Opening of the Camden Conference: Stephen Walt

Walt spoke on the theme “The Best of Times, the Worst of Times”, which is of course a bit of a riff on the opening lines of a Tale of Two Cities. Walt is a professor of International Affairs at Harvard, and he is a witty and engaging speaker. He is also a very, very bright guy. I had the sense of regret I often feel when I think what might have happened in a Hillary Clinton administration. Being bright is no guarantee that a sound foreign policy will take shape or be enacted. Walt pointed out that President Obama was a very bright man with sound instincts. But he approved things like the military expansion in Afghanistan, even though he knew it would not result in what we hoped, because the combined weight of the military and political establishment forced his hand. Hillary Clinton would have appointed very bright people, and worked to get the best out of them — as she did during her time as Senator from New York, and as Secretary of State. Trump has attracted, with few exceptions like Jim Mattis, a motley crew of inexperienced, inept, and corrupt people to staff the White House and the various Cabinet position. You might not get good policy out of good people. But you’ll most certainly get bad policy from a gaggle of self-serving incompetents.

Walt gave an overview of what our foreign policy has been for several decades — “liberal hegemony”, which means an attempt to instill democratic values through regime change and force, rather than through creating the kind of society other countries want to emulate. He talked about what kind of foreign policy might be different and more successful, and then said clearly that Trump lacks the discipline or cadre of talented people around him to bring anything different about.

Walt also talked compellingly about the fact that democracy depends on unwritten norms as well as what’s codified in the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and that those unwritten norms began to be shredded before Trump took office. Mitch McConnell denying Merrick Garland a vote is an example of trashing norms that had been in practice for decades. Trump has only accelerated the process — flagrantly so. Walt believes that this abandoning of our cultural and political guardrails represents a grave danger, and that we have to find a way to begin to weave our political society back together.

This was a good and stimulating and rich start to the Conference.

At a point, all of the Conference presentations are available online, so if you’re interested in any of the talks, you can go to:

I think it takes about a month for the audio of the conference to appear and be accessible.

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