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

The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy offers readers a persuasive explanation that aims to define exactly where everything went wrong with American foreign policy, and how it can change its course.


The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy offers readers a persuasive explanation that aims to define exactly where everything went wrong with American foreign policy, and how it can change its course. Stephen Walt frames his introductory lesson on the aspects of liberal hegemony, explaining its problematic failures and how its main supporter, the foreign policy community, has played a crucial role toward ensuring that the current status quo is maintained. Walt suggests that a foreign policy strategy called ‘offshore balancing’ can be a remedy that ensures American dominance while appeasing the international community. The issue lies that there is very little support for offshore balancing as it opposes the mainstream agenda that is prevalent throughout foreign policy.

Currently, there is an inherent belief that America by its very nature, should be geopolitically engaged everywhere as a sort of fulfillment of its unique destiny as a nation. Having no global rivals, a massive economic budget, and external strength unseen since the Roman Empire, America occupies a unique position of global influence post-Cold War. This idea, which Walt calls liberal hegemony, has three distinct objectives to ensure U.S. global supremacy: to remain dominant within the military sphere, to expand the areas of U.S. influence, and to promote liberal democratic norms and human rights (p. 58). The main intent is to shape the global community in a way that suits U.S. preferences, with this plan then sold off to the American public by means of inflating external threats, and exaggerating the benefits gained while concealing the costs of the operations (p. 8). Walt cites such failures as the interventions in Vietnam, Iraq, Somalia, and Libya as having very little positively gained (p. 80). Liberal hegemony is largely to blame for the current international failures in foreign policy with very few successes to boast of.

Clinton, Bush, and Obama, though in differing ways, adopted liberal hegemony as the modus operandi of American foreign policy. Aside from American leaders, those who support liberal hegemony aren’t just the policy makers themselves; the mainstream media, scholars, politicians, and civil society members actively promote this agenda to pursue their own visions of an ideal global world (p. 85). Walt criticizes this elite group of privileged insiders as a dysfunctional community whose members are frequently scornful of alternative perspectives and are protected professionally from the policies they promote (p. 85). There is an immense pressure to conform, a drive to climb up the career-ladder, and to keep the U.S. actively busy abroad, as it guarantees perpetual employment by increasing the foreign policy sector as a whole (p. 99). Indeed, few oppositional think tanks, politicians, and media outlets exist within the U.S. that are able to critique the liberal hegemonic agenda successfully. Walt notes a divide between the public and the elite, which refers us back to how the concept needs to be sold to the American public to get them on board. Interestingly enough, Walt comments that there are no negative repercussions for any failed decisions from the foreign policy community, rather those decision-makers are still in the same positions today.

Chapter six, “How Not to Fix Foreign Policy,” is strictly a critique of President Donald Trump (p. 184). While Trump was primarily elected due to American citizens’ desire for foreign policy change, the reality is that he simply is not the right person; he is surrounded by all the wrong people, and he lacks a clear plan to replace the current course (p. 185). While avid in promises, Trump has often been thwarted within his own team and the “blob” of the foreign policy community (p. 185). This has led to a continuation of America’s overcommitted, misguided strategy, with Trump mismanaging relationships with NATO, Russia, and China, just to name a few (p. 191). Despite distancing himself from Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy plan, Trump has ended up mimicking nearly all of it (p. 214). Walt does highlight one Trumpian departure from the liberal hegemonic ideation: that of Trump’s disinterest in promoting democracy and nation-building, and his frequent overlooking of the unsavory human rights violations of his international counterparts (p. 201). In the end, Trump has ended up being his own biggest adversary; his mishandling of his own cabinet, and his blatant disregard for foreign leaders, no doubt leaves a legacy of a foreign policy theory that “sounds good but doesn’t work.”

The American audience wants something different than what’s been done before. Walt supports this fact with relevant statistics and reference to the changing dynamics of the millennial generation to emphasize his superior alternative, namely offshore balancing. Shrinking the global priorities to those that play strictly into America’s interests, or potentially threaten American hegemonic dominance, is the main emphasis of Walt’s alternative policy, which prevents the potential rise of a regional hegemon which would disturb the balance of power. Offshore balancing requires reliance on global partners to solve their own dilemmas and disputes, and only intervening when a problem threatens U.S. interests and requires military involvement. Walt refers to this as a traditional grand strategy that comes from a much older time in America, a modified isolationism so to speak that fits into a globalized world.

The Hell of Good Intentions does an excellent job of defining the current ongoing issues within American foreign policy, precisely recounting wherein the blame lies and how the solution of offshore balancing can actually be practical. Walt acknowledges that his solution will go largely ignored, with campaigns actively against offshore balancing already being enacted by the foreign policy community (p. 235). Offshore balancing is in dire need of advocates to support the radical reformulation of American global objectives – this message remains one of the sirens blaring conclusively in this text. Due to the strength and consistency of the elite, however, Walt’s recommendations will likely go unheeded. This book is highly influential for those seeking to stay current on American foreign policy issues, particularly as it showcases an alternative view against the status quo. This book can also serve as a great introduction for those new to American foreign policy that want to understand the greater picture of internal discourse. Appropriately, Walt gives a balanced approach for his arguments against liberal hegemony in favor of offshore balancing, and the context will remain relevant until more drastic changes occur within the current world order.



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