Seeking to calm fears of a rising China’s new assertiveness in the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs, professors Stephen G. Brooks and William G. Wohlforth argue that the United States has less to worry about than most believe. China is extremely unlikely to become a superpower peer anytime in the next few decades. The real test for the United States, they say, will be adapting to a “world of lasting U.S. military preeminence and declining U.S. economic dominance.”
As proponents of the “deep engagement” camp in the roiling debate over American grand strategy, Brooks and Wohlforth have long opposed arguments for a more restrained foreign policy. It is surprising, then, that a long section of their essay is devoted to the importance of exercising restraint, as is their conclusion that the “chief threat to the world’s preeminent power arguably lies within.”
Brooks and Wohlforth discuss four different challenges to exercising the appropriate restraint in the years ahead:
- The temptation to bully or exploit allies.
- Overreacting when other states such as China exercise their growing clout on the international stage.
- Intervening in places where its core national interests are not at stake.
- Adopting overly aggressive military postures in the face of challenges to its interests around the world.
Each of these challenges is real and important. But rather than problems that the United States will begin facing over the next several decades, these issues are exactly the ones that have plagued the United States since the end of the Cold War. All one needs to do is read the daily news for plentiful examples of how the United States already struggles to cope with what Christopher Preble has called the “power problem.”
In truth, the fact that Brooks and Wohlforth feel obligated to discuss the need for restraint at such length reinforces two critical arguments that we at Cato have been making for a long time.
First, the United States’ strategic situation is so secure thanks to geography and its nuclear triad that even China’s incredible economic rise and increasing military assertiveness can do little to threaten U.S. national security. In fact, contrary to the news headlines, the United States faces a less dangerous world than at any time in memory. Other “threats” to American security like Russia, Iran, or North Korea, are primarily threats to those nations’ neighbors, not the United States. Engaging those countries simply risks escalating conflicts that add nothing to American national security. Terrorism, while a real threat, is a threat to American lives and property, not to national security.
Second, U.S. preeminence creates temptations to act in ways that are both unnecessary for national security and counterproductive. The ability to project massive amounts of military power led the United States, in the wake of 9/11, to spend trillions of dollars and thousands of lives chasing imaginary threats in the Middle East. Intervention in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya have destroyed societies and unleashed chaos. Despite these warnings, presidential candidates continue to call for indiscriminate exercise of American military power abroad in a vain effort to bring the world under control.
Brooks and Wohlforth’s warning about the challenges of restraint is timely. China’s rise, Russia’s saber rattling, the scourge of Islamist terrorism, and unrest and upheaval in the Middle East are just a few of the temptations calling out to American interventionists today. New temptations to shape and control the world will follow as surely as the sun rises. Now would not be too soon to organize plans for restrained responses to current and future concerns.