Recap: Grand Strategy in April and May 2019

Dear Members,

I hope that you were able to attend our April and May meetings, held recently a week apart at the First Congregational Church in Old Lyme. The overall topic was similar for both: US foreign policy/grand strategy since the end of the Cold War, and especially since the start of the 21st century.

On April 25, Stephen Walt visited from Harvard University’s Kennedy School to tell us about the role of foreign policy strategists in the changing position of the U.S. in international affairs. Walt spoke to the topic of his recent book “The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy,” arguing that the foreign policy establishment – academic political scientists, denizens of think tanks, and government advisers – have driven a decline in U.S. primacy, mainly through a misguided foreign policy of “Liberal Hegemony.” Walt argued that the US has essentially over-extended itself since the end of the Cold War, citing the expansion of NATO, our nation-building efforts, and the war against terrorism, with the last having led to greater instability in the world. He offered an alternative approach called, in political science jargon, “Offshore Balancing,” proposing that it better fits the expectations of the American public, and is more in keeping with the strategy that won the Cold War. Essentially, this strategy involves less ‘boots on the ground,’ more focus on preventing certain countries from exercising regional hegemony, and overall a more Realist approach to foreign policy. Of course, not everybody agreed with Professor Walt; for example, any down-sides associated with nation-building should be considered in the context of the freedoms brought to oppressed minorities and groups, e.g. young women in patriarchal societies. As expressed very well by Jennifer Szalai in her recent New York Times review of George Packer’s new biography of Richard Holbrooke, “The two men [Holbrooke and Packer] shared a liberalist internationalist sensibility and an ardent faith in the salutary effects of American-led humanitarian intervention – in the notion that human suffering in far-off places compelled the United States to ‘do something.’” (my italics)

On May 2, we hosted Ivo Daalder, President of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and James Lindsay, Senior Vice President at the New York City-based Council on Foreign Relations in a discussion/Q&A moderated by yours truly. They spoke on a different aspect of US foreign policy: the abdication of American leadership on the world stage by the Trump Administration, the topic of their new book “The Empty Throne: America’s Abdication of Global Leadership.” Taking turns answering different aspects of questions posed by me and the SECWAC audience, Daalder and Lindsay presented a strong case that President Trump has abandoned the liberal international order established by the US and other democracies in the wake of WWII. They proposed that the three pillars of post-World War II US foreign policy – strong alliances, open markets, and a commitment to democracy and human rights – are now under threat, and that the abandonment of this strategy will lead to a reduction in U.S. influence as others, especially a rising China, take its place. Their emphasis was on Mr. Trump’s personal approach to US involvement in the world, arguing that, as they write in their book, “true leadership isn’t so much about who is behind the wheel as how many others come along for the ride.” Again, not everybody would agree with this argument; as pointed out above, this grand strategy of Liberal Hegemony has its flaws.

And such opposing views are the stuff of enlightened debate – thank you for your support and being a part of the discussion at SECWAC.


Paul Nugent
Executive Director & Program Committee Chair
Southeast Connecticut World Affairs Council (SECWAC)


Mission Statement

The mission of the Southeast Connecticut World Affairs Council (SECWAC) is to foster an understanding of issues of foreign policy and international affairs by study, debate, and educational programming, primarily through a Speakers Series of 8 to 10 monthly meetings.