Harvard Prof. Reframes U.S. Foreign Policy

Stephen Walt

On Thursday, Stephen M. Walt discussed the ways in which the United States should and should not involve itself in other countries using his theory of offshore balancing.

The Islamic Civilizations and Societies Program kicked off its 10-part Distinguished Lecture Series Thursday with Walt’s talk, a professor of international affairs at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. The lecture, titled, What Grand Strategy for America?: Why Offshore Balancing is Best, outlined his own theory of the path the U.S. should take in the world.

Walt is a leading foreign policy expert on the editorial boards of esteemed publications like Foreign Policy and International Relations. He is also the author of several books on international affairs, such as Taming American Power: The Global Response to U.S. Primacy, and, with co-author John Mearsheimer, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.

Walt began the event with a simple declaration: “A serious discussion of American grand strategy is long overdue.”

As evidence of this, he pointed to the rise of Chinese power in Asia, the growth of nuclear capability in Pakistan, India, and North Korea, the troubling situation in Iraq and Afghanistan and the difficulty democracy faces there, as well as the overall turmoil in the Middle East.

“In particular, I would argue these setbacks are the result of the strategy of liberal hegemony we have followed since the end of the Cold War,” he said.

This strategy of liberal hegemony sees the U.S. as a force for the spread of international institutions, free-market economics, human rights, and especially democracy that goes well beyond U.S. national security needs. This view is good for the U.S.’s self-image, but it is fundamentally flawed, Walt said.

In his view, it increases the area the U.S. must defend, but does not increase the means to defend it, and has led to more failure than success in preventing the spread of nuclear weapons.

Walt then outlined the main topic of the night: offshore balancing.

“Offshore balancing is a realist grand strategy, it eschews ambitious efforts to remake other societies,” he said. “It focuses on what really matters—preserving American dominance in the Western Hemisphere and countering potential hegemons in Europe, Northeast Asia, and the Persian Gulf.”

Rather than take on burdens across the world in the name of liberal values, this strategy would use local powers to prevent the rise of a hegemon in the key areas mentioned, using American military power only when necessary to prevent a country from having too much dominance in the region, he said.

Walt bases this theory on his belief that the U.S. is the luckiest power in history. With no rivals in the Western Hemisphere, an ocean on each side, a large nuclear arsenal, and large economy, the U.S. is able to intervene in many areas of the world. But Walt argues this should make it less necessary to intervene rather than be a reason to be the “world’s policeman.”

The U.S. should keep European and Asian countries focused on internal issues and improvements rather than involving themselves in other countries’ affairs, Walt said. In the Persian Gulf, however, the U.S. should prevent any power from disrupting the flow of oil and harming the world economy, he said.

Walt differentiated offshore balancing from liberal hegemony in that the primary goal is not peace and democracy. Instead, American power and military might should be used to prevent one nation from gaining too much dominance in a region, and only after aiding other regional states that have a keener interest in preserving the balance of power.

The advantages of offshore balancing that Walt put forward include reducing American defense burdens and putting fewer American lives at risk. With regime change no longer a sanctioned policy, the source for much of the anti-American terrorism would dry up, and in the cases in which intervention would be necessary, American ground troops would be seen as protectors from a rising power rather than conquerors.

Walt concluded by speaking about the goals of the past decades in U.S. foreign policy.

“The bottom line here is that if we want to spread democracy and promote human rights, and I think we should, the best thing to do is set a good example,” he said. “If other societies see the United States as a just, fair, tolerant, and prosperous place they’re more likely to want something similar for themselves. So building a better democracy here at home is probably the best way to encourage it abroad.”

Screenshot Courtesy of National Press Club

1 Comment

  1. It was Neocons who invaded Afghanistan.
    It was Neocons who invaded Iraq.
    It was Neocons who pressured Obama to invade Libya.
    It was Neocons who are pressuring Obama to invade Syria.
    It was liberals who decided not to invade Syria.
    It was liberals who decided not to invade Egypt.
    It was liberals who decided not to invade Belarus.
    NATO was not created to spread an American Hegemony, it was created to make sure that many nations defended one another.
    It was Congress who decided to waste money on weapons systems we don’t want or need or can be used to defend against the current threat.
    So now we know just how many lies a Neocon can tell in one article.

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