After 25 years of repeated failures, Americans want a foreign policy that preserves the security of the United States, enhances prosperity, and maintains the core U.S. commitment to individual liberty. They recognize that U.S. power can be a force for good, but only if it is employed judiciously and for realistic objectives. In short, a large and growing number of Americans want a foreign policy of restraint.
But what does that mean in practice? In a sense, it’s easier to understand what restrainers don’t want. They don’t want endless wars, bloated military budgets, and security commitments that keep expanding, but are never seriously debated or approved by the public. If restrainers were suddenly put in charge of U.S. foreign and national security policy, however, what would they do differently? What do restrainers really want?
Without presuming to speak for other members of the Quincy Institute, here’s how I would answer that critical question:
1. Restrainers Want Continued U.S. Economic and Diplomatic Engagement. Critics often claim that restrainers are isolationists, a bogus charge intended to marginalize their views and stifle debate before it starts. In fact, restrainers recognize that the United States benefits from trade, investment, tourism, and other mutually beneficial interactions with other countries, and they know that Washington must work with foreign powers to address a number of significant global problems. For these reasons, restrainers reject a return to “Fortress America” and want the United States to remain fully present in today’s world.
2. Restrainers Want a Broad and Honest Debate. In recent years, public debate on foreign policy and national security has been dominated by those who believe that American power—and especially military power—is the optimal solution to most foreign policy challenges. As Zack Beauchamp of Vox.com observes, “Washington’s foreign policy debate tends to be mostly conducted between the center and the right. The issue is typically how much force America should use rather than whether it should use it at all.”
Public discourse on these issues is skewed because the objective case for ceaseless military intervention is so weak. The United States remains remarkably secure compared to other nations: it has a large and diverse economy, a robust nuclear deterrent, and faces no powerful enemies in the Western Hemisphere. Given these enduring advantages, it has little to gain by trying to reshape politics around the world. To convince the public to go along with an overly ambitious foreign policy, therefore, proponents of intervention have to inflate threats, exaggerate the benefits of “global leadership,” and mischaracterize the views of their critics. Restrainers believe a more open and honest debate would undermine the case for military adventurism and lead to a more prudent and successful foreign policy.
3. Restrainers Want Realistic Foreign Policy Goals. Instead of engaging in costly and futile efforts to remake the world in our image, restrainers want U.S. foreign policy to pursue more feasible objectives. The U.S. military must be strong enough to deter attacks on the U.S. homeland, a task that is relatively easy to accomplish. When necessary, the United States can also help other states uphold the balance of power and deter war in a few key strategic areas outside the Western Hemisphere. America’s economic clout will also give Washington considerable influence over the institutions that manage trade, investment and other beneficial forms of international cooperation, and it should use that influence to ensure these institutions are working properly. But the United States has neither the need, the capacity, nor the wisdom to conduct massive social engineering projects (“nation-building”) in deeply divided and conflict prone societies, and it should cease trying.
4. Restrainers Want Credible Foreign Commitments. The United States keeps taking on new security obligations in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, but it rarely debates their wisdom or value. Americans are now formally committed to defending more countries around the world than at any time in U.S. history, even though some of these states are hard to defend, have little strategic importance for the United States, and sometimes act in ways that damage U.S. interests. Washington is also engaged in less visible military activities in dozens of other countries, some of them shrouded in secrecy. Yet anytime U.S. leaders contemplate trimming these obligations, alarmists warn that the slightest reduction in America’s global presence will undermine U.S. credibility, embolden rivals, and lead to catastrophe. Having allowed itself to become overextended, the United States ends up fighting endless wars in places with no strategic value in order to convince allies and adversaries that it will still fight in places of greater importance.
Restrainers believe the United States should pledge itself to defending another country–and thereby risking the lives of its troops—only when doing so will make a direct and significant contribution to U.S. security and prosperity, and when these obligations command broad support from the American people. Carefully considered commitments will be more credible, because both allies and adversaries can see for themselves why it is in the U.S. national interest to live up to them.
In short, restrainers want the United States to define its interests more narrowly but defend those interests more vigorously. It should focus on commitments and missions that can command strong support from the American people—such as helping to ensure that a rising China does not dominate Asia—and eschew obligations that do not make America more secure.
5. Restrainers Want Business-like Relations with All Countries and Special Relations with None. In his Farewell Address, George Washington famously warned against “passionate attachments” to foreign powers. His wise counsel still rings true today. No two states have identical interests, and no U.S. allies are so valuable or virtuous to deserve generous U.S. support no matter what they do. Restrainers believe the U.S. should support its allies when doing so makes the United States more secure or prosperous, and distance itself from those allies when they act in ways that are contrary to our interests and values.
Restrainers also want the United States to maintain diplomatic relations with acknowledged adversaries, both to facilitate cooperation on issues where our interests overlap and to maximize U.S. leverage. Refusing to talk directly to a country like Iran does not make the United States or its allies safer or richer; it just allows other states to take the U.S. support for granted and allows potential rivals like China or Russia to gain greater influence in an important region. Maintaining ties with all nations gives each of them greater incentive to do what we want, lest Washington get a better deal from someone else.
6. Restrainers Want More Diplomacy and Less Coercion. Over the past two decades, Washington has repeatedly tried to compel weaker powers to do its bidding by issuing ultimatums, imposing sanctions, and in some cases, unleashing its superior military power. Yet even weak opponents have repeatedly refused to knuckle under to U.S. pressure, because they cared more about the interests at stake and Washington typically refused to compromise at all. Even when Washington was able to overthrow a weaker adversary, the result was a failed state, a costly occupation, or both.
Restrainers believe diplomacy should take center stage in the conduct of America’s foreign relations and that sanctions and the threat or use of force should be our last resort rather than our first impulse. They recognize that many of America’s greatest foreign policy successes—the Marshall Plan, the Bretton Woods economic order, the peaceful reunification of Germany, etc.—were won not on a battlefield but across a negotiating table. A more restrained foreign policy strives for mutually beneficial agreements with other countries, rather than trying to dictate to them.
7. Restrainers Want U.S. Allies to Bear a Fair Share of Defense Burdens. The United States currently spends roughly 4 percent of GDP on the Department of Defense, the intelligence community, and other national security missions, while allies like Germany or Japan spend a little more than 1 percent. U.S. leaders have complained about this disparity for decades, but their efforts have failed to convince these wealthy allies to do more.
Restrainers believe allies will pull their weight only when they no longer see Uncle Sam as their first line of defense. Because NATO’s European members are significantly more populous and prosperous than Russia, they should assume primary responsibility for their own defense. Furthermore, the United States should withdraw from Afghanistan, curtail spending on counter-terrorism operations abroad, and let the contending countries in the Middle East balance each other. It should focus most of its military efforts on making sure that China does not achieve a dominant position in Asia, while insisting that its Asian partners pull their weight as well. Above all, the United States should not do more to protect allies than they are willing to do themselves.
8. Restrainers Want to Set a Good Example for Others. Restrainers are committed to classic liberal values—representative government, a market-based economy, the rule of law, and basic human rights—but they believe trying to impose these principles on others is likely to backfire. Indeed, democracy is now in retreat around the world, and the United States is deeply polarized and increasingly dysfunctional. When The Economist Magazine’s annual “Democracy Index” downgrades the United States from the category of “full democracy” to “flawed democracy,” as it did in 2017, it’s a clear sign that something has gone badly awry.
For restrainers, promoting liberal values abroad begins by setting a good example at home. Using American power to remake the world has led to illegal wars, excessive government secrecy, targeted killings, the deaths of thousands of innocent foreign civilians, and repeated violations of U.S. and international law. At the same time, it has squandered vast resources that could have been used to build a better society here in the United States, and distracted Americans from the efforts needed to improve our own institutions.
These are some of the reforms that (most) restrainers want, and so do a growing number of Americans. Public opinion polls show steadily diminishing support for foreign adventures—especially among younger Americans—and it is perhaps the one idea that unites politicians like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Donald Trump. It is also worth remembering that Bill Clinton (“It’s the economy, stupid”), George W. Bush (“a humble foreign policy”), and Barack Obama (“nation-building at home”) all campaigned pledging to do less abroad and more at home, even if they did not deliver as promised once they were in the White House.
Restraint is the foreign policy most Americans want and deserve. The only question is: how long will it be before they get it?