The Foreign-Policy Establishment

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Stephen M. Walt, a professor of international relations at Harvard University, recently wrote an interesting piece for Foreign Policy magazine about what topics are considered “taboo” among establishment foreign-policy wonks—a group that includes Walt himself as a member. The article is equally compelling for what it says as for what it implies about Walt, as an example of the class of elite opinion-makers he addresses.

Walt takes up the topic by articulating the “Ten Commandments for Ambitious Foreign Policy Wonks”—the ironclad laws about what they can and can’t say, if they want to ascend the foreign-policy hierarchy to a senior fellowship at the Brookings Institution or a position in the State Department.

To take two examples, consider first the fourth commandment:

#4: Thou Shalt Not Question the Desirability of American Primacy. For over half a century, a core principle of American grand strategy has been to retain what the Truman administration called a “preponderance of power” in America’s favor. Scholars have sometimes debated whether “primacy matters,” but nobody ever runs for President promising to “make America Number Two,” and nobody who wants to rise in the foreign policy establishment should ever suggest that maybe the United States might be better off if it weren’t so dominant. (I happen to like U.S. primacy myself, but I wish the topic got debated a bit more often).

Note how Walt feels compelled to indicate he favors U.S. primacy and how poorly he articulates the opposing, “taboo” view. Surely the point is not whether anyone thinks America should be “number two” or whether America “might be better off if it weren’t so dominant.” Rather, the concern is whether someone can be critical at all about American primacy and still have a foreign-policy career.

Here’s the ninth commandment:

#9: Thou Shalt Not Question the Right of the United States to Intervene in Other Countries. Foreign policy elites in the United States routinely declare that the United States is committed to international law and is a principled supporter of the UN Charter, and we are quick to condemn most other countries when they use force in violation of these principles. But the United States has a long record of using military force against countries or regimes that it opposes, and voices challenging this basic principle tend to be few and far-between. So when the Bush administration was mobilizing the country for war with Iraq, only a handful of people objected on the grounds that the war was simply illegal. Instead, liberal inteventionists came up with elaborate legal and moral justifications for it. If you do take issue with this idea, you’ll probably get labeled an idealistic leftwinger and your career prospects will correspondingly diminish. Of course, a realist like me isn’t surprised when great powers don’t feel especially bound by the fine points of international law, but I do wish we were less hypocritical about it.

Walt again feels the need to note that he’s a “realist” on this topic (defined here, or perhaps more aptly here)—i.e. he’s a loyal member of the foreign-policy establishment. He just wishes his colleagues were more open about their view that international law means little to them.

Of course, if you are truly a thorough-going realist, like Saint Henry (Kissinger), hypocrisy about international law should be embraced, not rejected, if it furthers American power. Moreover, the public rejection of such hypocrisy by America’s leading foreign-policy experts can be useful as well: Foreigners will appreciate their refreshingly honest candor and be more apt to trust them the next time they lie or dissemble. As the eighth commandment has it, all foreign-policy professionals honestly, truly, absolutely care about human rights and democracy.

Walt concludes the piece by remarking how bucking establishment views can actually benefit one’s career. He cites Obama’s rise to the presidency after rejecting the Iraq war—a project favored by a majority of the foreign-policy establishment—as his prime example. Of course, he ignores the fact that those who supported that unnecessary, costly, and reckless project didn’t see their careers harmed by that endorsement. Peter Beinart, for example, continued to ascend, to a senior fellowship at the Council on Foreign Relations.

It’s also worth noting that Obama made his dramatic antiwar speech as an Illinois state senator, not a U.S. senator, and his position didn’t prevent him from voting to continue funding the war or supporting military escalations elsewhere (Afghanistan) when he became a national figure. Obama is hardly representative of foreign-policy radicalism.

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