Tag: restraint

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.

How Much Do IR Academics and the Foreign Policy Community Disagree?

I was surprised but pleased to see that a blog post I wrote in 2009 started getting some attention yesterday. The post, which emerged from a paper I gave at the 2010 APSA, argued that there is a big gap between the views of U.S. grand strategy in the international relations academy versus the view in the foreign policy community (FPC), and that this gap is caused by domestic politics. In short, academics tend to think American strategy is unduly grandiose and FPC types think it’s great. Dan Drezner has a post up wondering whether this is generally true, or unique to the Iraq period.

To begin, I’m not sure why Drezner thinks that in order for my argument to be correct, “the foreign policy community should be united in dispatching military force at every opportunity since Iraq.” Neither the blog post nor the paper on which it was based argued that the foreign policy community should unanimously support every potential war, but rather that they were united around an activist strategy that produced Iraq.

That’s what made the recent article by Stephen Brooks, John Ikenberry, and Bill Wohlforth so edifying. It was the first defense of American grand strategy I can recall reading that was sophisticated enough to be published in a journal like International Security. And the reason they wrote it? Because according to “many of the most prominent security studies scholars—and indeed most scholars who write on the future of U.S. grand strategy” retrenchment’s time has come.

It’s worth noting that a disproportionate number of academics writing about grand strategy are realists, so that’s coloring the ideological content of what the academics are producing. Drezner has complained about realist victimhood before, but grand strategy is an elite sport, and even he admits that “America’s foreign policy elites are more hostile to realpolitik – though even here, things can be exaggerated.” Drezner then points to Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft as bearers of the realist flag, but even if you would lump Kissinger and Scowcroft in with Posen and Walt (I wouldn’t), both men are in their late 80s. There is no realist faction in the FPC, if by “realist” we mean “person whose views on strategy comport with leading academic realists.”

Think about members of the FPC who work on strategy and scholars in the academy who do so. Is a potential strategy debate between, say, a Democrat like Anne-Marie Slaughter and a Republican like Robert Kagan very interesting? I don’t think so. It’s fought between the seven and nine-yard lines at the primacy end of the field. Then consider a debate between, say, Barry Posen or John Mearsheimer, on the one hand, and Kagan or Slaughter on the other. Pass the popcorn.

You can reconcile this one of two ways. One, you can say that there’s a problem in the academy. Primacy is so obviously the optimal grand strategy for the United States that it reflects poorly on the ivory tower that so many strategists there don’t get it. Two, you can conclude that the strategy is not self-evidently optimal, so there’s something wrong with the consensus in Washington.

While we’re here, though, let’s take Drezner’s question about whether the disagreement over Iraq was an aberration. Let’s look at two of the biggest strategic questions facing Washington over the last five and next five years: Afghanistan and Iran.

Afghanistan — I had a fairly easy time pulling together signatures from academics for the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy’s letter to President Obama urging him not to surge into Afghanistan in 2009. Signatures from Beltway types were hard to come by. For his part, Columbia’s Jack Snyder characterized the view from the academy this way:

Pretty much everyone thinks that the conditions in Afghanistan are terrible, that the political situation is terrible, and thus that the conditions for successful counterinsurgency and state-building are inauspicious,” says Snyder, warning that the current war strategy “would be costly, would take a really long time, and might not work.

As always, more/better data would be better, but other than Stephen Biddle, I don’t know a lot of academics who thought Surge Part II was a movie worth seeing.

Iran — An awful lot of academics and others are saying we could live with a nuclear Iran without too much difficulty. The most recent TRIPs survey of IR academics had the “bomb Iran/live with a nuclear Iran” count at 20 percent to 80 percent. That’s not the order of battle in the FPC. Not in public, or in the political debate, anyway. For example, in a recent “national security insiders” poll from National Journal, a narrow majority of insiders did say—implicitly—that living with a nuclear Iran would be better than a war. But, importantly, those answers were given anonymously. And half of the public Beltway commentary over what to do about Iran does not say we could live with a nuclear Iran, which again points to the incentives facing defense intellectuals in Washington. People who appear to believe we could live with a nuclear Iran aren’t saying so forcefully, despite the important consequences. Why not?

The paper argues that domestic political factors are at work. I just uploaded the final edited version at SSRN, so give it a look and, as Drezner might ask, tell me what I’m missing.