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Exploring ‘resolute restraint’ as an alternative to liberal internationalism

A new book tries, but largely fails, to bridge the gap between two camps of US grand strategy.

The future of the liberal international order is once again up for serious debate. On one side of that debate are those who call for its restoration in the face of Chinese revisionism, Russian revanchism, and the general rise of illiberalism around the world. Whether in the pages of the recently released U.S. Interim Strategic Security Guidance or those of journals like Foreign Affairs or Foreign Policy, calls for restoratio imperii — the restoration of the world order built by the victorious United States in 1945 but most fully realized during the post-Cold War unipolar moment — are to be found in abundance.

While restorationists differ on any number of details, they share three defining beliefs: that the postwar order was built on firmly liberal foundations by a benign liberal hegemon, the United States; that the founders of the liberal international order built better than they knew, bequeathing to subsequent generations a set of norms, institutions, and rules that promoted not only peace and prosperity, but freedom as well; and that they built so well that the liberal order is with us yet, though somewhat worse for the wear these days and now in need of a serious makeover. They also generally agree that the United States would be best served by a grand strategy of liberal internationalism — a strategy of actively defending that order through military primacy and deep engagement around the world

On the other side of the debate, there are those who are deeply skeptical of both the so-called liberal international order and the strategy of liberal internationalism necessary to sustain it. For these “classical realists,” the postwar order was not particularly liberal and its American progenitor not particularly benign. Rather, the mislabeled liberal order was less an artefact of benign liberalism than of great power assertiveness, imperial logic and mercantilism.

On this view, the United States’ postwar grand strategy was not one of upholding and defending a benign liberal order but of forcibly ordering a world according to its national interests and imperial vision. The result was a genetic disposition to military interventionism, covert action, nuclear brinkmanship, economic coercion, diplomatic bullying and imperial overstretch — all inevitably framed as lesser evils in the service of a greater, liberal good. Their preferred alternative strategy is one of restraint — a reduced military engagement around the world in the service of less ambitious strategic goals.

In his just-released book, “The Art of War in an Age of Peace: U.S. Grand Strategy and Resolute Restraint,” Brookings Institution scholar Michael O’Hanlon has entered into this debate, making a powerful case for what he calls a grand strategy of “resolute restraint.” Now, given the title of his book, one might be forgiven for thinking that O’Hanlon has set out to make an argument in favor of a determined strategy of restraint (as that term is now generally used in debates over strategy). But this is not the case. O’Hanlon’s book is instead a kind of liberal internationalist cri de coeur, an impassioned plea for a smarter strategy of resoratio imperii. It is also an effort to limn the contours of a new U.S. grand strategy — one that is in some ways more restrained than existing U.S. grand strategy, but one that ultimately remains focused on maintaining the liberal international order constructed in the aftermath of World War II.

What, then, is his proposed grand strategy of “resolute restraint”?

O’Hanlon defines it as one of doggedly defending “the central elements of the existing rules-based global order. These include the sovereignty and safety of allies, ensured access for all to the global commons, and control of the world’s most dangerous technologies.”

By “resolute,” he means an unwavering commitment to these goals, which in turn entails “a robust U.S. defense budget, vigilant military modernization, sustainment of existing alliances, continued small-scale military engagement in the broader Middle East against violent extremism and Iranian predation, and a strengthening of economic resiliency at home.”

By “restraint”: O’Hanlon means not doing certain things — not entering into new alliances, not seeking to export liberal democracy at bayonet point, not firing the first shot in a crisis, not exaggerating minor provocations, not seeking full-spectrum military dominance, and not having an all-or-nothing view of strategic victory/success. Taken together, he argues, such a balanced strategy of resolution and restraint is America’s “best chance, and the world’s best chance, for a sustained period of great power peace, continually increasing prosperity at home and abroad, and multilateral success in addressing new security threats.”

While O’Hanlon makes a valiant effort to chart a new strategic course, ultimately his reach exceeds his grasp. “The Art of War in an Age of Peace” does not so much articulate a new strategic vision as refine the existing liberal internationalist one in light of the changing signs of the times. O’Hanlon suggests changes, to be sure. He advocates, for example, the adoption of a less ambitious timeline for the full and final realization of full-blown liberalism around the globe. And he recommends that the U.S. de-emphasize military hard power in favor of other forms of hard (and soft) power.

But these are suggestions regarding means rather than ends, regarding the instruments of statecraft rather than its goal. When it comes to the ultimate purpose of U.S. statecraft, O’Hanlon simply cannot escape the gravity well of liberal internationalism. Indeed, when it comes to strategic goals, he ends up largely recycling the platitudes and bromides that have defined liberal internationalist discourse since the early 1940s — that U.S. grand strategy has been and must remain the resolute defense of an essentially liberal international order.”

Nor does falling back on a somewhat strained distinction between “liberal” and “rules-based” orders blunt this charge. O’Hanlon makes a great deal of this distinction, arguing that the latter constitutes nothing more than the rules of the road necessary for peaceful and mutually beneficial interstate interaction while the former is that plus a fundamental commitment to promoting liberal democracy and human rights.

But in reality, it is a distinction without much of a difference. The two types of order occupy proximate points on a single scale — especially as O’Hanlon has defined it, the rules based order is simply a slightly stripped-down version of the liberal international order. All that is lacking — all that distinguishes the RBO from the LIO — is the overt promotion of liberal values and liberal-democratic forms of governance associated with the latter. But the liberalism on full display in the LIO is also immanent within the RBO. The rules of the RBO are, after all, liberal — they are based on free trade, peaceful resolution of disputes, and cooperation on issues of common importance, all of which are defining elements of Western tradition of liberal political and international thought. Indeed, the two are best seen as different in degree rather than kind — a point that O’Hanlon effectively concedes when he recognizes the RBO is in effect a kind of way-station on the road to a full-blown LIO.

Ultimately, what O’Hanlon offers is less a third-way between liberal internationalism and restraint than a kind of “liberal internationalism-lite” — a variation on the restoratio imperii theme that incorporates some of the more inescapable lessons of the past two-plus decades of American strategic overreach. A strategy of resolute restraint would have the same broad goals as liberal internationalism — upholding a concatenation of essentially “liberal” norms, rules and institutions — but would rely less on U.S. armed supremacy and the blunt instrument of deterrence-by-denial than on a broader mix of hard-power means more shrewdly employed.

The bottom line? If you are in the liberal internationalist camp, O’Hanlon’s arguments are likely to sound fresh and innovative. If you are in the restrainer camp, they are more likely to resemble Ptolemaic epicycles on increasingly unsustainable grand strategy of liberal internationalism. Count me a restrainer.

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