The Dangerous Illusion of Restraining U.S. Power

Isolationists among both Democrats and Republicans want to withdraw from foreign entanglements. That would make the world much less safe.

A member of the U.S. Air Force keeps watch over the runway at Kandahar Air Field in Kandahar, Afghanistan, on Sept. 9, 2017.
A member of the U.S. Air Force keeps watch over the runway at Kandahar Air Field in Kandahar, Afghanistan, on Sept. 9, 2017. Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images

U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper announced on July 29 that 11,900 U.S. military personnel will be leaving Germany, reducing the United States’ footprint there from 36,000 to 24,000 soldiers. U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration is weighing a similar drawdown from the 28,500 U.S. troops currently stationed in South Korea. And that may be just the beginning. According to Richard Grenell, the former U.S. ambassador to Germany who briefly served as acting director of national intelligence this spring, the goal is to “bring [home] troops from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, from South Korea, Japan, and from Germany.”

The call for the United States to show “restraint” by withdrawing from foreign entanglements and keeping the focus at home is growing in foreign-policy circles—and not just in the Trump administration. The current movement appears to have started in 2014, when Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Barry Posen published the seminal work on foreign-policy restraint. His work, not surprisingly, resonated with realists-cum-isolationists such as John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, not to mention a gaggle of libertarians who found a new bottle for their old laissez-faire wine. There is even a restrainers’ think tank, the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, erroneously named for former President John Quincy Adams owing to a fundamental misreading of his thinking and a failed attempt to apply cavalry-era strategizing to 21st-century superpower affairs.

Isolationist ideas clearly appeal to Trump. But they have also taken hold on the left. Sen. Bernie Sanders’s wing of the Democratic Party ensured that a call for the end of “forever wars” found its way into the Democrats’ platform. At this week’s virtual convention, Democrats will surely blame Trump for undermining U.S. influence—but it’s unclear how many Democrats actually support a return to greater U.S. commitments around the world. Presumptive candidate Joe Biden’s long record in the U.S. Senate as a foreign-policy internationalist—as well as his choice of Sen. Kamala Harris from the party’s moderate wing as his running mate—offers hope for greater U.S. engagement with traditional allies. Yet it remains uncertain whether a Biden administration would push back decisively against the country’s most determined adversaries. And as vice president, Biden had a seat at the table when then President Barack Obama adopted his own elements of isolationism, including his withdrawal of troops from Iraq, his unwillingness to enforce his own “red line” against the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons, and his tepid response to Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea.

Isolationist ideas clearly appeal to Trump, but they have also taken hold on the left.

The common theme among restrainers: The United States has no business intervening in other nations’ affairs. Or, as H.R. McMaster, a 34-year veteran of the U.S. Army and former national security advisor to Trump, has noted, isolationists hold the “romantic view that restraint abroad is almost always an unmitigated good.”

In some ways, the restraint movement echoes the isolationism championed in the 1930s and 1940s by Charles Lindbergh’s America First Committee. Like that earlier isolationism, the restraint movement attempts to draw lessons and inferences from U.S. wars. In the 1930s, isolationists invoked World War I, in which almost 120,000 Americans perished, as a reason to avoid challenging German and Japanese fascism. The thought was that if Americans just stayed out of World War II, the totalitarians would leave them alone.

Today’s restrainers similarly seek to capitalize on the suffering and difficulties associated with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the broader fight against terrorism, when they argue for the withdrawal of the remaining forces in these conflicts and others. Restrainers, however, often conflate the decision to intervene at all with how a conflict is subsequently managed or how eventually to withdraw. These are different policy decisions. Indeed, one can be critical of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and how the war was managed—while also believing that Washington should retain a modest U.S. military presence there to help prevent a return of the Islamic State or to counter the influence of Iran.

The restraint movement echoes the isolationism championed in the 1930s and 1940s by Charles Lindbergh’s America First Committee.

Restrainers have also attempted to use the Great Recession and the current economic crisis resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic as leverage to incite populist passions. They do this by falsely suggesting that defense spending is the primary source of the federal deficit and debt. They also suggest a false choice between domestic priorities and spending on defense, which amounts to less than 4 percent of U.S. gross domestic product.

Restrainers consistently paint existing and potential conflicts and U.S. military deployments with the same brush, warning of another “forever war.” However, not every conflict leads to an interminable quagmire. Even the so-called war on terror, despite its headaches, so far has helped prevent another major foreign terrorist attack on the United States, which many had predicted to be inevitable after 9/11.

The term “forever war” is itself curious. History, unfortunately, is a forever war—the chronicle of states’ struggles with their enemies. To be sure, one can write a truly wondrous history of human achievement. But sadly, as the Spanish writer George Santayana observed, “only the dead have seen the end of war.”

It is for this reason that former President Ronald Reagan advocated “peace through strength.” This view served the United States and its NATO allies well in Europe during the Cold War. Reagan, of course, was only borrowing from the Roman adage: “If you want peace, prepare for war.” The Chinese strategist Sun Tzu and his Prussian counterpart Carl von Clausewitz offered similar advice. Their common belief: Weakness and lack of resolution invite aggression.

Restrainers operate under the mistaken assertion that the world would be a safer or better place if U.S. influence would simply recede. The 20th century tells another story. As the historian Robert Kagan argued in his 2012 book The World America Made, the U.S.-led world order has heralded a global rise in liberalism and human rights, better education and health, greater wealth, and more access to information.

Isolationism doesn’t work because the enemy gets a vote, and what happens abroad inevitably affects Americans at home.

Equally puzzling is the notion that the world’s problems and conflicts are of little consequence to the United States. Isolationism doesn’t work, however, because the enemy gets a vote, and what happens abroad inevitably affects Americans at home. Al Qaeda launched the 9/11 attacks despite the United States’ best efforts to steer clear of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, where al Qaeda was based. The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor despite the United States’ best efforts to stay out of the fray. Isolationists initially blocked then President Franklin D. Roosevelt from providing greater support to an embattled Britain, and millions of lives were lost from not confronting German leader Adolf Hitler sooner. In fact, had the United States stayed engaged in Europe in the 1920s, Hitler’s rise might have been preventable.

The best way to preserve the U.S.-led global order and to prevent attacks on the United States is to remain engaged and keep a well-designed, forward-deployed military presence alongside allies and partners. As Jakub J. Grygiel and A. Wess Mitchell have noted, U.S. deployments of varying magnitude along what they call the “unquiet frontier” that stretches from the Baltic Sea to the South China Sea counter the rise of revisionist powers such as China, Russia, and Iran. Support for U.S. allies, coupled with a U.S. military presence in forward bases, today helps deter gathering threats.

Trump’s decision to remove significant numbers of U.S. troops from Germany, and his threat to do the same from South Korea, may be a negotiating tactic to extract greater cost-sharing from other NATO members and Seoul. But that approach is ill-advised. U.S. soldiers are not mercenaries available to the highest bidder. Nor is the U.S. military presence in these countries charity; U.S. troops are forward-deployed to deter adversaries and protect core U.S. national security interests.

When Washington plays an outsized role in shaping and maintaining the international rules-based order, Americans and people around the world are safer and more prosperous. That’s what the United States has done, for the most part, since World War II. And that leadership role has helped ensure that global conflicts such as the Cold War did not erupt into devastating military confrontations.

Admittedly, the U.S.-led international order certainly has not prevented all wars. There have been costly mistakes along the way. But responding to those mistakes by relinquishing the United States’ leadership role—and deliberately drawing down U.S. military power—would be shortsighted and counterproductive.

Those who welcome the demise of U.S. power have yet to fully answer one important question: What happens after the United States goes home?

Those who welcome the demise of U.S. power have yet to fully answer one important question: What happens after the United States goes home? When the British Empire unraveled after World War II, the United States stepped into the void, promoting an international system based on the rule of law. Who will follow the United States? The alternatives are frightening.

Russia is far less equipped to become a superpower, but would be a particularly predatory, corrupt, and avaricious one under Russian President Vladimir Putin. China seeks global leadership. But the Chinese Communist Party’s authoritarian hostility to democracy; weaponization of data; human rights abuses; support for rogue states such as Iran, North Korea, and Pakistan; threats to Hong Kong and Taiwan; militarization of the South China Sea; and massive theft of intellectual property should all serve as warnings. And let us all dispense with the fiction that the European Union could be an alternative to the United States in defending democracies.

U.S. power, therefore, must be retained, not restrained.

Retaining U.S. power should take different forms depending on the region and country. A reflexive tendency to retain all U.S. military deployments would be as unwise as a reflexive tendency to withdraw them. Each must be measured methodically in terms of U.S. interests and threats to them. And this should be accomplished with the smallest U.S. force posture necessary.

Thankfully, the military isn’t the only tool of national power at Washington’s disposal. Another is economic warfare. The economic tools created in the aftermath of 9/11 are targeted and surgical. Their strength derives from the dollar-denominated financial system constructed by the United States, and under which the world still operates. Sanctions have allowed the United States to maintain important leverage over adversaries. These tools must be used judiciously, as should all instruments of national power. But restrainers often deride these economic tools, claiming they are a gateway to war rather than a means of suasion and avoiding war. They lambaste their use against U.S. enemies and adversaries such as Iran and Russia, even as some restrainers seem eager to use the same tools of economic warfare against U.S. allies such as Israel.

U.S. wealth should be guarded—the goal should be to fight battles only when core national interests demand it.

Restrainers are, of course, justified in their desire to avoid needless conflict. But the importance of the United States’ willingness to confront challenges cannot be discounted. Weakness makes war more likely, not less. Diplomacy without leverage leads to discussions about how much the United States is willing to retreat. This will only leave Americans more alone and more insecure.

In the end, not all conflict is avoidable, just as not all withdrawals are advisable. The United States must therefore wield its military judiciously, not least to protect its service members. And U.S. wealth should be guarded—the goal should be to fight battles only when core national interests demand it.

But in the 21st century, if Americans want to be safe at home, some of their best and brightest must stand watch abroad. For that reason, restraint in the form of reflexive military withdrawal is the wrong prescription. With new threats gathering, it’s the retainers who should win this debate.

Jonathan Schanzer is the senior vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Twitter: @JSchanzer

Mark Dubowitz is the chief executive officer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Twitter: @mdubowitz

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