At last a book that attacks the “Blob” and holes it below the water line. Whether it can sink it is another matter. I’m talking about a book published last week by the Harvard professor of international affairs, Stephen Walt, “The Hell of Good Intentions”.
The “Blob” is a wonderful word conjured up by President Barack Obama’s deputy National Security Advisor, Ben Rhodes. It means the group of congressmen, generals, industrialists, academics and journalists who specialize in foreign policy and have an influence promoting what Walt calls “Liberal Hegemony”.
This, he defines, as the default setting for US foreign policy by the ingrown foreign policy establishment. “Open-ended efforts to remake the world in America’s image gives them plenty to do, appeals to its members’ self-regard and maximizes their status and power”. It’s a full employment policy (by those who were thrown out of work at the end of the Cold War, I should add) for the foreign policy elite and the path of least resistance for groups seeking to convince the US government to do something far away on behalf of somebody else.”
Walt is as severe on his home country as any Harvard professor can be: “A few states have caused more harm to others in recent years that the US has, but not very many”. And he is just not talking about the regime of President Donald Trump. He goes back through the eras of Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon.
Proponents of Liberal Hegemony don’t believe that a liberal order arises spontaneously or sustains itself automatically. For them the goal has to be enforced when necessary.
The goal? It’s a liberal order where most states are governed according to liberal principles: democracy, the rule of law, religious and social tolerance and respect for human rights. At the international level it means economic openness, relations between states regulated by law and institutions such as the World Trade Organization, the Non-Proliferation Treaty and multilateral alliances such as NATO.
But the concept often fails- as it has in Vietnam, Central America, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen. It exaggerates America’s ability to reshape other societies and underestimates the ability of weaker countries and movements to thwart it. It’s also, too often, built on deception of the public, and self-deception of the initiators.
Not every high official has been a paid up member of the Liberal Hegemony group. One dissident is General Colin Powell, a former chief-of-staff of the military, along with his fellow realists such as Brent Scowcroft, National Security Advisor to George H.W. Bush, his Jimmy Carter counterpart, Zbigniew Brzezinski, two former ambassadors to the Soviet Union, George Kennan and Jack Matlock. All of them opposed the expansion of NATO in the way it came about, which, as Kennan, put it, “was a tragic mistake”, the worst since the end of World War 2.
The commanding heights of American journalism have a lot to answer for. They’ve made serious errors and then, when their advocacy was proved wrong, not held themselves accountable. Both the New York Times and Washington Post published many false stories about Iraq’s alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction. There are no major, well-placed, columnists consistently advocating an alternative point of view to Liberal Hegemony.
Trump, during his campaign, appeared to criticise the Liberal Hegemony advocates. But with his inchoate world view he was unable to overcome their advocacy and has quickly fallen into line.
He’s faced a formidable opposition: the quiet resistance of his own staff and the civil and military services, well-funded conservative think tanks, Congress with its links to a powerful business community and a network of conservative Nongovernmental organisations.
Walt has an alternative, one that appears to resonate with the new millennial generation who perceive less foreign dangers, are less patriotic and are decidedly less supportive of military solutions. One sees this in the on going presidential campaign of Senator Bernie Sanders. Walt calls it “off shore balancing”.
He defines it this way: Instead of trying to remake the world in America’s image, foreign policy should focus on the US’s position in the global balance of power. So it calls for the US to deploy its power abroad only when there are direct threats to US interests. As long as there’s no potential threatening hegemon in Europe, the Gulf or Northeast Asia, then there’s no need for a military interest. This is how it is at the moment.
If America had done this Russia would by now be partly integrated into NATO, there would have been no pushing the boundaries of NATO, it would have ended the containment of Iran, and if its military had left Saudi Arabia after the first Gulf war there might have been no 9/11.