Analysis & Opinions - Institut Montaigne

The Fall of American Primacy? Interview with Stephen Walt

  • Soli Özel
| June 12, 2019


To discuss the future of the world order, America's relations with Europe, the status of Russia, and a Realist's assessment of the China challenge, Soli Özel, Institut Montaigne's Visiting Fellow in international relations, met Professor Stephen Walt in March in his office at the Harvard Kennedy School. 


You are a fierce critic of the existing liberal foreign policy consensus. You believe that in the post-Cold War era the understanding of America's role in the world has been the cause of disaster for American foreign policy making and America's standing in the world. You argue in your latest book that throughout the 19th century the US benefited from the protection of the British led world order, just accumulated power. It intervened only when there were problems in Europe, and it did so twice. But the US has been very interventionist in Latin America. Secondly, even a leftist critic like William Appleman Williams argues that there is this sense of "manifest destiny" in American foreign policy making. This sentiment is ingrained in American political consciousness. How can you take this ideological component away from American foreign policy?

Ideology is critical and two of the reasons the United States go off on these crusades now are

  • they are very powerful;
  • imbedded within American political culture lies a set of liberal values that happen to be universal in nature. 

If all human beings have the same rights, then the most powerful country in the world, which claims to believe in these principles, has a responsibility to go and help the Rwandans, the Libyans, the Bosnians, the Iranians, and so on, or anyone else whose rights are being denied. So, it's relatively easy to talk a liberal country into these sorts of crusades especially when it is very powerful and does not face any real rivals unlike during the post-Cold War era. I also agree with your take on our past behavior. If you look at U.S. history, we are just about the most expansionist great power in the modern world. We started out as thirteen little colonies, yet we got quickly all the way across North America and we were not very gentle about how this was done. We killed the native population or confined them in reservations, conquered a bunch of land from Mexico and intervened repeatedly in Latin America. 
The US were pretty selective and reluctant to get involved in great power affairs far away, until after World War II. That was the main difference and the secret of our success for a long time. Until WWII and during its aftermath, we had never taken on a global role and our interventions were relatively limited even in our own region. Now, people on the political left would probably not like this but the US should try to maintain a dominant position in the Western hemisphere. If other great powers such as a resurgent China started intervening near our shores, the US should forge alliances or close partnerships with other Latin American countries to prevent outside powers from establishing a significant presence in this hemisphere....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:

Özel, Soli."The Fall of American Primacy? Interview with Stephen Walt." Institut Montaigne, June 12, 2019.

The Author

Soli Özel


Stephen Walt