Tag: John Mearsheimer

Thanassis Cambanis on “Cosmopolitan Isolationism”

Via Erik Voeten, Thanassis Cambanis has a long piece in Sunday’s Boston Globe about academic critics of America’s bipartisan grand strategy.  Cambanis rightly points out that Republicans and Democrats basically agree about American strategy, and spend all their time haggling over price and implementation.  By contrast, there is a burgeoning group of critics in the academy who disagree:

[The critics’] call for a humbler foreign policy hasn’t gained much of a hearing with the foreign policy elite, and is hardly talked about in mainstream circles. They question many of America’s basic habits and reflexes, at a time when it’s increasingly clear that the “long war” has not eliminated the threat of terrorism or neutralized rogue states and their nuclear black market.

Not every danger rises to the level of an existential threat, these thinkers say; often, the best way to project power is to stay out of other people’s fights. Or as [Barry] Posen, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology political scientist who is one of the most acerbic proponents of restraint, puts it: “We need to get out of the world’s face.”


Barry Posen

Posen’s thinking has evolved markedly. In the late 1990s he derided “neo-isolationists” who wanted to minimize American involvements abroad (“Isolationist is what we called the people whose ideas we didn’t like,” he said). Now he counts himself among their number, and has embarked on a book and lecture tour expounding his case for restraint.

There are plenty of reasons why retrenchment should get more of a hearing in contemporary America, Posen says, but he doesn’t think power brokers will take the idea seriously until a definitive crisis limits the Pentagon or the Treasury. “It’s almost as if in foreign and security policy, democratic debate peters out,” Posen says. “If you argue for restraint, people hold up garlic like they would against a vampire and shout ‘Isolationist! Isolationist!’ ”


For now, the old consensus is running strong. But for the new isolationists, America is at the tail end of an unsustainable experiment that has cost progress at home. America’s interventionist reflex has embroiled it in wars big and small and political disputes whose value to American interests is hard to fathom.

“Maybe I’m hallucinating, but there’s an awareness that this project we’re running isn’t sustainable,” Posen says. “The way we run our strategy generates new little dragons faster than we can slay the old ones.”

The piece mentions, in addition to Posen, my old professor John Mearsheimer, who had a solid cover story in the current issue of the National Interest (video clip of recent talk on the article here), as well as Boston University’s Andrew Bacevich.

Cambanis’s piece is interesting and hits on themes I have tried to drive home in the past.  At last year’s APSA Annual Meeting, I highlighted the gulf between academic grand strategists and the Beltway foreign policy elite and tried to explain it.  I’ve also written a bit about the “isolationism” canard, and how it was designed–and coined by A.T. Mahan–with the intention of demonizing the opponents of an activist American strategy.

I’m still shopping an article dealing with these themes, but I would suggest that while “hallucinating” might be too strong a word, Posen is too optimistic about the prospects of a major strategic shift along the lines that he–and I–would like.  There is simply no interest group support for it in Washington and no external pressure that looks likely to force us to pull in our horns.  Maybe I’m being too pessimistic, and maybe it’s a function of having been working on this project for a long time in DC with very little success, but I think the prospects for significant change are a long ways off, and sound arguments emanating from the academy are unlikely to get us there.

To my mind, there are two things that could bring substantial change to American strategy: the rise of some external security threat that would force us to make smarter, more prudent choices, or a shift in the domestic-political balance of power that involved the rise of a faction within Washington that had vested interests in strategic restraint.  To my mind, we’re miles away from either of those scenarios, and thus the status quo is likely to persist for decades.

On Differentiating ‘Realists’

Jacob Heilbrunn wrote a piece recently wondering “where have all the serious Republicans gone [on foreign policy]?”  Heilbrunn observes correctly that the loudest Republican voices on national security these days are advancing a variety of zany views, taking as evidence Mitt Romney’s empirically-challenged attack on the new START treaty.

In a similar vein, Daniel Larison wonders whether a return to Republican “realism” is even anything to thirst for:

In practice, if the GOP “reclaimed its realist roots” I wonder how much would change for the better. Republican realism sounds good by comparison with what we have had for the last decade, but most actual Republican realists, especially those in elected office, did little or nothing to challenge the endless hyping of foreign threats and the frequent recourse to military intervention abroad in the ’90s…  How many realists not affiliated with the Cato Institute expressed serious reservations about NATO expansion into Ukraine and Georgia before the August 2008 war? As sympathetic as I am to many realist arguments, and as much as I appreciate the efforts of the most sober realists to try to steer Republican foreign policy thinking in a constructive direction, until Republicans reject confrontational and aggressive foreign policy goals it will not matter very much if they adopt realist means and rhetoric.

The answer to Larison’s question about NATO expansion is that it was quite unpopular among non-Cato realists.  John Lewis Gaddis wrote at the time [.pdf] that “historians – normally so contentious – are in uncharacteristic agreement: with remarkably few exceptions, they see NATO enlargement as ill-conceived, ill-timed, and above all ill-suited to the realities of the post-Cold War world.”  He “could recall no other moment…at which there was less support, within the community of historians, for an announced policy position.”  That might have been putting things a bit too strongly when it came to realists, but not very much.  That is, actual realists, who don’t, by and large, get called to Washington.

This, I think, is the crucial distinction to make.  The bottom line here is that there is a big disconnect between people in the Beltway who call themselves realists and actual realists.  Ur-realist Kenneth Waltz once described himself as “a fierce critic of American military policy and spending and strategy, at least since the 1970s.”  John Mearsheimer points out that realists opposed the Vietnam War almost to a man (except for Henry Kissinger), and that realists opposed the Iraq War almost to a man (except for Henry Kissinger).  Since at least the Johnson administration, realists have tended to be dovish relative to the Beltway consensus as it has existed at any point in time, and active dovishness is not permitted in polite company in Washington.

Not only is it a mistake to hearken back to a Glory Day of Republican Realism, it is really a mistake to characterize any existing Beltway faction as “realist.”  Belligerent nationalists, Wilsonians, liberal imperialists…all those we have.  Realists, not so much.

Reaping What We’ve Sown in Europe

Josef Joffe famously referred to the U.S. presence in Western Europe as “Europe’s pacifier.” The idea was that you stick the American pacifier in there and the *cough* recurring problem emanating from Europe goes away. 

After the Cold War ended, and the official reason for the NATO alliance blew away as if in the wind, we never considered letting the alliance go with it.  That tells you something.  Instead of coming home, we pushed NATO “out of area” rather than allowing it to go “out of business.”  Christopher Layne argues that this was all by design.  U.S. policymakers never intended to allow Europe to establish its autonomy and worked diligently to ensure that efforts at autonomous European defense would fail.  They succeeded.

In February, Defense Secretary Robert Gates was whining about the “demilitarization of Europe” and how the Europeans have grown “averse to military force.”  I responded by pointing out that this was dumb.  Mancur Olson’s logic and the history of American policy on the European continent that Layne documents show that we were as much to blame for this state of affairs as the Euros themselves.

And now here’s the Wall Street Journal pointing out that the Euros are slashing their defense budgets further still.

There are two schools of thought on this.  The first says that European defense spending isn’t so low as it’s commonly made out to be.  This group argues (implicitly at times) that there is no pacifier.  War has been “burned out of the system” in Europe, to steal a phrase, so the Euros should just invest in capabilities that can help out with the sorts of overseas noodling-around missions we’re doing now in Afghanistan and that NATO/America is likely to create in the future.

But I don’t think you have to be John Mearsheimer [.pdf] to belong to the second group.  This group buys pacifier logic but worries about both the prudence and the sustainability of Washington playing the pacifier role indefinitely.  It worries about the larger role the United States appropriates for itself in the world as it promotes the infantilization of Europe.  And it worries, ultimately, about how this all ends.

The question for the first group, it seems to me, is how little European defense spending is too little, and why.  Further, if we approach or cross the “too little” line, what should we do to promote more European defense spending?  Would this include promoting a larger European role in the world, which has historically been the main reason America has opposed EU defense efforts?

Regardless, the perennial American lament about European defense spending is likely to wind up again, particularly in the shadow of the dubious Afghanistan campaign.