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Remaking America’s Broken Foreign Policy

By Emma Ashford

For nearly three decades after the end of the Cold War, U.S. foreign policy was characterized by a bipartisan consensus: that as the world’s “indispensable nation” and with no competitor, the United States had little choice but to pursue a transformational agenda on the world stage. Over the last few years, however, that consensus has collapsed. A growing chorus of voices are advocating a strategy of restraint—a less activist approach that focuses on diplomatic and economic engagement over military intervention. And they have found a receptive audience.

In that, they have undoubtedly been helped by circumstance: the United States’ failed “war on terror,” the rise of China, and growing partisan polarization at home have all made it clear that U.S. foreign policy cannot simply remain on autopilot. Even those who continue to argue for an interventionist approach to the world typically acknowledge that their strategy must be shorn of its worst excesses. Where restraint was once excluded from the halls of power and confined largely to academic journals, now some of its positions have become official policy.

Although President Donald Trump’s record was defined by dysfunction more than any coherent strategy, he did wind down the war in Afghanistan, raise doubts about the value of U.S. alliances in Europe and Asia, and question the wisdom of military intervention and democracy promotion. President Joe Biden, for his part, has begun withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan, has initiated a review of the United States’ global military posture, and has taken steps to stabilize the U.S.-Russian relationship. In 2019, Jake Sullivan, now Biden’s national security adviser, wrote, “The U.S. must get better at seeing both the possibilities and the limits of American power.” That this sentiment is now openly embraced at the highest levels of government is nothing short of a win for those who have long called for a more restrained U.S. foreign policy.

Yet victory also raises a question: Where do restrainers go from here? With Washington having dialed down the war on terrorism, the most politically popular of their demands has been achieved. Now, they are liable to face an uphill battle over the rest of U.S. foreign policy, such as how to treat allies or what to do about China—issues that have little public salience or on which the restrainers are divided. Although often bundled together by Washington’s foreign policy elites and derided as isolationists, the members of the restraint community include a diversity of voices, running the gamut from left-wing antiwar activists to hard-nosed conservative realists. It should not be surprising that they disagree on much.

If the restraint camp focuses on what divides them rather than what unites them, then it will find itself consumed with internecine battles and excluded from decision-making at the very moment its influence could be at its height. But there is a viable consensus, a path forward for restraint that can achieve the most important goals, alienate the fewest members of the coalition, and win new converts. This more pragmatic strategy, which would entail the gradual lessening of U.S. military commitments, would not achieve the most ambitious of the restrainers’ goals. But it has the best chance of moving U.S. foreign policy in a more secure and more popular direction.

A DEBATE REBORN

The idea that the United States is uniquely qualified to reshape the world has manifested itself in different ways in the 30 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union marked the end of a bipolar world. Humanitarian intervention, democracy promotion, and counterterrorism—all were attempts to mold the world according to American preferences. Yet the unipolar moment has largely failed to live up to expectations. Today, democracy is in decline, there are more state-level conflicts than at any time since 1990, the war on terrorism has largely failed, and China’s rise has given the lie to the notion that the United States can prevent the emergence of peer competitors. Washington’s foreign policy community now appears to accept the need for a course correction, although it remains divided on the specifics.

Today, opinion is increasingly coalescing around three distinct views. The first of these is a modified form of liberal internationalism, the school of thought that believes that U.S. leadership is a stabilizing force in the world, emphasizes militarized deterrence, and has faith in a liberal, rules-based international order. Proponents of this approach often frame threats from China and Russia as threats to this order rather than as threats to concrete U.S. security interests. Yet the strain of this view dominant today is also, at least in theory, a softer, reformed version of the post–Cold War consensus, one that takes into account critiques of recent U.S. foreign policy and rejects parts of the war on terrorism.

Because they are more aware of the limits of American power than their predecessors, advocates of this view are best described as liberal internationalists, rather than liberal interventionists. The scholars Mira Rapp-Hooper and Rebecca Lissner—both of whom now serve on the National Security Council—belong to this camp. As they wrote in these pages in 2019, “Rather than wasting its still considerable power on quixotic bids to restore the liberal order or remake the world in its own image, the United States should focus on what it can realistically achieve.”

Restrainers have not offered a coherent alternative to today’s foreign policy.

Another alternative has percolated out of the synthesis of the Republican foreign policy establishment and the Trump administration: a form of belligerent unilateralism that prioritizes maintaining U.S. military primacy. This “America first” approach to the world is also a clear successor to the old consensus, but one that privileges power over diplomacy and U.S. interests over a liberal order. Like their liberal internationalist counterparts, the America firsters—both Trump administration alumni and more mainstream Republican foreign policy hands—have absorbed the notion that U.S. foreign policy has become unpopular, particularly among the GOP base. They have therefore shifted from democracy promotion and nation building toward a militarized global presence more akin to classic imperial policing.

They also reject some of the core liberal components of the old consensus, spurning diplomacy and arms control, fetishizing sovereignty, and preferring American solutions to global problems over multilateral solutions. For them, the liberal order is a mirage. As Nadia Schadlow, a veteran of the Trump White House, wrote in these pages in 2020, “Washington must let go of old illusions, move past the myths of liberal internationalism, and reconsider its views about the nature of the world order.”

Both approaches to the world are still problematic. A rebooted liberal internationalism may succeed at rehabilitating the United States’ image, but it is unlikely to advance democracy or build a unified liberal order through nonmilitary means when military ones have failed. And as the global balance of power shifts, liberal internationalism simultaneously overestimates the contributions that U.S. allies can make to collective defense and underestimates the differences they have with Washington. The “America first” approach, for its part, may yield short-term dividends—Trump, after all, was able to force U.S. allies to abide by sanctions on Iran and renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement—but it has diminishing returns. The more the United States uses coercive tools against other countries, the more they will look for ways to blunt those tools. And both approaches lean heavily on a forward U.S. military presence in ways that could all too easily trigger an unplanned conflict, particularly in Asia.

The remaining alternative, restraint, comes from outside the Washington policymaking world and is largely focused on these flaws. It is far more ideologically diverse than the other two, but most restrainers agree on several core principles. They share a conviction that the United States is a remarkably secure nation, that unlike many great powers in history, it faces no real threat of invasion, thanks to geography and nuclear weapons. They argue that U.S. foreign policy has been characterized in recent years by overreach and hubris, with predictably abysmal results. And they think U.S. foreign policy is overmilitarized, with policymakers spending too much on defense and too quickly resorting to force. Most important, advocates of restraint strike directly at the notion of the United States as the indispensable nation, considering it instead as but one among many global powers.

RESTRAINT’S MOMENT

The most common slap at restrainers is that they focus too much on criticism without offering plausible policy alternatives. That is not an entirely accurate evaluation; individual proponents of restraint have offered detailed prescriptions for everything from the war in Afghanistan to U.S.-Russian relations. But it is true that restrainers have often focused on what draws them together—namely, their shared criticisms of the status quo—rather than what would pull them apart: the question of which specific policies to implement instead. As restraint enters the mainstream conversation, the distinctions within this group are coming to the surface.

Restraint contains several different overlapping ideas. The first (and best defined) of these is an academic theory of grand strategy formulated by the political scientist Barry Posen in his 2014 book, Restraint. His version of restraint envisages a much smaller military based primarily within the United States. Other restrainers—such as the international relations theorists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt—advocate a grand strategy of offshore balancing, a distinct but related approach that also calls for downsizing the United States’ global military role. (The distinction between the two is one of degree: Posen backs an entirely offshore military presence, whereas Mearsheimer and Walt admit that the United States may occasionally need to intervene to keep a hostile state from dominating a key region.) As grand strategies, both leave many granular policy details unstated, but they present internally coherent and fully formulated approaches to the world.

There is also a looser definition of “restraint.” Increasingly, the term is Washington shorthand for any proposal for a less militarized and activist foreign policy. That includes those put forth not just by academic realists but also by progressive Democrats and conservative Republicans in Congress, as well as various antiwar groups (such as Code Pink and the Friends Committee on National Legislation) and newer entrants into the antiwar space (such as the veterans’ group Common Defense). Thus, the term “restraint” is now used as often to signify this broader political movement as it is to describe a grand strategy.

Any movement that includes Mearsheimer and Code Pink is by necessity a big tent, and indeed, there are many motivations for restraint. For some, it might be a moral consideration: many libertarians believe that war grows the state, and anti-imperialists want to rein in what they see as an overbearing military-industrial complex. For others, the motivation is financial: although conservative deficit hawks are far less vocal on defense than on other issues, they exist, and many progressives and even some mainstream Democrats view cuts to military spending as an easy way to free up resources for infrastructure or social programs. For others in the restraint community, it is personal: some of the recent activism around ending the war on terrorism has been driven by veterans who are concerned about what the conflict has done to their fellow soldiers and to American society writ large. Then there are the strategists, for whom the pursuit of restraint is largely about avoiding the failures and risks of the current approach. There are even those who might be called “restraint-curious,” people who are open to a more restrained foreign policy on specific issues but reject the broader notion.

Refueling over the Atlantic Ocean, June 2016

Refueling over the Atlantic Ocean, June 2016
Lucas Jackson / Reuters

The result is a coalition that—much like its opposition—is broad and bipartisan, a partnership of the left and the right in which the two sides don’t agree with each other on much else. Consider the congressional activism around ending U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, a movement that was spearheaded by two liberals, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, and two Republicans, Senators Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah. Or consider the strange bedfellows made by the war in Afghanistan. In the House of Representatives, advocates of withdrawal included Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, the standard-bearer of the Democratic Party’s left wing, and Matt Gaetz of Florida, a Republican devotee of Trump. The transpartisan nature of the coalition pushing for restraint is one of its core strengths.

It is also a sign of restraint’s increasing influence on an important and growing segment of American society. After all, there have always been people calling for a less activist U.S. foreign policy: presidential candidates who opposed the Spanish-American War, senators who refused to support joining the League of Nations, students who protested the Vietnam War. After the Cold War, these voices were pushed aside in policy debates, chided as unrealistic or isolationist. This ire fell both on activists protesting the U.S. invasion of Iraq, who were derided as “Saddam’s idiots,” and on once mainstream realists such as George Kennan and Brent Scowcroft, whose opposition to NATO expansion was met with derision from politicians such as Biden, then a senator, who described them as “isolationist.” It was easy for elites, in the heat of the unipolar moment, to brush past the concerns and critiques of those who pointed out that nation building in the Middle East would be difficult or that seemingly benign policies in Europe might have unexpected consequences.

Today, it is not so easy. Not only has the war on terrorism publicly failed; the balance of power is also shifting globally, with the United States in relative decline and China rising. Political polarization and gridlock are weakening the United States domestically and tarnishing its image internationally. Polls show that a majority of voters now favor diplomacy over military intervention—hence the rise of restraint.

A HOUSE DIVIDED

Although they remain mostly outside government, restrainers have achieved some notable successes in recent years. Thanks to a peace process initiated by the Trump administration, the United States is finally withdrawing from Afghanistan after 20 years. Congress has succeeded in curtailing U.S. military support for the war in Yemen. Meanwhile, the Biden administration’s plans to conduct reviews of the U.S. global force posture and U.S. sanctions suggest a growing awareness within government of the criticisms lobbed by restrainers. Then there are the suspension of sales of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia, the opening of strategic stability talks with Russia, and the drawdown of U.S. missile and air forces from the Middle East. None goes as far as most restrainers would like, but all are steps in the right direction.

More important, establishment figures now routinely make points that used to get advocates of restraint excluded from polite conversation. Consider the way in which Mara Karlin and Tamara Cofman Wittes (both of whom have been appointed to senior posts in the Biden administration) described the Middle East in these pages in 2019: “It is time for Washington to put an end to wishful thinking about its ability to establish order on its own terms or to transform self-interested and shortsighted regional partners into reliable allies.” Or as Martin Indyk, a veteran of the Clinton and Obama administrations, put it more bluntly in The Wall Street Journal: “The Middle East isn’t worth it anymore.” It is too early to take a victory lap, but proponents of restraint have certainly notched some major victories in the debate over U.S. foreign policy.

Yet it is notable that those victories have come in debates over Afghanistan and the Middle East, where the stark realities of the United States’ strategic bankruptcy have been most obvious, where the solutions have been politically palatable, and on which public opinion has been strongly supportive of restraint. More important, these issues drew support from across the pro-restraint community; realists, doves, fiscal hawks, and even Trumpian nationalists largely agreed that democracy promotion and nation building in Afghanistan and Iraq was problematic. With that debate won, restrainers will have to turn to issues that are a harder sell and on which they themselves are not of one mind. Although many of them have laid out viable policies on issues from U.S. support for Taiwan to burden sharing in NATO, these visions are not always compatible. For example, European states will likely decline to shoulder a greater burden within NATO—and instead strengthen the EU’s own capabilities—if they believe that the United States’ ultimate goal regarding the alliance is abandonment rather than reform.

One of the most important things that restrainers bring to the table is the notion of moderation and pragmatism.

In other words, restrainers have not offered a single, coherent alternative to today’s foreign policy because they do not themselves always agree. In their days of irrelevance, that would have been quite literally an academic point. But now that they are actively beginning to influence policy, their internal disagreements could shape the future of U.S. foreign policy. Today, these debates are as important as those between restrainers and liberal internationalists.

Some of these divergences are the inevitable result of restraint’s bipartisan appeal. Just as there is no consensus between Democratic and Republican liberal internationalists on questions of trade, there is no consensus on them among restrainers. Many realists tend to be classically liberal on trade, with the academics promulgating grand strategies of restraint seeing the maintenance of free trade as a core U.S. interest. Progressive politicians who back restraint, by contrast, hold more traditional, pro-labor attitudes. During the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, for example, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts promised: “I want to . . . use our leverage to force other countries to raise the bar on everything from labor and environmental standards to anti-corruption rules”—a decidedly different position from that of many realists. Similar tensions can be found on the topic of immigration, where progressives’ embrace of greater immigration runs into opposition from more conservative restrainers. These differences of opinion mean that there may be some inherent tensions in a more restrained foreign policy. Trade wars, for example, could complicate the ability of the United States to shift the burden of military defense to European or Asian countries and could make friction with China more challenging to manage.

On other topics, the divergence among restrainers is mostly one of degree. In academia, most restrainers agree that the United States should largely move its forces offshore, but they disagree about how far offshore. Some think that the United States could remain safe while downsizing the military and closing most foreign bases, whereas others prefer a Goldilocks approach: maintaining some U.S. presence in crucial regions. As a result, estimates of how much retrenchment would save the U.S. government differ. The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments has projected that a fully implemented strategy of restraint—one that conformed to Posen’s grand strategic vision—could save $1 trillion over ten years. Writing in these pages in 2020, Kathleen Hicks (now U.S. deputy secretary of defense) proposed a more limited retrenchment, a strategy she estimated would save $20–$30 billion a year.

U.S. soldiers in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, June 2011

U.S. soldiers in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, June 2011
Baz Ratner / Reuters

The two central questions dividing the restraint camp are the same ones dominating the rest of the U.S. foreign policy debate: What is the future of U.S. alliances, and what should be done about China? On the former, most restrainers highlight the downsides of alliances—namely, that they encourage free-riding and raise the risk of getting entangled in conflict. Yet alliances remain widely popular; few Americans want to gut NATO. Sanders has called for European allies to spend more on defense, but he has also argued that alliances remain valuable, a position shared by a majority of the public. And in Asia, partnerships will undoubtedly be necessary to deal with China even under a grand strategy of offshore balancing. The result is an uneasy truce within the restraint coalition: all agree that some level of reform is necessary, but while some seek to mitigate the risks and costs of alliances by downsizing the U.S. military or forcing other countries to bear more of the burden, others argue that only a complete withdrawal from the United States’ permanent alliances will do the trick.

On China, few voices within the restraint community would argue that the country’s rise is insignificant; the debate is over how to respond to it. For some realists, China’s rise is the foundational issue driving their advocacy for restraint outside East Asia. In 2016, for example, Mearsheimer and Walt argued in these pages that China “is likely to seek hegemony in Asia” and called on the United States to “undertake a major effort to prevent it from succeeding.” Such realists are mostly not arguing for retrenchment in East Asia; instead, they advocate a restructuring of the U.S. force posture to focus on the threat from China, coupled with a reconsideration of the putative U.S. security commitments—especially to Taiwan—that pose the biggest risk of misperception and war.

There are, however, two other main camps on China within the restraint community. The first argues that retrenchment, homeland defense, and nuclear weapons are sufficient to preserve U.S. interests and security in the face of a more powerful China. In this view, China may be a threat to the United States’ military primacy but not to its security. The second group argues, conversely, that the China problem is best viewed not in terms of security but in terms of shared challenges such as climate change. In July, more than 40 progressive groups signed a letter to Biden urging him to “eschew the dominant antagonistic approach to U.S.-China relations and instead prioritize multilateralism, diplomacy, and cooperation with China to address the existential threat that is the climate crisis.” It is not clear that these differences can be reconciled even over the long term, raising the disquieting notion that the restraint movement may succeed when it comes to the Middle East but founder on the question of China.

COME TOGETHER

The restraint community is in some ways an accident of history, the unintended consequence of the United States’ remarkable overextension after the Cold War. Only such an unbalanced foreign policy could generate such a diverse coalition against it. Today, restrainers find themselves advocating the right idea at the right time; they have made significant inroads with their most persuasive arguments. So what now?

The most viable path through which restraint could become the dominant strand of strategic thinking among U.S. policymakers is the promotion of a foreign policy that is realist yet not doctrinaire, internationalist yet prudent. Such an approach is better suited for a world where the United States can no longer dictate policies from on high, where it is merely first among equals. On issues of common concern, such as climate change, this realist internationalist approach would argue for the United States to use its outsize power to act not as an antagonist but as a convener, building coalitions to address global problems to the extent possible. When it comes to the U.S. military’s size and posture, it would advocate sufficiency, rather than primacy, focusing mostly on the forces needed to defend the United States and its core security interests. There would be some level of global retrenchment, including a reduction in the United States’ network of overseas bases. Washington would push allies to bear a greater share of the burden for their own defense. In Europe, that would take the form of ending the U.S. military presence over a period of years, while working with European states to bolster homegrown capabilities to deter Russia. In Asia, it would mean resisting further U.S. military buildup and increasing the capabilities of Australia, Japan, South Korea, and Southeast Asian allies. Most important, since this strategy’s central goal is to avoid a great-power war, the United States would have to hedge its bets on China and Russia, maintaining the necessary defense capabilities while avoiding destabilizing arms races and security dilemmas.

If this sounds like an argument for moderation by restrainers, it is. It would not be prudent—and could be destabilizing—to immediately or completely withdraw from Europe or Asia. Likewise, ending alliances should be a last resort, not a first resort. In an ideal world, perhaps the United States would not have enlarged NATO or extended a security guarantee to South Korea, but policymakers must grapple with the world as it is. Equally important, this vision of restraint is far more politically viable than other variants. A campaign to leave NATO would, if successful, undoubtedly reduce U.S. military overstretch, the risks of entanglement, and tensions with Russia. But it would be widely unpopular and be opposed by a wide coalition, including the American public, Washington foreign policy elites, and European allies. An alternative approach of promoting burden sharing and drawing down U.S. troop levels over a decade would achieve many of the same benefits without provoking a domestic backlash. It might even garner support from European allies.

Restrainers will find it better to stick together and cooperate as a transpartisan bloc.

To put it another way: one of the most important things that restrainers bring to the table is the notion of moderation and pragmatism. Restrainers are some of the loudest voices arguing that the United States should resist grand crusades and transformational goals in foreign policy, whether it be the war on terrorism or the struggle of democracy versus autocracy. A consensus approach for restrainers would apply this moderation not only to the broader questions of U.S. foreign policy but also to their own ambitions. It will be tempting for restrainers on either side of the internal divides to shun calls for consensus and work instead with their external opponents in the foreign policy debate on the more limited areas where they align. Offshore balancers might choose to work with America firsters on reining in democracy promotion and nation building. Progressives might make common cause with liberal internationalists on fighting kleptocracy or bolstering the role of multilateralism and diplomacy. Although this might indeed be a viable path forward, nudging both Democrats’ and Republicans’ increasingly divergent foreign policies closer to restraint, it also carries significant risks.

Chief among these is the risk that this approach will solve smaller, surface-level problems with current U.S. foreign policy while leaving the biggest problems untouched. Cutting the defense budget without rolling back the military’s massive forward-deployed presence might be worse than no cuts at all, leaving a hollow and weak force that is nonetheless forward deployed in ways that could spark an unintended conflict. That could increase the likelihood of a war, while decreasing the military’s ability to win it. Likewise, getting European and Asian allies to pay up without shedding U.S. commitments to defend nontreaty allies would be more prudent financially than the current policy, but no more strategically sound. Restrainers should be wary of partnerships that require them to compromise on core principles. Progressives who push for Ukraine’s membership in NATO as a pro-democracy step are liable to find their antiwar goals undermined in the long run by Russian military action, as they did in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014. Offshore balancers who partner with hawkish unilateralists to contain China may find themselves pulled into a far riskier approach than they intended. Partisan polarization is liable to heighten these distinctions; it would be a serious mistake for restrainers to get sucked more deeply into partisan fights over foreign policy.

Ultimately, restrainers will find it better to stick together and cooperate as a transpartisan bloc. This will require compromise, in which the coalition hammers out differences internally to advance a shared vision of a less militaristic and more restrained U.S. foreign policy. Proponents of a grand strategy of restraint may have to accept an approach that is less radical in its military retrenchment. Offshore balancers may have to accept that it will be challenging, perhaps impossible, to achieve the most ambitious reforms of U.S. alliances. Progressives may have to accept the core insights of realism and admit that some problems, such as oppression abroad, cannot be solved through international compromise, diplomacy, or sanctions. In other words, restrainers should downplay their own internal differences and prioritize their continuing differences with the splintering consensus.

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