Neocons vs. Realists Is So 2008

Your guide to the new foreign policy divide.


President Obama may not say so explicitly in his State of the Union address, but his administration’s foreign policy is poised to shift significantly in his second term. The shift is the result of an ongoing debate between two camps that I call "restrainers" and "shapers." Restrainers and shapers sharply disagree about the threats to the United States and this leads to very different views about how to engage the world and it may well lead to a division within the Democratic Party.

Restrainers see a crumbling infrastructure, the budget deficit, a subpar education system, and a sluggish economy as much more threatening than events elsewhere in the world. Democrats of this stripe call for "nation-building at home," to use President Obama’s phrase, and want to prioritize these tasks at the expense of international commitments, which they see as a drain or a distraction. Republicans have their restrainers too. They eschew the notion of an activist government but also want to concentrate on the domestic tasks of reducing the deficit and restoring growth.

The shapers have a starkly different view. They agree that domestic challenges are important — and should be the subject of a strong domestic policy agenda — but they don’t believe international difficulties are on the wane. The U.S. economy is in a slump largely because of a crisis prone international economic order. A new foreign economic policy that advances new free trade agreements and a more stable international structure is crucial but thus far lacking. On security, the United States is a global power and detrimental developments in the Middle East, East Asia, or Europe will severely damage U.S. interests. For instance, war between China and Japan would likely spark a new economic crisis and create the conditions for decades of instability in a crucial region. Any notion that the United States can take a sabbatical to tend to the home front is mistaken, the shapers argue.

Diverging accounts of the challenges to American power lead to different approaches to foreign policy. Restrainers want to find ways to limit America’s exposure to international events. Shapers want to find ways to influence them.

Restrainers believe that the United States is overcommitted in the world. They see the country as involved in a wide range of problems that have little bearing on the security of the homeland. Restrainers view the world as something that happens to the United States. U.S. efforts to shape the world are seen as likely to be counterproductive, either because the world is too complicated for the United States to calibrate its approach appropriately or because it will lead to too many new commitments. Restrainers are comfortable with the use of force as long as it entails a light footprint — in and out. There is little appetite for the messiness associated with protracted involvements, whether that is in the use of lethal force or shaping the post-conflict environment.

Restrainers are not a monolithic group. At one end of the spectrum is the realist restraint school within the academic field of international relations. They come close to neo-isolationism. One of the leading theorists of this approach, MIT professor Barry Posen, proposes to slash U.S. alliances, including with Japan and Western Europe. Several other academics are working along similar lines (see here, here, and here). In general, they believe the world can take care of itself. The world may become a more dangerous place, but the United States has the wherewithal to insulate itself and may even take advantage of the situation. If they have a catchphrase, it’s The United States can be safer in a more dangerous world, just as long as it is not too involved.

But the academic purists cannot be found in the policy community or in the administration. There, a very different type of restrainer prevails. These restrainers want to preserve America’s core alliances and commitments. For that reason alone the neo-isolationist moniker does not apply to them. However, they do want to avoid new entanglements that go beyond core commitments — hence the reluctance to get involved in Syria — and they do intend to scale back U.S. involvement overseas. They would also like to shift the burden somewhat to America’s allies — hence the Obama administration has done less to help France in Mali than President Hollande has hoped.

Shapers believe that the United States must remain a global leader and influence developments all over the planet, particularly in the Middle East, Northeast and Southeast Asia, and Europe. They do not just want to preserve America’s alliances and commitments; they want to increase them to account for the changing nature of international politics. They believe that an increasingly competitive world means that the United States will have to work harder to maintain its military and diplomatic edge. This means building new strategic partnerships in Southeast Asia, influencing events inside Syria and Libya, and strengthening military capabilities. They also want to embrace and prudently advance concepts like the Responsibility to Protect, which they see as a crucial component of a values-based foreign policy. They know America will make mistakes, but they hope to minimize them by learning from the past and they believe that the risk of error is outweighed by the risk of inaction.

The Obama administration has had elements of both sides. It has been a shaper in East Asia and a restrainer in the Middle East. Indeed, the shaping in East Asia was embraced by some restrainers who saw an opportunity to get out of the Middle East. But, the balance recently shifted in favor of the restrainers. The departure of several leading shapers, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell, and National Security Council Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs Samantha Power, has moved the needle in favor of those who want to do less in the world. Chuck Hagel is squarely in the camp of the restrainers. John Kerry is something of an unknown quantity — he seems to want to engage diplomatically in the Middle East, but his attitude toward Syria and Asia is unclear.

Perhaps most important of all, President Obama seems comfortable as a restrainer. Bob Woodward has reported that Obama chose Hagel because the two share the same philosophy: "the U.S. role in the world must be carefully scaled back — this is not a matter of choice but of facing reality; the military needs to be treated with deep skepticism; lots of strategic military and foreign policy thinking is out of date; and quagmires like Afghanistan should be avoided." Of course, this is only a second-hand report, but it is consistent with parts of the president’s record.

Restraint is an idea that seems to fit the moment. Americans are tired of war and feel more constrained after the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. However, over time, the realization will set in that staying out also shapes the world — and probably in a way that is detrimental to America’s interests. It creates a vacuum filled by others. It fuels uncertainty. And it exacerbates crises.

If President Obama does move in the direction of restraint, the next few years are likely to see the development of a Democratic critique of his foreign policy. This critique may be spearheaded by experts, including former Obama administration officials, who are seeking to shape the foreign policy platform of Hillary Clinton should she decide to run for president. Its core insight will be that the United States must continue to exert global leadership because in an interdependent world, retrenchment will not work. Welcome to the Democratic Party’s new foreign policy debate.

 Twitter: @thomaswright08

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