeted Trump’s election with enthusiasm and hoped to follow his example in their own countries.

From a broader perspective, both the overall condition of the world and America’s status within it had declined steadily and significantly between 1993 and 2016. Despite a number of positive trends—including a sharp decline in the number of people living in extreme poverty—the optimistic visions of the early 1990s were not fulfilled. Great power competition had returned with a vengeance, weapons of mass destruction continued to spread, terrorists and other violent extremists were an active force in more places, the Middle East was in turmoil, and the euro crisis, Brexit decision, and illiberal trends in several member states left the European Union facing an uncertain future. U.S. foreign policy was not the primary cause of all of these developments, perhaps, but it played a significant role in many of them. When Trump told audiences that “our foreign policy is a complete and total disaster,” he was telling it like it was.7

Most damning of all, Trump pointed an accusing finger at a foreign policy establishment that had failed to recognize its repeated errors, refused to hold those responsible for them accountable, and clung to discredited conventional wisdoms. Like the Wall Street bankers who caused the 2008 financial crisis, the architects of repeated foreign policy debacles never seemed to pay a price for their mistakes, or even to learn from them. A bipartisan coterie of senior officials circulated from government service to the private sector, from think tanks to corporate boards, from safe sinecures to new government appointments, even when their past service was undistinguished and the policies they had conceived, sold, and implemented hadn’t worked. Pundits and policy wonks whose predictions and prescriptions had proved to be misguided were shielded from sanction as well, while those who challenged the bipartisan consensus were marginalized, ignored, or vilified even when they were right. And while members of the establishment routinely jockeyed for position and sparred over tactical issues, they remained united in the belief that the United States had the right and the responsibility to lead the world toward a broadly liberal future.

Copyright © 2018 by Stephen M. Walt