“Restraint” As a Rhetorical Tool
The arguments in favor of restraint are weak, but advocates of restraint avoid them by rhetorical sleight of hand, by arguing against a straw man. The scholars of restraint regularly argue against a strategy of “preponderance,” “dominance,” or “extraregional hegemony,” which, they claim, had characterized America’s grand strategy since the end of the Cold War or since World War II. Yet it is unclear who is supposed to have advocated these positions. The labels “preponderance,” “geopolitical dominance,” and “hegemony,” were used almost exclusively by critics of those positions. Opponents of restraint typically described their position as “liberal internationalism,” defended the United States’ “unipolar” status or its role as “leader” or the “indispensable nation,” and called for a strategy of “deep engagement.” There is an important difference between “dominance” and “leadership” that advocates of restraint wrongly elide.
Advocates of restraint are arguing against a position no one holds and no one has implemented. Trump called for “America First,” implying that internationalists want to put America second—which is obviously false. Rather, internationalists believe deep engagement is the best means for securing America’s legitimate interests. Similarly, the use of the label “restraint” functions more as rhetorical strategy to suggest that their opponents are in favor of “unrestrained” grand strategy—which, of course, no one has ever done but makes restraint look moderate by comparison. The subtle denigration of foreign policy initiatives they dislike with prejudicial labeling enables advocates of restraint to influence the debate often without engaging their opponents on the merits.
Nor has the United States’ behavior since the Cold War been consistent with a strategy of “primacy” or “hegemony.” Far from pursuing a strategy of hegemony, the United States has, in fact, retrenched in hard-power terms. I am unimpressed with accusations that the United States has been overly zealous, hubristic, or imperialist for democracy, pursuing a grand strategy of “primacy” blessed by liberalism. Since the height of its power, in 1989, the United States withdrew a quarter of its troops from East Asia and 80 percent of its military forces from Europe, cut its active-duty military personnel and its defense budget by a third, destroyed its own chemical weapons stockpile, and demobilized three-quarters of its nuclear warheads. This is not the strategy of a crusading liberal hegemon bent on global domination.
The war in Iraq obviously hovers in the background. Critics betray a troubling tendency to over-interpret that war as a morality play in which American hubris led to a just and tragic fall—a simplistic reading of history and an unhelpful approach to learning its lessons and applying them to future policymaking. Moreover, advocates of restraint sometimes overgeneralize from Iraq as if it were the paradigmatic case of the United States’ role in the world. But Iraq was a single outlier, not a representative sample of U.S. foreign policy. Recognizing the failures of the Iraq War does not require opposition to a broad role for the United States in the world.
Abstract as it may seem, internationalism appears to be almost instinctive for policymakers. American statesmen faced with crises abroad, including Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, and Reagan rightly took the larger view that because the United States was a primary beneficiary, participant, and (later) architect of liberal order, a threat to liberal order was a threat to the United States itself. FDR’s famous analogy about lending his garden hose to a neighbor whose house is aflame worked because of Americans’ instinctive understanding that their individual safety was inextricably entwined with their neighbors’: a fire next door might spread. The same logic, FDR argued, works in the neighborhood of nations. So too, today, there are major challenges to liberal order which should be understood as threats to U.S. national security.
Today, scholars and policymakers are in greater danger of underestimating threats to American security than overestimating them: we are more prone to undervalue the importance of liberal order to American security than overinvest in it. In the aftermath of Iraq and Afghanistan, policymakers in both parties—not just Trump—have suggested the United States needs to pare back its international commitments, avoid interventionism, exercise a restrained version of American leadership—or even pass the baton of leadership altogether—and turn aside from ambitious efforts to champion liberalism abroad.
Because this seems to be the prevailing wisdom of the moment, it is important to stress the opposite. American security and liberal order are mutually constitutive: liberal order is the outer perimeter of American security, and American power upholds liberal order. The existence of liberal order is an opportunity for the United States: continuing to invest in its upkeep is a cost-effective strategy for producing an outer ring of security for itself. Advocates of restraint are wrong to neglect this opportunity, and illustrate the weakness of an exclusively threat-centric and reactive grand strategy. Liberal order already exists over much of the globe. It would be a foolish waste to walk away from it.
Dr. Paul D. Miller is the associate director of the Clements Center for National Security at The University of Texas at Austin. American Power and Liberal Order was released September 15, 2016.
Image: The guided-missile destroyer USS William P. Lawrence leads the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis in a show of force transit off the coast of San Clemente Island near Southern California. Flickr/U.S. Navy