“Restraint : A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy” by Barry R. Posen
Cornell University Press, 2014, 234 pp.
Barry R. Posen is a professor of Political Science and director of the Security Studies Program at MIT. Restraint is his contribution to the debate about which direction US foreign policy should take. The book presents a speedy tour across the globe and surveys the most important developments for US interests and argues how the US should respond in the various theaters of the world. Posen focuses on the military aspects of strategy and pays little attention to “softer” components of foreign policy, such as foreign aid and international organizations, or to non-traditional forms of security and warfare, such as cyber. But though one might find Posen’s solely military focus a bit reductionist, what the author does he does well. For so short a piece, Restraint manages an impressive depth and scope and touches on a vast amount of contemporary issues as well as provides practical suggestions for these. The book can therefore also be read for a brush up on salient contemporary issues within geopolitics.
The case for a less engaged America
Restraint is essentially a 175 pages (plus notes) foreign policy argument that the US would be better off playing a less active role in international affairs; that interventionism is creating more threats than it eliminates, that the global network of alliances and security guaranties are motivating other wealthy states to free-ride and let the US carry the entire burden of defense, and that US military expenditure could be cut significantly within a new grand strategy of restraint.
Probably the most important aspect of this strategy is that America’s alliances must be renegotiated in order to ensure that countries in Western Europe, Japan and South Korea starttaking greater responsibility for their own security rather than simply rely on America’s formidable military capabilities as they do today. Posen proposes that the US starts withdrawing troops from these areas and state that its security guaranties will be revoked after a number of years in order to allow these countries a timely increase in defense expenditure. This may result in countries such as Japan and Germany obtaining their own nuclear deterrent which Posen does not object to. The overarching point is that these countries have the economic potential to fend for themselves but that American’s current expansive security guaranties give them no incentive to do so. For Posen, the only way to make this free-riding stop is to gradually withdraw US forces and promises.
Posen’s analysis is notable for being self-proclaimed “defensive realist” while at the same time incorporating domestic factors such as nationalist movements. Both the “defensive” and the “nationalist” components of Posen’s analysis are important, since they provide the theoretical foundation for his claim that the US can behave more restrained and, as a result, increase its own security without Eurasia succumbing to hegemonic war and chaos.
Defensive realism is a sub-branch of realism which claims that states tend to prefer the status quo and will usually not pursue hegemony. One reason for this is the defensive realists’ great faith in power balancing as a means to containing possible threats. Put simply, if one state starts to look dangerous its neighbors will band together to keep it in check. This theoretical component is essential to Posen’s argument because it enables him to envision a future wherein the US is less involved in Europe and Asia without having Russia and China dominate the continent, since their appetite for such dominance will be limited and because Western Europe will contain Russia, just as South Korea, Japan and India will contain China. Nonetheless, Posen does keep a window open for the US stepping in, should either of these great powers actually start invading their neighbors. Hence, Posen ultimately relies on the logic of offshore balancing, whereby the US remains ready to step in and bolster the regional balancing coalitions.
The notion of nationalism is also important in the analysis. Posen makes the case that expansive US presence in the world provides fuel for nationalist fires which tend to turn against the US. America’s bases abroad make local populations resent the US and may ultimately provide the motivation for terrorist attacks against the US mainland or embassies since America becomes perceived as an occupying empire. Consequently, by scaling back its presence abroad the US is reducing the risk of terrorist attacks against itself and, indeed, making the populations of the world less hostile towards America.
What isn’t mentioned
The argument of Restraint is quite compelling and, from an American perspective, a grand strategy of restraint which promises fewer security risks to Americans combined with substantial savings on the defense budget is almost too good to be true. Yet, the book does skip some of the more difficult considerations of this strategy which weakens the argument somewhat.
First off, one salient element of Obama’s Middle East policy has been targeted drone strikes. These are probably one of the most important generators of anti-America sentiment in the region today and have become the central tool for combating Al-Qaeda. Posen’s only comment on this subject is that “targeted strikes on Al-Qaeda in Pakistan may need to continue” (p. 128). While this statement is quite vague, maintaining drone strikes as an important component of US strategy could undermine the intended benefits of withdrawing troops and shutting down bases. The victim populations of targeted killings will in all likelihood still consider the US an oppressive empire. It would have been interesting to see Posen present a more comprehensive argument on the use or non-use of drone strikes.
Second, Posen doesn’t address the possibility that scaling back US security guaranties might NOT result in European, Japanese and South Korean increases in defense spending. These countries are all democracies and their populations might simply chose not to post more money into soldiers and F35’s, let alone develop a nuclear weapon program. In such a case, which is in no way far fetched, current US allies might not be able to balance Russian or Chinese aggressiveness and this would in turn force the offshore balancing US back to the Eurasian continent to contain or defeat these great powers. Thus, there is a risk that the US might shut down large parts of its overseas installments only to reopen them again at a later point which would be a costly affair.
Finally, I would have liked Posen to spend more time seriously refuting the critics of his position. Though Posen does make a brief reference to the article “Don’t Come Home America: The Case against Retrenchment” published in the International Security (vol 37, no. 3 Winter 2012/2013) by authors Brooks, Ikenberry and Wohlforth, it would have been interesting to see him engage their (quite comprehensive) case at greater length.
These three authors make a number of arguments which potentially undermine Posen’s case. For example, they claim that overseas bases are not that expensive for the US, since host countries tend to pay the larger part of the bill. They argue that military spending can be an engine of economic growth and that the US economy as a whole might actually benefit from the high level of investment in the development of military capabilities. Finally, as argued above, a retrenched US military would likely be forced to intervene abroad at some point anyway. Hence, it would be cheaper to just maintain the overseas presence and thereby deter potential troublemakers rather than having to wait for trouble to unfold before moving in.
I do not subscribe wholeheartedly to the analysis of Brooks, Ikenberry and Wohlforth. However, the absence of a dedicated and strong counter-case in Restraint is striking. Furthermore, some of Posen’s points made on Russia and the geopolitical landscape of Europe are unfortunately already a bit outdated since the book was written just before the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the current Russian assertiveness in both Ukraine and Syria. These developments seem to undermine any claim Posen might make, that Russia is only a status quo power, as defensive realists like to think – or hope!.
Nonetheless, Posen’s analysis is well-written, at times provocative and it gave me new insights into the usefulness of different military capabilities which Posen discusses in the book’s third chapter.
Reviewed by Nikolaj K. Andersen