A sustained debate

  • Fall 2014
Barry Posen

Barry Posen is Ford International Professor of Political Science at MIT and director of the MIT Security Studies Program.

By Barry Posen
November 1, 2014

An excerpt from his book Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy.
Reprinted with permission by Cornell University Press

THE GRAND STRATEGY OF RESTRAINT was first conceptualized in the mid–1990s, the early years of the post–Cold War world. This was the "unipolar moment" when the United States was indeed the most capable state in international politics by a wide margin. Restraint advocates saw the momentum building for an activist U.S. foreign and security policy and argued that such a policy was unnecessary and unprofitable. It was, however, possible. The policy was driven forward by overwhelming American power. There was simply nothing to stop the United States. But this was not the only cause. Liberalism was victorious in the Cold War, so the United States, along with its democratic allies, succumbed to a kind of triumphalism. Democracy and free markets would be the order of the day, and U.S. power would protect and nurture this long expected evolution. George Herbert Walker Bush coined the phrase "new world order," which sounds incongruous coming from a Cold War realist and spymaster.

Activist policies were supported by a wide coalition of interests. The United States had built a huge organizational infrastructure for the Cold War in its foreign and intelligence services, the military, defense industry, and a network of think tanks. All of these institutions had a way of looking at the world, and they agreed with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright that the United States was the "indispensable nation." These institutions also needed new projects in order to thrive. A combination of great power, luck, and at least at the outset, prudent diplomacy, permitted the United States several relatively inexpensive early successes—the frst Gulf War, the enlargement of NATO, and the interventions in Bosnia and in Kosovo. The Restraint "critique" did not get much traction, though advisors to George W. Bush such as Dr. Condoleezza Rice, later secretary of state, suggested at his election that U.S. grand strategy could be a bit more focused on great powers, and a bit more humble, than in the Clinton years. The terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, changed this; the second Bush administration embraced Liberal Hegemony.

The last decade has not been kind to Liberal Hegemony. Though the United States remains the strongest power in the world, the margin is shrinking. China's capabilities are growing; soon its economic output may outstrip that of the United States. Other states, particularly India, may briskly pursue China. Meanwhile, the financial crisis of 2008 and concomitant recession have slowed U.S. growth and reduced U.S. global influence. The Global War on Terror has been costly and undisciplined. Though Osama Bin Laden is dead, Al–Qaeda, in some form, survives. The two demanding counterinsurgencies that the United States took on to reform the politics of Iraq and Afghanistan have produced mixed results at best.

Many analysts believe that the unipolar moment is over, or soon will be. The basic distribution of global capabilities is changing, as the National Intelligence Council's Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World famously predicted, and as its more recent effortGlobal Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds reiterates. We may soon confront a new bipolar competition with China, or we may face a new multipolar world, in which several nation–states or confederations of great capability stand together at the top of the global pecking order, each warily eyeing the other and simultaneously calculating one another's potential utility as allies. Whichever future we encounter, Liberal Hegemony is a poor answer. It depends too much on a U.S. power advantage that is disappearing. And it did not work very well even when the United States had such an advantage. Unfortunately, this strategy is deeply rooted in the U.S. national security community. Liberal Hegemony serves the interests of many institutions, and it matches the worldview of the U.S. establishment, and even the broader public. The continued pursuit of this policy without the real power to match it, however, will likely prove not merely costly and counterproductive, as it has been in the recent past, but disastrous.

In this book I have explained why Liberal Hegemony has not worked particularly well. The strategy has precipitated some balancing by other nation–states and will likely precipitate more as the relative power advantage enjoyed by the United States wanes, and others feel more capable of tilting against the United States. The strategy has made the United States the center of political attention in a world undergoing rapid social, political, and economic change. The United States is sufficiently strong and omnipresent to be blamed by the losers but not strong enough to do much affirmatively to alleviate the stresses and strains that rapid development often causes. The strategy underrates the enduring power of nationalism and the inclination of self-aware peoples to resist direction by outsiders. And the strategy overlooks the extent to which the capacity for organized violence has diffused, rendering even relatively small counterinsurgency efforts hugely expensive. Finally, the strategy leads directly to the issuance of blank security checks to U.S. allies. Some cash the check for increased welfare spending in their own societies, as do the European allies and Japan; they cheap ride. Others cash the check to pay for their own extravagant security adventures; clients as different at Afghanistan and Israel drive recklessly. For all these reasons, Liberal Hegemony has proven an expensive and counterproductive grand strategy.

I have outlined an alternative grand strategy, military strategy, and accompanying force structure. Restraint sketches a more limited set of political objectives abroad and more limited means to achieve them. The objectives are best supported by a more focused military strategy and force structure—a maritime strategy underpinned by a strong navy, a smaller but more agile marine corps, and a long armed air force. A global network of access agreements and carefully chosen but largely unmanned base infrastructure would facilitate the movement of these forces. This would provide a sound defense against current threats, an insurance policy against sudden changes in international politics, and a firm foundation on which to construct additional military power if that ever proves necessary. The force structure to support this strategy provides the ability to police the legal and harass the illegal trade in nuclear materials. It allows the United States to interdict the movements of nonstate actors, and to organize disruptive raids against them should they find havens in ungoverned or undergoverned spaces. Finally, should major security threats emerge, command of the sea would permit the United States to organize coalitions, assemble military power from disparate contributors, and even facilitate the mobilization of allied economies for war, while complicating the efforts of adversaries to do the same. The termination of U.S. wars and the paring of U.S. force structure should make it possible to sustain this military strategy for the long term for 2.5 percent of GDP or less, barring a major increase in global tensions. This would save a great deal of money, which the country could use to address other pressing problems.

Politically, the United States must do less. It must focus on the most important dangers to its security. The greatest danger to U.S. sovereignty is a hegemon on the Eurasian land mass. This danger is low now, but the United States must always be prepared to counter it should it reemerge. If such a challenge does reemerge, however, the United States ought not manage it like it did the Cold War, shouldering the bulk of the burden, because the U.S. relative power position is unlikely to be as favorable. The United States will need real allies, not the security dependencies it has now. Moreover, it would be foolish to reenact the riskiest aspect of the Cold War, the effort to extend nuclear deterrent guarantees to nonnuclear countries threatened by a great power. Paradoxically, to have capable allies later, preparations must start now. The only way to prepare them is to renegotiate and reduce the current level of U.S. commitment.

The greatest short–term dangers to the United States are to be found in the diffusion of the ability to produce weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear weapons, and the possibility such weapons could fall into the hands of nonstate actors of a type that cannot be deterred from using them. These twin problems are difficult to address, and perfect insurance is unavailable. Nevertheless a strong nuclear retaliatory force can deter nation–states from attacking the United States or from giving nuclear weapons away. A sustained and measured policy to retard the spread of nuclear weapons technology, and to encourage new nuclear states to adopt best practices to secure their materials, can buy a great deal of security at modest cost. Finally, sustained attention from U.S. intelligence agencies, and sustained cooperation with the intelligence agencies of like–minded states, all of whom have a very strong collective interest in not being victims of nuclear terrorism, should permit the suppression of nihilistic groups and help deny them access to nuclear weapons.

The United States will need to give up some objectives. The coercive reform and political reorganization of other countries has proven expensive and "success" has proven elusive. The often asserted connection of these projects to the elimination of groups such as Al–Qaeda is tenuous. If the United States forgoes the objective of coercive reform, it can forgo many of the ground forces retained for this purpose. This is where the biggest savings are to be found. The United States will also need to give up or reduce its military guardianship of rich countries that are well able to defend themselves. The relationship with Europe must be transformed entirely. The relationship with Asian allies, especially Japan, must be reformed significantly. Japan can make a much bigger contribution to its own defense. Giving up these objectives means that some nuclear proliferation would be tolerated. Preventive nonproliferation wars that depend for their ultimate success on deep changes in the politics and government of target states will often prove to be more costly than they are worth. And trying to keep Germany, or Japan, or the Republic of Korea from getting nuclear weapons if they ever feel truly threatened will implicate the United States in extended deterrence commitments that in the past have had an unfortunate property. They have pushed the United States to pursue conventional and nuclear capabilities that are ultimately destabilizing.