Book Review: "Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy" by Barry Posen
By Donald L. Sassano
The three most consequential books of international relations theory published at the end of the Cold War are Frances Fukuyama’s The End of History, Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations, and John Mearsheimer’s The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. Crudely encapsulated, Endism, Clashism, and Offensive Realism have waxed and waned since the world we knew turned upside down after the collapse of the Soviet Union. With China’s rise, Mearsheimer seems to have gained top position, at least for the moment. But none have proved to be been fully satisfying, or for that matter fully predictive.
Thankfully, there has now emerged a stunning new contender: MIT Professor Barry Posen’s Restraint: The New Foundation of American Grand Strategy. The good news is—if employed–Posen’s prescriptive will enhance U.S. security and a large measure of its post-Cold War global primacy within realistic limits and at a lower cost. The bad news is his ideas are likely to be willfully misconstrued (by neoconservatives) or studiously ignored (by liberal interventionists).
Posen begins with two commonsense notions. First, strenuous attempts to employ a grand strategy of “Liberal Hegemony” since the end of the Cold War have failed, principally because of “the enduring power of nationalism and the inclination of self-aware peoples to resist direction by outsiders.” Excepting the narrowly defined mission to trap and destroy al-Qaida in Afghanistan after 9/11, the outsized ambition that galvanized U.S. policy called for standing up liberal societies within illiberal, underdeveloped venues. The Bush administration bet the house that follow-on transformations after illusory success in Kabul would ensue. But bandwagoning – a sort of reverse domino effect – is rare. Tragically, the U.S. squandered a great deal of blood and treasure chasing that improbable dream. Moreover, we conserved little of what we hold dear closer to home: certainly not American power and wealth, or values or even security.
Second, Posen argues that the U.S. must adopt a grand strategy that it can actually afford. Amid far darker days (in 1943 and before one could take for granted victory in WWII) journalist Walter Lippmann famously wrote that “without the controlling principle that the nation must maintain its objectives and its power in equilibrium, its purposes within its means and its means equal to its purposes, its commitments related to its resources and its resources adequate to its commitments, it is impossible to think at all about foreign affairs…men must pay for what they want and must want only what they are willing to pay for.” Realists note the U.S. can shrug off the high costs of foreign policy misadventures because America enjoys a “surfeit of power.” Unlike other great or near-great nations, the country is abundantly wealthy, resilient, and can bide it’s time until the next liberal intervention opportunity presents itself without worrying too much about the enemy next door. But now, writes Posen, we are at a tipping point: the grand strategy of Liberal Hegemony cannot be sustained.
In Posen’s world, U.S. allies come in two varieties. There are “cheap riders” and “reckless drivers.” The former are countries within the expansive U.S. security umbrella – NATO members and Japan, for instance – who share many of the security concerns we face. Unfortunately, they consistently shortchange their own defense needs at typically 1 percent of GNP (as opposed to the United States spending of roughly 4.8 percent on its military including current war outlays). Rather than step up, cheap riders often question American “credibility.” It’s a well-honed tactic – a form of buck passing – used to shame the U.S. into unqualified support. The problem, argues Posen, is not that we lack credibility, but that we have too much.
Reckless drivers pursue policies that harm U.S. interests, and often themselves. Like cheap riders, most wager that when push comes to shove the U.S. will make good on its promises to “serve as military lender of last resort.” Israel is Posen’s poster child in this regard. He sees Israel in terms of a brutal apartheid-like occupation amid unrestrained and illegal settlement expansion, and implies that Israel makes it difficult for the U.S. to pursue its broader interests in the region, including containing Iran and fighting al-Qaida. Moreover, Posen cites that when the U.S. acquiesces to Israeli policies, often for domestic political reasons, it leaves the impression that American effort to spread democracy in the Middle East rings hollow. Posen also identifies our numerous “partners” in nation building, specifically the Maliki and Karzai governments, who are seen to be more interested in securing their own power and prerogatives than winning the battle for hearts and minds. Friends don’t let friends drive drunk. The U.S. does, offering unconditional support when it should be taking away the keys.
What is to be done? Posen recommends the U.S. invest in what it does best, namely maintaining “control of the global commons” through sea and air power, and by reducing our on-the-ground military footprint. He envisions reductions in defense spending to 2.5 percent of gross domestic product, mostly by downsizing the Army and our expansive presence overseas.
However, be assured Posen is not an isolationist. He encourages us to hone our unique capabilities as the only true global power to quickly move resources should we need to check regional aspirants. Moreover, Posen argues that the only way to persuade allies to actually step up is through a policy of gradual but unilateral burden shifting. The U.S. requires capable partners, but merely jawboning the issue has failed to produce results.
Posen’s America is a global BMOC (Big Man on Campus). Handsome, wealthy and confident, but not always terribly smart, he propositions every girl he sees expecting all to succumb to his charms and the benefits of his association. Not surprisingly, he has a fair amount of success, but he also gets slapped a lot. Eventually he finds that sustaining many far-flung mistresses becomes a draining, thankless endeavor. And eventually, as now, the entire edifice threatens to implode.
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