The Interview: Stephen M. Walt

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The Interview: Stephen M. Walt

Stephen M. Walt discusses American alliances in Asia, U.S. – China relations, Iran and more.

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.

With regards to U.S.-China relations, how concerned do you believe the U.S. should be about the rise in Chinese economic and military power, along with its alleged more assertive posturing? Are great power politics back with a vengeance following a transitory so-called unipolar moment, or is this a case of an overly secure U.S. hyping potential security threats?

I never thought great-power politics disappeared, but the familiar dynamics of great power rivalry will be more apparent if China’s capabilities continue to rise.  That said, the United States does not help its own cause by exaggerating Chinese power.   We should not base our policy today on what China might become twenty or thirty years down the road.

Asia hands have often been frustrated by what they perceive as, diplomatic rhetoric aside, the United States continuing to give priority to places like Europe and the Middle East at the expense of Asia. In the coming year, do you think the U.S. can extricate itself enough from these other regions to substantially strengthen its presence in the Asia Pacific?

The United States has already reduced its military presence in Europe, and that trend will continue because Europe faces no threats it cannot handle on its own.   The United States is out of Iraq and is getting out of Afghanistan, but the big question is whether we can keep ourselves from being dragged back into the Middle East quagmire in the future.   The best course in the Middle East would be to act as an “offshore balancer”: ready to intervene if the balance of power is upset, but otherwise keeping our military footprint small.  We should also have normal relationship with states like Israel and Saudi Arabia, instead of the counterproductive “special relationships” we have today.  Steps like these would free up the resources for a more robust presence in Asia, should that become advisable down the road.  But we should act like an “offshore balancer” in Asia as well: letting our allies there bear their share of the burden and keeping our ground force presence small.

Finally, you have been a constant critic of U.S. policy towards Iran. With President Obama’s reelection, what do you think is the likelihood that some kind of deal can be concluded between Iran and the U.S. over Tehran’s nuclear program, if not the nature of the U.S.-Iranian relations more generally?

I regret to say that I am not optimistic.  The outlines of a reasonable deal are well-known, but Washington continues to insist on a near-total Iranian capitulation.   And because Iran has been effectively demonized here in America, it would be very hard for President Obama to reach a compromise and then sell it back home.  To make matters worse, neither side trusts the other and both tend to view the other’s offers with great suspicion.  Neither side has been willing to test the other by making bold concessions, although Iran has occasionally gone a bit further than we have.  To me, the entire business is a tragic display of diplomatic incompetence: there is a deal to be had, but we’ve been unwilling or unable to pursue it seriously for more than a decade.   The result is that Iran is closer to a nuclear weapon than it would have been had we actively sought a negotiated settlement instead of issuing ultimatums.  We have responded by ramping up sanctions, threatening preventive war, and repeatedly talking about regime change, which merely gives Tehran more reason to want a deterrent of its own.   To be frank, it is hard to imagine a policy that would less likely to achieve our supposed aims.