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Restraint: The Prudent American Grand Strategy

Bring the boys from Germany and Seoul home.

By 6.30.14

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Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy
By Barry R. Posen
(Cornell University, 256 pages, $29.95)

Since the end of the Cold War, a handful of America’s most prestigious scholars have called for a radical transformation of U.S. grand strategy from the status quo of liberal hegemony. (Liberal because of America’s democratic values and hegemonic because it’s sustained with the sword.) In its place, scholars such as Texas A&M’s Christopher Layne, Harvard’s Stephen Walt, University of Chicago’s John Mearsheimer, and MIT’s Harvey Sapolsky have argued for a strategy of “offshore balancing.” In their view, U.S. forces, currently spread across some 500 foreign bases and numbering around 175,000 (not including those deployed to Afghanistan), should come home.

According to the theory, the status quo is not just costly but dangerous: garrisoning the world provokes nationalist blowback, infantilizes allies by subsidizing rich nations capable of defending themselves, and risks pulling the U.S. into regional disputes where it has no significant national interests, all while making no significant contribution to America’s security. So far policymakers have ignored such scholars. Instead, for the last two and a half decades, the Washington establishment—the dirty secret of the matter is that the Republican and Democratic elite share the same foreign policy dream and only disagree occasionally on means—have eagerly exploited the “unipolar moment” of American power to inaugurate a “new world order.”

The nation’s disasters in the Middle East are causing Americans to question such a grand strategy. Notably, a recent poll found that—for the first time since Pew started asking the question forty years ago—the majority of Americans think the nation should primarily “mind its own business internationally.”

Barry Posen’s new book, Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy comes at a propitious time then. Posen, who is Ford International Professor of Political Science and director of the security studies program at MIT, has not always been a proponent of the modest grand strategy proposed by the offshore balancers. The enlargement of NATO and America’s wars in Kosovo and Iraq convinced him otherwise.

Restraint, Posen argues, is the right grand strategy in this post-Cold War, post-Iraq world, in which (as the historian John Lukacs puts it) all the “isms” of the age are “wasms”—except the most powerful, nationalism——and as the U.S. economy suffers relative decline, with America’s allies now rich and strong and with no state poised to become hegemon of Eurasia.

Posen’s thesis—that the U.S. should abandon its current program of liberal hegemony, moderate its ambitions, and fashion a grand strategy based on a bounded definition of national defense—is sure to elicit howls of protest from the priests of the status quo. But that is precisely why the book is important. The frantic gesticulations of John McCain and Lindsey Graham cannot change the fact that liberal hegemony has cost the United States dearly. Just considering the costs of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars is chilling: 7,000 American soldiers lost their lives, 50,000 were wounded, 100,000 have been diagnosed with PTSD, and 200,000 suffered some level of traumatic brain injury. The Iraq war alone cost more than the Vietnam War. The cost of both wars will likely total $4 trillion or more. In an era of unrivaled American power, liberal hegemony was costly and destructive. Today, in an era of growing multipolarity, as Posen observes, it is likely to be disastrous. The facts have changed, and U.S. grand strategy must adjust to the new reality. What before was easily possible, but mistaken, is now ruinously possible, and still mistaken.

No, you won’t find any rhetoric here about eliminating evil from the world, forcing others to be free, intervening in “rogue states,” or unilaterally guaranteeing the security of others. That’s what the U.S. has already been doing for the last twenty-five years, and, in Posen’s perspective, it’s just what’s wrong. Because Posen believes in limits, he is able to precisely define America’s security interests: first, prevent the rise of a Eurasian hegemon; second, limit nuclear proliferation; third, protect the nation from terrorist attacks. How should the U.S. work to secure these three interests?

First, today no state is likely to become a Eurasian hegemon. China, Posen suggests, has the best chance, but it faces many barriers including internal troubles, the reality of have oceans to the East and South and nuclear-weapon states to the North and West, and a region primed with nationalism. If China ever were to attempt a bid for hegemony, Posen suggests the U.S. should join some sort of coalition against it, but not in the tradition of the Cold War in which the U.S. does most of the work and its allies get most of the benefits.

Second, Posen argues that the U.S. should continue to diligently work to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. Certainly the transfer of such weapons to a terrorist group would be a nightmare. But here he adds a caveat: some proliferation may be in the interest of the U.S., as extended deterrence is a risky business. As far back as 1979 Henry Kissinger warned that promising nuclear war with a great power (then the USSR) to protect another nation was not credible. This remains the case today, and the famous statement by a Chinese general that the U.S. would not trade Los Angeles for Taipei reinforces this reality. In the future Germany and Japan may decide to acquire nuclear weapons, something Posen sees as probably beneficial on the whole. Alternatively, Germany could seek an extended deterrence guarantee from France or the U.K.

Finally, how should the U.S. protect itself from terrorism? First, don’t station U.S. troops in the Middle East or interfere in the internal politics of Islamic nations. Both of these have the unfortunate (and predictable) side effect of raising anti-American ire. Second, continue hounding Al-Qaeda through precision strikes. Third, continue investing in defensive measures here at home.

What sort of military strategy would match the three objectives of restraint? Posen answers with the “command of the commons.” By controlling the commons—sea, airspace, and space—the U.S. would be able meet its strategic objectives with a mobile and global presence that avoids the costs and dangers of garrisoning the globe but preserves the ability to deploy onshore if required. This is what has been intended by the phrase “offshore balancing.” The U.S. has a geographic advantage of being a great power isolated from the Eurasian landmass where the other great powers are located. It also has the advantage of dominating the commons and the ability to deny others access to it. Restraint matches these geographical and military advantages to clearly defined strategic objectives. As Christopher Layne once suggested, it’s the maritime strategy of Alfred Thayer Mahan, rather than the land-power strategy of Sir Halford Mackinder, that’s most appropriate for the United States.

What would such a grand strategy cost? According to Posen’s careful calculations, around 2.5 percent of GDP, or a full 20 percent less than we’re currently spending. The Army would bear the brunt of cuts—Posen suggests reducing it by 140,000 soldiers. As control of the commons is fundamentally a maritime strategy, this would be appropriate, though surely politically unpopular.

A corollary to such a strategy is that America’s current system of global alliances would be no longer advantageous. Offshore balancing requires removing U.S. soldiers from the garrisons of Europe and Asia. It also requires renegotiating the terms of NATO and America’s treaties in East Asia. These alliances, formed after the end of WWII, were intended to protect the weak and shattered countries of Europe and Asia from the aggressive advance of the USSR. This mission has been accomplished: America’s allies no longer incapable of protecting themselves, nor are they threatened by any great power. Nonetheless, because America’s security guarantees still continue today, America’s allies “cheap ride” on the U.S., investing in the luxuries of the welfare state instead of the necessities of defense. Posen argues that the U.S. should withdraw its forces from Europe and Asia, modify its treaties by abolishing absolute defense guarantees, and instead commit to limited security cooperation.

The other major problem with the current system of alliances is what Posen calls “reckless driving.” It is, in short, a moral hazard problem: nations can make irresponsible decisions but not pay the consequences. Posen does not offer this example, but Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s December 2013 visit to the Yasakuni Shrine would appear to be a case in point: the consequences of antagonizing the Chinese are minimized because Japanese security is already guaranteed by the most powerful nation in the world.

In an article published in the fall of 1990 entitled “A Normal Country in a Normal Time,” Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, perhaps the most respected neoconservative of her time, eloquently expressed the sentiments that lie at the heart of a strategy of testraint. “Foreign policy becomes a major aspect of a society,” she wrote, “only if its government is expansionist, imperial, aggressive, or when it is threatened by aggression. One of the most important consequences of the half century of war and Cold War has been to give foreign affairs an unnatural importance. The end of the Cold War frees time, attention, and resources for American needs.” It could be said that Posen’s book is about putting foreign policy back into its place. Since the existential threats of WWII and the Cold War have passed, the U.S. must step back from its practice, by now nearly a custom, of aggressive world leadership.

Restraint makes an eloquent case for a new grand strategy. It is not a newcase, for it echoes the arguments offshore balancers have been making for twenty years. It does, however, codify much good thought and consistently makes judicious judgments with precision and fairness. Critics of the status quo would do well to incorporate Posen’s case into public discourse.  

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About the Author

Jared McKinney is a graduate student in Defense and Strategic Studies at Missouri State University (Fairfax, VA).