Halfway through Barack Obama’s second term it is obvious that the state of the foreign policy union is flat. Whether it is his mushy liberal internationalism, his left critics’ pacifism, his establishment’s illusional “realism,” or his right opponent’s rabid neoconservatism, all babel from set scripts that could be spewed from a child’s Fun Tab computer.

Three recent books try to break this rote by bringing fresh thinking to the table, by Barry R. Posen, director of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Bret Stephens, the Wall Street Journal editorialist, and Angelo M. Codevilla, senior fellow at the Claremont Institute and professor emeritus of International Relations at Boston University. The former has just published Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy, Stephens composed America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder, and the latter wrote To Make and Keep Peace: Among Ourselves and with All Nations and a new essay “While the Storm Clouds Gather,” which with his review of the other two will be the focus here.

All three consider the status quo as unsatisfactory, but come from radically different perspectives as to what its actual state is. Stephens finds America tending to isolationism but Posen says just the opposite, that the U.S. is too involved in the world, while Codevilla considers the U.S. as both too involved as world policeman while not sufficiently active in what counts. While Stephens denies America’s role as “world policeman” and urges only enforcement of U.S. interests, those interests include pursuing “broken window policing” of unstable world regions, especially “those on the borders of existing free societies.” Codevilla responds “that relevance to freedom or to regional stability is not the same as relevance to U.S. interests.” Indeed, Stephens’ “fundamental assumption—that there exists a set of ‘geopolitical norms,’ which some nation or coalition of nations establishes and enforces—may be widely shared … But it is unfounded.”

In fact, such manifestations of order as historians discern, happen as individual nations each pursue their own objectives. Stephens wants us to enforce “geopolitical norms.” But whose? Only persons brought up in a latter-day Western academic environment can believe all, or even a significant part, of mankind can agree about such norms. The Chinese, the Muslims, the Hindus, the Russians, even the French are likely to have their own expectations about who is to prevail over whom, why, and how in any given circumstance. There is no reason why foreigners should see Stephens’ global cop as doing anything but advancing America’s peculiar proclivities.

Posen is likewise dismissive of neoconservative abstractions and overreach and indeed sees this as the prevailing foreign policy view today, ever since traditional liberal internationalism incorporated neocon “primacist” assumptions into Clinton administration policy, noting that the doctrine of preventive war was proclaimed before 9/11 by Madeline Albright when she was secretary of state. Foreign policy activism then merged into a doctrine for both political party establishments that he calls Liberal Hegemony. Posen’s alternative is what he calls Restraint, which he summarizes as to “focus on vital U.S. interests and at the same time reduce the pernicious consequences of the last twenty years of activism.” Posen finds liberal hegemony costly, wasteful, self-defeating, and inherently expansionist, being at war nearly twice as often since the Cold War ended as during it.

Codevilla says the problem is more fundamental and traces it much further back:

In 1919, Woodrow Wilson said that America had no other purpose than to serve mankind. At the Paris Peace Conference that concluded World War I he imagined that he could pacify all nations for all time by promoting democracy, order, and progress. But the borders he brokered spawned wars that have yet to end, while his pursuit of Progressive fantasies reaped Lenin, Mussolini, Stalin, Hitler, and Mao. Yet those fantasies remain our bipartisan ruling class’s orthodoxy. …

A hundred years later, we know all too well what we got from trying to improve the world by reordering it: a century of war and upheaval that cost hundreds of millions of innocent lives.

All three analysts see America as the dominant power in the world militarily, economically, and culturally. Posen, however, rejects Stephens’ assumption that the U.S. can be a hegemon. Posen argues that the resource balance between the U.S. and the world is changing against the former with China passing the U.S. in economic output by 2030, measured by market exchange rates. Even if such a measure overemphasizes certain factors, even a dominant U.S. has limited resources. Indeed, Codevilla says the fact the U.S. is so wealthy misleads its foreign policy elites into the “fantasy” that “they can accomplish great things without bothering to square the ends sought with the means necessary to achieve them.” Posen is equally blunt. “The continued pursuit of this policy, without the real power to match it, however, will likely prove not merely costly and counterproductive, as it has been in the recent past, but disastrous.”

Posen presents his Grand Strategy alternative by setting its goal as finding a way to balance power “in a world without a policeman.” While he agrees with Codevilla that the general objective is to assure no one nation dominates the Eurasian landmass, Posen is more optimistic that with America’s vast oceans extending from both ends of the landmass, its nuclear deterrent, and the number of possible nations available there to balance any potential hegemon such as China, or very unlikely, Russia, he considers domination only a “muted” threat, while still urging the U.S. retain some capacity to deter if such a threat did emerge. Muslim terrorism is another key threat. But it is of a different kind.

The major value of Posen’s strategic analysis is that he sets nuclear weapons as the first and most dangerous threat to the U.S. and its interests. They are the only direct threat to the actual survival of the U.S. Russia has the largest number, close to the 1500-2000 in the U.S. arsenal, and the ability to deliver them. But France, Britain, China and Israel, have hundreds, and even Pakistan, India, and North Korea are in double digits. While America might be able to defend against the later three, there is no way to stop a major Russian launch or even more limited launches from the only other possible major culprit, China. Posen believes the credible threat of nuclear retaliation is the major defense against all nuclear powers and “where possible to avoid confrontations” with nations possessing the power to retaliate in return.” He ignores the possibility of missile defense.

Both Posen and Codevilla view Islamic extremism as a manageable problem. Posen views oil as the strategic interest for the U.S. in the Middle East but also notes that the U.S. imports only 20 percent of its oil from the Persian Gulf. Still, the fall of the Gulf states to hostile extremists is a possibility that could disrupt prices worldwide and thus affect America. In general, he urges disengagement from the region and even to cut aid to Israel after pressuring it to become self-sufficient, while guaranteeing purchase of U. S. military technology, forcing it in its own interest to relate threats to costs. Still, the possible theft or access of Muslim extremists of nuclear weapons and other technology do necessitate good relations with all governments in power in the region and a stress on intelligence. These changes will take time and the U.S. must retain capabilities to reengage if conditions change.

Codevilla is characteristically blunt.

Guarding ourselves from the dangers emanating from Muslim civilization’s decay is the least of our problems, though it is emblematic of them all. These dangers stem not so much from any resources, strength, or attractiveness on the part of our enemies as they do from our own bad judgment and weakness of character…

Protecting ourselves from the troubles of the Muslim world requires that our officials dispense with crippling political correctness, and face reality. The U.S. government’s official position, as President Obama has stated repeatedly, is that the self-declared Islamic State is not Islamic. But the people who run I.S. and who actually have Islamic credentials think otherwise…Being clear with ourselves, that orthodox Islam—never mind the Wahhabi version that rules Saudi Arabia and the Sunni Gulf states—dictates savage cruelty toward any resistance to its rule, should, at the very least, keep our government from continuing to empower, enrich, and accredit persons who have done, are doing, and will continue to do harm to us. A new generation of statesmen must dispel their predecessors’ dreams that the Muslim world, and the entire “Third World,” will rise to new ways of life superior in justice and morality to our own. Once we recognize who these peoples are and resolve to defend our principles and identity, that set of storm clouds will loom small. The same cannot be said about our other foreign policy problems.

The major threat comes from an emerging China. Posen, relying on the U.S. National Intelligence Council’s measure of “aggregate national power,” expects that China will surpass the U.S. by 2040. Still, on a per capita basis, the U.S. would remain twice as wealthy as China, wealth and this estimate overvalues population benefits. Posen claims that China’s intentions are “opaque,” believing that while it is more dynamic than the Soviet Union in adopting markets, it is more hedged in by nuclear powers Russia and India (and even potentially Japan) and subject to minority unrest. Its trading success yields benefits but also allows the West to disrupt it. Given China’s lack of direct access into open seas and the difficulty of amphibious invasions, as long as the U.S. keeps naval, air, and space superiority, Chinese expansionism is limited. Still, Posen concludes China will soon “look like” a peer to the U.S., and will at least be near the top of any multipolar world even if Europe, Japan, and India develop militarily.

Codevilla is more wary about Chinese intentions. “With regard to China’s drive for hegemony over the Western Pacific, our choices are anything but simple, and are fraught with all manner of danger. They are a severe test of statesmanship.”

The military situation is straightforward: China’s strategy is to prevent interference by the United States and to establish military control over the western Pacific some hundreds of miles offshore and over as many of the islands there as possible. It has developed and is perfecting ballistic and cruise missiles, as well as aircraft and submarines optimized to do just that. It intends its small but growing force of intercontinental ballistic missiles to force the U.S. to realize that protecting Taiwan, Japan, and other nations in the region risks the destruction of American cities. China has antisatellite weapons with which it would try to destroy the space-based communications and intelligence assets on which the U.S. military relies. In response, though our government has “pivoted” naval and air forces from other regions to the Pacific, the total U.S. military inventory in the region continues to decline. More importantly, the U.S. has no military strategy for safeguarding the aircraft carriers that would be its principal instrument in a military confrontation. We have no defenses against China’s long-range missiles and no means of defending our Pacific bases against the medium-range missiles that would be aimed at them.

Codevilla’s solution: if you will have peace, prepare for war by building capacity such as missile and conventional defense, rejecting “creative ambiguity” with China by clearly specifying U.S. interests and what it would be willing to do to protect them. “Serious, clear, unambiguous policy that communicates clearly to all what the United States is ready, willing, and able to do is the key to such peace as may be possible.” Posen too recommends clarity regarding how much change in relationships the U.S. can allow for China and what “might be worth a fight.” He proposes a maritime military strategy sufficient to command the “world commons” of sea, air, and space that would limit Chinese breakout capacity, backed by limited ground forces.

In some senses, Russia policy is simpler and both Posen and Codevilla treat it so. Yet, it is the only nuclear power equal to the U.S. and the only one that can actually annihilate it. Posen especially emphasizes its weaknesses:

Russia is a somewhat bumptious middle power concerned with its prestige, security and economic development. Its conventional forces are weak and its economy cannot support anything like the legions of the Soviet Union. Russia cannot threaten the principle powers of Europe, and if Europeans small and large choose to hang together, Russia cannot do much. It certainly can make no bid for hegemony.

The solution to any possible threat is for other European powers to build their capabilities sufficiently to balance against this one dissatisfied power in the region. Posen’s dramatic solution is to end American guarantees and force allies to assume their own defenses. Germany is the largest free rider and the only one without nuclear weapons or even a credible military force, but it is also the most able to afford them. Posen suggests it join Britain and/or France to achieve nuclear deterrence and that NATO be replaced by a European Union alliance of continentals to meet conventional threats from Russia or elsewhere. Both moves would separate Europe from NATO nuclear and defense guarantees but would result in a stronger Europe that is also less likely to drag the U.S. into unnecessary wars. At the Asian end of the Eurasian continent, India and Japan should become natural balances against Russia and China, especially if encouraged to do so.

Codevilla believes Russia is determined to “reconstitute as much as it can of the old Soviet Union” which poses “a classic geopolitical challenge: the possibility that all of Europe might be dominated by a hostile power. Russia’s leaders think in Soviet terms and possess a major stock of nuclear arms.” Stephens agrees, but unlike him Codevilla recognizes Russia’s military weakness and short reach resting upon a fragile economy based on volatile oil and gas. Codevilla differs most from Posen in believing Europe would not stand even against a weak opponent.

Western Europe’s readiness to acquiesce to Russia’s domination of the former Soviet Empire makes it all too clear that, were Russia to succeed, Europe would not resist any demands that Russia might make. Thus Russia would become Eurasia’s hegemon, radiating power into the Atlantic. This is the danger for us. But we must be clear about the nature of the problem: which is not Russia’s power, but rather the civilizational collapse of Europe’s capacity to resist Russia, or the Islamic world, or anything else for that matter. This means that in order to safeguard our Atlantic flank, which is of high interest we will have to act without the help and often in defiance, of some of the countries whose independence we must protect. Though the U.S. cannot exert decisive military force deep in Eurasia, it does not need to do so, much less to fight Russia militarily anywhere. Supplying military hardware to the peoples who are threatened directly by Russian military power would be enough to make them nuts sufficiently hard for the Russians to crack as to make doing so a daunting domestic problem for Russia’s rulers. America’s main leverage against Russia’s resumption of something like the Soviet Union is economic. We have the decisive power to cut Russia off from the world through secondary economic sanctions. … Both Republican and Democratic administrations have used non-disruptive sanctions to express displeasure at Russia’s expansion first in Georgia and then in Ukraine, but cheap sanctions are not serious, and serious ones are not cheap. Our choice regarding the Russian storm that is moving toward the Atlantic is straightforward: we can stop it, probably without bloodshed, by bending short-term economic interest to long-term geopolitical interest, or we can continue the kind of crony capitalism that prefers making money over keeping our peace.

Yet, Codevilla’s strategy depends on the assumption that “notwithstanding the awful possibility that any quarrel with Russia might involve nuclear war, our resistance to its expansion is highly unlikely to lead to nuclear war because the use of such weapons would be counterproductive to Russia’s purpose.” But with Russia’s centralization of power to popular applause and with domestic institutional support for Vladimir Putin and his nationalism high, it is Putin’s purposes more than Russia’s that will matter most. Overly severe sanctions on the assumption of a rational response from such an egocentric leader might just as well lead to the awful possibility.

Codevilla’s main argument against Posen is that “the ideological thoroughness of his emphasis upon restraint” attempts to turn the instrumental necessity of prudence into a comprehensive strategy, one that assumes that enmities will work themselves out without requiring more than restraint. He has two specific charges. First, Posen assumes the U.S. nuclear arsenal will deter nuclear attack and there is no “plausible” response to such a threat. Codevilla insists Posen’s opposition is ideological since nuclear defense can work to some degree if we are serious about building it. Second, Posen urges diplomacy with problematic states that are, or harbor, terrorists. Codevilla argues that diplomacy without consequences has been the root cause of America’s weakness and induces contempt from its enemies. His solution is “holding the Muslim world’s ruling classes responsible with their lives for any violence or incitement that comes from the areas of their sovereignty or influence—that is the only thing that would turn these potentates into part of the solution rather than being, as they are now, among the problem’s principal parts.”

Codevilla believes nothing short of the creation of a new U.S. counter-political elite more in tune with popular desires for peace as the norm and action only when truly serious national interests are threatened. Stephens and the neoconservatives, he believes, define interests too broadly, which results in permanent war. Posen and the establishment seek restraint even above interests thus likewise threatening peace. Instead,

Let us follow the example of John Quincy Adams’s relations with Russia, the despotism par excellence of his day, which had proclaimed the supremacy of monarchical over republican ways and had signaled its intention to expand its settlements in North America. Adams, wanting peace and friendship with the tsar while keeping more of his settlements out of North America and asserting our own identity, left no doubt in Russia’s mind about where America stood on these matters.

The good news is that all three defer to the classic concept of national interest, relating policies to available resources and clarifying what is worth fighting for. Indeed everyone today pays at least lip service to that principle as a limit on foreign policy adventurism. While Stephens’ neoconservatism adds a broken windows policing function that expands the ideal exponentially, it is an excess paying homage to a truth. While Posen seems at times to put restraint above national interest, it is a deviation from the right principle. While Codevilla may overstate some threats to national interest, the principle is always his guide to action. All of this represents improvement over the morass of sentimentality and fantasy produced by liberal internationalism that has so long frustrated a serious rethinking of American foreign policy.

Donald Devine is senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies, the author of America’s Way Back: Reclaiming Freedom, Tradition, and Constitution, and was Ronald Reagan’s director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management during his first term.