The Interview: Stephen M. Walt
Image Credit: Flickr (White House)

The Interview: Stephen M. Walt


The Diplomat’s Zachary Keck spoke with Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government Professor Stephen M. Walt.

You have written a lot about alliances in your academic work. I am wondering how important you believe alliances will be in U.S. Asia Policy as Washington seeks to deepen its commitment to the region in the years and decades ahead?

Alliances will be central to America’s Asia policy.   The United States is a hegemon in the Western Hemisphere, but our ability to operate in other theatres — including Asia — depends on support from allies.  Furthermore, given that our main strategic goal in Asia is to maintain a regional balance of power, supporting key allies is an inescapable element of our entire approach.

Some people have expressed concern that certain U.S. allies in the region—such as the Philippines and Japan—have acted in overly provocative ways towards China, potentially “entrapping” the U.S. in disputes with China in which America has little at stake. The Diplomat’s James Holmes, for instance, recently drew a potential parallel between Athens’ alliance policy in the Peloponnesian War and the U.S. in Asia today. Do you share these concerns? What can U.S. policymakers do to ensure that U.S. allies don’t drag it into conflict with China?

I do worry that U.S. allies may act provocatively in order to force our hand, and to get Washington to take on commitments it might prefer to avoid.  The best way to avoid this danger is to be very clear about what U.S. interests are, and to form strictly defensive arrangements with key allies.  We should be committed to defend them if they are attacked, but we should also make it clear that we are not obligated to help if they invite an attack through behavior we do not support.  This principle should apply to all our allies, of course, not just those in Asia.

On the other hand, you and many others have been critical of the tendency of Washington to allow its allies in places like Europe to “free ride” on American power, particularly military power. Do you foresee this as being a danger at all in the Asia-Pacific? How can the U.S. best balance its interests in preventing free-riding while also not being seen as abandoning its allies?

There’s been lots of free-riding in Asia too, and we can expect U.S. allies to attempt more of the same in the future.  I don’t blame them: it makes good sense to let Uncle Sucker do most of the work if you can get away with it.  To that end, we can expect our allies in Asia to complain constantly about waning U.S. “credibility,” and they will occasionally threaten to bandwagon with China if they don’t get more help from us.   What Americans should remember is that our allies in Asia need us more than we need them, and they should be willing to do a lot for us in order to retain our help.  In this case, “playing hard to get” is a good way to avoid being exploited by allies who expect us to do more to defend them than they are willing to do themselves.

June 29, 2013 at 23:30

The reason why the US is realigning its Naval Fleet with a 60-40 split for Asia-Pacific and Atlantic respectively is because it is insecure. China has plenty of success in woeing countries in their favor, and the United States is now lagging behind on it. Now the US is woeing countries in Africa where China has a huge head start and where the western world neglected for decades.

Now the tides has changed, the world now revolves around in Asia, the center of the universe is in Asia. With almost 4 Billion people in this part of the world. So it is America that needs Asia to sell its goods, weapons and the American way. Will the United States accept that China will dominate and influence its neighbours? I do not think so, if that happens it is probably the end of American civilization.

It is very naive for Professor Walt to conclude that the Philippines and Japan are the ones provoking China. Come on, if this is a boxing match the Philippines is a featherweight and China is heavyweight like Mike Tyson. A single punch will knock-out the Philippines immediately with its measly defense budget. Why would the Philippines provoke war? That is sheer stupidity. The Philippines can not even solve its insurgency problem much more invite an international conflict.

Finally, US knows it can not fight a war alone. US needs the help it can get, look at Afghanistan, why did it ask NATO and Britain to join the war, because there is strength in numbers. The professor should look back at history. If without its allies, South Korea will be DPRK instead of ROK by now. Without its allies like the Philippines, the US will have a huge logistical problem fighting the Vietnam war. The Philippines host two American bases then and without them everything will be flown directly from Hawaii or Okinawa, Japan. Without the PHilippines and its American bases there, LBJ might not have considered going to war with the Vietnamese.

America needs more of its allies not the other way around, because without them history might repeat itself when the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor in 1941. Since then, America's motto is that the best defense is an offense. US knows that the Pacific Ocean is its buffer zone.






[...] giants. Undoubtedly, talks of joint defense under existing treaties carries the risk of emboldening Tokyo and dragging the U.S. into someone else’s conflict — something that was constantly on the minds of Washington officials during the Cold War [...]

December 30, 2012 at 05:04

to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan without suffering geopolitical losses…

December 30, 2012 at 05:00

I think that US policy towards Iran will be reassessed upon John Kerry taking over State Dept. We must engage with the Iranians.  For example, Israeli Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz (not likely a dove) said in April 2012 that the Iranians are rational actors who weigh heavily their national interests.  As such, they are not likely to make a nuclear weapon.  This assessment is not from some crank professor in some left-wing think tank.  The Israeli Chief of Staff will not make such a statement unless the Israeli military actually believes this. 
With respect to Iran, the United States must not allow itself to once again assume delude itself by its rhetoric, as it did in Iraq:  The US proclaimed that Saddam had nuclear weapons; hence it must be true or we would not say it. 
American foreign policy in Asia must be one of clarity of national interests.  It is in the national interest of the United States that there be peace in Asia because it is conducive to trade and commerce.  A nation which threatens peace and stability must be isolated, but at the same time be offered carrots to change its policy; and reminded that the stick is also there. But in a multi-polar world, change has to be sought through evolution, i.e., patience. (Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy, p. 745). And patience requires engagement. 
The central task at hand for American foreign policy [to paraphrase Henry Kissinger's "Diplomacy"] is to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan and establish a policy that is geared to relevant American national interests–both foreign and domestic.  Easy to do?  No.  Necessary?  Absolutely. 
Lt. Col., USAF (Ret.).

December 19, 2012 at 08:32

Would you please feel shame on your wrong prophecies, ” Iran is days’ far from bomb.” And it starts decades before

December 18, 2012 at 23:24

With the Obama's visit to Burma and sings of a real "reform" , this country will become an ally of the US in South East Asia. With the joint statement at ASEM 45th hosted by Cambodia, this host country will become a gate of China in South East Asia. I am wondering that where is Vietnam's position in Asia Pivot of  the US.

Van Damn
December 18, 2012 at 16:07

Wow! Jean-Paul RAMBO the one-man army! Talking WAR like a true hero but will need others to fight for him whilst he hide under the bed!

Leonard R.
December 18, 2012 at 13:44

The tar sands are one thing. But part of the NEXEN-CNOOC deal also involves deep water rigs in US waters in the Gulf of Mexico. China needs that deep drilling technology for its planned conquest of the West Philippine Sea. I think there is a chance the US part of that deal will be shot down on national security grounds. 

Geoff W
December 18, 2012 at 04:48

China's reliance on Persian oil appears to be a  likely reason that a full blockade of Iran or the much trumpeted military incursion has not yet been launched. In order to weaken that link, the Canadian government has been encouraged to accept CNOOC control of a significant player in its massive tar sands development. The next phase of this Canada strategy is a controversial pipeline to the Pacific coast that will allow large volumes of tar sands oil to be shipped to Chinese refineries. The "gains" are atleast two fold: 1) China's supply of Persian crude is replaced with Canadian oil reducing the economic consequences of military action, 2) China's dependence on a North American controlled source of oil becomes a useful pressure point in the future. The Canadian government faces significant domestic opposition to this plan, the political fallout extending to factions within their right wing constituency. Yet could  it be more than curious coincidence that the Canadian Prime Minister Harper received a "Statesman of the Year" award from an obscure New York Foundation earlier this year; his seat mate at the ceremony the Prince of Realpolitik himself, Henry Kissinger. 

Leonard R.
December 15, 2012 at 15:01

I'm familiar with some of Professor Walt's work and admire his 'realist' take on some issues – Afghanistan for instance. But reading his answer on China, I'm reminded of an old American TV personality, 'Miss Cleo'. Professor Walt might remember her. 
Miss Cleo was a fortune-teller with a fake Caribbean accent who would predict the future for members of her TV audience. Her answers were always too vague to test with any precision. And in fact, her callers may have been fake too. But Miss Cleo knew how to keep the audience entertained. And she knew how to keep the telephone lines lit up. 
Professor Walt wrote: "…the familiar dynamics of great power rivalry will be more apparent if China’s capabilities continue to rise…." 
OK professor, that raises two questions. (i) what exactly do you mean by the phrase, "familiar dynamics of great power rivalry"? And secondly, aren't they apparent enough already? How much more apparent do you want them to become? 
Perhaps Professor Walt attempts to  answer that question when he says, "That said, the United States does not help its own cause by exaggerating Chinese power…." 
Well, I certainly agree. The US should not go around exaggerating anybody's power. But who exactly in a policy-making position is doing that today professor? Can you be a bit more specific here? What decisions have been made that were based on an exaggerated notion of Chinese power?
Professor Walt: 
"We should not base our policy today on what China might become twenty or thirty years down the road. "
Well once again, Professor Walt's answer raises more questions than it answers. And in fact, I think he errs on this one. Wouldn't a realist engaged in long range policy-planning, assess a present threat and make plans based on possible future outcomes? Isn't that what long-range planners and policy-makers are supposed to do? In fact, as the professor knows, there is an entire scientific discipline devoted to gaming future outcomes and making long-range policy plans based on those outcomes. 
Is Professor Walt telling American policy-makers to, sha na na na na na live for today?  I hope not. No doubt, that will gain him a lot of fans among certain peacenik crowds of academics. but I hope the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom don't follow that advice. 
IMO, Professor Walt's own writings have been specific and accurate with respect to China than his answer here. It is admirable that he has not hedged in his own writing. That's why his answer here is such a disappointment. He seems evasive. Why?  I don't know. But unfortunately, he comes off as an academic version of Miss Cleo. And I know his work is much better than that. 

John Chan
December 15, 2012 at 14:04

@Lito Dakat,
Prof. Walt said the USA will not permit actions of its lackeys the USA does not approve. The USA only allows Japan armed as a supplementary/lackey force, that’s why even with 60 years of world number two economy; Japan still does not have a military match its economy size, because the USA does not allow it.
It is way more profitable for the USA to bargain with China using Japan as a chip, the less Japan armed the more value it has as a chip, USA even can throw the Philippines in as a bonus during the grand bargain with China.
USA would rather let Japan go under China’s thumb instead of letting Japan to rearm, because Japan is only nation attacked the USA homeland, and Japan is the only nation in the world nuked by the USA, it is just too much risk for the USA to take after the Japan rearmed.

John Chan
December 15, 2012 at 13:41

EU and Russia hate the USA bossing them around. Japan is waiting to stab the USA’s back for the vengeance that it was the only nation in the world nuked by the USA. India resents the USA for their 1962 humiliation. It seems the USA is most hated nation in the world.
EU and Japan incites confrontation between China and the USA, they will help China to defeat their hated suppressor so that the English can take back their New England, French can take back their New France, Spanish can take back their New Mexico, Russian can take back their Alaska, and Japanese can take over Hawaii again. Once for all the predatory imperialist can be split up like the USSR.  

December 15, 2012 at 10:07

@ Lito Dakat
This is a very accurate assessment of the current situation I believe. The only way that the West will be able to properly counter China's rise will be to completely surround and contain it. This containment will rely on the following nations to work together: USA, Japan and India and Russia.
Now I know what your all going to say about Russia; how it will never side with any other powers and looks to stay as its own pole of power. However if China becomes increasingly belligerent towards its neighbors eventually its going to step on Russia's toes as well, it is just a matter of time. Once that happens Russia will be seen as having little choice to either submit to China or to ally with the West. I would guess that allying with the EU would prove to be much more beneficial to the Russians overall.
Once Russia is allied with the EU and gains EU membership, it will then be a free ride towards China's northern border. There the EU and Russia will be able to deploy all sorts of forward bases, missile defenses, Radars, UAVs and other measures to totally contain China from the north. While the USA, Japan, and India contain China from the south, west and east via their overwhelming naval power. Then once this is complete the slow strangulation of China will begin and from there it will only be a decade at most for China to split up like the Soviet Union did.

December 14, 2012 at 12:06

I don't think there's going to be a physical war with China or other Asian countries. But, I do think there's already an economic war, and China is winning at the moment.

Nguyen Noi Noi
December 14, 2012 at 11:57

I would challenge Prof. Walt on the suggestion that, "What Americans should remember is that our allies in Asia need us more than we need them, and they should be willing to do a lot for us in order to retain our help." For that is a dangerous line of thought, it is a kind of self-defeatism. Remember from that line of thought, the US has reduced its influence in Central America, the result, it causes back fire.
In this world we need each other, when we play politics by seeing we have an upper hand, and ignoring the danger beneath it, we lost already. 

Lito Dakat
December 14, 2012 at 09:48

No amount of talk from the US side can hide the fact that the US is a country its supposed allies cannot depend upon in times of conflict. Everybody know that, including China. So China will keep going in the direction it has been following for a few years now, until it obtains total control of the South China Sea and the Senkaku Islands as its territory. Only a war can stop China from trajectory it has chosen, nothing else. The problem is that the victims of China's aggressive moves do not have the capability at this time to take on China on even terms. So they will rearm. And so will Japan. That means that the end result of all these China provocations will result in a rearmed Japan. To prevent that from happening, the US has to intervene. Because if it doesn't, there will be greater problems ahead, both for China and the US with regards Japan. As you all probably know, the reason that Japan went to war during the 1930's to 1940's has not been resolve. It is still a country with no natural resources of its own and so must import everything. It needs freedom of navigation, guaranteed by the US Navy at this time. If China threathens Japan's supplies line and the US does not react, Japan will have to rearm and do it on its own in order to assure its own survival. History will then repeat itself. So as I see it, the US really has no choice. It will be dragged into the conflicts whether it likes it or not. Unless it wants to leave the region altogether to the mercy of China, or to a rearmed Japan. So that brings up another choice for the US, which is to get into relatively low-key conflict now against China, or get into a larger and more dangerous conflict later – against Japan. Make a choice, USA. And do it properly. Because it looks like some of your smaller allies in the region are already looking for a rearmed Japan for potential support in the spats against China.

December 14, 2012 at 06:45

'Accurate and measured' describe the realistic assessments put forward by Prof. Walt.

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