Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

Is the Blob Really Blameless?

| Sep. 22, 2020

How not to evaluate American grand strategy.

Francis Gavin recently published a lengthy review of my 2018 book, The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy. I am flattered that he judged the book to be of sufficient importance and potential influence to warrant such sustained attention, even though his assessment is harshly negative. Gavin's essay raises several important issues, and it would be a telling indictment if his criticisms were well founded. Fortunately, his main charges miss their mark while nicely illustrating the complacent mindset that I criticized in the book. Explaining why his objections are unconvincing will hopefully move the debate on U.S. grand strategy forward.

Although Gavin offers up many complaints about the book, his critique rests on four main claims. First, he argues that apart from some obviously costly blunders in the Middle East, U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War has been a great success. Second, he claims the alternative grand strategy that I and others have recommended (variously termed "restraint" or "offshore balancing") would be a disaster, which is why the foreign-policy establishment and the broader American public have rejected it. Third, he portrays me and my fellow restrainers as centrally placed figures with enormous potential to shape debates on U.S. foreign policy, not a relatively small minority confined mostly to a handful of universities. Given our alleged prominence, he suggests that our failure to convince the elite or the public to embrace our proposals is further evidence that our ideas are unsound. Lastly, he rejects my characterization of the foreign-policy elite as a mutually reinforcing community of individuals and institutions sharing a common worldview (namely, a commitment to the strategy of liberal hegemony), claiming instead that it is an intellectually diverse group of open-minded and dedicated professionals that holds itself to high standards and has only the best interests of the country and the world at heart.

Let me consider each of these criticisms in turn.

Has U.S. foreign policy been successful?

In contrast to the assessment that I and many other critics have presented, Gavin believes recent U.S. foreign policy has been remarkably successful. Why does he think so? Because, in his words, the United States is still "far and away the most important player in international politics." But this standard is much too easy: Given America's overwhelming power position when the Cold War ended and the enormous geopolitical advantages it still enjoys, it would have required repeated disasters of truly epic proportions to erode U.S. primacy completely or even put the United States in a position of parity with any other country. At no point did I claim that the United States has come close to falling that far....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“Is the Blob Really Blameless?.” Foreign Policy, September 22, 2020.

The Author

Stephen Walt