By Jonathan Power
At last, a book that attacks the “Blob” and holes it below the water line. Whether it can sink it is another matter. I’m talking about a book published by Harvard Professor of International Affairs Stephen Walt, “America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Hell of Good Intentions”. Some have called this elite, the “Blob”.
The “Blob” is a wonderful word conjured by President Obama’s deputy National Security Advisor, Ben Rhodes. It means the group of congressmen, generals, industrialists, academics, and journalists who specialize in foreign policy and have an influence promoting what Walt calls the “Liberal Hegemony”.
This, he defines, as the default setting for US foreign policy by the ingrown foreign policy establishment. “Open-ended efforts to remake the world in America’s image gives them plenty to do, appeals to its members’ self-regard, and maximizes their status and power”. It’s a full employment policy (by those who were thrown out of work at the end of the Cold War, I should add) for the foreign policy elite and the path of least resistance for groups seeking to convince the US government to do something far away on behalf of somebody else.
Walt is as severe on his home country as any Harvard professor can be: “A few states have caused more harm to others in recent years than the US has, but not very many”. And he is just not talking about the regime of President Donald Trump. He goes back through the eras of Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon. Today, we can add Joe Biden.
Proponents of Liberal Hegemony don’t believe that a liberal order arises spontaneously or sustains itself automatically. For them, the goal has to be enforced when necessary.
The goal? It’s a liberal order where most states are governed according to liberal principles: democracy, the rule of law, religious and social tolerance, and respect for human rights. At the international level, it means economic openness, relations between states regulated by law and institutions such as the World Trade Organization, the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and multilateral alliances such as NATO.
But the concept often fails- as it has in Vietnam, Cuba, Angola, Namibia, Central America, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen. It exaggerates America’s ability to reshape other societies and underestimates the ability of weaker countries and movements to thwart it. It’s also, too often, built on deception of the public, and self-deception of the initiators.
Not every high official has been a paid-up member of the Liberal Hegemony group. One dissident was General Colin Powell, a former chief-of-staff of the military, along with his fellow realists such as Brent Scowcroft, National Security Advisor to George H.W. Bush, his Jimmy Carter counterpart, Zbigniew Brzezinski, two former ambassadors to the Soviet Union, George Kennan and Jack Matlock. All of them opposed the expansion of NATO in the way it came about, which, as Kennan, put it, “was a tragic mistake”, the worst since the end of World War 2. Today, we can add the blind support of Israel. As the secretary-general of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, said the other day, Hamas, however cruel, “is not acting in a vacuum”. Israel, for decades, has stolen Palestinian land, and the Americans have barely criticized it, constantly vetoing resolutions In the UN Security Council that are critical of Israel.
The commanding heights of American journalism have a lot to answer for. They’ve made serious errors and then, when their advocacy has been proved wrong, not held themselves accountable. Both the New York Times and Washington Post published many false stories about Iraq’s alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction. These days there are no major, well-placed, columnists consistently advocating an alternative point of view to Liberal Hegemony. There is no Walter Lipmann, no William Pfaff and, come to that, no longer me! (For 17 years, I was a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for The International Herald Tribune.)
Donald Trump, during his last presidential campaign, appeared to criticize the Liberal Hegemony advocates. But with his inchoate worldview, once he was president, he was unable to overcome their advocacy and has quickly fallen into line.
He faced a formidable opposition: the quiet resistance of his own staff and the civil and military services, well-funded conservative think tanks, Congress with its links to a powerful business community, the arms manufacturers and a network of conservative non-governmental organisations.
Walt has an alternative, one that appears to resonate with the new millennial generation who perceive less foreign dangers, are less patriotic and are decidedly less supportive of military solutions. One saw this in the presidential campaign of Senator Bernie Sanders. Walt calls it “offshore balancing”.
He defines it this way: Instead of trying to remake the world in America’s image, foreign policy should focus on the US’s position in the global balance of power. So, he calls for the US to deploy its power abroad only when there are direct threats to US interests. As long as there’s no potential threatening hegemon in Europe, the Gulf, Northeast and East Asia, then there’s no need for a military interest.
If America had done this, Russia would by now be partly integrated into NATO, there would have been no pushing the boundaries of NATO, it would have ended the containment of Iran, and if its military had left Saudi Arabia after the first Gulf War, there might have been no 9/11 and no fight in Afghanistan. These days, the US (and the EU) wouldn’t be supporting Israel to the extent they have. As for China- despite its threatening posture towards Taiwan- is a long way from becoming a superpower.