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The paradox of American primacy: explaining foreign policy failures since the end of the Cold War

12/06/2014, Rome

Inaugurating the conference with the tongue-in-cheek remark, “Americans are what they are but they are the only ones we have,” ambassador Guido Lenzi introduced the guest speaker Stephen Walt to a large and keen audience convened at the Centro Studi Americani on June 12, 2014. The Harvard University professor provided a straightforward but pungent account of US foreign policy, pointing to the stark contrast between the successes that preceded the end of the Cold War and the failures that have followed since 1992. Among the several fiascos highlighted by Walt, particular focus was directed to the US interventions in Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Walt maintains that the choices America has made since the collapse of the Soviet Union have on the whole been poorly thought out and as a result have tended to backfire with negative results for the US and the world. “America has failed to keep Middle Eastern peace,” he acknowledged and after the end of the Somali relationship with the Soviets, successive US-led missions in Somalia have only made things worse, “every time.” Then “Al Qaeda attacked the US homeland,” continues Walt, “so we responded by invading Afghanistan and Iraq, even though Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11.”

According to Walt, the United States seems unable to set priorities and develop strategies in a reasonable and sensible manner and this has led to serious difficulties and deficiencies in the foreign policy realm. One of the major problems concerning US behavior in international affairs is its hubris – an improper excess of self-confidence that leads American politicians’ to hold an auto-proclaimed conviction about America being a positive force in the world, bearing the right and responsibility to affect world politics “for the greater good of humanity.” Yet, this view is exclusively shared by members of the policy making elite and the roots of the “paradox of American primacy” originates precisely from this sector. Walt argues that the wide majority of US citizens believe that “America should think less internationally and focus more on its own national issues.” From this last statement, it is clear that the agendas of American policymakers do not reflect the needs and interests of the people they are representing.

To make things worse, foreign countries, too, consider America’s flamboyant interventionism as needless or counterproductive. The United States has lost much of its credibility at the global level and, as Walt explicitly puts it, “States’ acquire weapons of mass destruction and make coalitions because they suspect America will determine the outcome there.”

Walt wrapped up his argument by quoting Otto von Bismarck: “God has a special providence for fools, drunks, and the United States of America.” The professor, despite his brilliant sarcasm, suggests that there are serious issues regarding the United States’ reputation in world politics and that, by now, the “special providence” pontificated by Bismarck is no longer enough, not anymore. Pointing to the reasons for this, Professor Walt argues that the domestic political setting of the United States, dominated by a long established foreign policy decision making elite increasingly detached from the views of the majority of Americans’, holds most of the blame.

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