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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When you look at the bigger problem now of balancing American power, one of your recommendations was to go back to the way that we were doing things before the Bush administration's response to 9/11 -- keep to the treaties that we have or the procedures that make what we're doing legitimate, and so on. I'm struck by the fact that in your academic work you're at the heart of the theory in international relations and at Kennedy you were at the heart of the public policy thinking of what we in Berkeley might call "The Establishment." So, I'm curious as to what you think are the elements that caused this great change from the way we were and the way we respond to world events? Is it solely 9/11? Is it that a new group of people, the so-called neo-conservatives, linked with the conservative nationalists? What made the difference here?

I don't think it was 9/11, although that plays a role, and I don't think it's just the Bush administration. I would call for not going back just as far as the Clinton administration, but even further back. I even would go further back, say, to the pre-Cold War era. One of the things that's happened in the last forty or fifty years is, in fact, the United States has gotten very accustomed to telling the entire world how to live and how to behave. It's too far to say we've tried to run the world, but pretty close.

You actually don't see enormous disagreements between the neo-conservatives and many of the most fervent liberal internationalists. It is often forgotten that there were lots of Democrats -- lots of good Clinton-style Democrats -- who were strongly in favor of the Iraq war, partly on human rights grounds, partly to defend the sanctity of the UN resolutions, partly because they are worried about weapons of mass destruction. In a sense, the Democratic Party critique of the neo-cons has not been about fundamental objectives but rather that they've done it badly or they have not gotten international support for it or they should act more multilaterally. It's almost like "we do what they do but we do it better."

I wouldn't do what they'd do. I think we can be an excellent model for other societies, we should encourage others to welcome our kinds of values -- democracy, rule of law, human rights, things like that -- but I think we're not very good at imposing them on others, we shouldn't try, and that we have tended to use military force in too many places to accomplish too many things, including under Democratic administrations as well.

Now as for where that came from, we're a deeply idealistic society, we're a very powerful country, we have a pronounced sense of our own rectitude, we won the Cold War, and that gave us a real dose of self-confidence that we knew what was good for everybody. The nineties went very well for the United States, we fought a couple of wars that turned out to be pretty easy. So, we entered the new millennium with a real head of steam and a real sense of self-confidence, we could accomplish anything. And then we got scared. So, you have this combination of, "Gee, we're powerful, we can make our own reality, there's no country that can stand up to us," and, "We do have a problem." The whole country takes a step to the right and suddenly nobody wants to be seen as being unpatriotic, which is why so many people in the Democratic Party supported the war, refused to say anything critical about it.

Because I wasn't running for office, because I had the freedom to just look at this from a more rational perspective, I like to think, or at least a more realistic perspective, I could see that there was a difference between, say, the first Gulf War, where we were repelling aggression, and the second Gulf War, where we were launching a preventive war and where most importantly, at the end of it, we would end up in control of Iraq, or at least responsible for Iraq, which we had no idea how to do. I spelled out, I'm sad to say correctly, that this was going to lead into many, many more problems than Saddam would have caused had he remained in power.

In a way, you end up with a formula that says because we have so much power and this idealism, we have to look to self-restraint, self-containment. Your preferred policy is [acting as] offshore balancer, that is, playing hard to get, not intervening everywhere.

Right. American power is an extraordinarily valuable asset in the world, but because it's a valuable asset that others are going to want to use or have applied to different areas, we ought to be rather reluctant to do that. We ought to be not engaging militarily unless we absolutely have to, we ought to be essentially passing the buck to others to deal with regional security problems, backed up by the United States, not insisting on taking the lead but being ready to come in if we have to. This, for example, is the policy of the United States followed in the Persian Gulf from 1945 to 1991. We did not intervene with ground troops, we used air and naval power, and we used those sparingly. And that was in the Cold War when we had to worry about the Soviet Union coming in there. We didn't react to the Iranian revolution by suddenly sending hundreds of thousands of troops to the region.

We changed that policy in 1991 which helped fuel the rise of al Qaeda, eventually got us into a direct confrontation with Saddam Hussein and eventually got us into Baghdad. So, I do call in the book for a return to a much more flexible, much more restrained military policy that is not isolationism but it's one that relies on regional allies, relies much more on mobility, relies on keeping troops at home and keeping out of everybody else's business unless it becomes our business.

I might add, I think this is where Donald Rumsfeld actually wanted to take the American military when he became Secretary of Defense. book coverA lot of things he said early on implied that: troops out of Europe, reduce the numbers in Asia, rely more on mobility. He unfortunately, if that is what he was intending, got derailed by a combination of 9/11 and the Iraq war, which will be a dead weight on us for quite some time in moving in that direction.

Steve, I want to thank you very much for coming back and being on our program. It was great to have you.

It's been a pleasure talking with you.

And let me show your new book again, Taming American Power, out from Norton. And thanks again.

Thank you.

And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

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