Foreign Policy Headed to Realism?: Seeking Perspective On Stephen Walt's Lecture

By Victoria Lee-A-Yong

The current tensions surrounding foreign policy are, to severely understate them, palpable. People whose identities stretch beyond the United States, such as myself, find these policy decisions and talks all the more nerve-wracking, as we often watch helplessly while people elected by a country to which we do not feel connected decide what is best for the innocents in the countries for which our hearts break. Stephen Walt’s presentation on Thursday, October 26th about the direction of U.S. foreign policy in the wake of Trump’s election, was one such talk, and I found myself mentally preparing for both the venue, so packed on a Thursday night that SCI101 had to resort to seating guests on the steps along its sides, and for whatever words were about to come out of Stephen Walt’s mouth.

Walt’s accolades were rattled off by Ayse Kaya, Associate Professor of Political Science. Walt has written many books, won many awards, taught at many universities, and is one of the most revered thinkers in foreign policy at the moment.

These factors likely explain Walt’s realism when discussing the policy decisions of the Trump administration and what he believes should have been done to keep the respect the global community. Most foreign policy officials, like himself, consider Trump “utterly unfit for office,” yet not for the reasons many other political thinkers do.

According to Walt, most foreign policy experts consider what he calls “liberal hegemony” the gold standard; the idea that promoting liberal democracy and revisionist grand strategy through nation-building efforts and modern forms of imperialism is the way to ensure that the United States maintains power. As Walt notes, this is considered a failure amongst the majority of Americans, and the continued failure of liberal hegemony as a foreign policy strategy has resulted in a political climate where “America First” is attractive to an alarming number of the electorate.

After outlining Trump’s failures, which he is sure to describe as “sheer incompetence,” Walt notes its effects on global views of America: sixty-four percent of global citizens had faith in U.S. foreign policy during the Obama administration. Only twenty-one percent have faith in us now.

To be clear, Walt’s quip with Donald Trump is not the position he took while campaigning, but the way he executed it. Walt’s ideal of policy is cut and dry: prevent other rival powers like China from dominating their region(s), and be sure that the United States capitalizes control over oil in the Persian Gulf. And while Walt acknowledged briefly the necessity of human rights, he did this only to say that one should not be ambivalent to it.

For example, in the case of the situation in Syria, Walt suggests pulling out completely and allowing Russia to take control of the region, as Assad’s presence in Syria is “not existential” to the United States and its maintenance of power. Ryan Arazi ’21 says this really strikes him: “[Walt’s] crass attitude on a country that has so many human rights abuses is dangerous, but seemingly necessary for the longevity and success of a sovereign nation.”

Many students felt that Walt, and realist thinkers like him, may be out of touch with the human aspects of foreign policy. Coleman Powell ’20 notes that realism, as a theory, “removes historical and cultural context.” For Powell, there needs to be “room for nuance,” and a theory should “capture the complexity of the people within a state.”

As a person of Syrian descent myself, Walt’s crassness hurt. As a person living with a part of my identity overseas, his positions on foreign policy and interference seemed selfish, but I realized I agreed. Just not for the same reasons.

His only goals were to stabilize American power and dominate the world, which are power-hungry, but not unfamiliar. This is what has had a strong foothold on politics arguably since politics was created. Advance the power of the nation at large, with little to no regard for the people on the ground. This is realism: theory, not people.

In Syria and everywhere, people matter. Looking at the history of liberal hegemony reveals the grotesque and toxic consequences of U.S. imperialism throughout history. Walt agrees that the War on Terror has created more terrorism than it has stopped, and implores that policymakers are wary of intervening if they’re unaware of the tangible ways in which to make a situation better. If the United States leaves Syria, it should be because it has left a power vacuum in each and every state in which it has installed a shaky democracy against the will of the people. It should be because increasing anti-American sentiment in the region by continuing to practice violent imperialism will only increase terror and cause suffering and death amongst innocents. It should be because the people are relevant, not because we see them as pawns.