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The Advantages of Foreign Policy Restraint

Thomas Wright discusses the roles of “restrainers” and “shapers” in foreign policy debate:

Restraint is an idea that seems to fit the moment. Americans are tired of war and feel more constrained after the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. However, over time, the realization will set in that staying out also shapes the world — and probably in a way that is detrimental to America’s interests. It creates a vacuum filled by others. It fuels uncertainty. And it exacerbates crises.

These last three claims can be true of exercising restraint in certain cases, but they can just as easily be true of direct efforts to “shape” the political futures of other countries. Armed foreign intervention, providing military supplies to one side in a conflict, and imposing sanctions on another country create their own kinds of uncertainty and exacerbate the crises they are meant to address, and they do so in ways that directly involve the U.S. and impose longer-term obligations on it. Toppling regimes creates vacuums that are filled by others, and that has been true even when the U.S. has had over a hundred thousand soldiers occupying another country. The reason that restraint often makes more sense than interference is that it is quite unusual to find cases where interfering would benefit the U.S. and the country in question more than it costs both. The impulse to “shape” events in other countries is misguided in principle and frequently destructive in practice. Put bluntly, the “shapers” in both parties have had their turn for the last twelve years, and they aren’t likely to get another one for a while.

It’s hard to credit Wright’s idea that restraint shapes the world in a manner detrimental to U.S. interests. More often than not, those that he calls “shapers” are demanding that the U.S. take action in conflicts and crises in which no American interests are at stake. The “shaper” typically appeals to “values” and intangible things such as “credibility,” and consistently underestimates the costs and likely consequences of the action he recommends. After the last decade, it is extraordinary to find anyone outside the Iraq war dead-ender camp arguing that “the risk of error is outweighed by the risk of inaction.” The U.S. erred on the side of error ten years ago, and it erred very gravely indeed.

Wright frames this as an internal debate of the Democratic Party, and these divisions are clearly present there, but the larger division that he doesn’t discuss nearly as much is the one between the political class, which remains strongly committed to a “shaper” view, and the public, which is mostly sick of new entanglements. As a matter of policy, restraint is wiser, but as a matter of politics it is practically a no-brainer. Democrats have nothing to gain from becoming more activist and meddlesome in foreign policy than the current administration has already been. It needs to be emphasized that this is exactly what Wright says that the “shapers” want:

They do not just want to preserve America’s alliances and commitments; they want to increase them to account for the changing nature of international politics.

Keeping the current number of U.S. commitments overseas seems unsustainable, but the idea of increasing them at this point is laughable. Democratic rank-and-file supporters aren’t interested in doing that, and neither are most Americans regardless of party. The U.S. is already over-committed around the world, and there will not be the political will over the long term to add even more.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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