“We are far off course,” the development guru Jeffrey Sachs laments in his new book. The curmudgeonly geo-strategist John Mearsheimer agrees: “Something went badly wrong.” So does Stephen Walt, the dissenting realist at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. “Pursuing liberal hegemony did not make the United States safer, stronger, more prosperous, or more popular,” Walt concludes. “On the contrary, 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 other countries.”
In their new books, all three of these heretics pronounce American foreign policy a failure. They assert that the drive for “full-spectrum dominance,” on which we have been embarked since the Cold War ended a quarter-century ago, has destabilized the world and undermined our own security.
The coincidence of these three sages speaking out at once is especially welcome now. As a new Congress prepares to take office, incoming members are challenging the status quo on health care, climate change, tax policy and other domestic issues. Few, however, have shown much interest in world affairs. It would be a tragically lost opportunity if their desire to break with Washington orthodoxy stops at the water’s edge. These three books should guide iconoclasts in Congress — and every candidate who seeks the presidency in 2020.
Sachs, in “A New Foreign Policy: Beyond American Exceptionalism,” urges the United States to make global cooperation the unifying principle of its foreign policy. Walt, in “The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of US Primacy,” proposes what he calls offshore balancing. Instead of remaking the world in America’s image, he suggests focusing US foreign policy on upholding the balance of power in Europe, East Asia, and the Persian Gulf. Walt would favor intervention “only when one or more of those balances was in danger of breaking down.”
Even that is too expansive for Mearsheimer. In “The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities,” he tells us that people everywhere are moved more by nationalism than liberal idealism. He says American politicians should remind voters that, since “nationalism places great emphasis on self-determination,” patriots in other countries will inevitably rebel if we try to dominate them.
Congress can help to shape the more modest, less interventionist foreign policy that these books recommend — to build what Mearsheimer calls a “counter-elite hoping to rein in American foreign policy.” Signs of life are already evident. This month’s effort to cut off American support for Saudi Arabia’s savage war on Yemen failed in the House of Representatives but attracted considerable support.
Early next year, a high-powered group of activists and thinkers — who aren’t ready to go public just yet — will convene to shape a new Washington think tank that would challenge those funded by defense contractors and foreign powers, lobby for less aggressive foreign policies, and seek to bring libertarians and conservatives into partnership with anti-interventionist progressives.
What binds Sachs, Walt, and Mearsheimer together is their willingness to see the world as it is, rather than parroting the delusionary clichés that shape what passes for foreign policy debate in Washington. “American exceptionalism is profoundly and dangerously anachronistic,” Sachs asserts. Mearsheimer tells us that “liberal hegemony does not satisfy the principal criterion for assessing any foreign policy: it is not in America’s national interest.” Walt marvels that government officials and commentators who promote disastrous wars not only suffer no consequences, but are welcomed back into circles of power — and that “it is the dissidents and critics who end up marginalized or penalized, even when they are proved right.”
None of these three subversives expects American foreign policy to reverse course as they would like. Mearsheimer recognizes that “both Democratic and Republican parties are deeply wedded to promoting liberalism abroad, even though that policy has been a failure at almost every turn.” Besides, as Walt points out, “the foreign-policy establishment will not embrace a strategy that would diminish its own power, status, and sense of self-worth.”
These books are not beach reading. The impassioned screed that sets Americans afire with indignation at the folly of our foreign policy remains to be written. The arrival of a new Congress and the coming presidential campaign, though, make this a good time set a wiser course as our republic stumbles through a turbulent world.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.