I’d already added Barry Posen’s Restraint to my fall reading list before reading William Ruger’s review, which I heartily recommend. I’ll probably write more on the subject once I’ve read the book – but in the meantime, I wanted to respond to one point from Ruger in his review:
Posen’s insight into the destabilizing effect of rapid change in international politics shows in his preference for a slow, deliberate transition away from liberal hegemony. But one might be concerned that the U.S.—with an open political system responsive to domestic interest groups—will not be able to stay the course. Given the realities of American politics, it may then be better to err on the side of speed in moving towards restraint.
I understand where Ruger is coming from here, but assuming he’s characterizing Posen correctly, I’m strongly inclined to agree with his preference. It may be emotionally satisfying to imagine a sudden reversal of course, but ships as large as the United States necessarily turn very slowly.
Nonetheless, there are specific decisions that could be taken that could set America on a different course. Here are three that I’ve touched on before.
Ink a nuclear deal with Iran. As I’ve argued in this space before, we’ve long needed to reframe the way we talk about Iran. We should say, “our goal is normal, friendly relations with Iran, and the obstacles are a, b and c” rather than, “our goal is eliminating a, b and c, and we’d prefer to achieve that goal peacefully – but if we’ll resort to war if we have to.” The current nuclear talks provide the best vehicle for such a reframing, and for changing our posture towards the Middle East generally. A nuclear deal with Iran would remove the most substantial pretext for America’s overcommitment to the region. It would be absurd to squander the gains of such a deal by needlessly antagonizing Iran immediately thereafter over other, less-important issues. It is also far-fetched to think that any such deal would lead to a realignment in which Iran explicitly joins some kind of American “camp.” Rather, what such a deal would signal to the other major powers of the region – Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel – is that America’s overarching objective is stabilizing the region, which means getting these powers to keep their own rivalries within bounds. It would signal, in other words, that America is neither pursuing a revisionist agenda as we did with the Iraq War and the Libyan intervention, nor have we sided with a new counter-revolutionary axis explicitly opposed to Iran and Turkey. If the goal is “moving offshore,” it’s hard for me to imagine a better mechanism.
Negotiate a withdrawal from South Korea in exchange for denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. The rise of China is the most difficult problem the United States faces on the world stage, since China is very unlikely to assent to an explicitly American-led world order, but both precipitous withdrawal and a tightening encirclement present serious risks of war, which would be catastrophic. We need to strike a balance that makes it clear simultaneously that America is comfortable with rising Chinese power and influence, but has both the power and the will to resist efforts by China to “speed up” that rise through the use of force. Korea provides the best venue for pursuing a cooperative approach. South Korea is perfectly capable of defending itself against a North Korean conventional attack; it does not need American soldiers to defend it. The North Korean regime is one of the most horrible functioning regimes in the world, but the primary threat it poses to the United States relates to its nuclear arsenal and its potential willingness to share that technology with other powers. The greatest reason for Chinese nervousness about the future of the peninsula is the possibility that, should the North Korean regime collapse, American troops would wind up on the Chinese border. If encirclement of China is not actually an American aim, it would seem that there would be a deal to do, and such a deal would balance other American actions – like developing a working security relationship with India and maintaining a strong alliance with Japan – that might otherwise lead China to fear a hostile encirclement.
Adopt a pro-German line on Europe. For much of the history of the European Union and its precursors, America has adopted a “broader, not deeper” line on how the EU should evolve, encouraging Europe to be expansive in its efforts to bring in new states but opposing any move to create a unified executive with a coherent foreign policy. Germany has, historically, been on the opposite side of both questions, being more skeptical about bringing in states like Ukraine and Turkey that it would wind up subsidizing, and more supportive of creating central institutions that are directly accountable to the European electorate, which would make possible truly European foreign policy and defense organs (not to mention potentially resolving the fundamental contradictions in European economic policymaking). America’s vision is, ultimately, more consistent with the idea of keeping Europe institutionally weak and dependent on American involvement than with a goal of a functioning European partner. Germany is not only the primary European economic engine, it’s also the country with the most to lose from a deterioration in European-Russian relations, and therefore in the best position to weigh the relative costs and benefits of appeasement and confrontation. The simple statement that America no longer has any objection to the development of a common European defense, nor any independent interest in EU expansion, would open up space for the states of Europe to develop their union according to its own logic and their own needs.
Ultimately, America has a significant interest in a world characterized by major power concert rather than major power rivalry. Trying to preserve such a world through unipolar hegemony, as Britain did between the Napoleonic Wars and World War I, will likely lead us down Britain’s path to bankruptcy, notwithstanding our far greater relative power in today’s world. Precipitous withdrawal, though, runs all sorts of other risks – particularly, the risk that we’ll be drawn back into conflict as other powers take advantage of our withdrawal. The delicately balanced middle path between trying to maintain a brittle hegemony and disengagement is engagement that facilitates the rise of other powers within a context where their interests are better served by operating in concert than by revisionism.