Book review: “Taming American Power” by Stephen Walt

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Taming American Power: The Global Response to U.S. Primacy (W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition, 2006) - U$ 11.87 Paperback (amazon.com)

The current debate about the potential U.S. military strike against Syria powerfully symbolizes the profound disconnect between the United States and the rest of the world. While U.S.-American scholars and policy makers primarily discuss how to react to the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime against its people, the rest of the world is equally worried about the preservation of another important norm - namely, the use of force against another state. President Obama's failed attempt to drum up support during the recent G20 summit for his military plans against Syria reflects this schism.

Yet the United States and the world disagree on a far more important issue: U.S. global leadership itself. While most mainstream U.S. thinkers consider the United States to be indispensable for the spread of freedom, democracy and economic growth, many policy makers and observers - even allies - around the world see it as the greatest threat to these very principles. This profound disagreement prominently surfaced during the 2011 intervention in Libya, which was hailed as a great success in the West. Ivo Daalder, the US ambassador to NATO, called it a "model intervention". Stewart Patrick argued that it "vindicated R2P".

Emerging powers, on the other hand, would have none of it. In a terse concept note submitted to the UN Secretary General in November 2011, Brazil argued that "there is a growing perception that the concept of the responsibility to protect might be misused for purposes other than protecting civilians, such as regime change." According to policy makers in Brasília, Pretoria and Delhi, NATO had abused emerging powers' good faith and turned Resolution 1973 into a mandate for removing Muammar Gaddafi from power. A very similar logic applied to the U.S. invasion in Iraq in 2003. President Bush may have believed that life in Iraq can be improved by liberty, but the rest of the world saw the invasion as a demonstration of the dangers of unchecked U.S. power.

It is in the context of this key debate that Stephen Walt's Taming American Power remains, even today, of utmost importance. As Walt writes,

If the United States' primacy is a force for good -- as the country's leaders proclaim and its citizens overwhelmingly believe -- why do even its allies have concerns about its influence? They have misgivings because they recognize that Washington's power could threaten their own interests.

While Walt's book can be read as a critique directed against the Bush administration's muscular foreign policy, the examples cited above show that the problems identified by the author are more general and similarly apply to the Obama administration. Taming American Power calls for a deep rethinking of how the United States relate to the world.

Rather than falsely accusing the rest of the world of not supporting liberal values such as freedom and democracy, Walt perceives that antipathy toward the United States is shaped more by what the country does in the international arena than by what it stands for politically and economically. Today's emerging powers such as Brazil and India are no less concerned about human rights abuses and the erosion of democracy than the United States, yet they go about dealing with these challenges on their own terms, and under different premises than foreign policy makers in Washington, D.C. Democracy promotion remains deeply unpopular in Latin America, partly because the United States directly or indirectly overthrew nine democratically elected governments in the region, many of which were followed by far more autocratic regimes. As a consequence, Brazil cares deeply about international law and national sovereignty.

As a response, the author suggests that

instead of allowing the United States to act with impunity, primacy requires Washington to work harder to convince the other nations of the world that U.S. power is to be welcomed rather than feared.

Specifically, Walt argues that the United States should scale down its globalist ambitions and return to a strategy of "offshore balancing" -- "ready to deploy its power if its vital interests were threatened but no longer maintaining a large overseas military presence:" this implies limiting direct U.S.-American involvement as far as possible and relying instead on local alliances and the promotion of regional stability. Furthermore Walt writes that

instead of telling the world what to do and how to live -- a temptation that both neoconservative empire-builders and liberal internationalists find hard to resist -- the United States must lead by example.

Contrary to most foreign policy scholars, Walt regularly applies the concepts laid out in his book to current affairs. Regarding the crisis in Syria, he recently wrote to his Congress man that

the moral case for intervention is not compelling (...). Yes, the Syrian people are suffering greatly, but U.S. airstrikes will not alter that situation and could easily make it worse. Indeed, recent scholarly research on civil wars shows that outside intervention tends to increase civilian killings and doesn't shorten the length of wars. If we are interested in reducing human suffering, therefore, we should eschew airstrikes and increase our relief aid to Syrian refugees instead.

While such recommendations have made Walt one of the most widely read authors of international affairs in Asia, Latin America and elsewhere, many of his policy proposals are often seen as too radical in Washington, D.C. Even among academics, Walt remains somewhat of an outlier. The uncomfortable truth may be that many academics may be too worried about making themselves ineligible for a future position in the U.S. State Department, the Department of Defense of the White House to stray that far from the U.S. foreign policy mainstream. Indeed, no policy maker in Washington would take the political risk of offering a position to the author. Thankfully, Stephen Walt is unlikely to care much.

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