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The Wisdom of Retrenchment

Thomas Wright has made the case against retrenchment and restraint in the new issue of Foreign Affairs:

Global retrenchment is fast emerging as the most coherent and ready-made alternative to the United States’ postwar strategy. Yet pursuing it would be a grave mistake. By dissolving U.S. alliances and ending the forward presence of U.S. forces, this strategy would destabilize the regional security orders in Europe and Asia. It would also increase the risk of nuclear proliferation, empower right-wing nationalists in Europe, and aggravate the threat of major-power conflict.

This is not to say that U.S. strategy should never change. The United States has regularly increased and decreased its presence around the world as threats have risen and ebbed.

Wright’s case deserves a serious answer. He acknowledges that U.S. strategy can change as circumstances allow, and he is willing to entertain some reductions in U.S. involvement in some areas while arguing for more in others. Advocates for restraint believe that more reductions are called for and there is much less need for forward-deployed U.S. forces than Wright takes for granted, but there is some overlap between the two positions. Where we differ is that Wright sees restraint as “the indiscriminate abandonment of a strategy that has served [the U.S.] well for decades” while we would say that it is a carefully considered rejection of a strategy that has outlived its usefulness. Wright agrees with some of the prescriptions that advocates of restraint make. Like us, he believes that the war in Afghanistan should be brought to an end. He says that “the United States should also impose new limits and conditions on its alliances with many authoritarian states.” Among other things, that means reassessing the relationship with the Saudis and cutting off support for the war on Yemen. But in the end, he concludes that significantly reducing U.S. involvement and commitments across the board is misguided. The strongest objection to U.S. retrenchment is the potential for destabilization of those regions that border Russia and China:

A fourth problem concerns regional stability after global retrenchment. The most likely end state is a spheres-of-influence system, whereby China and Russia dominate their neighbors, but such an order is inherently unstable. The lines of demarcation for such spheres tend to be unclear, and there is no guarantee that China and Russia will not seek to move them outward over time. Moreover, the United States cannot simply grant other major powers a sphere of influence—the countries that would fall into those realms have agency, too.

There is always a possibility that a reduced U.S. role could encourage other major powers to become more aggressive toward their neighbors, but this negative case for the status quo doesn’t address the potential for great power conflict and arms races that come from continued U.S. efforts to counter Russia and China on their doorsteps. We hear about how retrenchment will be destabilizing, but this never takes into account that pushing NATO expansion to include Georgia and Ukraine was itself very destabilizing and helped to cause the August 2008 war. It does not address the absurdity of possibly risking war with a nuclear-armed adversary over the ownership of uninhabited rocks in the ocean. Primacists don’t recognize or admit how potentially destabilizing the continued pursuit of primacy is and how it provokes stiff resistance in some parts of the world. The U.S. has enjoyed almost unchecked primacy for at least the last 30 years, and in that time the U.S. has caused or contributed to the destabilization of at least half a dozen countries and fueled conflicts that have killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions. During that same period, the U.S. has wasted trillions of dollars and lost thousands of lives in pointless wars that haven’t made the U.S. more secure. If this is a strategy that has served us well, I would like to know what a failed strategy looks like.

Wright continues:

The entire idea of letting regional powers have their own spheres of influence has an imperial air that is at odds with modern principles of sovereignty and international law.

In practice, the U.S. recognizes that regional powers have more at stake along their borders than we do. Washington doesn’t explicitly endorse spheres of influence for other states, but it does acknowledge that some things in their own regions matter far more to Russia and China than they do to us. The U.S. didn’t formally acknowledge the USSR’s sphere of influence in eastern Europe, either, but everyone understood that it was there. The key to avoiding great power abuses of their neighbors is to do whatever we can to avoid the great power rivalries that are used to justify them. When Russia’s neighbors are treated as anti-Russian front-line states, their relations with Moscow naturally turn sour and their security is undermined. The U.S. isn’t doing these states any favors by encouraging hostility towards the more powerful neighboring country.

A strategy of restraint would entrust these states with their own defense with the understanding that they would prefer to hedge their bets and not commit to an anti-Russian or anti-Chinese coalition. In that sense, a strategy of restraint respects their independence and agency more than primacy ever could, because it accepts that these states have interests that won’t always align with U.S. preoccupations. A strategy of primacy is more likely than not to propel the U.S. on a collision course with China. There is already a vocal lobby of China hawks that want to launch a new Cold War. If the U.S. were pursuing a strategy of restraint, there would be no chance of another fruitless, costly rivalry. Wright says that it “is vitally important that the United States manage this competition of systems responsibly to protect U.S. interests and to prevent the rivalry from spiraling out of control,” but why should the U.S. participate in and fuel this rivalry when it doesn’t have to?

Wright accepts the need for a “selective retrenchment.” Advocates of restraint are convinced that the U.S. can and should reduce our military involvement overseas even more, because we see the current level of U.S. involvement as both unnecessary and undesirable. Wright is correct to say that the U.S. “should be more selective as it safeguards its interests,” but he does not go far enough. Our European and Asian allies are the ones that are best prepared and capable to provide for their own security, and the U.S. has discouraged them from doing this to preserve an illusion of our own “indispensability.” It is long past time that we encouraged them to take up their responsibilities for regional security after having carried that burden for more than seventy years.

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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