Stephen M. Walt

Stephen M. Walt

: Photo from Wikimedia Commons / Author of Photo: Maarten (Superchango)


* Anti-Israel professor at Harvard University
* Co-authored the controversial 2006 article “The Israel Lobby,” with John Mearsheimer
* Co-authored the bestselling 2007 book The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, with John Mearsheimer

Born on July 2, 1955 in Los Alamos, New Mexico, Stephen M. Walt received B.A. in International Relations from Stanford University and subsequently attended the University of California at Berkeley, where he earned an M.A. and a Ph.D. in 1978 and 1983, respectively. From 1981 to 1984, Walt worked as a research fellow at Harvard University‘s Center for Science and International Affairs. From 1984 to 1989, he was a professor at Princeton University. During this period, he also worked at the Brookings Institution and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In 1989 Walt took a teaching position at the University of Chicago, where he remained for a decade. In 1999 he became the Robert and Renée Belfer Professor of International Relations at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, a post he continues to hold. From 2002 to 2006, he also served as Academic Dean at the Kennedy School.

Walt has authored numerous articles, as well as such books as The Origins of Alliances (1987), which won the 1988 Edgar S. Furniss National Security Book Award; Revolution and War (1996); and Taming American Power: The Global Response to U.S. Primacy (2005). In addition, he has served as a co-editor of Cornell Studies in Security Affairs, and has sat on the editorial boards of such publications as Foreign Policy, International Relations, the Journal of Cold War Studies, and Security Studies. In 2009, the Belfer Center ranked Walt as one of the twenty most influential academics in the field of international relations.

Throughout his professional career, Walt has been a proponent of the “Realist School” of political theory, which maintains that: (a) there are no universal principles by which all nations may guide their actions, and (b) all nations must therefore use pragmatic approaches to resolving problems with other countries as they arise. On his Foreign Policy blog in 2010, the caption underneath Walt’s name described him as “a realist in an ideological age.” In an October 2006 interview with the Institute of International Studies at UC Berkeley, Walt said: “Realism’s never a popular theory, particularly in the United States, partly because it’s pessimistic, partly because it doesn’t laud American democracy as uniquely wonderful.”[1]

Much of Walt’s post-2000 scholarship examined the challenges that had faced the United States since the fall of the Soviet Union. “America’s position in the world beg[an] to deteriorate” at the moment it became “the only remaining superpower, the strongest country in the world,” he argued in 2006. Walt particularly criticized the George W. Bush administration and its “belief in the spread of democracy, that democracy was hardwired into all individuals in the world.” “At the very simplest level,” Walt said, “it’s neo-conservatives who engineered the war in Iraq at a very atheoretical – not very well supported – but also almost ahistorical view of America’s position in the world.” In Walt’s estimation, the policy decisions of neo-conservatives were based purely upon an ideological view “that American dominance was a very positive force in the world and that once it was demonstrated to a few countries, everyone else in the world would go along.”[2]

In March 2006, Walt collaborated with John Mearsheimer, a longtime professor at the University of Chicago, to pen an article titled “The Israel Lobby” for the London Review of Books. Together, the two scholars proposed a controversial theory that the “Israel lobby” in America — which they defined as “a loose coalition of individuals and organizations who actively work to steer U.S. foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction” — had often caused the United States to act against its own self-interest. Specifically, the authors argued that America’s “unwavering support for Israel and the related effort to spread ‘democracy’ throughout the region has inflamed Arab and Islamic opinion and jeopardized not only U.S. security but that of much of the rest of the world.” From the 1990s onward, they asserted, American backing for the Jewish state had been rationalized “by the claim that both states [the U.S. and Israel] are threatened by terrorist groups originating in the Arab and Muslim world, and by ‘rogue states’ that back these groups and seek weapons of mass destruction.” Disputing this line of reasoning, Walt and Mearsheimer wrote that “Palestinian terrorism is not random violence directed against Israel or ‘the West’; it is largely a response to Israel’s prolonged campaign to colonise the West Bank and Gaza Strip.” And despite America’s “extraordinary generosity” to the Jewish state, the authors held, Israel “does not behave like a loyal ally.” Indeed, they suggested that Israel should not even be regarded as a “fellow democracy,” since “some aspects of Israeli democracy are at odds with core American values.”

In 2007, Walt and Mearsheimer transformed their 2006 article and an accompanying working paper into The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, which became a New York Times bestseller and was translated into 19 languages. Despite the sales and publicity, the authors claimed to have been silenced by the lobby that was the object of their criticism. Their book received many negative reviews – with liberal media institutions questioning their expertise in Mideast affairs and criticizing their work as extremely “one-sided.” Other critics demonstrated that the authors’ work contained faulty scholarship which falsely attributed various statements to Israeli leaders.

In late 2009, Walt, exploring the phenomenon of anti-Americanism among Muslims worldwide, wrote an article for Foreign Policy magazine titled “Why They Hate Us.” In this piece, he asked: “How many Muslims has the United States killed in the past thirty years, and how many Americans have been killed by Muslims?” He then proceeded to answer that question by calculating that:

  • while “Muslims” may have killed 2,819 Americans on 9/11, Americans had killed “at least 100,000” Muslims through the United Nations sanctions that had been imposed on Iraq;
  • while Somali “militia” had killed 18 U.S. military members in Mogadishu in 1993, American military men had killed 315 Somali militia; and
  • while “Muslims” had killed 300 U.S. Marines and diplomats in Beirut in 1983, Americans may have killed as many as 32,000 Afghan citizens

All told, said Walt, “Muslims” had killed some 10,325 Americans, while Americans had killed 288,000 Muslims. “The United States has killed nearly 30 Muslims for every American lost,” he wrote. “The real ratio is probably much higher, and a reasonable upper bound for Muslim fatalities (based mostly on higher estimates of ‘excess deaths’ in Iraq due to the sanctions regime and the post-2003 occupation) is well over one million, equivalent to over 100 Muslim fatalities for every American lost.” Moreover, Walt quoted the words of an unnamed “prominent English journalist” who had stated: “If the United States wants to improve its image in the Islamic world, it should stop killing Muslims.”

In an analysis of Walt’s calculations, National Review said: “It’s … revealing that Walt neglects to ask how many Muslims have been killed by Saddam Hussein, by al-Qaeda, by Iranian proxy death squads in Iraq, by the Taliban, and by other radical Muslim groups. There obviously is no recognition by Walt that in recent years Americans have sacrificed lives and treasure to save Muslims from tyranny and carnage in Bosnia, Kuwait, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan — and, yes, Muslims were killed in the process because in each of these cases, except Bosnia, Muslim communities were threatened by radical Muslim groups or regimes.”

In a 2010 article published by, Walt argued that American foreign policy in recent decades had contributed to the United States’ own self-destruction:

“In the American case, it was simple hubris: somehow we convinced ourselves that markets would always go up, that debts did not need to be paid, that whole regions could be transformed in liberal democracies at a point of a rifle barrel, and that we really could run the world on the cheap and without raising taxes. In simple terms, we can now see that the United States and much of Europe were like happy drunks enjoying a pleasant if prolonged pub-crawl. But eventually the party has to [end], sobriety returns, and the hangover must be faced.”

In another article published by in April 2011, Walt offered three reasons explaining “Why America Keeps Waging Wars”:

“(1) Because We Can: It is as if the president has [a] big red button on his desk, and then his aides come in and say, “There’s something really nasty happening to some unfortunate people, Mr. President, but if you push that button, you can stop it. It might cost a few hundred million dollars, maybe even a few billion by the time we are done, but we can always float a bit more debt. As long as you don’t send in ground troops, the public will probably go along, at least for awhile and there’s no danger that anybody will retaliate against us — at least not anytime soon — because the bad guys (who are really nasty, by the way) are also very weak. Our vital interests aren’t at stake, sir, so you don’t have to do anything. But if you don’t push the button lots of innocent people will die. The choice is yours, Mr. President. […]

“(2) The U.S. Has No Serious Enemies: A second factor that permits the United States to keep waging these optional wars is the fact that the end of the Cold War left the United States in a remarkably safe position. There are no great powers in the Western hemisphere; we have no ‘peer competitors’ anywhere (though China may become one sooner if we keep squandering our power foolishly); and there is no country anywhere that could entertain the idea of attacking America without inviting its own destruction. We do face a vexing terrorism problem, but that danger is probably exaggerated, is partly a reaction to our tendency to meddle in other countries, and is best managed in other ways. It’s really quite ironic: Because the American homeland is safe from serious external dangers (which is a good thing), Americans have the luxury of going abroad ‘in search of monsters to destroy’ (which is not). If Americans were really worried about having to defend our own soil against a powerful adversary, we wouldn’t be wasting time and money on feel-good projects like the Libyan crusade. But our exceptionally favorable geopolitical position allows us to do these things, even when they don’t make a lot of strategic sense.

“(3) The All-Volunteer Force: A third enabling factor behind our addiction to adventurism is the all-volunteer force. By limiting military service only to those individuals who volunteer to do it, public opposition to wars of choice is more easily contained. Could Bush or Obama have kept the Iraq and Afghanistan wars going if most young Americans had to register for a draft, and if the sons and daughters of Wall Street bankers were being sent in harm’s way because they got an unlucky number in the draft? I very much doubt it.”

In October 2011, Walt published an article in Foreign Policy magazine titled, “The Myth of American Exceptionalism,” which said:

“The only thing wrong with this self-congratulatory portrait of America’s global role is that it is mostly a myth. Although the United States possesses certain unique qualities — from high levels of religiosity to a political culture that privileges individual freedom — the conduct of U.S. foreign policy has been determined primarily by its relative power and by the inherently competitive nature of international politics. By focusing on their supposedly exceptional qualities, Americans blind themselves to the ways that they are a lot like everyone else.”

In the same piece, Walt enumerated his “Top 5 Myths about American Exceptionalism”:

Myth 1: Whenever American leaders refer to the ‘unique’ responsibilities of the United States, they are saying that it is different from other powers and that these differences require them to take on special burdens…. So when Americans proclaim they are exceptional and indispensable, they are simply the latest nation to sing a familiar old song. Among great powers, thinking you’re special is the norm, not the exception.

Myth 2: Declarations of American exceptionalism rest on the belief that the United States is a uniquely virtuous nation, one that loves peace, nurtures liberty, respects human rights, and embraces the rule of law. Americans like to think their country behaves much better than other states do, and certainly better than other great powers. If only it were true. The United States may not have been as brutal as the worst states in world history, but a dispassionate look at the historical record belies most claims about America’s moral superiority….The United States never conquered a vast overseas empire or caused millions to die through tyrannical blunders like China’s Great Leap Forward or Stalin’s forced collectivization. And given the vast power at its disposal for much of the past century, Washington could certainly have done much worse. But the record is clear: U.S. leaders have done what they thought they had to do when confronted by external dangers, and they paid scant attention to moral principles along the way. The idea that the United States is uniquely virtuous may be comforting to Americans; too bad it’s not true.

Myth 3: The United States has enjoyed remarkable success, and Americans tend to portray their rise to world power as a direct result of the political foresight of the Founding Fathers, the virtues of the U.S. Constitution, the priority placed on individual liberty, and the creativity and hard work of the American people. In this narrative, the United States enjoys an exceptional global position today because it is, well, exceptional….But America’s past success is due as much to good luck as to any uniquely American virtues. The new nation was lucky that the continent was lavishly endowed with natural resources and traversed by navigable rivers. It was lucky to have been founded far from the other great powers and even luckier that the native population was less advanced and highly susceptible to European diseases. Americans were fortunate that the European great powers were at war for much of the republic’s early history, which greatly facilitated its expansion across the continent, and its global primacy was ensured after the other great powers fought two devastating world wars. […]

Myth 4: Given all the high-fives American leaders have given themselves, it is hardly surprising that most Americans see their country as an overwhelmingly positive force in world affairs….But the belief that all good things flow from Washington’s wisdom overstates the U.S. contribution by a wide margin….The United States has been the major producer of greenhouse gases for most of the last hundred years and thus a principal cause of the adverse changes that are altering the global environment. The United States stood on the wrong side of the long struggle against apartheid in South Africa and backed plenty of unsavory dictatorships — including Saddam Hussein’s — when short-term strategic interests dictated. Americans may be justly proud of their role in creating and defending Israel and in combating global anti-Semitism, but its one-sided policies have also prolonged Palestinian statelessness and sustained Israel’s brutal occupation. Bottom line: Americans take too much credit for global progress and accept too little blame for areas where U.S. policy has in fact been counterproductive. […]

Myth 5: God Is On Our Side….Confidence is a valuable commodity for any country. But when a nation starts to think it enjoys the mandate of heaven and becomes convinced that it cannot fail or be led astray by scoundrels or incompetents, then reality is likely to deliver a swift rebuke…. Far from being a unique state whose behavior is radically different from that of other great powers, the United States has behaved like all the rest, pursuing its own self-interest first and foremost, seeking to improve its relative position over time, and devoting relatively little blood or treasure to purely idealistic pursuits. Yet, just like past great powers, it has convinced itself that it is different, and better, than everyone else.”

Later in October 2011, Walt wrote that the “era when the United States could create and lead a political, economic and security order in virtually every part of the world is coming to an end.” He recommended that the U.S. “get out of Iraq and Afghanistan as quickly as possible, treat Israel like a normal country instead of backing it unconditionally, and rely on local Middle Eastern, European and Asian allies to maintain the peace—with our help when necessary.” “Instead of looking back with nostalgia,” he added, “Americans should see the end of the American Era as an opportunity to rebalance our international burdens and focus on our domestic imperatives.”

In a December 2012 interview published by The Diplomat, Walt was asked: “With regards to U.S.-China relations, how concerned do you believe the U.S. should be about the rise in Chinese economic and military power, along with its alleged more assertive posturing? Are great power politics back with a vengeance following a transitory so-called unipolar moment, or is this a case of an overly secure U.S. hyping potential security threats?” He replied:

“I never thought great-power politics disappeared, but the familiar dynamics of great power rivalry will be more apparent if China’s capabilities continue to rise.  That said, the United States does not help its own cause by exaggerating Chinese power.   We should not base our policy today on what China might become twenty or thirty years down the road.”

In that same December 2012 interview, Walt was asked: “[Y]ou have been a constant critic of U.S. policy towards Iran. With President Obama’s reelection, what do you think is the likelihood that some kind of deal can be concluded between Iran and the U.S. over Tehran’s nuclear program, if not the nature of the U.S.-Iranian relations more generally? He answered:

“I regret to say that I am not optimistic.  The outlines of a reasonable deal are well-known, but Washington continues to insist on a near-total Iranian capitulation. And because Iran has been effectively demonized here in America, it would be very hard for President Obama to reach a compromise and then sell it back home. To make matters worse, neither side trusts the other and both tend to view the other’s offers with great suspicion. Neither side has been willing to test the other by making bold concessions, although Iran has occasionally gone a bit further than we have. To me, the entire business is a tragic display of diplomatic incompetence: there is a deal to be had, but we’ve been unwilling or unable to pursue it seriously for more than a decade.  The result is that Iran is closer to a nuclear weapon than it would have been had we actively sought a negotiated settlement instead of issuing ultimatums. We have responded by ramping up sanctions, threatening preventive war, and repeatedly talking about regime change, which merely gives Tehran more reason to want a deterrent of its own.  To be frank, it is hard to imagine a policy that would [be] less likely to achieve our supposed aims.”

In August 2013, Walt argued that even if it could be proven that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons against his adversaries, the United States should not intervene in Syrian affairs. As he wrote in a New York Times op-ed:

“Even if proven, the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government does not tip the balance in favor of U.S. military intervention. To think otherwise places undue weight on the weapons Assad’s forces may have used and ignores the many reasons that U.S. intervention is still unwise.

“Of course it is not good that Assad’s forces may have used chemical weapons, but it is not obvious why the choice of weaponry changes the calculus of U.S. interests in this case. The brutal nature of the Assad regime has been apparent for decades, and its forces have already killed thousands with conventional means. Does it really matter whether Assad is killing his opponents using 500-pound bombs, mortar shells, cluster munitions, machine guns, icepicks or sarin gas? Dead is dead, no matter how it is done.

“Proponents of action argue that the U.S. must intervene to defend the norm against chemical weapons. Using nerve agents like sarin is illegal under international law, but they are not true ‘weapons of mass destruction.’ Because they are hard to use in most battlefield situations, chemical weapons are usually less lethal than non-taboo weapons like high explosive. Ironically we would therefore be defending a norm against weapons that are less deadly than the bombs we would use if we intervene. This justification would also be more convincing if the U.S. government had not ignored international law whenever it got in the way of something Washington wanted to do.

“And intervention is still a bad idea. Airstrikes cannot eliminate Assad’s chemical arsenal and are unlikely to tip the balance in favor of the rebels. And even if they did, this situation would give Assad a bigger incentive to use these weapons more widely. Assad’s fall would create a failed state and unleash a bitter struggle among the various rebel factions. The Syrian uprising may have started as a peaceful reform effort, but today the most powerful rebel groups are jihadi extremists, the last people we want in power in Damascus. These prudential concerns still apply, regardless of the weaponry Assad’s forces may have employed.

“Lastly, Obama may be tempted to strike because he foolishly drew a ‘red line’ over this issue and feels his credibility is now at stake. But following one foolish step with another will not restore that lost standing. U.S. power is most credible when it is used to protect vital U.S. interests. The United States has little interest in getting bogged down in Syria, and the use of chemical weapons by Syrian government forces does not alter that fact.”

In November 2013, Walt said: “Americans often forget just how secure the United States is, especially compared with other states” — thanks to its military power, natural resources, and geographic location — and thus “routinely blows minor threats out of all proportion. I mean: Iran has a defense budget of about $10 billion … yet we manage to convince ourselves that Iran is a very serious threat to U.S. vital interests. Ditto the constant fretting about minor-league powers like Syria, North Korea, Muammar al-Qaddafi’s Libya, and other so-called ‘rogue states.'”

In June 2014, Walt penned an article entitled “Being a Neocon Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry,” wherein he said: “The neoconservative program cost the United States several trillion dollars and thousands [of] dead and wounded American soldiers, and it sowed carnage and chaos in Iraq and elsewhere.” He then lamented that in spite of this, neoconservatives enjoyed “apparent immunity from any degree of accountability.” “How can a group of people be so wrong so often at such high cost, yet still retain considerable respect and influence in high circles?” Walt asked. The answer he provided was fourfold: (1) “Shamelessness,” (2) “Financial Support,” (3) “A Receptive and Sympathetic Media,” and (4) “Liberal Allies.”

In February 2015, Walt wrote that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s policies toward Ukraine were reminiscent of Ronald Reagan’s strategy in Nicaragua during the 1980s: “Reagan and the United States acted wrongly then, and Putin and Russia are acting wrongly today. But the parallels between the two cases tell you something often forgotten when high-minded moralists start complaining about ‘foreign aggression.’ However much we may dislike it, great powers are always sensitive to political conditions on their borders and are usually willing to play hardball to protect vital interests….To repeat: Russia’s policy is objectionable and Vladimir Putin is not a misunderstood figure who deserves our sympathy. But his conduct is not that different from the actions of venerated leaders like Ronald Reagan, when they felt vital interests were at stake.”

In June 2015, Walt wrote an article titled, “Why Realists Should Celebrate Gay Marriage.” Asserting that the Supreme Court’s legalization of same-sex marriage was “the right thing” to do, Walt celebrated the decision as “consistent with the defining feature of American democracy: its emphasis on individual freedom and personal choice.” He further claimed that embracing same-sex marriage would help to legitimize America’s overall foreign policy in the eyes of world opinion: “[E]stablishing gay marriage as a fundamental right removes one of the practices that has separated the United States from many of its democratic partners (the Netherlands, Belgium, Canada, Spain, South Africa, Norway, Sweden, Argentina, Iceland, Portugal, Denmark, Brazil, England, Wales, France, New Zealand, Uruguay, Luxembourg, Scotland, and Finland).”

Following Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president in November 2016, Walt published an article titled “10 Ways to Tell if Your President Is a Dictator,” where he said: “But if you live in the United States, what you should really worry about is the threat that Trump may pose to America’s constitutional order. His lengthy business career suggests he is a vindictive man who will go to extreme lengths to punish his opponents and will break a promise in a heartbeat and without remorse. The 2016 campaign confirmed that he has little respect for existing norms and rules — he refused to release his tax returns, lied repeatedly, claimed the electoral and political systems were ‘rigged’ against him, threatened to jail his opponent if he won, among other such violations — and revealed his deep contempt for both his opponents and supporters. Nor does he regret any of the revolting things he did or said during the campaign, because, as he told the Wall Street Journal afterward, ‘I won.’ For Trump, it seems, the ends really do justify the means.”

In the same piece, Walt accused the Trump campaign of falsely believing that “America is now under siege from a coalition of liberal elites, people of color, immigrants of all sorts, and shadowy foreign influences.” Claiming that Trump felt “admiration” for Russian President Vladimir Putin, Walt argued that the incoming administration’s “penumbra of extremist advisors,” like “white nationalist Steve Bannon,” amounted to “a recipe for undermining democracy over time.” “These fears may strike many of you as alarmist,” wrote Walt, “and it’s entirely possible that Trump will uphold his oath to defend the Constitution and stay within legal lines. But given his past conduct, expressed attitudes, and bomb-throwing advisors, I think there are valid reasons to think the constitutional order that has prevailed in the United States for more than two centuries could be in jeopardy. And that should worry all Americans. The constitutional reality never lived up to the Founding Fathers’ hopes and ideals, of course, but the system has had a self-correcting quality that has served the nation well.”

Warning of the “authoritarian direction” in which the U.S. had drifted by electing Trump, Walt listed his “10 warning signs that American democracy is at risk”:

  1. “Systemic efforts to intimidate the media.”
  2. “Building an official pro-Trump media network.”
  3. “Politicizing the civil service, military, National Guard, or the domestic security agencies.”
  4. “Using government surveillance against domestic political opponents.”
  5. “Using state power to reward corporate backers and punish opponents.”
  6. “Stacking the Supreme Court.”
  7. “Enforcing the law for only one side.”
  8. “Really rigging the system.”
  9. “Fearmongering.”
  10. “Demonizing the opposition.”

In 2018, Walt published the book, The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Harvard’s Belfer Center offered the following synopsis of Walt’s book:

“In his new book, The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy, Professor Walt exposes the inner workings of the foreign policy elite across the Bush, Clinton, and Obama administrations and shows how they have been able to avoid accountability, keep discredited ideas and policies in vogue, and maintain influence despite past blunders. Walt asserts that their recurring failures are a big reason why Donald Trump was elected [in 2016].

“This is not a partisan account. Both Democrats and Republicans have pursued a misguided strategy of ‘liberal hegemony.’ Walt contends that U.S. interests would be better served by focusing our military commitments on maintaining a balance of power in Europe, East Asia, and the Persian Gulf, and by eschewing the use of force to spread democracy or dictate local politics.”

In a separate review of Walt’s book, Rose Deller of the London School of Economics wrote in June 2019:

“[This book] is a character study of three US administrations and the vast network of think tanks and policy wonks that have influenced the trajectory of America’s foreign policy. At the centre of Walt’s argument is the critical assertion that the United States is a benevolent power with noble intentions, an ‘indispensable nation’ intent on pursuing an ambitious grand strategy of liberal hegemony based on liberal principles of individual freedom, democratic governance and a market-based economy, which in the past 25 years has tragically misfired. Rather than making the United States ‘safer, stronger, more prosperous, or more popular […] and the rest of the world more tranquil and secure’, Walt contends that ‘America’s ambitious attempt to reorder world politics undermined its own position, sowed chaos in several regions, and caused considerable misery in a number of countries.’ The Cold War victory has been squandered, Walt argues, and the United States has found itself bearing a disproportionate share of global security burdens with a considerable cost to America’s own blood and treasure.

“Given America’s abundant advantages, Walt claims, the price of US primacy has been mistakenly perceived by administrations on both ends of the political spectrum to be modest and easily absorbed by the world’s largest economy. Excessively burdensome democracy promotion remained the central foreign policy objective of the Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, despite ballooning federal deficits, budget sequesters, cuts in defence spending and world financial crises. In the meantime, the Washington D.C. policy establishment eagerly embraced a singular solution to the world’s crises irrespective of the peculiarity of the problem at hand – that, in order to keep the liberal order alive, the US must remain ‘deeply engaged’ and take the lead in ‘solving every global issue.’

To execute foreign policy and convince the American public of the benefits of global activism, policy experts engaged in meticulous rationalisations ranging from threat inflation and exploitation of uncertainty, to the exaggeration of benefits guaranteeing the country’s security and prosperity, finally to the concealment of the real costs, effectively masking the loss of human lives and risks associated with potential blowback resulting from military interventions abroad (147-80). According to Walt, liberal hegemony, pursued by ‘an out-of-touch community of foreign policy VIPs’ (181), has failed not only in Iraq, but also heavily miscalculated: ‘fallout from the NATO expansion, the consequences of regime change in Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya, and elsewhere, the open-ended war on terror, the mismanagement of the Middle East peace process, the continuing spread of weapons of mass destruction, and the antidemocratic backlash that has occurred since the 2008 financial crisis’ (259).

“But why should an otherwise benevolent empire intent on acting on humanitarian impulses in the face of human tragedy be excoriated for its use of power in the pursuit of ennobling ends? For Walt, diplomacy – as a tool of statecraft, rather than an ideology devoid of tangible deliverables – ought to be a primary means to an end. To win on the diplomatic front, however, America’s diplomatic ranks, the author argues, are in need of reform in order to absolve ‘inexperienced amateurs’ (273) of the responsibility and unmerited prestige of holding key diplomatic positions. Professionalising the ranks also means ridding the foreign policy establishment of excessive secrecy, self-protective inbreeding and immunity from accountability which encourages members of the group to pursue precarious foreign policy goals at no personal or professional expense. Walt further indicts diplomatic corps’ penchant for marginalising dissention, silencing criticism of policy or policy ‘insiders’ and eschewing strict accountability in order not to jeopardise friendships while routinely embracing elements of expansionism and power projection towards which the lay American taxpayer feels increasing tedium and aversion (215). These include overreliance on military force when confronted with political crises, elites’ lack of interest in diplomacy and a tendency toward unilateralism executed under the prestigious mantle of ‘global leadership’ (288).

The Hell of Good Intentions offers an exacting autopsy of America’s successive foreign policy pursuits since the end of the Cold War in the name of liberal hegemony. While finding the outcome inadequate to the enormous soft power appeal of the US and the overwhelming military might at the country’s disposal, Walt offers an alternative approach – offshore balancing – which instead of attempting ‘to make the world in America’s image, focuses on preventing other states from projecting power in ways that might threaten the United States, while engaging its resources only when there are direct threats to vital U.S. interests’ (261).

“This strategy, Walt argues, would permit the United States to focus on four primary geographical regions where its vital interests are at stake: that is, in the Western Hemisphere itself, as well in Europe, Northeast Asia and the Persian Gulf. As industrial and military centres of power, America’s primary role would be in maintaining an ‘offshore’ presence or, in certain circumstances, providing for small military contingents or intelligence-gathering facilities. Rather than launching into ‘costly and counterproductive crusades’ (263), the regional security challenges would be repelled by regional stakeholders themselves, leaving the United States in the position to enter conflicts only when another major power or peer competitor should patently threaten to obstruct its pursuit of strategic aims and upset the regional balance of power. By monitoring and ensuring that the regions of vital interest to the United States do not fall under the control of other powers, Walt projects, this will buffer the country from harmful foreign policy blowbacks fostered by nationalist resentment, terrorism and anti-American extremism (264).”

After President Trump ordered the targeting killing of Iranian terrorist General Qassem Soleimani in January 2020, Walt tweeted: “Just imagine how we’d react if some adversary assassinated a member of the Joint Chiefs, an Undersecretary of State, or the DNI [Department of National Intelligence].”


  1. Conversation with Stephen M. Walt,” p. 3 of 8 (UC Berkeley), October 2006

  2. Ibid.

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