Where is America headed?

Question: Where is America headed?

Stephen Walt: Well I think that’s a very American question. I mean I think that many societies wouldn’t even pose it that way. And it reflects the fact that American history, although it’s had its unfortunate periods, has been basically an incredibly happy story. Again not for all Americans, but if you think of sort of where the United States began in 1776 and where it ended up in 2007, it’s a remarkable run of success. And it’s partly because we did some things right. And it’s also partly because we got very lucky in where the country was located; the fact that the native population turned out to be very susceptible to disease that was brought over from Europe; the fact that the European countries kept beating each other up while we sat here and became more productive. So we’ve been very fortunate, so we have this view of the world that everything tends to go well. And therefore your question is how can we solve all these problems so this happy story continues? Well of course it hasn’t been as happy a story for, you know, Russia throughout the 20th century; for much of Europe, which destroyed itself twice in the 20th century. Other parts of the world don’t tell quite the same happy story. So I think the first thing I would say is we shouldn’t be expecting perfection. We’re not gonna be solving all these problems, and it’s not like bad things won’t happen to Americans or to other people. We wanna try to do the best we can within the . . . facing the set of problems that we now face, and with the set of resources at our disposal. So step one is be realistic about what we think we can accomplish, and then start, you know, taking off the various problems and start working on them. I think Americans, again, tend to think of it as, “I want a perfect answer because I’m an American citizen, and I’m entitled to live for 85 years in relatively good health and in a pretty comfortable house with a pretty nice family.” That’s not the way it really works – even in America. A couple of them. You know just to beat a dead horse now, I do think open discussion is really critical; and encouraging lots of different voices to be out there. I find now in the United States, for example, the debate on foreign policy is quite a narrow debate. Lots of agreement among the most visible members of the sort of foreign policy establishment; and people who are outside of that consensus very much marginalized in public discussion. But that’s just in foreign policy. So I like open discussion. The second thing that we have to remind ourselves is a country, that knowledge turns out to be a good thing; that we ought to be basing our policy decisions to the extent that we can on robust analysis; on the best available expertise; on . . . on facts. You know people call “reality-based analysis”. It’s troublesome when you read about a president who says, you know, he likes to go on his gut instincts. Nobody’s gut instincts are that good, and one of the things that has allowed us to get to where we are today as a country, but I think also more broadly in the world, has been to prize knowledge; to prize research; to place a lot of social resources in that place and encourage people to pursue ideas as much as they can. And it’s, I think, very short-sighted for any society when they start short changing its intellectual community. Or when it starts ruling certain ideas out of court and saying, “No, you can’t work on that. You shouldn’t write that. You shouldn’t say that.” That’s what strangles human creativity, and we’re gonna need some creative solutions to address the various problems we already talked about. Again we get that by valuing intellectuals of all kinds – natural scientists, philosophers, artists, etc. – but also giving them lots of freedom to explore ideas.

Recorded on: 10/8/07

We need to be realistic about our goals, says Walt.

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