Stephen M. Walt Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Balancing American Power in the Post-9/11 World: Conversation with Stephen M. Walt, Academic Dean and Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs, Kennedy School, Harvard University; November 15, 2005, by Harry Kreisler

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Taming American Power

I'll show your new book again, Taming American Power. book coverThere does seem to be a logical progression here in terms of your work. What are you trying to deal with in it, and why is it a problem? What does everybody now do with the 800-pound gorilla that the U.S. has become? Talk a little about that.

Well, it's clear that this is a book that reflects my Realist intellectual origins. The view in the 1990s in the United States was that we won the Cold War, we were the unipolar power, democracy seemed to be breaking out in a number of places. The Washington consensus was [that] extending in various parts of the developing world this idea of the rule of law, open markets, and democracy all go together. There was a real sense that the wind was at America's back and we were now going to be a Pax Americana, ruling rather benevolently over a compliant world that would pretty much go along with us. The only problems we would face would be from a handful of pesky dictators in a few places like Serbia, or Libya, or North Korea, or Iraq.

I just didn't believe it. I felt that there would be resistance to the United States, that other countries would be uncomfortable with American power, and this began to show up by the mid-1990s, the French talking about America being the hyper-power, the Germans worrying about American unilateralism, other countries expressing some concerns about us. Again, the way a Realist would view it is not just American triumphalism but also the rest of the world having to deal with the reality of American power. I began working on the book in the very end of the Clinton administration, but I didn't realize the Bush administration was going to give me as much material as it turned out to provide -- in a sense making the book both harder but also somewhat easier.

Should one be surprised that countries of the world don't look well upon what we've been doing since the Bush administration has come into power, namely putting aside a number of international treaties, the war in Iraq, the development of a so-called doctrine of preemption which is actually one advocating preventive war, and so on? Should we be surprised that we aren't seeing more in the way of the negativism, the negative reaction taking a concrete form by states getting together and balancing in the traditional, classical, balance-of-power way?

I think it is somewhat surprising that you haven't seen more vigorous balancing, at least at first glance. It looks at first glance like almost nothing has happened. You might've expected more. You might've expected some greater attempts to develop coalitions that could check the United States. I think that's been mitigated by a couple of things. Despite what I regard as a number of pretty serious missteps by the United States, we have yet to go on the kind of expansionist rampage of an imperial Germany, or a Nazi Germany, or an imperial Japan, trying to conquer huge chunks of the planet. That's a good thing. Fortunately we have no need to do so, and I think we do understand that for the most part, and that's mitigated it. The second thing that's mitigated it is in a number of places other countries worry as much about each other as they worry about us. Putting together a big coalition of Japan and India and China and Russia would be hard because those countries are all somewhat wary because they're all neighbors.

So, they're wary of each other as opposed to ...

They're wary of each other as opposed to wary of us.

So, it's that geography matters.

Geography matters a great deal. It's a great advantage that the United States has. And on a number of issues, whether it's management of the world economy, the problems posed by international terrorism, things like that, there's still general agreement among most of the major powers. None of the major powers want to see weapons of mass destruction spreading all over the world. So, we have certain points of agreement that minimize the degree to which other states are going to take active measures.

That said, they are doing various things. Some of the impetus for European unity is intended to try and balance us. Cooperation between Russia and China has increased over the past decade, and they have been slowly trying to organize more influence to deny American influence in parts of Asia, as well. So, that's a sign of it. Even something like the support that Syria and Iran are allegedly giving to the insurgency in Iraq now is a form of balancing. They are helping an American adversary, in this case the insurgency, for all of the obvious reasons: they regard our presence there as a threat and we have threatened them openly. So, you do see balancing. It's just not as all-out as a very simplistic view of American power might lead you to expect.

In this context, focusing on how the world operates, it is apparent that certain actors who are very weak turn to acts of terrorism or see weapons of mass destruction as a vehicle to power. I'm not recommending their actions, I want to be clear, but the weak look for what it is they can do that can be a response.

If the book has an intellectual point of origin apart from Realism, it's some reading [I did] in the work of people like James Scott at Yale who wrote this wonderful book, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. Another one of his books is Domination and the Arts of Resistance. He's talking about how actors in very unequal social settings -- prisoners in a concentration camp or inmates in a prison, workers on a slave plantation, where power is monopolized by one group -- nonetheless often find lots of little ways to carve out a little bit of autonomy, to get slightly better deals, to limit the most powerful. I saw this as a very illuminating analogy for the condition of the United States. We were in a position where no one wanted to confront us openly. No one wants to take on the 800-pound gorilla in a direct test of strength, but lots of much weaker actors will find small ways to get a little bit more of what they want and a little bit less of what we want.

A lot of international politics is like that. I used to use the analogy of a family, partly based probably on dealing with my own children, that when your children are six and four you have physical monopoly of force over them, you've got all the money in the family, so you think you'd have lots and lots of influence, but every parent knows that a six-year-old and a four-year-old have a million ways of challenging -- in small ways, in inconvenient ways -- the authority of their parents, not because they're trying to overturn the structure but they're just trying to get a little bit more of what they want. That's what the United States is now dealing with.

In fact, even the most powerful country in the world today, and in the history of the world, in addition to this adaptation [by states] playing on the weaknesses that we have, runs up against nationalism. If you're a big guy and you go in with the guns, then people will unite around getting you out, even if that unity will break as soon as you leave.

Yes, that's right. Even when you're the number one power, there are some things your power can't do for you. There are limits. There are some things American military power is very good for, there's other things that it is actually quite a crude instrument, not particularly good for. There are also differences in motivation. One of the reasons why nationalist resistance is so potent is that native inhabitants of a particular area usually care more about throwing you out than you care about staying. They are willing to pay a very high blood price in order to do that. So, Hezbolah was effective in throwing the Israelis out of south Lebanon. It was not Israel, it was not their homeland. The Russians have had a devil of a time in Chechnya, because the Chechnyans regard their presence there as illegitimate and they are willing to go to great lengths to try and bring that to an end. We are killing more Iraqis than they are killing Americans but we are, in my view, likely to fail there in part because they will ultimately care more about this one than we will. That's a familiar story from the history of nationalist resistance.

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