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HomeGlobal Perspective & Critical ResearchWhy Is the United States So Bad at Foreign Policy?

Why Is the United States So Bad at Foreign Policy?

Author: Stephen Walt

Affiliation: Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government 

Organization/Publisher: Foreign Policy 

Date/Place: January 13, 2020, U.S.

Type of Literature: Analysis 

Word Count: 2710


Keywords: Trump’s “no Strategy” approach, America’s Foreign Policy Elite, Balance of Power, Neoclassical Realism.


In seeking to answer the article’s question, the author explains why he describes US foreign policy as “so bad.” He believes the US hasn’t had a coherent strategy since President Bush. The issue here is not only related to the Trump administration but also his predecessors, Presidents Clinton, Bush Jr. and Obama, as each weakened American power and position due to the lack of a clear and coherent vision of the country’s foreign policy. However, the author focuses more on Trump, who is pursuing the approach of “no strategy.” What we have now is brute force coercion, divorced from clear objectives and implemented by an ignorant president with poor impulse control, especially with the lure of the immense military power of the country. On all fronts, Trump caused disasters at the level of foreign policy. In the Middle East, instead of a gradual and calculated disengagement and a return to the policy of balance of power that proved successful during the period 1945-1989, Trump allowed his wealthy clients there and his hawkish advisers to drag him back into a meaningless confrontation with Iran and to a new quagmire in the Middle East. As for China, he waged a trade war against it, describing it as the most threatening competitor, after he withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, slapping 11 countries that worked hard to reach this agreement. Trump has damaged the credibility of the US’ commitments with its Asian allies, to find himself alone fighting a trade war against China. He repeated the same mistake with the European allies. Walt argues that the difficult circumstances Washington has gone through since the end of the Cold War are not considered a reason for this very bad strategy. The country has known much more difficult conditions since President Truman, but the US used to confront challenges with great ingenuity each time. Former leaders have always shown a high awareness of the most important issues and a clever prediction of the reactions of opponents and allies. There are many reasons for this poor state of American foreign policy, most notably, that the US decision-makers are not exposed to sufficient public pressure, as Americans remain disinterested in foreign policy; and distinguishing between what is a successful or failed strategy has given way to special interests groups who have taken over the foreign establishment. Moreover, there is “little accountability in today’s foreign-policy establishment. Bad ideas survive no matter how often they are disproved, and people who get things wrong repeatedly routinely fail upward, while those who get things right are often marginalized.”  So, how can we expect a positive change? There is another factor related to the collective false belief of Americans that they are the ideal people that all peoples of the world aspire to emulate, which makes Americans comfortable with the official discourse calling for the promotion of democracy and regime change, which implicated the country in many quagmires. This ignorance of other peoples is strongly present among US officials as well, which hinders their prediction of other people’s reactions to its policies. With the geographical isolation of the US making it easier for Americans to believe that they are immune from global risks and threats, the author concludes that the US has reached a point where its national security and foreign policy have become more like performance art.

By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA Senior Research Associate



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