Why others may fear America's power

A Harvard professor makes the case for a kinder, gentler US foreign policy

One of the best ways to insult people in the foreign policy world is to call them "immature." Maturity, the idea goes, is what separates serious professionals from reckless amateurs, pragmatists from ideologues, those who fashion policy according to sober assessments of threats and capabilities from those who launch righteous crusades driven by myopia and wishful thinking.

So it is telling that Stephen Walt writes in the opening pages of Taming American Power: The Global Response to US Primacy that his purpose is to lay out a "more mature foreign policy."

Walt, a professor and dean at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, then proceeds to chastise the Bush administration for its "hubris" and "smug overconfidence" and urges a return to "wisdom and self-restraint" in Washington's dealings with the rest of the world.

In other words, the kids have made a mess and now it's time for the adults to come in and clean things up.

Walt is one of the most prominent contemporary "realists," those foreign-policy thinkers who, as he explains it, hold that "states in anarchy are acutely sensitive to the balance of power and generally uncomfortable whenever one state - no matter how virtuous or benevolent - becomes significantly stronger than others."

The relevance of this description to the current international landscape is obvious. Hence Walt's finger- wagging exhortation to Americans: In essence, consider the effects your actions have on others. That this advice suffices as the thesis of a 250-word book is above all an indication of the degree to which Walt feels the Bush administration has failed to heed it.

"Taming American Power" could be subtitled "Why They Hate Us, and Why We Should Care." Like any good realist, Walt recognizes that the mere fact of American primacy makes a certain amount of hostility inevitable, even among those who may have little reason to fear it.

But just as important as "who we are," he argues, "is what we do and where we do it."

He thus dutifully catalogs all the things that Washington has done in recent years, and especially since January 2001, that he believes have inflamed anti-Americanism: declining to sign the Kyoto Protocol and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, Bush's reference to the "axis of evil" in his 2002 State of the Union address, and the launching of a preventive war in Iraq with little international support.

From the perspective of Paris or Pyongyang, the question for our unipolar moment is not what to do with American power, but what to do about American power.

And when he surveys today's world, he sees no shortage of examples of other governments banding together and strengthening themselves in an effort to balance or resist American might, often with alarming success.

Even the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs, Walt argues, are merely "prudent and predictable" reactions to the dominance of an aggressively hostile superpower. So too, in part, Al Qaeda, with its deft use of the ultimate weapon of the weak: "Today we see global terrorism as motivated by radical animosity to US values, and we discount the possibility that certain US policies" - strong support for Israel chief among them - "might be of equal (or greater) importance in provoking violence against us."

Walt is more interested in issuing judicious warnings than he is in moaning about the end of days. (Indeed, as a book, "Taming American Power" suffers from its virtue in putting good sense before sex appeal.)

"Although one cannot entirely rule out the possibility of a grand anti-American coalition were the United States to behave too aggressively," he writes, "it would take a remarkable feat of American diplomatic incompetence to bring it about."

To avoid such a fate, Walt argues that Washington 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."

Three decades ago, the French theorist Raymond Aron observed that American foreign policy oscillates between "the crusading spirit" and "isolation far from a corrupt world that refused to heed the American gospel." The attacks of Sept. 11 unleashed the crusading spirit, and it carried us into Iraq.

But now involvement in Iraq has curtailed the aspirations of the Bush administration and could send us spinning back toward isolation: Voters are beginning to call for a swift exit regardless of the consequences for Iraqis and are showing little appetite for taking on new missions, hawkish or humanitarian.

Walt resists getting caught up in this isolationist backlash, instead calling for a balance between engagement and restraint.

But Walt's prescriptions, for all their "realism," may well turn out to be tragically unrealistic. For if the past is any guide, the backlash could prove powerful enough to sweep Walt's good sense away with it.

Daniel Kurtz-Phelan is an associate editor at Foreign Affairs magazine.

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