Rumors of the foreign policy community's demise are false

Rumors of the foreign policy community's demise are false
© Getty Images

Harvard professor Stephen Walt has just published a hard-hitting new book, “The Hell of Good Intentions:  America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy.” 

It has a hard edge — Walt names lots of names and spares few among America’s foreign policy notables in his indictments.


On numerous regrettable occasions, Walt is unfair and wrong to impugn the motives of many people who simply disagree with him and to allege financial or political conflict of interest on the part of many people and institutions who hold themselves to ethical standards that are every bit as high as Walt’s own Harvard University. 

But the book still addresses an important subject: Is the Washington foreign policy community doing its job well?

Walt concludes the book with a proposal for offshore balancing as the underpinning of future American grand strategy. This is a more minimalist approach to U.S. foreign policy that, I believe, would be much more dangerous than Walt allows, since it would echo in many ways the foreign policy the United States effectively attempted before and between the world wars, with disastrous results.  

But my main purposes here are not to debate Walt over U.S. grand strategy. Rather, there are two other parts of the book that I believe are even more interesting.

The first is Walt’s contention that the American foreign policy community tends toward groupthink. The second is that many think tanks have lowered their scholarly and intellectual standards over the years.  

On balance, I think there is a useful warning in Walt’s first point, even if he often overstates it. On the second point, I think he is simply wrong, and it is important to say why.   

First, consider the question of groupthink among the purported foreign policy elite. To make his case, Walt cites a litany of supposed American foreign policy sins that have been carried out with little dissent from the foreign policy elite under the Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama administrations. 

They include the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, smaller interventions such as in Libya, fervent promotion of democracy worldwide and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) expansion from 16 to 29 members since the Berlin wall fell.   

Walt is persuasive in much of his critique of the Iraq War. His Afghanistan critique is far too simple, however.  The United States had little choice but to overthrow the Taliban regime that had allowed al Qaeda to begin to plan the 9/11 attacks on its territory. 

As a nation, we effectively then tried the kind of minimalist approach in Afghanistan that Walt would seem to advocate. By 2007 or so, however, it was clear that the strategy had failed, with the Taliban mounting a comeback. Only then did we “surge.”  

Perhaps our response since then has been excessive given the results that have been achieved. But sometimes there are no great options in life, or foreign policy, and inaction can itself have huge costs (as when we abandoned Afghanistan after the Cold War, allowing the Taliban ultimately to come to power there and invite al Qaeda in).

On another key matter, the Asia-Pacific “rebalance” or “pivot” since 2011 was probably the main grand strategic effort of the Obama years. It strikes me as precisely the kind of balanced, restrained, mostly non-military initiative that Walt should applaud.  

Moreover, while the foreign policy community has agreed on the importance of the Asia-Pacific, there has been vigorous debate about specific policy ideas. 

I am with Walt in my skepticism about NATO expansion — especially going forward.  But no one has kicked me out of The Brookings Institution for making that argument, and in fact, it gets a pretty good hearing around town these days. 

Still, there is value to Walt’s warnings, even if his allegation of a virtual cabal of inside thinking within Washington is unpersuasive. For example, I believe that both the NATO expansion debate and the Iraq War debate would have benefited from more dissent and diversity of views in earlier days, and I also believe that academia, broadly defined, was not heard enough. 

On the second point, the quality of think tank work, Walt is way off base. Here, I will focus just on Brookings, since I know it best, and since Walt targets it several times.

Walt remembers with rightful admiration the Brookings of a generation ago. But Brookings’ foreign policy work this century measures up very well against those earlier glory days — not to mention the Harvard of today, I might add. Consider:

  • Bruce Riedel’s masterful studies on al Qaeda, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia;
  • Bob Kagan’s short books on American foreign policy;
  • Tom Wright and Bruce Jones’ volumes on grand strategy and the nature of today’s world order;
  • Richard Bush’s rigorous books on East Asian security;
  • excellent diplomatic histories by Martin Indyk, Steve Pifer and Strobe Talbott on their dealings with the Middle East, Ukraine, Russia and India;
  • great books based on field research in overseas conflict zones by Shadi Hamid and Vanda Felbab-Brown;
  • Fiona Hill and Cliff Gaddy’s extremely insightful books on Russia and on Putin;
  • Will McCant’s path-breaking study based on his detailed analysis, in the original Arabic, of ISIS doctrines, propaganda and worldviews;
  • Peter Singer’s books on modern warfare; and
  • my own work with Jim Steinberg on how to chart a moderate policy toward China

It is true that our “business model” (and that of several other think tanks) has changed somewhat. We are still every bit as much a book culture as the Brookings of old.

Rather than publishing frequently in academic journals, however (which can be slow and somewhat pedantic at times), we tend to complement the books with shorter articles and essays, blogs and op-eds, podcasts and media appearances and other such vehicles. 

But fortunately, a more careful review of the evidence than Walt provides shows that our standards remain excellent, and I would suggest the same is true for most other major think tanks around town.

Michael O'Hanlon is a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution, specializing in defense and foreign policy issues.