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The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy

  • 122 Cannon House Office Building (map)

In 1992, the United States stood at the pinnacle of world power—Americans were confident that a new era of peace and prosperity was at hand. Today, those hopes have been dashed.

Relations with Russia and China have soured, the European Union is wobbling, partisan politics are increasingly vicious, and the United States is stuck in costly and counterproductive wars that have expended trillions of taxpayer dollars and undermined its influence around the world.

In a new book, Harvard professor Stephen Walt argues that the root of this dismal record is the Washington 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.

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 interests and power.

Please join Defense Priorities for a thoughtful discussion.

Congressional staff only. (No interns please.)

Stephen M. Walt
Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs at Harvard University. He previously taught at Princeton University and the University of Chicago. He has been a Guest Scholar at the Brookings Institution, and he has also served as a consultant for the Institute of Defense Analyses, the Center for Naval Analyses, and the National Defense University. He presently serves on the editorial boards of Foreign Policy, Security Studies, International Relations, and Journal of Cold War Studies, and he also serves as Co-Editor of the Cornell Studies in Security Affairs.

Walt is the author of The Hell of Good Intentions: America's Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy.