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The Case for a Middle Path in U.S. Foreign Policy

Neither pure isolationism nor unchecked internationalism has served the United States well. It’s time for a third option.

Over the course of U.S. history, American statecraft has oscillated between two poles: stubborn isolationism and unstinting internationalism.

Over the course of U.S. history, American statecraft has oscillated between two poles: stubborn isolationism and unstinting internationalism.

Isolationism was the default position from the founding era to 1941. In 1796, President George Washington set the young nation on a clear course: “The great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations, is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible.” Americans thereafter avidly pursued international commerce and ruthlessly expanded across North America, but they shunned strategic entanglement farther afield. Following brief bouts of foreign ambition during the Spanish-American War and World War I, the isolationist impulse returned, leading to the strategic retreat of the interwar era. Isolationism’s long run then ended abruptly with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. From the nation’s entry into World War II until the election of President Donald Trump, the United States embraced global engagement, relying on a mix of U.S. power and international partnership to further its interests and spread its values.

During the Trump presidency, the country has been swinging back toward isolationism. Much of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment has been aghast at Trump’s efforts to quit Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, his drawdown in Germany, and his cajoling of allies unwilling to do more to defend themselves. Yet these moves resonate with a U.S. public that has grown weary of the nation’s “forever wars,” especially amid the current pandemic and an economic calamity of a scale not seen since the Great Depression. Democratic and Republican voters share little common ground, but they agree that the country needs to offload at least some of its foreign entanglements.
Yet so far, the debate over what form this pullback should take has not been very useful. Part of the problem is that it is ensnared in the all-or-nothing approach that has shaped U.S. grand strategy for the last 50 years—in fact, the last 230. The so-called restraint school argues that the United States must shed the bulk of its foreign entanglements and adopt a strategy of offshore balancing, through which it relies primarily on allies abroad to check hostile powers. The liberal internationalists maintain that the continuation of Pax Americana is not only desirable but doable. They see Trump as nothing more than a destructive aberration—and breathe sighs of relief as President-elect Joe Biden declares: “America is back, ready to lead the world.”

The restrainers and liberal internationalists are both wrong. As the United States enters the post-Trump era, in which Americans will have neither the wherewithal to run the world nor the luxury of running away from it, the nation will need to find a middle way.

The task for the United States in the years ahead will be to maintain its role as an anchor of geopolitical stability while at the same time avoiding overstretch. Bringing the country’s role in the world back into line with its means will entail fundamental adjustments—but in the form of a judicious retrenchment rather than a return to hemispheric isolation. In an era virtually bereft of bipartisan consensus, judicious retrenchment would hit the new political sweet spot: a more modest and pragmatic brand of U.S. engagement that restrainers and liberal internationalists, as well as Democrats and Republicans, should be able to get behind.

The first principle of judicious retrenchment is that the United States should continue playing the role of great-power pacifier while abandoning its attempts to serve as the global policeman. The United States’ main strategic error since the end of the Cold War has been poor shot selection. Washington lost sight of its priorities, repeatedly embroiling the nation in unnecessary wars of choice in the broader Middle East. The conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria have killed or wounded tens of thousands of Americans, taken the lives of hundreds of thousands of local soldiers and civilians, cost some $6 trillion, and produced little good.

America’s main interests in the region—protecting the flow of Persian Gulf oil, containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, countering terrorist networks, advancing Israel’s security—can be adequately pursued through diplomacy and, if necessary, through surgical military operations that rely primarily on standoff weapons and offshore platforms. It is past time for the United States to end its Middle East land wars and cut its losses. Russian and Iranian influence may be increasing in the region, but the root cause is Washington’s foolhardy penchant for toppling regimes, not its self-restraint.

Correcting the United States’ missteps in the periphery should not, however, be allowed to jeopardize U.S. commitments in the strategic heartland of Eurasia. And this is where to push back against the restraint school. Legitimately frustrated by the nation’s overstretch, modern-day restrainers clamor for a pullback not only from the Middle East but also from Europe. Some restrainers also want the United States to retreat from Asia. A growing cadre of influential scholars, including Christopher Layne, John Mearsheimer, Barry Posen, Christopher Preble, Stephen M. Walt, and Stephen Wertheim, has called for the United States to dismantle the primary strategic commitments it has upheld since World War II. Mearsheimer and Walt, for example, maintain: “In Europe, the United States should end its military presence and turn NATO over to the Europeans.” Wertheim argues that the United States should “significantly reduce its forward-deployed military presence in Asia and Europe alike.”

The restraint school risks turning pronounced overreach into an even more dangerous underreach.With such proposals, the restraint school risks turning pronounced overreach into an even more dangerous underreach. The United States continues to have an overriding interest in managing great-power competition in Europe and Asia. Russia and China both pose expansionist threats to their neighbors, which means that the same objective that guided U.S. strategy during World War II and the Cold War—preventing the domination of Eurasia by a hostile power—still applies. Moreover, unlike in the Middle East, U.S. strategy toward Eurasia has been a quiet and cost-effective success. Great-power peace has endured since 1945, and the roughly 150,000 U.S. troops still stationed in Europe and East Asia are a wise investment in extending that track record.

A U.S. withdrawal from Europe and Asia would unsettle allies and embolden adversaries. And if the United States were to decamp from these areas only to have to rush back after the outbreak of war, it would be far costlier and riskier than staying all along. So, too, could offshore balancing turn into disengagement, as it did during the interwar era. The United States withdrew militarily from Europe and East Asia after World War I, seeking instead to use its diplomatic and economic leverage to preserve stability in both regions. The strategy initially worked. However, when geopolitical rivalries began to heat up in both theaters, the United States ran for cover—until it had no choice but to fight after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. The United States cannot afford to repeat this mistake.

Paring down U.S. commitments by pulling back from the periphery while holding in the strategic core may well provide common ideological ground for restrainers and liberal internationalists. Indeed, against the backdrop of the United States’ futile wars in the Middle East, even a good number of liberal internationalists have come around to the conclusion that it is time for the country to downsize its role in the region. One, Thomas Wright, has called for the United States to undertake a “careful pruning of its overseas commitments,” which would entail leaving Afghanistan and scaling back missions in Iraq and Syria. Jake Sullivan, the incoming national security advisor and a published advocate of liberal internationalism, asserts that “the U.S. has to wind down its participation in the forever wars of the Middle East.”

In light of the U.S. susceptibility to strategic excess, the restraint school would be wise to pocket the deal, even if it would like to go further.

Judicious retrenchment’s second guiding principle should be that the United States needs to back away from the expansive and formalized liberal order it has overseen since World War II in favor of a more pragmatic and flexible approach to maintaining stability. For its part, the restraint school is all too ready to dispense with so-called “liberal hegemony.” Mearsheimer dismisses as “the great delusion” the notion that liberal institutions and practices can anchor the international system. But the liberal internationalists are not prepared to give an inch. The scholar G. John Ikenberry calls on the United States “to reclaim the two-centuries-old liberal international project of building an order that is open, multilateral, and anchored in a coalition of leading liberal democracies.”

To be sure, the United States and its fellow democracies urgently need to update their economies and governing institutions and band together to protect their way of life. Nothing less than the progressive advance of history is at stake. But to assume that the U.S.-led liberal order that took shape during the 1940s can provide a foundation for global stability in the 21st century is indeed a dangerous illusion.

During the second half of the last century, when the United States and its democratic allies outpaced the Soviet Union and then witnessed its collapse, they had good reason to believe that it was only a matter of time before liberal norms and institutions would be universalized. But that did not happen, and it won’t anytime soon.

By the end of this decade, an autocratic China will command the world’s largest economy, and its geopolitical ambition and military might will rise in step. Neither Beijing nor Moscow shows any signs of readiness to play by Western rules and norms. Indeed, they are working to undermine the existing order and are offering an illiberal alternative that is backed by their money and arms. Around the world, democracy is in recession.


From the Foreign Policy Archives

On Nationalism


Expansive Threat

The end of the Cold War is not a panacea. Dangers lie ahead. An explosive mixture of nationalism and internationalism most seriously threatens history’s recent gains.

—Kim Dae-jung


National Appeal

It is much easier to mobilize society behind a real or imagined national injury than behind abstract ideas like democracy or open society.

—George Soros


Anti-American Wave

When American nationalism drives the country’s foreign policy, it galvanizes broad-based anti-Americanism. And at such times, it becomes impossible to ignore the inconsistencies and tensions with American nationalism—or the harm they inflict on the United States’ legitimacy abroad.

—Minxin Pei


The Case for Nationalism

Scholars can persist in looking down on nationalism as a backward, unevolved reflex, and governments could continue to fail to develop policies that harness its potential. But this alternative carries a heavy cost. If responsible policymakers have in their hands something proven to encourage increased wealth, lower levels of corruption, and higher obedience to the rule of law, they would only be wise to use it.

—Gustavo de las Casas

Subscribers get full access to Foreign Policy’s 50-year print archive. Excerpts have been lightly edited for space and clarity.


Making matters more complicated is the fact that the United States is no longer a champion of open markets and treaty-based multilateralism. Amid job loss and stagnant wages, protectionism is in vogue on both sides of the aisle. In the meantime, most Republicans have lost their appetite for international partnership; Trump speaks for much of his party when he proclaims that “we will no longer surrender this country or its people to the false song of globalism. … We will never enter America into any agreement that reduces our ability to control our own affairs.” Democrats remain far more receptive to teamwork with other nations, but getting most treaties through the Senate may be out of reach for the foreseeable future.

Nonetheless, the United States cannot afford to return to the stiff-necked unilateralism that guided its statecraft from the founding era until World War II. Broad international cooperation will be needed to address urgent challenges, including managing a globalized and interdependent economy, arresting climate change, shutting down terrorist networks, countering nuclear proliferation, promoting cybersecurity, and advancing public health. The United States will not be able to accomplish these goals without the help of like-minded partners.

With the globalization of the liberal order out of reach, a strategy of judicious retrenchment will entail a new emphasis on informal pacts.

With the globalization of the liberal order out of reach, a strategy of judicious retrenchment will entail a new emphasis on informal pacts. Contact groups, coalitions of the willing, and voluntary covenants will supersede alliances and standing institutions as the vehicles of choice for joint initiatives. Even as it seeks to refurbish its own democracy and revive camaraderie and cooperation among its democratic allies, Washington will need to look to a concert of major powers—a steering group inclusive of democracies and non-democracies alike—to flesh out new rules of the road, update norms and practices, and adapt existing institutions to new global realities.

Forging consensus across international as well as domestic divides is a must if a rules-based order is to survive the arrival of a world that is both multipolar and ideologically diverse. A strategy of retrenchment that acknowledges the need for liberal democracies to work comfortably with their illiberal counterparts constitutes a setback for the West, but it is time for the United States to strive for the workable and attainable, not the impossible.

The third principle of judicious retrenchment entails reestablishing the United States as the exceptional, but not indispensable, nation. Since 1941, the country’s exceptionalist calling has set it on a crusade to re-create the world in its own image. That approach was a clear departure from what came before. From 1789 until Pearl Harbor, the United States generally shunned foreign ambition in order to protect its unique experiment in political and economic liberty from a tainted world. Americans aspired to change the world from early on, but they were long content to do so only by example, by serving as a “city upon a hill.” When their elected leaders tried more activist approaches, such as the Spanish-American War and World War I, they did not much like the loss of blood and treasure that resulted—one of the main reasons for the isolationist retreat of the interwar era.

The exceptionalist narrative has for way too long been an excuse for doing too much abroad. Given the dilapidated state of the American experiment, the renewal of the nation’s unique calling must start at home.

Americans are once again disillusioned with the results of their exertions abroad, necessitating that liberal internationalists give considerable ground to the restraint school when it comes to democracy promotion. The United States needs to change back from democratic crusader to prudent exemplar if it is to cease its misguided efforts to topple unsavory regimes, avoid strategic overreach, and work with the world as it actually is. Reclaiming the nation’s original conception of exceptionalism also requires putting America’s own house in order. The United States cannot serve as a model when its political landscape is so deeply polarized and its institutions so dysfunctional. The first priority is to tackle the root causes of the nation’s political ills, including the pandemic, inequality, racial injustice, and the profound sense of economic insecurity that pervades much of the electorate. The country also needs a credible and effective immigration policy to help ensure that its exceptionalist narrative rejects nativism in favor of racial and ethnic pluralism.

Exceptionalism is inseparable from the American creed. And with illiberalism and intolerance on the march globally, the world urgently needs an anchor of republican and pluralist ideals—a role that only the United States has the power and credentials to fulfill. But the exceptionalist narrative has for way too long been an excuse for doing too much abroad. Given the dilapidated state of the American experiment, the renewal of the nation’s unique calling must start at home.

Judicious retrenchment offers restrainers and liberal internationalists alike a middle ground. So, too, would it offer the Democrats and Republicans opportunities to cease their partisan sniping and get behind a common foreign policy. Public opinion polls reveal the electorate’s decided weariness with U.S. wars in the Middle East, its interest in downsizing foreign entanglements, and its desire for increased focus on the ailing economy at home. It is no accident that U.S. President Barack Obama, during his reelection campaign, insisted that it was time for “nation building here at home.” In similar fashion, Trump readied for the 2020 election by downsizing the U.S. military presence in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan—and continued the drawdown, including in Somalia, even after losing the election.

Most Democrats and Republicans also agree on the need to maintain U.S. commitments in Europe and Asia. NATO, for example, enjoys strong support on both sides of the aisle. Indeed, Congress responded to Trump’s repeated attacks on the alliance by inviting NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg to address a joint session for the first time in history. Support for containing China is similarly broad. A strategy of pulling back from the periphery while standing firm in the core would get bipartisan traction.

To be sure, Democrats and Republicans will continue to come at foreign-policy issues from different perspectives, but there are points of overlap. Left-wing progressives opposed to high defense spending are already joining forces with right-wing libertarians opposed to foreign entanglements. Democrats who back multilateralism in principle can ally with Republicans who, in an era of economic duress, are looking to alliances and other international pacts as vehicles for sharing global burdens. Social progressives on the left and evangelicals on the right agree that the United States needs to refurbish its exceptionalist calling and reclaim its moral authority. Bipartisan support for retrenchment will need to be cobbled together, in other words, but it is within reach.

Observing the bitter arguments between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and America First isolationists over the role that the nation should play in World War II, the writer Walter Lippmann worried about the prospect of an America that was so divided that it would be unable to pursue a coherent foreign policy. “The spectacle of this great nation which does not know its own mind is as humiliating as it is dangerous,” Lippmann wrote, warning that “the nation must maintain its objectives and its power in equilibrium, its purposes within its means and its means equal to its purposes.”

Lippmann was premature but prescient. During World War II and the Cold War, partisan politics generally stopped at the water’s edge. But today, U.S. grand strategy swings wildly with every power change in Washington, and the nation’s objectives are dangerously out of kilter with its means. What’s required is a paced, measured retrenchment that puts strategic commitments and political will back into alignment. Judicious retrenchment is good policy, good politics, and the pathway toward the middle ground between doing too much and doing too little.

Charles A. Kupchan is a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and the author of Isolationism: A History of America’s Efforts to Shield Itself from the World.

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