Stephen M. Walt

More or less: The debate on U.S. grand strategy

If you’d like to start 2013 by sinking your teeth into the debate on U.S. grand strategy, I recommend you start with two pieces in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs. Both are by good friends of mine, and together they nicely limn the contours of a useful debate on America’s global role. It’s also ...

Nick Laham/Getty Images
Nick Laham/Getty Images

If you’d like to start 2013 by sinking your teeth into the debate on U.S. grand strategy, I recommend you start with two pieces in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs. Both are by good friends of mine, and together they nicely limn the contours of a useful debate on America’s global role. It’s also worth noting that there are realists on both sides of this particular exchange, which reminds us that agreement on fundamental principles doesn’t necessarily yield agreement on policy conclusions.

The first piece is Barry Posen’s "Pull Back: The Case for a Less Activist Foreign Policy," and the second is Stephen Brooks, John Ikenberry, and William Wohlforth’s "Lean Forward: In Defense of American Engagement." (A longer version of the B, I & W argument can be found in the latest issue of International Security; Posen’s argument is outlined at length in a forthcoming book.)

Dedicated readers of this blog know that I am largely in agreement with Posen’s position, so I’m going to focus today on what I find lacking in B, I & W. Like all of their work, it’s vigorously argued and the longer version is richly documented. But all those footnotes cannot save it from some serious weaknesses.

First, B, I, & W straw-man their target by lumping together a group of strategic thinkers whose differences are at least as significant as their points of agreement. The "proponents of retrenchment" that they criticize range from libertarian isolationists who want to bring virtually all US forces home to "offshore balancers" like Posen who support a robust but less extravagant defense budget and favor not isolationism but merely more limited forms of international engagement. Needless to say, there is a world of difference in these views (even if both are broadly in favor of doing less), and so many of B, I & W’s broad-brush charges miss their mark.

Second, there is something deeply puzzling about B, I & W’s devotion to what Ikenberry used to called "liberal hegemony," and what he and his co-authors now prefer to call "deep engagement." B, I & W argue that deep engagement has been America’s grand strategy since World War II and they believe it was the optimal strategy for the bipolar Cold War, when the United States faced a global threat from a major great-power rival. Not only was the USSR a formidable military power, but it was also an ideological rival whose Marxist-Leninist principles once commanded millions of loyal followers around the world.

Here’s the puzzle: the Soviet Union disappeared in 1992, and no rival of equal capacity has yet emerged. Yet somehow "deep engagement" is still the optimal strategy in these radically different geopolitical circumstances. It’s possible that U.S. leaders in the late 1940s hit on the ideal grand strategy for any and all structural conditions, but it is surely odd that an event as significant as the Soviet collapse can have so few implications for how America deals with the other 190-plus countries around the globe.

Third, B, I, & W give "deep engagement" full credit for nearly all the good things that have occurred internationally since 1945 (great power peace, globalization, non-proliferation, expansion of trade, etc.), even though the direct connection between the strategy and these developments remains contested. More importantly, they absolve the strategy from most if not all of the negative developments that also took place during this period. They recognize the events like the Indochina War and the 2003 war in Iraq were costly blunders, but they regard them as deviations from "deep engagement" rather than as a likely consequence of a strategy that sees the entire world as of critical importance and the remaking of other societies along liberal lines as highly desirable if not strategically essential.

The problem, of course, is that U.S. leaders can only sell deep engagement by convincing Americans that the nation’s security will be fatally compromised if they do not get busy managing the entire globe. Because the United States is in fact quite secure from direct attack and/or conquest, the only way to do that is by ceaseless threat-mongering, as has been done in the United States ever since the Truman Doctrine, the first Committee on the Present Danger and the alarmist rhetoric of NSC-68. Unfortunately, threat-mongering requires people in the national security establishment to exaggerate U.S. interests more-or-less constantly and to conjure up half-baked ideas like the domino theory to keep people nervous. And once a country has talked itself into a properly paranoid frame of mind, it inevitably stumbles into various quagmires, as the United States did in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Again, such debacles are not deviations from "deep engagement"; they are a nearly inevitable consequence of it.

Fourth, B, I, & W largely ignore the issue of opportunity cost. Advocates of restraint like Posen (and myself) are not saying that the United States cannot afford to intervene in lots of overseas venues, they are saying that the United States would be better off with a smaller set of commitments and a more equitable division of labor between itself and its principal allies. If the United States were not spending more than more of the world combined on "deep engagement," it could invest more in infrastructure here at home, lower taxes, balance budgets more easily, provide more generous health or welfare benefits, or do whatever combination of the above the public embraced.

Fifth, B, I, & W argue that deep engagement works because hardly anybody is actively trying to balance American power. In their view, most of the world likes this strategy, and is eager for Washington to continue along the same path. On the one hand, this isn’t that surprising: why shouldn’t NATO countries or Japan prefer a world where they can spend 1-2% of GDP on defense while Uncle Sucker shoulders the main burden? More importantly, advocates of restraint believe doing somewhat less would encourage present allies to bear a fairer share of the burden, and also discourage some of them from adventurist behavior encouraged by excessive confidence in U.S. protection (which Posen terms "reckless driving"). If the U.S. played hard-to-get on occasion, it would discover that some of its allies would do more both to secure their own interests and to remain eligible for future U.S. help. Instead of bending over backwards to convince the rest of the world that the United States is 100 percent reliable, U.S. leaders should be encouraging other states to bend over backwards to convince us that they are worth supporting.

Moreover, even if most of the world isn’t balancing U.S. power, the parts that are remain troublesome. For instance, "deep engagement" in the Middle East has produced some pretty vigorous balancing behavior, in the form of Iraq and Iran’s nuclear programs, Tehran’s support for groups such as Hezbollah, and the virulent anti-Americanism of Al Qaeda. Indeed, the more deeply engaged we became in the region (especially with the onset of "dual containment" following the first Gulf War), the more local resistance we faced. Ditto our "deep engagement" in Iraq and Afghanistan. And given that those two wars may have cost upwards of $3 trillion, it seems clear that at least a few people have "balanced" against the United States with a certain amount of success.

Sixth, reading B, I, & W, one would hardly know that the nuclear revolution had even occurred. Nuclear weapons are not very useful as instruments of coercion, but they do make their possessors largely unconquerable and thus reduce overall security requirements considerably. Because the United States has a second-strike capability sufficient to devastate any country foolish enough to attack us, the core security of the United States is not in serious question. The presence of nuclear weapons in the hands of eight other countries also makes a conventional great power war like World War I or World War II exceedingly unlikely. Yet despite this fundamental shift in the global strategic environment, B, I & W believe the United States must remain "deeply engaged" in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere in order to prevent a replay of the first half of the 20th century.

To repeat: most of the strategists who reject "deep engagement/liberal hegemony" do not call for isolationism, a retreat to Fortress America, or a slash-and-burn approach to defense spending. On the contrary: they favor continued U.S. engagement, albeit in a more restrained, highly selective, and strategically sustainable way. They believe the United States should seek to maintain favorable balances of power in key regions, but that it does not need to provide all the military muscle itself and certainly should not try to dictate or control the political evolution of these areas with military force. They believe this approach would preserve core U.S. interests at an acceptable cost, and would be far better suited to the current distribution of global power.

"Deep engagement" might have been a good strategy for the Cold War, though even that proposition is debatable. But as you may have noticed, the Cold War is now over. Isn’t it about time that U.S. grand strategy caught up with that fact?

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