Tag: restraint

Should Realists Denounce Trump’s Foreign Policy?

The 2016 election season continues to unfold in increasingly bizarre ways. Donald Trump’s latest attempt to construct a coherent foreign policy speech may have failed to impress, but his campaign’s use of the word ‘realism’ led once again to calls for realists to openly denounce the Republican candidate and his views. As Dan Drezner argues over at the Washington Post,

In the interest of political self-preservation, realists need to get out in front on this. Because the thing about Trump is that every foreign policy position he touches has become less popular over the past calendar year. If realism gets lumped together with Trumpism, that is very, very bad for realists.

There are a bunch of problems with this argument, starting with the fact that Trump really isn’t espousing a realist worldview. To be sure, the Republican candidate has said a couple of things that are more restrained than his party’s foreign policy has been in recent years. Skepticism of nation-building and the idea that American allies should contribute more to their own defense are relatively uncontroversial (and generally popular) ideas that would move U.S. foreign policy in a more restrained direction. Most of Trump’s other proposals, however, including his ill-defined strategy to combat ISIS, his determination to reverse the nuclear deal with Iran, his apparent and disturbing willingness to consider the use of nuclear weapons, and his eagerness for trade wars, are not.

As many have noted, Trump’s foreign policy is best defined as incoherent. Monday’s speech provides another case in point: though the campaign described it as a return to “foreign policy realism,” the approach outlined by the candidate sounded more like a form of nationalist imperialism – complete with the seizure of natural resources from distressed countries – than anything else. Frankly, the only major similarity between Trump’s policy proposals and realism is his willingness to view the world in a win/loss framework. As a theory, realism is more than cost-benefit analysis, but one can see why a simplistic understanding of it would appeal to the candidate.

Here’s another problem with the demand that realists should repudiate Trump: they already have, loudly and repeatedly. In Foreign Policy, Stephen Walt admonished Donald Trump to “keep your hands off the foreign policy ideas I believe in.” Cato’s own Trevor Thrall highlighted Trump’s know-nothing approach to foreign policy here. Many others have done likewise. As I wrote back in April, the primary defining characteristic of Trump’s foreign policy is not restraint, but inconsistency.   

And there is no evidence that realists (or restrainers) support Donald Trump. Reporters from Defense News recently tried to ascertain who a potential Trump administration might call on to staff key positions. It’s unlikely that John Bolton, recently suggested by Trump as a potential Secretary of State, will be mistaken for a realist any time soon. Not only did they find no realists willing to take such positions – one prominent advocate of restraint is mentioned in a purely speculative way – but they found few foreign policy experts willing to consider it, period.

Finally, the notion that realists can only repudiate Trump specifically by signing an open letter is unhelpful. The first open letter of the campaign season – signed by over 120 Republican foreign policy specialists – was valuable, signaling their broad disgust for their party’s nominee and his policies. But it was narrowly written, and since that time at least four other open letters have been published, each with a slightly different rationale, and slightly different signatory lists. Indeed, most have already been signed by prominent advocates of both restraint and realism. And there are a variety of reasons why some realists might not have signed the prior letters: they may not agree with everything proposed, they may be barred by professional or legal obligations from supporting or opposing political candidates, or perhaps they are simply not Republicans! Another open letter will not solve these problems.

Such criticism often comes with the implicit – or explicit – demand that realists endorse Hillary Clinton. Yet Clinton’s interventionist foreign policy approach is also problematic. Her support for the interventions in Iraq and Libya, and her continued support for unwise ideas like a no-fly zone in Syria remain concerning. Ultimately, those who call for realists to denounce Trump may be right about one thing: for realists, this election is a lose-lose proposition. 

The Case for Restraint: What Should It Look Like?

The final panel of last week’s foreign policy conference continued the discussion of the political obstacles to restraint and provided further details on what such a strategy would look like today. Cato’s Emma Ashford kicked off the discussion by explaining how U.S. involvement has undermined U.S. interests in the Middle East, recommending instead that the United States adopt an offshore balancing approach to the region.

John Mueller, also of Cato, used his time to downplay the many commonly cited threats to U.S. security, including rising powers, proliferation, and terrorism. He also cast doubt on whether our large, powerful military is well-suited to deal with these minor threats, most of which are exacerbated by the use of force.

Ben Friedman discussed why primacy enjoys so much support in Washington, despite its flaws. U.S. safety and wealth, he argued, insulate most Americans from the consequences of foreign policy, making them indifferent to it, and enabling special interests that benefit from primacy dominate policy-making. He discussed policy reforms that would heighten appreciation of primacy’s costs in order to increase support for restraint.

The conference’s final speaker, Jacqueline Hazelton of the Naval War College, challenged those who seek a more restrained U.S. foreign policy to develop a plan to bring make it a reality. Picking up on that point, panel moderator Trevor Thrall brought the conference to a close by noting: “Our work is not done.”

The conference’s hosts, Cato’s Ben Friedman and Trevor Thrall are editing a book featuring chapters by the experts who presented at “The Case for Restraint” conference. For more information on the book, please email tevans [at] cato.org.

You can watch full discussion from final panel below.

MIT’s Barry Posen Makes the Case for Restraint

In a lunch address to last week’s foreign policy conference, Barry Posen of MIT and author of Restraint discussed the perils of liberal hegemony, which he defined as a strategy that combines economic and military primacy with the “noble” goals of active democracy and human rights promotion. Posen argued that the advocates of liberal hegemony rely heavily on the use of force to achieve their objectives, and view military power as a scalpel that can perform precise, strategic operations.

Restraint-minded scholars, however, see military power as a “blunt and costly instrument” that is often counterproductive. Posen explained, for example, how identity politics, especially nationalism and religion, lead many to fight against or oppose invading armies, regardless of how benevolent the latter’s intentions may be.

Posen pointed out that there is strong opposition to America’s liberal hegemony strategy, in large part due to its high costs and profligate adventures abroad. Yet, by labeling restraint as “retreat,” Posen laments, liberal hegemony proponents militate substantive discussions and muddy the waters of the foreign policy debate.

You can watch Posen’s full remarks below. 

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.

The Myths of Primacy: Geography, Energy, and Democracy

Proponents of America’s foreign policy strategy of primacy insist that its benefits far outweigh its costs. But as last week’s conference at the Cato Institute demonstrated, not everyone agrees. During the first panel of the conference, for example, foreign policy experts challenged the conventional wisdom about the benefits of the United States’ post-Cold War alliances, as I highlighted yesterday. Experts on the second panel continued that critique of primacy by discussing and debunking its myths related to geography, energy, and democracy promotion.

Alexander Downes of George Washington University and Jonathan Monten of University College London started the discussion by arguing that trying to spread democracy through military intervention is generally difficult and often counterproductive. A fact, they point out, that is supported by America’s efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Eugene Gholz of the University of Texas at Austin closed out the panel with a discussion of U.S. energy security. He explained that the United State is energy secure, and that, more broadly, market forces have a stabilizing effect on the world’s energy prices. Indeed, Gholz argues, the world’s energy markets are quite resilient, and do not require protection from the U.S. military.

You can watch the full discussion below. 

             

The Myths of Primacy: Alliances and Security Dilemmas

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has followed a foreign policy of primacy. The strategy aims to preserve and extend America’s dominant position in the world using its massive military and global network of alliances to spread western values and stop prospective threats before they materialize. Yet, while primacy continues to receive bipartisan support, a growing number of U.S. foreign policy and military experts are now calling for a new grand strategy, one that would make the United States stronger and more secure, and that would better align with the fundamental values at the core of the nation’s founding.

Last Wednesday, the Cato Institute hosted a conference titled “The Case for Restraint in U.S. Foreign Policy” to explore one such strategy. Over the course of the day, four panels of international relations experts explained why a grand strategy of restraint could and should replace primacy.

The first panel challenged the conventional wisdom about the benefits of U.S. alliances formed during the Cold War. The first speaker, Brendan R. Green of the University of Cincinnati, discussed the gulf between the academic literature and the arguments made by primacists on nuclear proliferation, concluding that the advocates of hegemony oversell the role that alliances play in halting nuclear proliferation.

Following Green, Eugene Gholz of the University of Texas at Austin explained how our alliance relationships come at significant costs to American security by exacerbating the security dilemma between the United States and countries like China for the sake of ally interests.

The third and final panel speaker, Joshua I. Shifrinson of Texas A&M University, spoke on behalf of himself and David Edelstein of Georgetown University. Shifrinson and Edelstein argued that the United States faces significant risks of entrapment—getting drawn into a conflict by its allies.

You can watch the full discussion below. 

Closing America’s Security Deficit

The RAND Corporation has published the second report in its “Strategic Rethink” series, this one entitled “America’s Security Deficit: Addressing the Imbalance between Strategy and Resources in a Turbulent World.” It is a noble undertaking, conducted by well-respected scholars and analysts. But I’m not particularly optimistic that conditions are ripe for the strategic rethink that they seek, and that the country desperately needs.

The strategy-resources gap should be corrected by adopting a new strategy, one that pares down the United States’ permanent overseas presence, and compels other countries to take on more responsibilities for their own defense (as Japan shows signs of doing). Instead, U.S. policymakers seem willing to undertake merely incremental changes at the margins, retaining U.S. primacy, and trying to cover the strategy-resources gap with wishful thinking and unrealistic assumptions.

RAND’s summary of the report explains “currently projected levels of defense spending are insufficient to meet the demands of an ambitious national security strategy.” And its Key Finding reads as follows:

Limitations on defense spending in the context of emerging threats are creating a “security deficit.”

  • Fielding military capabilities sufficient, in conjunction with those of our allies and partners, to deal with the disparate challenges faced by the United States will require substantial and sustained investments in a wide range of programs and initiatives well beyond what would be feasible under the terms of the Budget Control Act.

Advocates for higher military spending have been saying this since the BCA was first passed. Those who also claim to care about the nation’s persistent fiscal imbalance typically note that the Pentagon’s budget is not the primary driver of the nation’s debt, and they would focus, first, on so-called mandatory spending (Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid) which accounts for a far higher share of total federal expenditures, in order to find the additional money needed to close the security gap.

They are correct on the first point, the need to reform entitlements, but not on the need for more military spending.