US needs to redefine its foreign policy


WORLDVIEW:The waning days of outright US hegemony call for a reappraisal of US global role

‘WHAT IS philosophy?” we were asked in our first essay project in first year. The smart answer was not about epistemology, ontology, or any other ology, but the circular “That which is studied in university departments of philosophy”.

And there’s a similar sense, according to Prof Stephen Walt, that the framework/context of the US study of international relations itself defines the scope, content and approach to the field in much of the US academic and policy community, rather than the other way round.

Walt was in Dublin on Wednesday to address the Institute of International and European Affairs on Obama’s foreign policy at what he called “the end of the American era”, the waning days of outright US hegemony which call for a reappraisal and stepping down of its global role.

With the rise of China and the new powers of Brazil, Turkey, India, and Russia, the postwar order means the US must reconcile itself to a partner role, still crucial, but not as decisive.

In 1945 the US represented half of global production and was able to plough as much as 5 per cent of its annual gross domestic product into propping up a beleaguered Europe through Marshall Aid. Now its share of world production is only half as much, and to put the equivalent into the Middle East would mean an impossible $700 billion. That should mean, Walt argues, the US being more selective in choosing where to make its presence felt. Less in Europe, which doesn’t need it. More in Asia to counter China. A back seat in ousting Gadafy. Out of Afghanistan . . .

Professor of international affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, Walt taught at Princeton and the University of Chicago, and is involved with the Carnegie Endowment for Peace and the Brookings Institution. He is the author of books on US power, and was at the centre of a major political storm a couple of years ago with the publication, with JJ Mearsheimer, of a powerful critique of the influence of the Israeli lobby in the US.

A plain-spoken articulator of the “realist” school of foreign policy, he scorns the academic international affairs establishment and consensus of left and right, the liberal interventionists (“liberal imperialists”) who broadly make up Obama’s entourage now and the neo-conservatives who surrounded Bush, as being cut from the same cloth. After 50 years of US global leadership, the foreign policy establishment is “addicted” to intervention and the use of US power – its instinct always to start from the premise that where there is a problem there is a US-driven solution. The result, he says, quoting Leslie Gelb of the Council of Foreign Relations, is its unerring “disposition to support wars to maintain credibility”.

Although wars are not popular with the voting public, that outlook is not altogether out of sync with it. A 2010 survey of public opinion by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found more than eight out of 10 Americans think it’s either “very desirable” or “somewhat desirable” for the US to “exert strong leadership in world affairs”. That so, polls also show foreign policy is unlikely to be, and in the past has not been, decisive in determining presidential choices.

Which is just as well for Obama, Walt argues, as the president’s record at re-election time next year is unlikely to reflect anything more than minor real foreign policy achievements. In part, that is because he was dealt an impossible hand – intractability is a feature of most of the major challenges.

He has had some successes: the killing of Osama bin Laden and partial hobbling of al-Qaeda, a rapprochement with Russia, some progress on nuclear security . . . But Afghanistan, even if he convinces the public he is on the way out, will never be a “success”. Pakistan goes from bad to worse. Iraq remains a basket case.

And in the Middle East, the peace process apparently irretrievably stuck in the mud, the US has played a desperate and not totally convincing catch-up game to put itself onside with the mood of the Arab Spring. The early success of his Cairo speech to the Muslim world, transforming attitudes to the US and raising expectations of a more even-handed approach to Israel, has been dissipated – ever since, “a humiliating retreat”. Obama still, not least in Ireland, projects a feel-good sense of good intentions and the US as the “good guys”, but the substance, the beef, just ain’t there.

He will continue to get plenty of advice, mostly, as Walt observes, from within a relatively narrow consensus. A shift in direction appears unlikely.

On Thursday though, he got a refreshingly different left-field perspective, from President Tsakhia Elbegdorj of Mongolia, who visited the White House promoting, among other things, the enlightened neighbourhood policies of Genghis Khan. The US, like Mongolia in its heyday, “has a responsibility to help those who are trying to follow in its steps”, the president told the Washington Post in a pre-trip interview.

Mongolia, he said, used its muscle to keep trade along the Silk Road flowing and to enforce a written law. And “when there was a killer, or in today’s expression, a terrorist nation”, Elbegdorj said, “we were God’s will to make them peaceful . . . When there was a poor nation, we helped them”. Today, too, he said, “sometimes you have to pay attention to your friends”.

Methinks it’s a strategy that might not go down too well with the good citizens of Iowa .