The Challenges of Restraint in U.S. Grand Strategy

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:

  1. The temptation to bully or exploit allies.
  2. Overreacting when other states such as China exercise their growing clout on the international stage.
  3. Intervening in places where its core national interests are not at stake.
  4. 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.

Unfortunately, the prospects for restraint look very poor. In the absence of any serious external checks on its behavior, the United States must rely on internal sources of restraint. Sadly, the United States lacks the internal checks and balances that would help prevent foreign policy adventurism. Waging unending war is unthinkably expensive, but the American economy is large enough to sustain foolish foreign policies. The American public is tired of war after more than a decade of making a mess in the Middle East, but neither polls nor elections provide a sufficient bulwark against the elite consensus. Even though polls show that the public has little appetite for international activism, both the Republican and Democratic foreign policy establishments remain deeply committed to interventionist strategies of various flavors. And even when Congress does raise objections to presidential maneuvers it matters little. Congress long ago ceded most of its meaningful authority on foreign policy to the executive branch. Moreover, the president’s advantages with respect to information and the news media makes winning arguments extremely difficult for the opposition.

Thus the challenges Brooks and Wohlforth identify will eventually be a list of the failures of American foreign policy over the next several decades. As has always been the case, these failures will hurt other nations and peoples more than they will hurt the United States, which will mostly spend money that its citizens could have used for more productive purposes. It is sobering nonetheless to think how much better everyone would be if the United States could manage to exercise greater restraint.