US elite fixed on exceptionalism idea, making global mistakes - Harvard prof.

For more than six decades since the end of the Second World War, America has been one of the global superpowers. It is used to dictating its will upon other nations, and can’t tolerate it when Washington’s opinion is not heard. But some are saying these days of domination are coming to an end. The rise of China, the growing number of internal problems in the US, the chaos in the Middle East America seems unable to solve… do these issues herald the end of America’s grip on global affairs? We ask Harvard International Politics professor whether and why that is so – Stephen Walt is on Sophie&Co today.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Stephen Walt, Harvard International Politics professor, author, it’s great to have you with us. Now, the U.S. is the world’s largest economy, military power, it plays the leading role in most of the world’s international institution: NATO, the World Bank, the IMF, and the UN. The United States’ superpower rating doesn’t go anywhere. Why do you say they’re about to see the end of an American era? Doesn’t look that way.

Stephen Walt: Well, the U.S. is going to remain the world’s most powerful country, I think, for the next several decades, in terms of its’ overall sort of capabilities. But it’s not going to have quite the same dominant position that it had for much of the period after WWII. Today, the U.S. isn’t as dominant as economic power – China is catching up – and its military power, although it is still quite considerable, doesn’t allow it to dominate every single area of the globe. I think that means the U.S. will have to make some choices and decide which parts of the world mattered the most to it, and which parts it can afford to pay less attention to.

SS: So, are you saying the idea of American exceptionalism just can’t be sort of juxtaposed to its’ military and economic power anymore?

SW: Well, the U.S. is an unusual country, but I’m always uncomfortable with the idea saying that it’s exceptional. What is most exceptional about the U.S. is actually its geographic position. It’s the only major power in history which doesn’t have major powers anywhere near its own borders. It has an enormous degree of basic security, and still is protected from most other powers by these two enormous oceans –Atlantic and Pacific oceans. And that among other things is what gives the U.S. the ability to intervene in many other parts of the world, it doesn’t have to worry as much about protecting itself here at home – that’s what is really exceptional about the U.S. It also has some unusual political values, but the U.S. is not the world’s only democracy, it’s not the only country that cares about human rights, it’s not the only capitalist country in this world. What’s really special about the U.S. is its unusual level of power and its unusual level of security.

SS: I do want to elaborate a bit about the idea of American exceptionalism – that implies that the U.S. wants to help other countries “see the light”. But what kind of country would have a selfless foreign policy?

SW: I think almost all great powers have tended to see what they were doing as both good for themselves, but also good for others. The U.S. also tends to think that which promotes American values in other of the world is not just good for the U.S. but also good for lots of other people. Sometimes, that’s probably true. I think the U.S. played a powerful positive role in helping Western Europe to recover after WWII, but in other places such as Middle East, American interference has not been beneficial and has often had really negative consequences. So, most of the Great Powers tend to see their own role in the world as very positive, but it’s not always true.

SS: You have said “there’s an overwhelming bias among U.S. foreign policy institutions towards an activist foreign policy.” Why does the U.S. feel it’s an indispensable nation still, now?

SW: Here, in the U.S., most of the key domestic institutions that are involved in foreign policy, are strongly committed to this idea of American leadership and the idea of American dominance in many key institutions. So, if you go to Washington DC and you go around the various think-thanks like the Brookings Institution or Carnegie Endowment or Heritage Foundation or the American Enterprise Institute – they are all strongly committed to the U.S. continuing to exercise global leadership, and that means the U.S. getting involved in trying to solve lots of problems in lots of places. The different people who do this don’t always agree on every single issue, but they all tend to agree that most international problems should be solved primarily by the U.S. In some circumstances that’s probably true and probably necessary, but there are other places that where we would probably be better off doing a little bit less. You just can’t find very many people in Washington who would argue that way.

SS: I want to talk a little bit about how America protects itself – something you’ve touched upon earlier. The U.S. is always ramping up defense capacities and it’s always talking about threats ranging from Islamic State to Iran, to Russia, so-called “rogue states”. Is there anything that can pose a real threat to the U.S. in any way today?

SW: There are a number of things that pose threats to the U.S., although we do tend to overstate them. Conventional terrorism is not of an existential threat to the U.S. and there are no other countries around the world that can pose a serious challenge to the U.S. or most of its vital interests. So, I do think that we tend to exaggerate international dangers, and sometimes react to events in ways that aren’t helpful because we’ve convinced ourselves they are more serious than we really think.

SS: But I think not only yourselves and U.S. has also managed to convince everyone else that, like, Syria or Iran, or North Korea are its enemies, when the military capabilities of those nations are actually miniscule, compared to those of the U.S.?

SW: All of these things are reasons to be concerned, it’s just a mistake to view them as imminent threats to American national security and we would want to take a rather measured view on such problems, so that you can develop an intelligent response to them, and not overreact or act in ways that actually make them worse.

SS: About the Middle East. You have said back in 2012 that America should be ready to intervene if the balance of power is upset. But isn’t a balance of power upset right now, with Iraq and Syria and Islamic State, Yemen? How should the U.S. be intervening?...

SW: I wouldn’t characterize it as a balance of power. I think the U.S. has always wanted to make sure that no single hostile country dominated the Middle East or controlled all of the energy resources there. That’s our primary strategic interest, to make sure that energy continues to flow to world markets. So as long as the Middle East is divided, there’s no single power dominating, the basic American interest is secure. So the U.S., for example, intervened in 1991 to stop Iraq when it seized Kuwait, because we saw that as a threat to the balance of power. Today, there’s no country threatening to dominate the region. You could argue the Middle East is more divided today that it has been in quite some time. That creates a variety of problems, but it doesn’t call for the U.S. to intervene, to try and prevent any single hostile power from dominating, because there’s no country that’s in the position to do that right now.

SS: U.S. invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, keeps up its drone war in Pakistan, Yemen. There’s Guantanamo, which remains open despite all the promises to shut down it actually. Why does it seem like the U.S. is creating problems and enemies for itself?

SW: I think those are all at some point different circumstances. The original decision to go into Afghanistan was taken in response to the terrorist attack on 9\11, and it made perfect sense for the U.S. to go in, oust the Taliban and try to capture Osama bin Laden, which took longer than we wanted, but ultimately happened. This was I think a clear response on the attack on the U.S. One can then argue whether or not the U.S. acted wisely in staying in Afghanistan as long as it did, but the original invasion, I think, was fully justified. The invasion of Iraq, in my view, was an enormous blunder. It was not justified by an imminent threat to the U.S. Saddam Hussein was a dictator and a tyrant, but he didn’t pose a direct threat to the U.S, and of course, the results of the invasion have been quite unfortunate. I also think that the U.S. ultimately has not handled the situation in Guantanamo particularly well, but ultimately that, I think, is a secondary issue, relative to some of the other things you’ve mentioned.

SS: You’ve written that one of the American mistakes in the Middle East is using military force whenever there’s a problem – and as we have seen since invasion of Iraq, military force has brought more chaos in the region, which in turn, enforces U.S. to use military force again and again and so on. So, why do policy makers in Washington keep on doing the same thing? It kind of seems counter-intuitive, or is the notion of perpetual war somehow good for the U.S.?

SS: I think “perpetual war” is not in America’s interest, and in fact, we have tended to over-rely on military power, in good part, because it’s an instrument that we have available. It’s very tempting for Presidents to think that they can accomplish a great deal by using it, and it turns out to be inappropriate in many circumstances. President Obama has tried, I think, to reduce American reliance on military force, certainly avoiding large-scale invasions and things like that. The difficulty is that the instruments we have been using: special forces, drones, etc. – don’t allow you to control events, they are more precise, they don’t cause as much damage, but they don’t allow you to control events, as we’ve seen in Libya, as we’ve seen in Yemen, and creating situations where there’s no political order – in fact, it tends to make it possible for extremists, precisely the groups that we’re most worried about to gain power. So, the U.S. ought to be operating with a much lighter touch in the region, even lighter that we’ve seen under President Obama, and recognize that political solutions are going to have to be achieved here. These problems cannot really be solved with military power.

SS: Now, you’ve said the terror threat of ISIS to the U.S. is over-exaggerated. They way to deal with them is intelligence and counter-terrorism at home, in the U.S. What do you think of anti-ISIS bombing campaign?

SW: There’s certainly nothing good one can say about ISIS, but I’ve though all along, first of all, it was not mortal or serious threat to the U.S. itself, but more importantly, that this was a problem that was going to have to be solved primarily by local actors and not by the U.S. No amount of bombing of ISIS will eliminate that problem, until there are effective political institutions in the area that ISIS now controls. Unfortunately, the U.S. does not have a particularly good track record of creating institutions like that. That’s ultimately have to be done by the Iraqis, Syrians and by other actors in the region. The U.S. may have a role to play in supporting some of those local actors, and some of our air power has been used in that regard; but the ultimate solution there isn’t going to be provided from the air, isn’t going to be provided by the U.S., it will have to be done by the local actors in the region.

SS: Okay, but I think we all agree that U.S. policies in Iraq sowed the seeds for the creation of ISIS – and that’s view shared by Noam Chomsky and many others. Does the U.S. now have the moral responsibility to help out with more than just military advisors?

SW: So having done considerable damage in that part of the world, the U.S. ought to be doing what it can to try and improve the situation, but it shouldn’t be taking steps unless its confident that those steps are likely to work. I think, our track record, unfortunately, despite often very positive intention, desire to do better, has not been particularly good. We are to be appropriately humble about our ability to influence or control the politics of that part of the world. Turns out to be very difficult for any outside power to dictate local politics, and I think the U.S. needs to be humble about our capacity to pick who should be governing places like Iraq or decide how to shape that political environment. We’ve tried repeatedly to do that in the past and hasn’t worked out particularly well, and I would favor a more detached role, which would be both consistent with American interests there and encourage local actors to do more to provide political order themselves.

SS: Going back to what you’ve said earlier about no country in the Middle East being in a position to be the leader in the region. I want to talk a little bit about Iran, and the situation around Iran. In a recent article about Iran’s nuclear deal you say that details of the agreement everybody’s so worried about don’t matter in reality. What matters?

SW: What really matters is whether or not Iran is going to get out of the penalty box as it were, and become a regular member of the international community, where the sanctions are lifted, where diplomatic relations are restored and we being to regard Iran as a legitimate actor in the region – that’s not to say that we’re going to agree with everything they want to do. Some of our interests are likely to clash – but I think that has much more importance than the fine details of the nuclear agreement. The reason it matters is that Iran is a potentially very powerful regional actor, not a Great World Power, but a very significant regional actor, and if one result of the agreement is for Iran to sort of regain its status as a normal country in the world – that will have significant effects throughout the Middle East and conceivably somewhat beyond.

SS: So let’s say U.S. does engage in cooperation with Iran. What will happen to the alliances the U.S. has with their Sunni monarch friends in the Middle East, if ties with Iran form and relations become warmer?

SW: I think, again, it would actually enhance America’s position overall in the Middle East, if we had a business-like relationship with Iran. Not closest of friendships, but one where we could cooperate on the areas where we agree and then contend with them in the areas where we disagree. One consequence of that, of course, is that the U.S. would gain more leverage over other actors in the region, who might then do more to try and keep Washington happy, because they would be concerned that we would be getting to close to Iran. It gets back to what I said earlier: the basic American interest in the Middle East is to maintain a balance of power and percent any single country from dominating, and it’s easier to do that if we have relations with everyone in the region, and can shift our position as the balance of power or the balance of interests changes there. We don’t want to be overly tied to any single country because that reduces our diplomatic flexibility, reduces our leverage, and ultimately isn’t good for American interests.

SS: Sure, but my question was more about what will happen to U.S.-Saudi ties and partnership if America’s relationship with Iran becomes warmer.

SW: That would obviously be of some concern to Saudi Arabia and the U.S. would have to go to some lengths to reassure Saudi Arabia that an opening to Iran does not mean we’re no longer interested in a strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia. As I said before, I think that would actually encourage Saudi Arabia to listen more carefully to some American concerns. The U.S. is not going to abandon Saudi Arabia or any other country, including, for example, Israel, because it’s talking to Tehran. It may actually put us in the position where all other our allies in the region listen more closely to what America wants.

SS: Tell me something: the Russia’s S-300 sale to Iran – what’s so wrong about it, what’s so objectionable, why’s Washington so upset? Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has said that the Americans didn’t really mind it before, and their reaction was actually surprising to Moscow…

SW: Given the relationships between the U.S. and Iran today, the U.S. has always been concerned by anything that increased Iran’s military capabilities and anything that might allow it to act with greater impunity in the region. I think it’s for that reason that the announcement of the sale was of some concern to Washington. I also think that the Obama Administration was concerned with the timing of the announcement – it was rather delicate moment in a nuclear negotiations, there are opponents of the nuclear deal here in the U.S., and anything that looks like an increase in Iranian capabilities or something that destabilizes the strategic environment even a tiny bit, is going to make selling the Iran nuclear deal a little bit more difficult. So, for all of those reason, the Obama Administration was concerned by the announcement that this sale may go through – although it’s not clear what the timing is going to be, or whether or not this is something we have to worry about any time in the near future.

SS: Now, if the S-300 are bad, why’s the entire nuclear missile shield in Europe okay? Clearly, a system like that will only make Moscow nervous and the U.S. knows that full well. Why does it pursue it anyway?

SW: I’ve never thought that the missile shield in Europe that the U.S. has proposed was strategically wise and therefore, I’m not sure I can compare the two systems, they are really quite different things, but I think that ultimately, deploying some form of missile defense in Eastern Europe was not a wise American decision.

SS: We’ve heard a lot about the pivot to Asia that this Administration undertook with the idea of containing China. Why does China need to be contained? I mean, the U.S. is China’s biggest trading partner, why would Beijing want to mess this up?

SW: I think, it’s important to realize that the Administration does not use the word “containment” in talking about U.S. relations with China. In fact, they’ve quite explicitly said that they are not trying to contain China in any particular way. I think what you’re seeing is a natural reaction to China’s increasing power, it’s increasing economic capabilities – but also the fact that China’s military power has been increasing its military budget by roughly 10% a year for quite some time, and China has become more assertive about making territorial claims in places like South China sea, which of course makes other countries, including some American allies, but also some independent countries very nervous. So, what you’re seeing is an American reaction to China’s growing power and growing assertiveness. American leaders understand that we’re not going to “contain” China: China is a major economic actor, both with the U.S., but also with many others. It’s represented in lots of international institutions now, it’s an active diplomatic player in a variety of ways, and the U.S. is not going to stop that, and indeed wouldn’t be able to, even if it wanted to. What we’re trying to make sure of is that there’s still an effective balance of power in Asia, so that America’s allies feel secure, feel like they can’t be pressured by China over time, and that American interests in not having China dominate East Asia are preserved. But I don’t think anyone there is really talking about “containment”.

SS: Alright, professor, thank you very much for this interview. We were talking to Stephen Walt, Harvard International Politics professor, author, talking about Washington’s hold on global leadership and if we’re headed towards an end of the American era. That’s it for this edition of Sophie&Co, I will see you next time.