How effective is American foreign policy? | Interview with Dr. Stephen Walt

How effective is American foreign policy? | Interview with Dr. Stephen Walt

We met with Harvard University’s highly influential political scientist, Dr. Stephen M. Walt to discuss American foreign policy, current events, and so much more. Enjoy!

Dr. Stephen M. Walt brings a fascinating look at American foreign policy and current events, including the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, presidential performance, balance of threat theory, NATO, Russia, and America’s missteps on the world stage. The Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs for Harvard University’s Kennedy School, Dr. Walt dialogues with Dr. Jed Macosko, academic director of and professor of physics at Wake Forest University.

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If you look at political attitudes, particularly among younger Americans, particularly among different parts of American society now, the sort of reflexive support for Israel isn't as pronounced as it used to be, and I think we're seeing that most visibly in the Democratic Party right now.” – Dr. Stephen Walt

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Interview with Political Scientist
Dr. Stephen Walt

Interview Transcript

(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)

00:24Getting a start in political science

Jed Macosko: Hi, it’s Dr. Jed Macosko at and Wake Forest University. Today we have a special guest from Harvard. This is Professor Stephen Walt. And Steven is gonna tell us a little bit about how he got started in his career, starting at the very beginning.

So Professor Walt, you wanna go right into that?

Stephen Walt: Sure, well, I come from an academic family. My father, in fact, was a physicist, started out in nuclear physics. I was born in Los Alamos, New Mexico, ’cause he worked at the lab there, and he left, switched fields into geophysics, but I grew up being a bit of a science nerd due to his influence, and also a big history buff. My father was interested in history as well. And as a kid, 12, 13, into high school, I also read a lot of history, especially military history, went off to college actually intending to be a biochemist. I started out as a chemistry major at Stanford, and it took about a year for me to realize that God had not put me on the planet to do organic chemistry. And at that point, I switched to a History major and realized very quickly that the only history I really cared about was international history.

So I discovered that Stanford had an International Relations major, switched one more time to that, and sort of from the moment I started doing that as a serious project or as a serious endeavor, it was what I wanted to do, I wasn’t bad at it, and I really enjoyed it.

So the only decision I then had to make was whether or not to go to graduate school and get a PhD and become an academic, or, say, go to law school and do something that I thought would be more practical. And as you know, I took the former course and it’s worked out very well. I’ve been incredibly fortunate throughout most of my career.

Jed: Yeah, well, tell us about how it worked out in terms of the good fortune you’ve had, like what happened first, second and third, and how did you rise up, in our estimation, to be one of the most influential people in your field?

Stephen: Well, one way of looking at it is that I managed, for a variety of reasons, and maybe it was just a process of maturation, to perform relatively better in each stage. I was a better student in college then I’d been in high school, I was, I think, better at doing graduate school than I had been in college. When I started my academic career, things went pretty well, so some of it I’ll take some credit for, but there was also an extraordinary amount of good fortune.

Most people, when they pick graduate schools kind of don’t know what they’re doing. It’s also, I think, true for picking colleges. We try to be informed, we try to do some research, but we don’t know very much about what’s gonna work out.

In my case, I applied to six different graduate schools when I was getting ready to go get a PhD. And in fact, when I applied, UC Berkeley was last on my list. Mostly because I had spent my entire life in California, or almost my entire life in California in the Bay area, and I really wanted to get out and see something else. But by the time I got through the process of being either accepted or rejected at various places and touring a bunch of different campuses, Berkeley had risen from number six to the place that I ultimately chose to go, and that was a godsend. If I think about both the faculty I worked with there, but also the fellow graduate students I had in the program, I learned an immense amount from all of them, and that was just an act of good fortune. If I’d gone some place else, I think my career would have evolved in very different ways and might not have done nearly as well.

Jed: And what years were you in Berkeley?

Stephen: I was... I started in Berkeley in the fall of the 1977, and finished the degree in ’83, but I actually left Berkeley in 1980, moved East, worked in Washington for a year, and then got a fellowship up to Harvard, actually to the Kennedy School. So I wrote my dissertation actually at Harvard, even though it was a PhD degree from Berkeley.

04:31Good fortune

Jed: Okay, so from your PhD time to now, what have been these series of godsends and good fortunes that you’ve had from then until now?

Stephen: Well, here’s a big one. We, I think, often forget the degree to which circumstances over which we have absolutely no control play a role.

So in some respects, my career was aided by some large political forces that had happened in the world long before I got interested in the topic. For example, in the United States, during the Vietnam War, most people who went to graduate school and studied political science and studied international relations didn’t wanna study international security topics. The study of war became very unfashionable in graduate schools because it was the middle of Vietnam. What that meant was that 10 years later, when I was going to graduate school, there weren’t a previous... There wasn’t a previous cohort of people studying that were now assistant professors or associate professors. In a sense, there was an empty space in the academic ranks.

Now, about the time I was finishing my PhD, Ronald Reagan was President, we were going through what some people called the new Cold War, tensions with the Soviet Union were very high, and all of a sudden there was lots of interest in questions of arms control, international security, things like that.

So universities wanted to hire people like me, and there wasn’t a set of people right in front of us. So people in my particular professional cohort had lots of opportunities, it was just an act of luck, good timing, for which I can claim no credit at all. But it’s one of those things that helps keep me humble. It’s partly the hard work we do, it’s partly insights that we may have along the way, but a lot of professional success also just turns into random acts of good fortune.

Jed: Absolutely.

So where did you go? What offers did you end up taking?

Stephen: I ended up getting just one job offer, there’s another sort of bit of good fortune there, that the year I came out and went on the job market, I got two interviews, and I got one offer at Princeton University, and I only got that offer because Princeton chose to hire three people in the field of international relations that year, that’s quite unusual to hire that many.

They hired three people, and I’m 95% sure that I was number three on the list. So if they’d only hired two, which would have been perhaps more typical, I don’t know what I would have done. But in any case, I spent five years at Princeton. That went pretty well, I published my first book, started publishing articles as we academics do. And five years, after five years of Princeton, I actually got offers for tenured positions at both MIT and the University of Chicago, and chose to go to Chicago where I spent the next 10 years.

07:37Books written

Jed: Wow.

So what did you become known for while you were at Princeton and then Chicago? What was your field?

Stephen: I think the thing I was most well known for, and probably still am, was my first book, which was based on my dissertation, it was called The Origins of Alliances. And I developed a theory there, which is built off the realist balance of power theory that became known as balance of threat theory. This was, again, a sort of revision of some existing ideas about why states formed alliances, and that probably established my early reputation as much as anything else.

Jed: Wow, that’s really cool. So you built on that and continued to do work on what makes people go to war, what makes people start conflicts.

Is that what you kept doing?

Stephen: Well, I think one of the things about my career, I’ve worked within international relations the entire time, but I have moved into different subjects. It’s all been sort of focused around international security questions, but having written one big book on alliances, I didn’t write a second book on alliances, and then a series of articles building on that. There are some academics who work within a narrow area and stay with that for a long time and often do really important work extending it, so I’m not criticizing that.

But in my own case, I tended to move into different topics. So my second book was on revolutions and the international effects of domestic revolutions, like the French Revolution, Bolshevik revolution, Mexican Revolution, etcetera, which was a different set of topics that I got interested in. And then after that, I moved on, and my next book was actually on US foreign policy, which I wrote after I left Chicago and came to Harvard.

Jed: So US foreign policy. Now, did that put you in a position where you were an advisor to the US foreign policy people? Or...

Stephen: Not really, I’ve never been in government. I have had a number of consulting positions for different government agencies, I’ve gone to meetings where they wanna consult with a group of academics, so there’s been a certain amount of indirect advising in that way, but I’ve never actually hooked up with a presidential campaign and tried to get into the inner circle, and then go off to Washington and screw things up there.


Jed: So this never appealed to you or to your family? Do you have a family in Boston or Boston area?

Stephen: I do, I’ve been married for almost 30 years, and we have two children, 27 and 25 now. It’s actually quite a political family, my wife’s been involved in local politics here where I live, and I would have actually would have loved the opportunity at some point to go into public service, but for a variety of reasons, not least of which the fact that some of my views were at odds with the conventional wisdom on US foreign policy, those opportunities didn’t open up.

10:41Views on foreign policy

Jed: Okay, so tell us now, you gotta tell us, what are your views that are at odds with our foreign policy?

Stephen: The answer has two parts. So back in 2006, John Mearsheimer , a former colleague from the University Of Chicago, and I published an article in The London Review Of Books on the Israel lobby in US politics and its impact on US foreign policy. This was a very controversial article, lots of attention, lots of criticisms, and eventually led to our getting a book contract and writing a book which we published in 2007 on the same topic. And I think it was sufficiently controversial that I became somewhat radioactive, at least within policy circles for a long time, and that meant that, say, the Obama administration was not gonna reach out and put me into any kind of a position, it would just have been too controversial.

And then second, two years ago, I published my latest book, which is called The Hell Of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of US Primacy, and it’s really a critique of the way in which our foreign policy establishment has managed US foreign relations since the end of the Cold War. So it looks primarily at the Clinton, Bush and Obama Administrations, although as I was finishing it, Donald Trump got elected, so I had to rewrite some parts of it and add a chapter on Trump as well.

And again, because it’s an attack to some degree on the existing establishment, it’s not all that surprising that the establishment didn’t reach out and say, “Let’s give that guy a big job.”


12:29The thesis

Jed: So that’s interesting how it all went down, it wasn’t your desire, it was things that you had done that then prevented you from going into public service. Now, we’re probably going to be interviewing your old colleague John Mearsheimer.

What was the thesis of your book and of that paper?

Stephen: The central argument is that here in the United States, we have all sorts of interest groups in all sorts of areas, in labor, in farm, in medicine, Big Pharma, Wall Street, etcetera. And one of the interest groups in foreign policy is the set of organizations and individuals that we label the Israel lobby. These are various groups like AIPAC and others who operate in the American political system to maintain, for the most part, unconditional US support for Israel. We made it very clear there’s nothing conspiratorial, illegal, inappropriate about this, this is as American as apple pie, it’s the way our political system operates. And our argument was that A, these groups had had an enormous impact on American Middle East Policy, and secondly, that that influence was in fact harmful both to the United States, but also to Israel.

And that therefore what we needed was maybe the same set of groups, but for those groups to be advocating a different set of policies. That was the basic thesis of the book, we laid it out in considerable detail, talking about impact on our relationship with different countries in the Middle East, and to some degree with other countries as well.

Needless to say, this got attacked by the various groups in the lobby and by a number of other people, but I think now being about 13 years since we published that book, that events have actually borne out our argument pretty clearly, and it’s not nearly as controversial as it was when we first published it.

Jed: So what were the negative ramifications of their lobbying on Israel? That’s the one that seems most surprising to me.

Stephen: Well, among other things, we felt that this had prevented Israel or insulated Israel from some of the consequences of its own actions, and in particular the occupation, which we felt was threatening Israel’s democratic character, that instead of getting some kind of two-state solution, we were gonna end up with a one-state solution, precisely because the United States, even though it had been managing the so-called peace process for 20 years, had basically bungled the job because it could only put pressure on one side.

Clinton, Bush, Obama, all wanted to try and push for a two-state solution, but they really couldn’t push Israel very hard, and the result of that is that Israel has been headed towards becoming essentially an apartheid state, which I think is terrible thing for Israel and doesn’t bode well for its long-term future. And I think, again, that’s the trend we see, something that I say with no pleasure whatsoever, it’s one of those things where I wish we’d been wrong.

Jed: So it is headed that direction. Is there still hope? Could things be reversed? What should the next president do?

I am by nature an optimist, so I don't think any situation cannot be reversed, but in this case, I think the forces pushing in one direction are much more powerful than the forces that might wanna push in some other way, and we're just gonna have to see how this plays out over time.” – Dr. Stephen Walt

Stephen: Well, I don’t think the next president, whoever it is, is gonna move in that direction, I think it’s pretty clear Trump is not going to based on what he’s done in his first term, and I think that if there’s a Biden administration, that’s not an issue they’re gonna wanna spend a lot of political capital on, given all of the problems the United States is facing at home and abroad, they’re just gonna try and keep that on the back burner for as long as possible, which means the various trends taking place on the ground and the region will continue. I am by nature an optimist, so I don’t think any situation cannot be reversed, but in this case, I think the forces pushing in one direction are much more powerful than the forces that might wanna push in some other way, and we’re just gonna have to see how this plays out over time.

16:38Lobbying groups

Jed: And how did that lobbying groups get so much more leverage than other lobbying groups? Or do they all have this much leverage? Do the NRA, all these other lobbying groups have so much power?

Stephen: Well, again, some lobbies, and the NRA is a great example, do have extraordinary impact. You could point to the farm lobby as well as a good example of that.

I think the power of the so-called Israel lobby is pretty clear. First of all, American Jews are... Been very successful, they are very active in the political system, very high rates of political participation, they have been successful economically, so there’s money to throw at the problem, and if you wanna be an influential interest group, having some money that you can use in various ways, helps as well. There’s been a lot of motivation, not with the entire American Jewish community, but with a segment of it as well. And there’s been an alliance between groups like AIPAC and various Christian evangelical groups that for theological reasons have been strongly committed to supporting Israel in various ways. So that’s one factor.

The other factor is there really isn’t a countervailing force on the other side, there are some cases where you see lobbying groups who come up against well-organized opposition. Think of Wall Street versus organized labor, that can be a fair fight, at least, in some circumstances, or industrialists versus the environmental movement, in some cases each side will win some, each side will lose some.

You could probably say that with respect to abortion rights and the Right to Life Movement as well. So some cases, it’s a fair fight, in this case, it really isn’t. You have a set of well-organized, well-connected organizations that have been working for a long time to build capacity and build the influence. And the groups on the other side, Arab-American groups, some Palestinian-American groups, are just nowhere near as influential, don’t have as prominent a place in American society, have not, in many cases, been in the country as long with the ability to sort of figure out how the system works and operate within it.

So you put all those things together, and if you’re an average politician who doesn’t really care one way or the other about this issue, and you say, “Well, gee, if I go with AIPAC, nothing bad is gonna happen to me and I might get a little bit of support. If I go the other way, I’m gonna get a lot of oppositions from them and no one’s gonna come to my assistance”, it’s pretty easy call.

One final point though is this situation is starting to change, if you look at political attitudes, particularly among younger Americans, particularly among different parts of American society now, the sort of reflexive support for Israel isn’t as pronounced as it used to be, and I think we’re seeing that most visibly in the Democratic Party right now, but I think that’s gonna slowly change this situation, but it’s certainly not gonna reverse itself overnight.

20:00The impact of

Jed: Interesting, well, that really makes it clear to me now. There is the chance that your book and your arguments had an effect on people who are making the lobby for Israel themselves, because you were arguing that’s bad for Israel.

So were there any instances of people who are lobbying for Israel, reading your book, or talking to you saying, “You know what, you’re right. This is bad for Israel.” Did that ever happen?

Stephen: Well, I don’t have anything that’s really confirmed, I know there are people who were sort of advocates of, say, the two-state solution who read the book, they actually got a number of positive reviews by people I would characterize in that camp, including in Israel itself. And I am told that this may have had some indirect effect on groups that were trying to form a different set of organizations within the lobby. And so we may have inspired a little bit of re-thinking there, but nobody’s ever called me up and laid out chapter and verse, explaining it.

I mean, I do think the biggest impact of that particular book was simply to make it possible to talk about this issue the same way we can talk about the NRA, whether you like it or not. We can talk about the Cuba lobby in Florida and the impact it’s had. We can talk about the role that big pharma plays or that HMOs and the insurance industry plays in shaping healthcare. Until we wrote the book, it was really hard to talk about this subject without being attacked, without being marginalized and speared, and one of the reasons we did it was we were in a position to say what we thought needed to be said, and I think that has at least helped bring some fresh air into the discussion.

Jed: What position were you in? How did you avoid getting tarred and feathered as antisemites?

We were using the fact that we had job security to say something that might have otherwise had some professional consequences.” – Dr. Stephen Walt

Stephen: Well, we certainly got attacked and charged with that, it was completely false, and I don’t think that particular charge really stuck with anyone who wasn’t already dead set against us ’cause there was simply no evidence to support it. But no, both Professor Mearsheimer and I were full professors, we had tenure, we had tenure at two prominent universities. And when we were deciding whether or not to do the original paper, one of the things we said to each other was that, gee, if we’re not willing to tackle this given where we are, and given the secure positions that we have, then nobody would be willing to. And we felt a certain obligation to do so as a result. I might add, this is one of the reasons I’m still a very strong defender of the institution of academic tenure. I think many academics don’t use it for the purpose it was intended, which is either to do ambitious research that’s maybe not going to pay off, doesn’t have an immediate prospect of benefit, but you wanna pursue it for the sake of increasing the knowledge base, or it allows you to take positions that might be politically controversial. And in that case, that’s what we were using. We were using the fact that we had job security to say something that might have otherwise had some professional consequences.

Jed: Very good. Well, I’m really glad you did. Are you glad you did too as well? That you... Okay, good.

Stephen: Absolutely. It’s one of the things in my career I’m proud of.

Jed: So are your two kids sad that you’re not a political person now and somewhere in Washington, but they’re glad you did that?

Stephen: I have no idea. I’ve never really asked them, but they’re not sorry we did it.


Jed: Good. Well, as we close out this interview, I wanna turn our attention to current events. You talked about sort of that second thing was looking at America’s primacy after the Cold War and how it’s diminished. That’s been a theme of for example, the Democratic Convention that’s going on currently, people are talking about how we’ve lost the primacy. What do you think is the contributing factor to that, and do you see, again, any changes in that? Is it a good thing that we’ve lost primacy? Is it something we can regain or should regain?

Stephen: Yeah, well, part of... I think being the most powerful country in the world has lots of benefits, the principal one being you’re just more secure if you’re stronger than everybody else, and you don’t have to be as worried about various dangers that might emerge in different parts of the world. And I think there are sort of two reasons why the United States is not in the really dominant position we found ourselves in when the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union has collapsed. One is just natural tendencies occurring elsewhere, that the United States really could not have prevented very readily. China was gonna become more powerful once they adopted a market-based economic system, it was simply not gonna remain as poor as it once was. So we might have been able to operate in ways that slowed its rise a little bit, but that’s primarily due to the ambitions and energy and hard work of the Chinese people, and we weren’t gonna prevent that from happening.

Similarly, in the 1990s, Russia was really flat on its back, almost complete economic collapse after the Soviet Union broke up, and eventually they got their act together, they haven’t come back to anywhere near the level that the Soviet Union was. The Russian economy is in fact still smaller than Italy’s, for example, but they’re no longer completely inconsequential, and we have to take them into account in various ways.

So to some degree, the diminution of American primacy was due to circumstances beyond our control. Unfortunately, we also did a number of things that accelerated this process. And in the book, there was a... I argued there was a certain amount of hubris here. We believed back in the 1990s that the world was basically converging on the American model, we had found the magic formula for success, and all we had to do to spread this around the world in the form of democracy and open markets and trade and globalization, and everyone would gratefully accept this American model and we’d all live happily ever after. And we were gonna do that peacefully if possible, but if necessary through military force. That was done rather gingerly in the Clinton administration, but with much more enthusiasm in the Bush administration, and the results have been almost a complete failure. $6 trillion spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and just think of all the things that might have been done with that money in this intervening period. We have, I think alienated a number of countries that would otherwise have been much more favorably disposed towards us.

I think the process of enlarging NATO almost without limit, poisoned the relationship with Russia. That relationship might have been a little bit delicate, but not as bad as it has subsequently been.

And the real question, as we look ahead to the next administration, whoever is in charge, is whether or not we'll learn the right lessons from the past 25 years or so, or whether we'll keep making the same mistakes that we've made in the past and that have given other countries the opportunity to catch up.” – Dr. Stephen Walt

And finally, globalization, which I think was on balance a good thing, was pursued with such enthusiasm and such disregard for the domestic consequences here at home, that we’ve now had a real backlash against it in the form of Donald Trump and others. So some of this we couldn’t have prevented, but if we’d been a lot smarter from 1993 through 2020, we’d be in a much better position today. And the real question, as we look ahead to the next administration, whoever is in charge, is whether or not we’ll learn the right lessons from the past 25 years or so, or whether we’ll keep making the same mistakes that we’ve made in the past and that have given other countries the opportunity to catch up.

27:57Sign off

Jed: Interesting, fascinating stuff. Well, thank you so much for your time, Professor Walt. This has been truly fascinating. I’ve learned so much, and we really appreciate you taking time with us.

Stephen: Not at all. It’s a pleasure talking with you.

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