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HomeGlobal Perspective & Critical ResearchIs the Blob Really Blameless? How not to evaluate American grand strategy

Is the Blob Really Blameless? How not to evaluate American grand strategy

Author: Stephen Walt

Affiliation: Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government 

Organization/Publisher: Foreign Policy 

Date/Place: September 22, 2020/USA

Type of Literature: Book debate  

Word Count: 4925


Keywords: The Hell of Good Intentions Book, America’s Foreign Policy Elite, Francis Gavin’s Review, Liberal Hegemony, and Offshore Balancing Strategy


In this article, Stephen Walt discusses a set of criticisms of his latest book, The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy, which came in a previous review by Francis Gavin. The author describes that most of Gavin’s criticisms are misleading claims, that while Gavin claims to be neutral academically and politically, everyone knows his strong inclination to the liberal hegemony approach (which Walt’s book strongly criticized) and that call for more American involvement in world affairs despite all the disasters that have been committed under US foreign policy since 1991. Above all, Walt says that his book The Hell of Good Intentions follows the path of “well-known works like C. Wright Mills’s The Power Elite, as well as the extensive literatures on bureaucratic politics, interest group politics, and the military-industrial complex, not to mention the work of historians who have explored the chronic tendency of the foreign-policy establishment to exaggerate threats.” Walt believes that Gavin’s criticism is based on four main claims, which he overviews and criticizes one by one. First, Gavin claims that US foreign policy since the end of the Cold War has achieved great success regardless of the costly mistakes in the Middle East. Second, he claims that the alternative grand strategy recommended by Walt and his colleagues, i.e. the offshore balancing strategy or the “restraint approach” would be a disaster for the country, and that is why it has been rejected by the foreign policy establishment and the American public as well. Third, Gavin portrayed Walt and restrainers as central figures with enormous potential and not a marginalized minority as Walt’s book claims, and thus their failure to persuade the elite and the public to adopt their approach is evidence of the unsoundness of their ideas. Fourth, Gavin claims – contrary to Walt’s book – that the foreign policy establishment includes a professional and intellectually diverse elite, who have dedicated themselves to serving the best interests of the country and the world. After presenting Gavin’s claims and arguments, Walt extensively critiques each, providing numerous practical examples. First, he sheds light on the disasters left by liberal hegemony that has dominated US foreign policy since the end of the Cold War until 2016. It has resulted in a waste of US wealth, lives and status, failed to promote liberal democracy, open markets, or shape the world in the US image as it intended, as democracy today is experiencing its lowest levels of decline ever. It has caused hostile relations with major powers such as Russia and China while it aspired to contain them, to change them from within, and then to integrate into the US-led liberal international order. It led to the 9/11 attacks after keeping thousands of American soldiers in the Persian Gulf under the name of the “dual containment strategy” which led to the Afghanistan and Iraq quagmires and the creation of failed states in Libya, Syria, and Yemen. It led to the deterioration of the security situation in Europe and laid the foundations for many conflicts in the Balkans, Georgia, Ukraine, and the Baltic, and did not prevent European countries moving away from liberal democracy such as Hungary, Poland, and Turkey. It did not curb nuclear proliferation (Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, India), and produced hyper globalization that it pushed into a great depression in 2008, etc. Regarding the second claim, Walt argues that adopting the offshore balancing strategy in the 1990s would have prevented all of the aforementioned disasters, and he criticizes Gavin’s distortion of this strategy. The strategy does not call for the total withdrawal of the US from the world and its institutions as Gavin claims, but rather calls for more restraint, to stop squandering wealth and blood on wealthy “allies” who are capable of defending themselves, to stop pursuing hyper globalization, and always stand ready to ally with others if necessary to prevent the rise of a hegemon power in Europe, East of Asia, or the Persian Gulf. Third, Walt emphasizes once again (by examples) that realists and voices of restraint are not heard in the foreign policy establishment, not because their ideas are unsound or not logical as Gavin claims, but because they are a small handful in major US universities and research institutions. Walt says that “organizations and individuals committed to America’s global leadership role and to an ambitious foreign policy agenda are far more numerous and much better funded than groups arguing for greater U.S. restraint.” As for the American public in general, it is less interested in foreign policy so it does not pay attention to its major debates, contrary to Gavin’s claims that the public is unconvinced of the restraint approach. The fourth issue revolves around the nature of the elites in the foreign policy community. Walt asserts that he has never said, as Gavin claims, that these elites pursue their interests and participate in dark plots against the supreme interests of the country, but that they are rather devoted elites who truly believe that the US hegemony is good for the country and the world, which interventionism Walt continues to reject. It is an elite with good intentions that have led to a repeated hell. He also criticizes the blob’s system which is keen to harmonize and support the liberal hegemony approach, excludes the figures who disagree with the prevailing opinion, and does not punish the perpetrators of previous disasters, but instead gives them opportunities for promotion and to return again, as has happened with Paul Wolfowitz, John Bolton, and Elliott Abrams. Finally, Walt assures the reader that Gavin’s review is worthy of contemplation, but it is misleading and includes a lot of lies, as it expresses the concern of those who dominate the establishment about the growing attractiveness of the restraint approach among the elites and American public alike.

By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA  Senior Research Associate



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