Stephen M. Walt

Overcommitment, Inc. [updated below]

I did say that I was "going off the grid" for ten days or so, but reading the New York Times remains a morning ritual for the household and I still have access to my email. And yesterday they combined to make a brief post imperative. The first item was an email announcement from the ...

I did say that I was "going off the grid" for ten days or so, but reading the New York Times remains a morning ritual for the household and I still have access to my email. And yesterday they combined to make a brief post imperative.

The first item was an email announcement from the Hudson Institute, inviting me (and probably hundreds of other people) to attend a luncheon briefing on "The Political Situation in Kyrgyzstan: Implications for the United States." The first sentence of the announcement informed me that "the situation in Kyrgyzstan has a critical bearing on American national security." As my teen-aged daughter would say: "OMG!" Did you know that your safety and security depends on the political situation in…. Kyrgyztan?" Yes, I know that the air base at Manas is a critical transit point for logistics flowing into Afghanistan, but otherwise Kyrgyzstan is an impoverished country of about 5 million people without significant strategic resources, and I daresay few Americans could find it on a map (or have any reason to want to). It is only important if you think Afghanistan’s fate is important, and readers here know that I think we’ve greatly exaggerated the real stakes there. (And if we’re heading for the exits there, as President Obama has said, then Kyrgyzstan’s strategic value is a stock you ought to short.)

I’m not trying to make fun of the Hudson Institute here, but the idea that we have "critical" interests in Kyrgystan just illustrates the poverty of American strategic thinking these days. Even now, in the wake of the various setbacks and mis-steps of the past decade, the central pathology of American strategic discourse is the notion that the entire friggin’ world is a "vital" U.S. interest, and that we are therefore both required and entitled to interfere anywhere and anytime we want to. And Beltway briefings like this one just reinforce this mind-set, by constantly hammering home the idea that we are terribly vulnerable to events in a far-flung countries a world away. I’m not saying that events in Kyrgyzstan might not affect the safety and prosperity of American a tiny little bit, but the essence of strategy is setting priorities and distinguishing trivial stakes from the truly important. And somehow I just don’t think Kyrgyzstan’s fate merits words like "vital" or "critical."

And then I read David Greenberg’s op-ed in yesterday’s Times, on the "isolationist" roots within the Republican Party. Greenberg is a historian, and his brief account of isolationist strands within the GOP is perfectly sensible. But he uses this narrative to cast doubt on the growing number of people who believe that the United States is over-committed (a group, one might add, that includes the out-going Secretary of Defense), but who are hardly "isolationists."

In particular, Greenberg ends his piece by warning that "following the path of isolationism today won’t serve America well." He may or may not be correct in that judgment, though his op-ed offers no arguments or evidence to support this particular conclusion. More importantly, Greenberg falls into the familiar trap of assuming that those who are now calling for a more restrained, selective, and above all realistic foreign policy are "isolationists." There may be a few people in contemporary foreign policy discourse who deserve that label, but it simply doesn’t apply to most serious critics of today’s over-extension.

In particular, critics of our over-committed and overly-militarized foreign policy recognize that the world is interconnected, that the United States cannot wall itself off from that world, and that defending long-term U.S. interests occasionally requires the application of the many diverse elements of American power.  People like Andrew Bacevich, Barry Posen, Paul Pillar, Lawrence Wilkerson, Chas Freeman, the late Chalmers Johnson, and many others are not reflexive doves, naïve pacifists, or fatuous one-worlders. On the contrary, they are hard-headed experts who support American engagement in the world, just not in the mindlessly hubristic fashion that has become the self-defeating norm of the past several decades and the default condition of foreign policy thinking in D.C.

What realists (and other advocates of greater "restraint") also recognize is that 5 percent of the world’s population cannot dictate how the other 95 percent should live their lives. They also know that trying to impose our preferences on others by various coercive means (e.g., military force, economic sanctions, etc.) is helping sap our economic vitality and turning more and more people against us. Advocates of a more restrained foreign policy understand that other major powers will just free-ride if we insist on doing everything ourselves, and that other client states will engage in what Posen has called "reckless driving" if they know that the United States will back them now matter what they do.

In short, the isolationsists of a by-gone era have little to do with today’s advocates of restraint, and it is serious error to conflate the two. In particular, applying the discredited label of "isolationist" to those who now question our present "strategy" will make it harder to formulate a grand strategy that is consistent with our present resources, less likely to provoke unnecessary resentment or resistance, cognizant of our many political advantages, and focused (as foreign policy should be) on our long-term vitality and security as a nation.

 UPDATE: In my original post, I mistakenly equated libertarians with isolationists.  This was careless, insofar as some important analysts who favor more limited government (such as Chris Preble of the CATO Institute), are clearly not "isolationist" in the proper sense of that term.  I regret the error, and have corrected the text above to eliminate the conflation.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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