The Magazine

An Unbalanced Critique of Bush

What the international relations experts get wrong.

Nov 3, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 08 • By GERARD ALEXANDER
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THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION'S foreign policy has come under withering attack in recent months. Critics accuse the administration of crossing the line that separates a foreign policy strong enough to secure U.S. interests from one so muscular that it provokes other countries to block us instead. The charge boils down to this: Bush is creating new enemies faster than he is deterring old ones.

If this line of criticism is correct, then many conservative assumptions about foreign policy may be dangerously flawed. Conservative hawks want to vigorously pursue U.S. security in a world of new and uncertain dangers. But they have no desire to do it so zealously that they cause a self-defeating backlash. In this, they have no better authority than George W. Bush, who said in 2000 that if "we're an arrogant nation, they'll resent us."

The problem is that it's unclear where the line is drawn. A vocal minority claims that U.S. "aggression" has provoked worldwide resentment and "blowback," including September 11 itself. But most American observers would disagree, insisting that this country is unthreatening when compared to almost all other great powers of history, which is why the United States has provoked so little animosity. Theorists of the "realist" school of international relations explain this by describing the United States as an "offshore balancer." In this view, American forces have been committed to Europe or Asia only when an aggressor threatened to dominate those regions, and only in cooperation with local allies. Because U.S. forces were clearly there not by choice and not to stay, American intervention was generally welcomed. Whatever the reasons for its restraint, America's behavior was unlike that of normal great powers. Others detected that difference, and responded accordingly: Whereas they "balanced" against other great powers by expanding their militaries and seeking allies, America provoked very little balancing.

This view survived well after America emerged as the sole superpower. As recently as May 2000, prominent international relations scholars met to try to explain why countries were still not balancing against the United States. Stephen Walt, a prominent realist and a dean of Harvard's Kennedy School, described this absence in a chapter of the book "America Unrivaled":

Disagreements and policy disputes are hardly a new development in U.S. relations with its principal allies, yet there have been no significant defections [from U.S. alliances] in the ten years since the Soviet Union imploded. Russia, China, North Korea, and a few others have occasionally collaborated . . . but their efforts fall well short of formal defense arrangements. . . . [U.S.] allies may resent their dependence on the United States and complain about erratic U.S. leadership, but the old cry of "Yankee, Go Home" is strikingly absent in Europe and Asia. . . . No one is making a serious effort to forge a meaningful anti-American alliance.

Walt concluded that "balancing tendencies--while they do exist--are remarkably mild. It is possible to find them, but one has to squint pretty hard."

In the past 18 months, hawks have been bombarded with warnings that squinting is no longer needed. They are being warned that the Bush administration's policies are likely to provoke other countries to frustrate our goals rather than help us achieve them. The result would be diminished rather than enhanced U.S. security. The New York Times has editorialized that Bush's "lone-wolf record" and "overly aggressive stance" risk "undermining the very interests that Mr. Bush seeks to protect" by inspiring "the enmity rather than the envy of the world." This has become practically the official foreign policy stance of numerous intellectuals and commentators, the AFL-CIO, and the entire Democratic presidential pack.

It is also echoed by usually sober international relations scholars. The University of Chicago's Robert Pape argues that the administration's "threat to wage unilateral preventive war" crucially "changed America's long-enjoyed reputation for benign intent" and is inspiring others to balance against the United States. Stephen Walt says that Washington today is in the position of imperial Germany in the two-decade lead-up to 1914, when that country's expansionism caused "its own encirclement." Chicago's John Mearsheimer joined Walt this past winter to argue that the proposed Iraq operation was likely to "reinforce the growing perception that the United States is a bully." Each was among the nearly three dozen international relations scholars who warned in an open letter in the New York Times that the Iraq war would provoke "increasing anti-Americanism" worldwide.