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Phi Beta Kappa Hosts Stephen Walt

16 mins read

By Shaylyn Mackinnon

     The Phi Beta Kappa Honor Society joined with the Siler Forum to host visiting scholar Stephen Walt on Thursday, Feb. 22, in the Concert Hall. Students, faculty and members of the Drew community joined to listen to Walt discuss the topic Where is U.S. Foreign Policy Headed? Walt is an expert in foreign policy studies and currently works as the Robert and René Belfer Professor of International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

     The talk began with an introduction by Associate Dean Maria Masucci, the president of the Drew chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, which she explained is “the nation’s oldest and most prestigious honor society,” a statement reiterated on the program of the event. Its mission, according to Masucci, is to “champion education in the liberal arts and sciences, and to recognize academic excellence and foster freedom of thought and expression.” The visiting scholar program supported by the honors society allows students to meet distinguished scholars in personal settings and hear them talk about their fields of studies. The intimacy of this visiting scholar program was highlighted by a small reception of coffee and snacks following the event where attendees could personally speak with Walt.

     Following the explanation of Phi Beta Kappa’s role in hosting Walt, Professor Philip Mundo of the Political Science Department introduced the speaker, highlighting his many educational and professional achievements, including time at Princeton and the University of Chicago, Resident Associate of the Carnegie Endowment and a Guest Scholar at the Brookings Institute, a consultant for the Institute of Defense Analysis, the center for naval analysis, several editorial positions of publications like International Security, Foreign Policy, and the Cornell Studies in Security Affairs book series. At one point Mundo simply could not keep up with Walt’s achievements, stating that he is “the author of many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many books and articles including, for example, The Origins of Alliances, Revolution and War, Taming American Power: The Global Response to U.S. Primacy and co-author with John Mearsheimer of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.” After these many accolades were addressed, Mundo gave the floor to Walt with much applause as the speaker walked to the podium.

     A range of ages made up the audience, with professors and locals from the Madison area mixing with students to fill the first few rows of the concert hall to listen to Walt discuss U.S. foreign in the Trump era.

     Walt began by thanking Mundo for his introduction, revealing that the two were classmates in graduate school. He quickly launched into a fast-paced analysis of where U.S. foreign policy is headed under Trump’s presidency, which Walt admitted, “I think it’s fair to say that there’s more uncertainty about this question than at any time in recent memory.” He noted President Trump’s campaign commitment to instill foreign policies that put “America First,” a promise of radical departure from past policies that Walt argued Trump will not be able to keep, “He is not going to be able to give American’s the foreign policy they want and deserve.” Walt conceded, “That’s not to say he won’t have any effect at all—in some ways he has already done damage and he is likely to do more.” This introduced Walt’s conviction that under the Trump administration, U.S. foreign policy is likely to see the “worst of both worlds.” As Walt explained, “The United States will still be pursuing a flawed grand strategy, but with an erratic skipper at the helm of the ship of state.” The comment evoked some laughter from those in attendance. Walt remained critical of Trump throughout the rest of his 40-minute talk.

     Walt identifies as a realist, a theory of international relations that emphasizes the states as the main political actors and assumes that states are motivated by national interests—interests that are based on international power struggles. This is opposed to liberal theory that places more importance on the role of individual actors within a state. His stance on international relations theory was made clear as Walt discussed, among other topics, his criticisms of liberal hegemony. Before delving into the topic, Walt spent several minutes noting modern issues of U.S. foreign policy, from our excessively deteriorating relations with China and Russia to the increase in nuclear weapons in Iran, to U.S. involvement in the Middle East, the retreat of democracy world wide and repeated “humiliating failures” in the efforts to promote peace in the Israeli-Pakistani conflict. Walt explained that these issues were not entirely the fault of U.S. foreign policy, but that the U.S. did have a “major role” in them through liberal hegemony, “a strategy that we have followed ever since the end of the Cold War.” This is categorized as liberal hegemony, according to Walt, because “it seeks to use American power to defend and spread the traditional liberal principles of individual freedom of democracy-market-based economics” and holds the United States as the “indispensable nation that has to use its power and is uniquely qualified to spread these principles to other countries and to bring other states into a web of institutions and alliances that we lead and largely direct.”

     Walt is highly critical of the assumption that the United States “has the right, the responsibility, and the wisdom to manage local politics in every corner of the world,” calling it “fundamentally flawed.” He proceeded to lay out all of the issues he finds the past 25- year trend of liberal hegemony, from how liberal values threaten non-democracies to the downgrade from diplomacy to coercion in how the U.S. manages international deals.

     After offering his analysis of current U.S. foreign policy, Walt transitioned back into a discussion of how Trump’s presidency impacts all of this, stating, “I think throughout [his presidency thus far], it’s fair to say that his entire governing style has been radically different than past American presidents, but over time it became increasingly clear that American strategy hadn’t really change.” The rest of Walt’s talk focused on how Trump’s foreign policy “is not, in fact, the radical departure he promised” during his campaign due to a block formed by his foreign policy staff members. Liberal hegemony is still in effect, and this is why, Walt states, we are receiving “the worst of both worlds” because “we still have a flawed grand strategy, but it is now being implemented by the least competent president in modern memory.”

     Walt’s speech concluded with his own propositions for less American influence in Europe where there is no dominant power likely to rise and challenge the U.S., but that we should focus on maintaining influence in East Asia to combat China’s growing economic and political power—the classic power struggle approach of the realist theorist. Branching away from classic realist thought, Walt emphasized the benefits of working toward global peace, arguing that this was still a realist approach despite its liberal nuances because “we’re already in a very favorable position” and peace would allow “for trade and investment to flow more freely”, benefiting the U.S. economy, diminish intrusive government surveillance, and on a basic level, it is morally preferable. Rather than direct intervention, Walt argued that this should be achieved “mostly by setting a good example.” Whether it can be achieved in our current political environment, according to Walt, is unlikely given Trump’s unpredictability on foreign policy and national policy issues.

     Walt ended his speech saying that when he contemplates the next three years, he thinks of a quote credited to Chancellor Otto von Bismarck of Germany. “There appears to be providence that looks out for drunkards, fools, and the United States of America,” Walt quoted, adding, “More than ever before, I hope Bismarck was right.”

     The next forty minutes of the event consisted of questions from the audience, all of which Walt was able to provide detailed and lengthy answers to without fail, addressing the likelihood of a war occurring under the Trump administration, his thoughts on the trend of right-wing populism internationally, and discussing further the role of the United States and humanitarian intervention.

    Naomi Cook (’21), a Drew student in the Political Science and International Relations Department, asked the final question of the night, focused on Walt’s point of the U.S. setting an example for the rest of the world in favor of directly intervening. Walt supported his point by claiming that intervention by the U.S. to establish democracies globally was dangerously and unsuccessfully speeding up a process that holds a bloody history of revolutions.

     Following the talk, The Drew Acorn asked Caragine for her thoughts on the event. She noted that she came to the talk because of his status as a scholar of international political theory and had read part of his book Taming American Power. “I thought that was a really interesting piece of work and I think his take on these issues is very different from a lot of people,” she explained. On the talk itself, Caragine said, “I thought it was good, but I also disagree with some of what he said because I think the United States needs to be more involved in certain countries than just setting a good example. I think that there are times when intervention is important.”

     AJ Williams (’19) shared a similar fascination of Walt despite some disagreement on certain issues, telling The Drew Acorn, “I came because Stephen Walt is an expert in something that I am going to be doing in the future, so I thought that he could offer a lot of insight into some of my own thoughts and add an aspect to my studies that I don’t necessarily agree with all the time, specifically [his] realist perspective.” Like Caragine, Williams admitted he “really liked it. He had a lot of points that I wouldn’t have thought about myself, specifically his approach to North Korea.”

     On the other hand, Mariia Chykulay (’20) said, “As a realist, I agreed with a lot of the points raised regarding U.S. involvement around the world, especially the special treatment of countries like Israel.” Chykulay added that she was interested in attending the talk to hear about Walt’s take on foreign policy under the Trump administration.

     The general consensus among Drewids seemed to be that Walt’s talk as a visiting scholar was worthwhile for a variety of reasons. As Molly Boham (’20) said, “It was a lot of the things that we talk about in class to be put in perspective with examples and historical facts. It was interesting to see how it actually has happened, not just the broad theory itself.” Melissa Viana (’20), expanded further saying the talk “broaden[ed] my own knowledge on a topic I don’t typically get to discuss or learn about,” noting that it “really opened my eyes to the patterns found in U.S. foreign policy that are easy to miss and important to recognize in today’s day and age.”

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