William & Mary

Harvard Professor Stephen Walt Critiques U.S. Foreign Policy

{{youtube:small:right|Wu0WxTIc1RA, Stephan Walt Presents 'Follies and #@!%-Ups: Why U.S. Foreign Policy Keeps Failing.'}}

Celebrated international relations scholar Stephen Walt of Harvard University delivered several lectures and participated in a number of smaller group discussions with students and faculty during a recent visit to William & Mary.

Walt has published broadly in the field of international relations and U.S. foreign policy, including The Origins of Alliances, which received the 1988 Edgar S. Furniss National Security Book Award, Taming American Power: The Global Response to U.S. Primacy (2005), and, with co-author J.J. Mearsheimer, The Israel Lobby (2007). Currently, Walt is writing another book and blogs at ForeignPolicy.com.

During his presentation, “Follies and #@!%-Ups: Why U.S. Foreign Policy Keeps Failing,” Walt argued that American foreign policy has not been very successful since the Cold War owing to problems that arise from the U.S. structural position in the international system, and the premise that institutions and processes of foreign policy encourage dysfunctional behavior in officials. [The entire presentation can be viewed at the video link above: ~ 40 minutes plus Q&A ~20 minutes.]

Walt acknowledged a number of possible counterarguments: we are learning our lesson, our system is not perfect but will adapt over time, and Obama will end his presidency with a big foreign policy win. He said that he hopes this is the case, but fears that recent events are not compelling evidence of skillful foreign policy making.

Walt’s remarks drew an audience that filled the Sadler Center’s Commonwealth Auditorium to maximum capacity. Grace Perkins ’14 observed that:

“Based on the diverse group of attendees, some of whom sat on the floor, it was clear how much IR theorists like Stephen Walt influence students, professors and members of the community. Professor Walt's lecture was a scathing, but not entirely unwarranted, critique of current U.S. foreign policy. What I found interesting was how focused he was on the problems of U.S. institutions, which highlighted America's growing domestic problems.”

Perkins was one of the lucky students to address Walt directly during a question and answer session, and she chose to ask about international development.

“I think the track record of American development policy is pretty mixed,” Walt responded. “Development is not just big projects like dams and rivers and roads, it’s not just education, it involves, in a sense, altering the societies of a lot of these nations.”

Walt did acknowledge global health development as a success story in US development policy, but still held that “We’re never going to be reliably good at this.”

When asked what he thinks is currently the most significant national security threat to the United States, Walt responded without hesitation: “Climate change.” He explained that the threat of terrorism is “grotesquely overblown,” and that more Americans die annually by slipping in their bathtubs than at the hands of terrorists.

Walt said that climate change is what will affect the lives of millions of Americans, not to mention billions of people across the world in the next century.

In response to a question about the way in which IR courses should be taught, Walt said:

“If I were the czar of American education, I’d do two things. I’d start foreign language training at age four, and keep it all the way through high school so that Americans learned another language and got exposed to another culture, and I would significantly ramp up the basic teaching of world history.”

Walt continued to speak about the positive results of thinking on a global scale, and recommends that IR students read newspapers from around the world.

He said, “It starts to open you up to the fact that how we tend to see things is not the way they are seeing it elsewhere, and if you have to deal with people from another country, knowing that their basic view of how we got here is fundamentally different, is instructive.”

Walt’s visit to William & Mary was sponsored by the International Relations Program and the Institute for the Theory & Practice of International Relations.