Restraint Isn’t Isolationism—and It Won’t Endanger America

Critics of offshore balancing claim a more restrained U.S. foreign policy will breed insecurity. They’re wrong, and their arguments are easily debunked.

A member of the U.S. military visits Section 60 at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, on May 24. Section 60 is the final resting place for U.S. soldiers killed in the United States' most recent wars, especially Iraq and Afghanistan.
A member of the U.S. military visits Section 60 at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, on May 24. Section 60 is the final resting place for U.S. soldiers killed in the United States' most recent wars, especially Iraq and Afghanistan. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

What sort of foreign policy do Americans want? One thing seems clear: They don’t want the one they’ve been getting in recent decades. And who can blame them?

Americans have repeatedly expressed their frustration with the overly ambitious and mostly failed strategy of liberal hegemony that has been in place since the end of the Cold War. Instead of making the United States more secure and prosperous, while defending core U.S. values, the misguided attempt to remake the world in the United States’ image sparked needless rivalries with some states, made the terrorism problem worse, led to costly quagmires and failed states, and failed to deliver prosperity beyond the richest 1 percent.

Given this sorry track record, it’s not surprising that critics of this broad approach are increasingly numerous and vocal. The voices advocating greater foreign-policy restraint are growing in number and attracting far more attention now than in the past. The founding of a new, restraint-oriented think tank—the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft—whose supporters include the odd couple of George Soros and Charles Koch, suggests that realism and restraint are ideas whose time has come. (Full disclosure: I played a minor role in this initiative and presently serve on one of the institute’s advisory committees.)

Just as predictably, however, these developments have prompted a backlash from critics who believe the United States should continue to follow more or less the same grand strategy it has pursued since the Soviet Union broke up. Neoconservative godfather Bill Kristol has already tweeted his disdain for the Quincy initiative (given Kristol’s past advice, this could be taken as evidence that the new institute is on the right track), and prominent critics of restraint (also known as offshore balancing) include Frank Hoffman, James Holmes, Peter Feaver and Hal Brands, and Foreign Policy’s own James Traub. Finally, it seems, Americans are beginning to have a genuine debate on what the U.S. role in the world should be.

I’ve laid out my own views on these issues at considerable length elsewhere; my purpose here is to consider the critics—and the arguments that have been advanced against a more realistic and restrained foreign policy. I can’t claim to be objective, but I find most of the counterarguments to be surprisingly weak.

Myth 1. Offshore balancers are crypto-isolationists.

By far the most common charge leveled at advocates of restraint is that they are die-hard isolationists who believe the United States should withdraw from the world and concentrate solely on defending its own territory. Because “isolationism” is a loaded term, forever associated with those who sought to keep the United States out of World War II, the charge still carries some political weight. But as a serious criticism, it is without foundation.

Nearly all supporters of a more restrained foreign policy have made it clear that they believe the United States should be actively engaged with other nations both economically and diplomatically and, in some cases, militarily. More importantly, the strategic logic that underpins the offshore balancing approach—which concentrates on the balance of power in critical strategic regions—explains why the United States should be ready to intervene abroad in certain well-defined circumstances.

In particular, offshore balancers do not believe the United States can always remain “offshore.” While avoiding significant military commitments in foreign lands might be preferable much of the time, there will be moments when it is necessary for the United States to go “onshore,” usually to prevent the emergence of a regional hegemon that might threaten the country’s long-term security. Thus, offshore balancers believe it was correct for the United States to intervene in World Wars I and II, and they endorsed the policy of containment (and especially the commitment of U.S. troops in Europe and Asia) during the Cold War.

Today, most restrainers believe the United States should be militarily present in Asia to counter a rising China, and it should retain a residual capacity to intervene in other areas should a potential hegemon emerge. Because no country could dominate either Europe or the Middle East today, however, there is little need for the United States to deploy significant forces in either place, and it should let local powers do the heavy lifting in these regions.

Myth 2. Offshore balancing requires anticipating threats perfectly.

Offshore balancers recommend passing the buck to local powers when possible so that they pull their weight and the United States stays out of unnecessary trouble. But what if Washington misreads the balance of power and does not respond quickly enough? If this were to occur, the United States might wake up and discover that it is too late to intervene or that doing so will be much more expensive.

There is a grain of truth in this charge, insofar as the strategy does depend on gauging the balance of power in key regions and getting more actively engaged whenever a potential hegemon begins to emerge. But two additional factors must be kept in mind. First, spotting potential hegemons is often pretty easy—as it is with China today and as it was with the former Soviet Union after World War II—and the United States’ geographic position in the Western Hemisphere gives it some margin for error. Second, and more importantly, the risk of underreaction must be weighed against the opposite danger of overcommitment. If offshore balancers cannot absolutely guarantee that the United States will always respond quickly, advocates of liberal hegemony or other forms of global activism cannot assure us that their overzealousness does not lead to unnecessary wars, costly quagmires, and a bloated national security state.

The history of the past quarter century suggests that the latter danger is very real. Under both Democratic and Republican administrations, the United States has repeatedly found itself dragged into wars of choice fought for less than vital interests. Hardly any of them led to a successful conclusion, and every one of them cost more and lasted longer than Washington anticipated. Each of the past four U.S. presidents campaigned promising to do less abroad and more at home, yet each ended up doing far more in distant lands than they intended.

Myth 3. If the United States retreats, rivals will fill the void.

Another frequent complaint is that any reduction in the United States’ overseas commitments and military presence signals an ignominious retreat and will create opportunities for U.S. adversaries to increase their own global influence. You see this warning at work every time people get the vapors over Russia’s supposed influence in Syria or the possibility that a reduced presence in the Middle East or Africa will enable China to replace the United States there.

Like the old Cold War domino theory, the precise logic by which this process will occur is rarely spelled out, and there are good reasons to question its validity (except as a scare tactic). To begin with, some parts of the world are of modest to zero strategic importance, so it doesn’t really matter if other states gain influence there or not. Moreover, such fears typically overstate the influence the United States supposedly had in the past while exaggerating the ability of others to exercise similar influence in the future. If the past 70 years tell us anything, it is that it is difficult for distant powers to exercise reliable control over the bristling nationalisms that make up the modern world.

One suspects that Chinese politicians have been delighted to watch Washington waste trillions of dollars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the global war on terrorism.

Furthermore, in some cases, U.S. security would be enhanced if it got out of one of its current quagmires and let adversaries have their turn there instead. The United States won the Cold War in part by letting the less prosperous Soviet Union squander resources in places like Afghanistan and Angola; one suspects that Chinese politicians have been delighted to watch Washington waste trillions of dollars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the global war on terrorism.

Myth 4. Offshore balancers don’t care about values.

If the United States were to act with greater restraint, some argue, it would be abdicating the liberal principles on which the country was founded. In a recent critique of my book The Hell of Good Intentions, for example, Kori Schake accused me of “jettisoning” American values. For Schake and other liberal internationalists, American power—including military power—should be used to spread democracy, defend human rights, and eventually make the rest of the world become more “like us.” Or as Kristol and fellow neoconservative Lawrence Kaplan put it some years ago, “Well, what is wrong with dominance, in the service of sound principles and high ideals?”

What’s wrong, of course, is that trying to transform the world in the United States’ image isn’t working very well. According to Freedom House, 2018 was the 13th consecutive year in which global freedom declined, and the Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual Democracy Index recently downgraded the United States from a “full” to a “flawed” democracy. Trying to remake the world in America’s image isn’t succeeding abroad; instead, it is helping undermine those same values here at home.

According to offshore balancing, the best way to promote liberal values is by setting a good example and using the United States’ power, wealth, and good fortune to create an equitable and prosperous society that others would admire and seek to emulate in their own fashion. Restrainers do not “jettison” values; we believe a different strategy would promote them more effectively.

Myth 5. Offshore balancing will encourage nuclear proliferation.

It is commonly assumed that if the United States stopped protecting as many foreign countries, some of the current beneficiaries would race to get nuclear weapons. The concern is a legitimate one, insofar as the U.S. security umbrella (and a certain amount of coercive pressure) helped discourage several U.S. allies from pursuing a nuclear option in the past. Were the United States to disengage from some of its current commitments, a few of those states might seek security in the form of a nuclear deterrent.

Some states will probably get the bomb no matter what strategy the United States pursues, which means that U.S. foreign policy must be decided on other grounds.

Yet this possibility is not a compelling argument against offshore balancing. For one thing, it is not certain that any or all of these countries would ultimately choose to cross the nuclear threshold, even if the United States withdrew its nuclear umbrella. The decision to acquire nuclear weapons is a complex calculation, and past fears that these weapons would spread rapidly turned out to be exaggerated.

Moreover, the unrestrained exercise of U.S. power hasn’t prevented some states from acquiring nuclear weapons in the past; indeed, it was probably one of the key reasons that North Korea moved heaven and earth to get the bomb, why Iraq and Libya were interested in doing so themselves, and why Iran has flirted with a nuclear option in recent years.

In sum: Some states will probably get the bomb no matter what strategy the United States pursues, which means that U.S. foreign policy must be decided on other grounds.

Myth 6. There’s no need for restraint when “deep engagement” is easily affordable.

Critics also argue the United States can easily afford its ambitious grand strategy of liberal hegemony, mostly by pointing out that national security spending today consumes a smaller percentage of U.S. GDP than it did in the 1950s or 1960s. For commentators like John Ikenberry, William Wohlforth, and Stephen Brooks, a policy of “deep engagement” is thus an affordable insurance policy against any number of adverse international developments.

But as Jessica Mathews points out in a brilliant dissection of the United States’ bloated national security spending, this argument evades the more important questions that should determine how much of the country’s national wealth should be devoted to national security. There is no logical reason why defense spending should rise at exactly the same rate that the economy is growing; logically, a country should spend more when threats are increasing and spend less when the world is more benign, independent of whether its economy is expanding or not.

Defense spending may be a smaller percentage of GDP, but it is still nearly 60 percent of federal discretionary spending. The United States is able to spend more on defense than the next eight countries combined, but that hardly means that doing so is wise. Resources are always finite (even taking into account Washington’s unparalleled ability to run massive deficits), and every dollar spent on an overweening foreign policy is a dollar that could be spent on the infrastructure and education on which the country’s future prosperity and power depend.

Myth 7. Offshore balancing will bring back Hitler, Stalin, or worse.

Critics of restraint claim that U.S. global engagement is the only thing preventing a return to the bitter great-power rivalries of the past—and especially the horrors of the 1930s and the carnage of World War II. One sees this not only in the neoconservatives’ endless invocation of Munich but also in Feaver and Brands’s claim that the United States actually tried offshore balancing in the 1930s and the result was World War II. They conclude that the United States is better off being engaged almost anywhere a war might break out, on the assumption that a U.S. presence alone will be sufficient to prevent it.

Leaving aside the question of whether any U.S. president could have convinced Americans to keep hundreds of thousands of troops in Europe during the 1920s and 1930s (or that any European country would have welcomed them on a permanent basis), this claim rests on the assumption that their mere presence would have prevented World War II. But stationing U.S. troops somewhere in Europe would not have removed Adolf Hitler’s murderous desire for Lebensraum, Joseph Stalin’s paranoid fears, Benito Mussolini’s imperial pretensions, or the low-level rivalries and revanchism elsewhere in Europe. The cruel truth is that the Versailles settlement had left abundant flammable material strewn across Europe, and deploying a lot of U.S. troops there sooner would most likely have ensured that Americans were fighting and dying from September 1939 rather than December 1941, having failed to prevent the war.

More recent events also show that having U.S. troops in a region does not guarantee peace. If it did, there would have been no wars in Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East, South Asia, or the Balkans in recent decades—not to mention the various wars that the United States has launched on its own.

The tragic truth is that conflict and war are always possible, no matter how the United States chooses to deploy and use its military forces. Committing U.S. forces to fight in distant lands is sometimes stabilizing and sometimes not. The challenge, therefore, is to identify the vital interests for which Americans should be sent into harm’s way and to avoid taking on commitments that are not vital or where the costs exceed the benefits. That is precisely what offshore balancing seeks to do.

A more restrained foreign policy will not guarantee peace or prosperity or spare U.S. policymakers from the need to make hard choices. But it will avoid the errors that have undermined the United States’ global position in recent years and free up the resources necessary for long-term investment in the nation’s future.

The growing debate on these issues is long overdue and a healthy development, even if some of the arguments being advanced by critics of restraint do not stand up to close scrutiny. If they want to convince Americans to keep sacrificing soldiers’ lives and throwing good money after bad, they’ll need to come up with better ones.

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

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