Recap: Steve Walt, visiting scholar

The Harvard professor discussed hard-hitting topics during his lectures on campus

Kennedy Avery | Contributor | USD Vista

In his Nov. 2 lecture in the KIPJ Theatre, ‘Where is U.S. Foreign Policy Headed?’ Stephen Walt, Belfer Professor of International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, revealed that America First can mean something entirely different than the nativistic, inward-looking  aims of Trump’s rhetoric.

In a lecture supremely critical of Trump as a person and leader, Walt managed to nominally advocate for a major feature of Trump’s campaign, the notion of putting America First, in a way that was functionally very different.

Before the lecture, Walt shared some personal experiences, which deepened the messages outlined in his lecture.

As a university student studying abroad in a divided Berlin, Germany in 1976, Walt explained he had an epiphany in how he viewed international relations.

Walt illustrated a visit to a museum in East Germany when he was confronted with a map depicting the course of World War II, with the Soviet Union portrayed as assuming the largest losses of the war.

 “[My initial reaction was] this [map] is propaganda,” Walt said.

However, reflecting back on it, Walt explained that the Soviet Union actually did, as the map illustrated, suffer the highest losses in World War II, and his reaction was solely a result of his perspective as an American youth in 1976. In this moment, Walt came to an eye-opening recognition about how perspective plays into the personal element of international relations: that nationality has a noticeable effect on one’s identity and opinions.

Walt’s anecdote is a reminder that the individual cannot be removed from the realm of international relations, and sometimes the American perspective can obstruct a practical and realistic viewing of a situation.

Although Walt’s lecture further explained his deep-seated loyalty to the realist school of international relations, which sees world affairs as a competition among nation states, this simple anecdote establishes a personal and perhaps relatable impetus for such a preference.

As a realist, Walt spent much time rejecting liberal hegemony in his lecture. He explained this concept in his lecture.

“[Liberal hegemony] is a foreign policy that tries to promote the basic principles and ideals of liberal democracy,” Walt said, and has been America’s “basic grand strategy” since the end of the Cold War.

Upon outlining a number of recent failures in American foreign policy motivated by a strategy of liberal hegemony such as Russia’s annexation of Crimea, continuing wars in the Middle East, and the expansion of nuclear arsenals in Pakistan, India, and North Korea, Walt concluded that liberal hegemony was not an ideal approach.

“This basic strategy is fundamentally flawed,” Walt said.

USD senior, Devin Corea, attended Walt’s lecture and agreed with Walt’s argument that liberal hegemony is ultimately a failure.

“America has in many ways, I think, become over-involved… it is not always the best thing for [the countries the U.S. enters],” Corea said.

It is this fundamentally flawed grand strategy of liberal hegemony that Walt declares the Trump administration continues, contrary to its campaign promises of America First.

The combination of America’s flawed strategy with the leadership of Donald Trump, whom Walt sees as inept and neglectful of American values such as human rights, appears almost disastrous to Walt.

“We may in fact be getting the worst of both worlds: the United States will still be pursuing a flawed grand strategy but now we also have an erratic skipper at the helm of the ship,” he said.

In this way, Walt highlights that the American perspective is not always right,  just as he did in that museum in East Germany. As a result, Walt offers an alternative to the grand strategy of liberal hegemony, that has directed American foreign policy of the past 25 years and continues to do so today under the the leadership of Donald Trump, and an alternative to Trump’s rhetoric of America First.

“[It would include] getting out of the business of nation-building, reducing [the] American military footprint, and seeking more realistic accommodations that would free up some additional resources that could be used to improve the lives of Americans here at home,” Walt said.

Walt’s alternative view to a Trumpian America First, which rhetorically advocates for strong borders and isolating policies, takes consideration of the importance of the values of democracy and human rights undergirded by liberal hegemony. However, it substitutes the nation-building and foreign-involvement policies of this strategy with a strong domestic front that at once leads from afar and encourages other countries to emulate the U.S. example.