Wishful Thinking

Article by Stephen Walt.
A realistic foreign policy seeks to deal with the world as it is, shorn of political illusions. Realists emphasize that even close allies often have conflicting interests, that cooperation between states is difficult to achieve or sustain, and that the conduct of nations is frequently shaped by some combination of fear, greed and stupidity.

Above all, realists warn against basing policy on wishful thinking, on the assumption that all will go as we want it to. Yet the pages of history are littered with episodes where leaders made decisions on the basis of false hopes, idealistic delusions, and blind faith. And I regret to say that there’s no shortage of this sort of wishful thinking today. As evidence, here are my “Top 10 Examples of Wishful Thinking in Contemporary U.S. Foreign Policy.”

1. China Won’t Act Like a Great Power

Although most foreign-policy gurus recognize that China’s rising power will have profound effects on world politics, some still assume that a more powerful China will somehow act differently than other great powers have in the past. In particular, they maintain that China will cheerfully accept the institutional arrangements that were “made-in-America” after World War II. They also believe that Beijing will be content to let the United States maintain its current security posture in East Asia, and will not seek to undermine it over time. Maybe so, but that’s not how great powers have acted in the past, and it’s certainly not how the United States behaved during its own rise to world power (remember the Monroe Doctrine?). This illusion is gradually being dispelled, I think, but one hears its echoes every time some official says that the United States “welcomes” China’s rise.

2. Using the Big Stick Will Bring Big Benefits

Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. leaders have repeatedly exaggerated the efficacy of using military power, and tended to assume that a little bit of military power will produce large, predictable, and uniformly beneficial results. In 1999, the Clinton administration thought a few days of air strikes would cause Slobodan Milosevic to fold — in fact, it took weeks of bombing and Russian diplomatic intercession to end the Kosovo War. In 2002, the Bush administration assumed that the rapid ouster of the Taliban would solve our problems in Afghanistan, and in 2003 it thought toppling Saddam Hussein would trigger a radical transformation of the whole Middle East. More recently, the Obama administration’s decision to intervene in Libya seems to have been based on the hope that Muammar al-Qaddafi’s support would quickly dissolve as soon as NATO jumped into the fray. It might have been nice if it had, but it was wishful thinking to assume it.

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