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What Would Restraint Look Like in Practice?

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Stewart Patrick asks advocates of restraint some fair questions in his column this week:

But apostles of restraint have their work cut out for them. Their first task is conceptual. They need to clarify what restraint actually means and how it differs from isolationism, nationalism and realism. They will also need to justify their (presumably narrow) definition of U.S. national interests, explain why these interests warrant a more modest global role for the United States, and spell out what sort of world order—balance of power, rules-based or otherwise—they believe it will foster.

Restrainers will then need to move from mere abstraction to practical implementation. They must explain what their proposed strategy means for American intervention, international cooperation, U.S. alliance commitments, regional and global power balances, and the promotion of deeply held values. Let’s consider these one at a time.

These are good questions, and I appreciate Patrick’s willingness to engage with pro-restraint arguments. He has previously written a review of Fuel to the Fire that I also reviewed last month, and in that review he gave the case for restraint from Preble, Glaser, and Thrall a fair hearing. Their book and the writings of the co-founders of the Quincy Institute are a good start for understanding the blueprints for a grand strategy of restraint, and so is Barry Posen’s seminal work, Restraint.

I think advocates of restraint have addressed some of these points before, but this is a good opportunity to discuss all of them together. The first issue is probably the easiest to settle. Restrainers are nationalists to the extent that they think that U.S. foreign policy ought to secure and advance vital American interests, but they are not interested in a nationalism that defines relations with other states as zero-sum contests. There is certainly a lot of overlap between realists and advocates of restraint, but there are quite a few supporters of restraint, myself included, who wouldn’t use that label to describe themselves. Advocates of restraint are nonetheless very much interested in international engagement along the lines set down in Washington’s Farewell Address: “Observe good faith and justice towards all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all.”

In practice, I assume that would involve devoting greater resources to diplomacy and development work, and it would also mean using sanctions much more sparingly than the U.S. has over the last 30 years. Advocates of restraint take for granted that U.S. foreign policy has become far too militarized, and not coincidentally it has become much more costly and ineffective, so they would propose reducing the overall number of security commitments that the U.S. has, reducing the military budget, and refraining from military action except for self-defense or defense of the remaining allies that we might still have. The bar for military action needs to be set very high, and the U.S. should be resorting to force only when all other options have truly been exhausted.

Patrick writes, “They offer sparse guidance, however, on how the United States can wield commensurate influence with other tools of statecraft.” That is a fair point, and I think the honest answer is that a foreign policy of restraint aspires to much less ambitious goals and therefore won’t be trying to wield the same amount of influence as the U.S. wields today. The trade-off in switching to a strategy of restraint is that the U.S. will accept a less dominant and overbearing role in the international system, but in exchange it will also bear far fewer costs and assume fewer responsibilities than it has now. Restrainers are not looking to do primacy on the cheap, but instead seek to scale back on both ambitions and obligations. The transition to restraint will take time, and it needs to be done responsibly so that other states will be able to adjust and prepare for taking on more of their own security responsibilities.

Patrick makes a useful suggestion about international institutions and restraint: “Restraint, in other words, could justify greater dependence on the United Nations and regional bodies like the Organization of American States, provided that Washington is willing to share privileges as well as burdens within them.” That seems reasonable, and I suspect most advocates of restraint would agree with this. Restrainers have no objection to cooperating with other states through these bodies, and they are not hung up on needing to “lead” in every situation.

On human rights, Patrick offers his toughest challenge to advocates of restraint:

Advocates of restraint seem to share John Quincy Adams’ view that U.S. efforts to assist others in their struggles for freedom are misguided, because liberty cannot be bestowed—it must be won—and because efforts to impose democracy abroad will indeed make America the “dictatress of the world.” America should instead return to the ideal of being a city on a hill. Such a calculus may be defensible, but it leaves the United States with few options to push back on the global democratic recession, leaving populations around the world to the tender mercies of authoritarian regimes.

As a general rule, it is wiser for the U.S. to seek to be an example rather than a tutor in such matters, and the impulse to “assist” local movements has frequently led to ill-considered efforts to arm insurgents and to take sides in wars in which the U.S. has little or nothing at stake. The frequent invocation of “values” as the excuse to intervene in internal conflicts should make us wary of these appeals in the future no matter what grand strategy the U.S. has, and restraint will inevitably mean ruling out using military options in these situations. There are other kinds of practical assistance that don’t involve escalating and intensifying conflicts that might be possible, but that would need to be decided on a case by case basis. There might be exceptional cases where U.S. assistance is both wanted and constructive, but given our mostly abysmal track record over the last 30 years this is something that our government shouldn’t be doing. At the same time, the U.S. should be reassessing its relationships with despotic and human rights-abusing clients and downgrading them accordingly. One of the biggest liabilities for the U.S. in being taken seriously when it criticizes human rights abuses in other countries is the longstanding practice of indulging and whitewashing the abuses of client states. The U.S. may not be able to do much to “push back” against the global democratic recession, but it shouldn’t be arming and supporting dictatorships and despotic states that regularly trample on human rights and violate international law.

There is much more to be said about all of these points, but that seems sufficient for now to get the conversation started.

In D.C. this Thursday? We’ll be talking about restraint in our annual conference, “Regime Change: How to Replace the Beltway Blob with the Foreign Policy Americans Want.” Click here for a full schedule and register for free now!

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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