Editor's note: This article is adapted from a paper presented at the workshop Bridging Restraint and Positive Engagement: Toward a New Framework for U.S. Middle East Policy that was co-hosted by DAWN and Yale Law School.
The grand strategy of foreign policy "restraint" calls for a less interventionist global role for the United States than has been the case since World War II. It is a perspective closely associated with foreign policy realism, and with thinkers such as Hans J. Morgenthau, George Kennan, Kenneth Waltz, Barry Posen and others. Restraint maintains that U.S. global interests are extensive but not infinite, and that actions taken to advance these interests should be prudent and limited in scope. In short, "restrainers" want to curtail both the ends of U.S. foreign policy and the means that are employed to achieve them.
Restraint is not a policy of isolationism, however, and restrainers are not pacifists. They support open trade, active U.S. diplomacy and, in some cases, the direct use of military force. Nor do they oppose using U.S. influence to advance moral objectives, although they have a more skeptical—some might say realistic—view of America's ability to achieve these goals around the world.
In general, restrainers believe that the primary goal of U.S. foreign policy is to advance the security of the United States, the well-being of its citizens—including their economic prosperity—and the core values of a liberal society. Security takes priority over other goals, however, because prosperity and liberal values usually disappear when a country is not secure.
With a foreign policy of restraint, the U.S. would seek to have normal relations with all countries in the Middle East, instead of having "special relationships" with some and no relationship with others.
- Stephen M. Walt
Restrainers also believe that U.S. security rests primarily on maintaining favorable balances of power in key strategic regions: Europe, East Asia and, to a lesser extent, the Persian Gulf. These areas contain key centers of industrial power or critical natural resources, and the main U.S. interest is to prevent any single power from dominating these areas (i.e., becoming a "regional hegemon"). Were such a state to emerge, it might control greater overall resources than the United States and it would be free to roam around the world intervening as it wished, much as the United States has done for more than a century. Such a power might even be able to intervene directly in the Western Hemisphere, reducing the "free security" that Washington has enjoyed as the only great power there, going back to the Monroe Doctrine.
This strategy, sometimes referred to as "offshore balancing," does not require the United States to control these key regions. It must merely help ensure that no other single power controls them. The level of effort that this goal requires depends on the state of the regional balance of power at any given time. If there is no potential hegemon in one of these regions, the United States can remain "offshore" and let the local powers maintain the balance out of their own self-interest. If one state starts to become too powerful and ambitious, however, the United States must do more, either by supporting local allies more generously or by deploying its own forces into the region.
This simple logic explains why the United States intervened in World War I and World War II: it sought to prevent German hegemony in Europe and Japanese hegemony in Asia. It also explains why the United States deployed large military forces "on shore" in Europe and Asia during the Cold War, because it believed its local allies were not sufficiently strong or united to balance the Soviet Union by themselves. The first Gulf War in 1991 was also consistent with this logic, insofar as Saddam Hussein's decision to invade Kuwait appeared to pose a potential threat to dominate the Gulf and interrupt the free flow of oil.
While the logic of those interventions also contributed to their ultimate success, by contrast, the main departures from this strategy—the long war in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s and the invasion of Iraq in 2003—were abject failures. Neither North Vietnam nor Iraq were potential regional hegemons, and there was no compelling strategic need for the United States to fight either one. Not surprisingly, restrainers were vocal opponents of both wars.
Restrainers also believe that the United States should not undertake ambitious efforts to remake other societies along liberal lines, and especially not with military force. This issue is where they part company with neoconservatives, liberal interventionists and with some progressives. Restrainers embrace core liberal values and human rights norms, but they are wary of ambitious attempts at social engineering that seek to reorder local politics in countries that are very different from our own. As recent failures in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and many other countries suggest, foreign intervention destroys local institutions, generates a hostile and often violent backlash, and typically generates massive unintended consequences. With the best of intentions, well-meaning efforts to spread liberal values often do more harm than good.
Moreover, restrainers worry that efforts to remake other societies in America's image will fuel the relentless expansion of a vast national security apparatus in the United States, one that poses a long-term threat to core liberal freedoms at home. A vast national security apparatus overseeing military interventions around the world also tends to encourage leading officials to lie about what they are doing, in order to sustain public support for these actions and to avoid oversight and scrutiny, further eroding confidence in public institutions. Lastly, a foreign policy that seeks to reshape local politics all over the world makes the United States more dependent on allies and clients in every region, which in turn creates difficult tradeoffs when these same clients are authoritarian regimes with poor human rights records. The larger our goals, the more partners we need—making it harder to pressure clients who openly reject liberal ideals.
A more restrained foreign policy remains the best way to preserve U.S. security and prosperity, and it may also be the best way to advance the core values that realists and progressives share.
- Stephen M. Walt
For these reasons, restrainers believe the United States should promote liberal values, including core human rights norms, primarily by setting a good example. Other societies are more likely to embrace progressive principles if they see America as a society where citizens live secure and prosperous lives and the social order is generally tranquil. U.S. policymakers can nudge their foreign counterparts in this direction, but other societies need to embrace these ideals voluntarily and at their own pace. The successful democratic transitions in South Korea or Taiwan bear this out: Washington did not force either state to become democratic, instead patiently waiting for each society to adopt political reforms more or less on their own. We supported their efforts but did not try to force the pace of change.
Lastly, restrainers are wary of giving any foreign country unconditional support, recommending that the United States maintain cordial but correct relations with as many countries as possible. When allies or clients act in ways that are consistent with U.S. interests and values, Washington should back them. When they do not, the United States should distance itself and reduce or withdraw its support. In the Middle East, for example, with a foreign policy of restraint, the United States would seek to have normal relations with all countries in the region instead of having "special relationships" with some (e.g., Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt) and no relationship with other (e.g., Iran). Such a posture would allow the United States to be a more effective mediator in regional conflicts, would have aided past efforts to achieve a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians, and helped avoid the recurring cycles of violence in the region, such as the recent war between Israel and Hamas.
For restrainers, in short, the cardinal rule of foreign policy is: first, do no harm. The United States remains a wealthy and extremely secure country, and its power can and should be used for constructive purposes around the world. But Americans are not omniscient; they usually lack a detailed understanding of other societies and cultures, and heavy-handed efforts to spread our values rarely work out as planned. A degree of humility is therefore appropriate. A more restrained foreign policy remains the best way to preserve U.S. security and prosperity, and it may also be the best way to advance the core values that realists and progressives share.