Walt’s starting point is the reality of American power. On this, his analysis is conventional. He says that the United States enjoys an asymmetry of power unseen since the emergence of the modern state system. For many analysts, particularly those attracted to Charles Krauthammer’s celebrated unipolar moment theory dating from 1990, this is where the debate begins and ends. For them, the question is solely, as Walt puts it, of what should the United States do with its power? It is worth pointing out that adherents to this theory are not all conservative, as evidenced by then- Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s equally celebrated question in 1993 to then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell. What are saving this superb military for, Colin, if we can’t use it? Walt shows that this approach has produced a debate that is almost exclusively America-centric, military-dependent, and flat-footed.
Walt’s great contribution is to turn this debate around. He is as keen as anyone to forward America’s national interest, but he shows that to do so, policy makers need to understand that American power is not the only variable in the international arena, and that analysis needs to include the likely reaction of competitors. He thus frames the key question as what can other states do about American power? In doing so, he takes direct aim at those (mainly British) romanticists of empire like Niall Ferguson who assert that the only threat to American power comes from the absence of a will to power.
In refuting this approach (which Walt does with unfailing courtesy), he updates for our time the notion of the security paradox. Dating back to the competition between Athens and Sparta in the run-up to the Peloponnesian War, the paradox asserts that security investments made by one side provoke equal and countervailing investments by the other. Walt shows that this process is in train again today. Far from being left without options by U.S. military preeminence, other countries enjoy a surprising array of choices, ranging from strategies of opposition to strategies of accommodation. Either way, such approaches are intended to bend U.S. foreign policy in the direction of the foreign country’s interest.
Thus, reversing the telescope this way can prove highly instructive. Walt provides a taxonomy of the options available to countries less militarily powerful than the United Statesthat is, the rest of the world. Some of these options are oppositional, what Walt calls North Korean blackmail or insurgent use of asymmetry. Precautionary soft balancing against the United States may also be established between countries, for example Russia and China, with which the United States is on good terms. Another option is accommodation, for example bonding with the United States to gain advantages that would not otherwise be available. Tony Blair’s tight lock onto the United States before the Iraq War enabled him to pressure Washington into seeking U.N. Security Council support, something few inside Bush’s inner circle wanted. Another example is India’s emerging partnership with the United States, which may enable India to parlay the United States into acting as a counterbalance to China.
Particularly interesting in this context is Walt’s examination of delegitimation of the United States as a broad option available to the international community. Delegitimation is the broad equivalent of what in American politics is known as going negative: in this case, the efforts of opponents of the United States to undermine its general image as a benevolent power and to portray it as a sort of rogue elephant. This objective can be pursued not only by out-and-out enemies but also can arise as criticism from people of impeccable moral stature like Nelson Mandela. Exponents of hard power tend to dismiss this as of little consequencelet them hate us so long as they fear us. However, writing as a British official who used to slipstream behind his American big brother during the Cold War and drew upon the undoubted moral authority enjoyed by the United States in those days, I can assure readers that Walt’s analysis is spot on. If you are trying to navigate the corridors of international power, it is much easier to walk through an open door than to have to kick it down. As a means of asserting the national interest, legitimacy is a serious asset. At its most basic, it’s the difference between being perceived as a liberator or an occupier.
The key lesson here that Walt brings home is that it is a bad mistake for American policy-makers to believe that foreign countries are waiting breathlessly and helplessly for American decisions. They are not. They may not be as militarily powerful as the United States, but they are not powerless. They are alive to opportunities. China, for example, is finding common ground with Russia and various Central Asian countries through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and with its regional partners in ASEAN + 3, both of which exclude the United States. These may not amount to much yet, but they are straws in the wind.
One area in which Walt might have allowed the logic of his argument fuller rein is his analysis of American power. It is clearly true that American military capacity is extraordinary. There are no two bricks anywhere in the world, one resting on top of the other, that American cruise missiles cannot knock over, on a 24/7 basis under all weather conditions. But, however impressive this capability is in terms of technology, does it really translate into an ability to impose America’s will? Walt writes of hubris and the persistent overestimation of this power capability by the American foreign-policy elite. Somewhere out there (preferably not from one of the usual anti-American suspects), there are fundamental questions to be asked about whether the so-called revolution in military affairsthe fusion of information technology and airborne platforms to deliver a global precision strike capabilityis anything more than a will-of-the-wisp. This would lead into a discussion of how powerful America really is, power being defined as the ability to secure America’s long-term interests, not just in terms of knocking over buildings.
One smaller point is worth mentioning. Given that Walt clearly wishes to avoid settling scores, he does not rake over the origins of the Iraq War. This causes him to leave intact the notion that this was caused by an intelligence failure on the question of WMD. Readers should discount this. The evidence that the main advocates of the Iraq War were intent upon such a conflict from the moment they entered office is now overwhelming. At best, WMD offered them a rationalizing capacity, it never was the prime mover. And when the intelligence did not go their way, they fixed it. The true intelligence failure was that the professional institutions allowed themselves to be bullied or worse. But this was not the reason for the war.
In his discussion of strategies of accommodation (itself a very useful concept), Walt looks at the activities of foreign governments in the United States, working through P.R. firms as the Saudis do, through political action committees like the Israelis or through Diaspora communities like the Indians and Armenians. This section, notably its title political penetration, will be well worth examining more thoroughly. But the weight Walt ascribes to the notion that the sustained U.S. support for Israel or the recent upgrading of relations with India can be traced in almost linear fashion to the influence of their lobbies in America has overtones of conspiracy quite absent from the rest of the book. This is a pity, as it may distract attention from his more than sensible call for a fresh look at the assumptions underpinning U.S. policy toward Israel.
In his conclusion, Walt recommends a strategy of offshore balancing which would involve a much reduced use of American military power and more use of regional proxies. He also urges much greater reliance upon the power of example (as voiced in John Quincy Adams’s 1821 speech) and placing a high priority on safeguarding the legitimacy of American actions as a component for American power are also recommended. As indicated above, this may be the direction in which foreign policy is now headed, with the shakeout from hurricanes Katrina and Rita confirming the trend. However, if one may borrow a word from another context, there are plenty of dead-enders still around. Barely a day goes by without someone or other at one of Washington’s think tanks calling for a new buckling of American armor against this or that threat. Walt’s book is an excellent aid for those who find themselves seeking to rebut these idiocies.
One key reader of this book should be Karen Hughes, the new Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. She has the freshest eyes on the foreign-policy scene and enjoys the ear of the president. She has pledged to be a good listener. Walt’s endorsement of the need for greater confidence in America’s fundamental principles and institutions will appeal to her, but, if she can absorb his ideas on the equal need for a mature foreign policy, her time will be well spent.
Jonathan Clarke is the co-author with Stefan Halper of America Alone: The Neo-Conservatives and the Global Order. Their next book due out next year from Basic Books examines the pernicious effects of Big Ideas like unipolarity and freedom on the march.