The Case for Restraint: History and Politics

The third in a series of panels at last week’s conference on restraint explored the evolution of foreign policy in America—from the Founders’ embrace of restraint to Theodore Roosevelt’s interventionism to our current strategy of primacy. Speaking first, William Ruger of the Charles Koch Institute affirmed the roots of restraint in American history by presenting the Founders’ pillars of strategic independence and neutrality. Ruger explained how those principles guided U.S. foreign policy from the nation’s founding through the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898.

Edward Rhodes of George Mason University followed with an analysis of Theodore Roosevelt’s ideas about politics, society, and foreign policy. According to Rhodes, Roosevelt feared that if left unchecked, the liberalism of the previous era would lead the moral decay of America. Roosevelt believed waging war, crusading, and searching abroad for challenges would strengthen American virtues and thus provide the needed balance to American liberalism.

Lastly, Cato’s Trevor Thrall discussed the current state of politics as it relates to foreign policy. Thrall presented polling data to demonstrate that while the foreign policy establishment continues to defend vociferously the merits and wisdom of primacy, a large contingent of Americans would prefer a restrained, less interventionist foreign policy. This “restraint constituency,” in fact, outnumbers supporters of primacy by nearly a two-to-one margin.

You can watch the full panel here.