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Cultivating a Politics of Restraint

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John Glaser

For the first time in a long time, American elites are having a thoroughgoing conversation over America’s role in the world. A broad spectrum of opinion — broader than usual, that is — informs the debate. To oversimplify, on one end of the spectrum are advocates of the status quo. They want America to maintain an expansive, expensive, and ambitious strategy for militarily dominating the international system. On the other end are advocates of restraint — a strategy that calls for trimming America’s global military commitments and relinquishing its global cop role while staying engaged through free trade, robust diplomacy, and active participation in international organizations, as well as a powerful military.

In hopes of finding a politically viable middle ground, Georgetown University’s Charles Kupchan proposes a compromise that he suggests could guide the United States towards “judicious retrenchment” while also avoiding too radical a departure from, as he refers to it, “Pax Americana.”

The so‐​called restraint school argues that the United States must shed the bulk of its foreign entanglements and adopt a strategy of offshore balancing, through which it relies primarily on allies abroad to check hostile powers. The liberal internationalists maintain that the continuation of Pax Americana is not only desirable but doable.

…The restrainers and liberal internationalists are both wrong. As the United States enters the post‐​Trump era, in which Americans will have neither the wherewithal to run the world nor the luxury of running away from it, the nation will need to find a middle way.

The task for the United States in the years ahead will be to maintain its role as an anchor of geopolitical stability while at the same time avoiding overstretch.

Leave aside the question of whether U.S. foreign policy can really be said to be “the anchor of stability.” Kupchan mischaracterizes the parameters of the debate. Aiming for the middle ground, he lands out of bounds.

For Kupchan, the debate is not between advocates of restraint and advocates of the status quo; rather, it’s between the status quo and “isolationism,” a term he erroneously equates with restraint. There is little grounds for describing any serious trend in American politics, and certainly policymaking, as “isolationist.” President Trump was the closest we have come to a national figure advocating isolationism, and he was not an isolationist.

The compromise Kupchan recommends is for the United States to “continue playing the role of great‐​power pacifier while abandoning its attempts to serve as the global policeman.” Even if policymakers could discern the difference between these two postures, it is unlikely to effectively curb U.S. activism.

Its outsize power and position atop the international hierarchy since the end of WWII has led the United States to pursue expansive strategies that constantly tempt policymakers to intervene and become militarily entangled in the dangerous web of international politics to a much greater extent than necessary. There are no built‐​in mechanisms that reliably protect against the constant temptation to expand and intervene. If the premises of the strategy are broad enough, Washington will be sure to overshoot.

Elected officials of both parties respond to this temptation. As my former colleague Emma Ashford explained, “both [Trump] and Barack Obama came into office promising to change America’s foreign policy, but when faced with crises, both yielded to pressure to intervene. This bias toward action is one of the biggest problems in American foreign policy. It produces poorly thought‐​out interventions and, sometimes, disastrous long‐​term consequences…”

It is precisely because American elites have been socialized over generations into accepting special responsibilities in global security that a narrow strategy cautiously circumscribing this temptation to expand is what we most need. The idea is similar to what Thomas Jefferson said of the U.S. Constitution: “in questions of power then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the constitution.”

Ultimately, a nation’s grand strategy is going to reflect its politics, and the political establishment still reflects the past 80 years of expanding our concept of the national interest to allow for constant military intervention, global order management, and much tragedy. The politics, however, show some signs of change.

Lately it seems the American people by and large are attracted to politicians calling for the United States to bring its focus back home. Many who employ rhetoric about “ending endless wars” seem to get special attention from voters. For anyone who appreciates the recent excesses in U.S. foreign policy and believes in the need to rein it in, now is an exciting time to propose more prudent strategies. But given the sheer inertia of U.S. primacy and the fickleness of its politics, proposing strategies that merely snip at the edges of “Pax Americana” will do little cultivate what is most needed in U.S. foreign policy: restraint in the face of temptation.


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