American Empire is marching into the sunset — can we handle it?
As the world’s attention focuses on the war in Ukraine, Daniel Bessner, author of Democracy in Exile: Hans Speier and the Rise of the Defense Intellectual, redirects the spotlight towards what he believes will be the major focus of U.S. foreign policy for decades to come: China.
RS sat down for a Q&A with Bessner about his views on restraint, his recent article in Harper’s, and his vision for the multipolar future.
Bessner is an associate professor at the University of Washington’s Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, a non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute, and co-host of the American Prestige podcast. His research focuses on the intellectual history of U.S. foreign policy, left-wing foreign policy and restraint.
Bessner on restraint:
Q: How did you come to restraint?
A: I’m mostly a product of my historical experience. I came to political consciousness in the run-up to and then during and after the Iraq War, and the war in Afghanistan. I pretty clearly saw the devastation caused by American hubris in U.S. foreign policy abroad. My research focused on left wing political thought and I was becoming more involved in debates about socialism and social democracy. I think those two things worked together to make me very skeptical of the United States’ ability to use military power to create good in the world.
I came to restraint before it was really on the lips of people within Washington, DC. But I think that’s a common story for elder millennials, like myself, who came of age during the War on Terror. Basically, the United States has just been failing for most of our lives, something that was really brought home during the recession of 2008. And I think all those things combined to engender a broader skepticism within me about the United States’s ability to do what it says it’s going to do or to do what was promised in the 1990s. And because I decided to focus on foreign policy, that inevitably led me to restraint or what I’m now calling for myself: restrain and reduce.
Q: What do you mean by reducing U.S. power?
A: If you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail, or if you have a hammer, rather, everything looks like a nail. And I think that as long as U.S. leaders have a recourse to using an extraordinary amount of military power, they’re going to use it abroad. So I think that restraint isn’t enough. You just need to do more than restrain the power, but actually get rid of the United States’s capacity to do things like bomb other countries and or use special forces all over the globe. It’s not just about restricting U.S. power — although that’s an important first step — it’s also about reducing U.S. power, which I also think will have positive domestic benefits, such as redirecting resources from weapons to welfare and things along those lines.
Q: What is some of the pushback that you get when advocating for U.S. restraint and reduction of power?
A: The common pushback that I get is that people think the United States should lead the world, people believe in the American empire. People believe that historically, the United States has done more good than harm. And I fundamentally disagree with those positions. I think if you look at what the United States has actually done in the world, it has oftentimes made things worse, and that a lot of the benefits that the world has seen– in particular more peace in Western Europe and Central Europe– could have been achieved without U.S. imperial action.
On Bessner’s article: “Empire Burlesque: What comes after the American Century?”
Q: How would you explain the premise of your new article?
A: The article is meant to explore a debate that I have been noticing going on between liberal internationalists and restrainers and it attempts to prove why I believe the restraint case is right. It focuses on what people are actually saying today on both sides of the debate and then it goes through the history of U.S. foreign policy — mostly since 1945 — and tries to demonstrate that the United States does cause an enormous amount of destruction abroad. And it also tries to explore what I consider to be the philosophical problems with the liberal internationalist approach to the world: both how they understand the world and how they understand other countries and their actions.
Q: Your article primarily focuses on China but how do you think that the war in Ukraine is affecting the restraint and liberal internationalist camps?
A: What has happened in the aftermath of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is that you see a lot of people who would have otherwise placed themselves in the restraint camp really embrace a more interventionist foreign policy.
I think Americans really feel a yearning for romantic wars. And I don’t mean romantic, as good, but as something that puts a bad actor against a quote unquote “good actor” that is defending their own space.
I think that, looking from a global scale, the Russian invasion is not nearly as dramatic a breach as people have pointed to. We could obviously point to the U.S.’ various interventions that have violated international sovereignty, but I don’t think that the invasion augurs a new era of geopolitics. I think it’s bad. I think it’s illegal. And I completely understand and respect Ukraine’s desire and Ukrainians’ desire to push Putin out. But having said that, I don’t think it really changes the global distribution of power in a meaningful way. And that was really what I was focusing on in that piece.
Q: When you wrote the piece, who were you trying to reach?
A: I think any strategy that is meant to promote restraint needs to reach both the American public and politicians. I would say right now, empirically, the public doesn’t have much influence in foreign affairs. But I think it’s almost a moral action within a democracy to educate the public as much as one is able to and build a more democratic base for future foreign policy.
Q: If you were to predict 50 years out, where would you see the world in terms of polarity and power dynamics?
A: It’s always difficult to know because history always throws surprises. But my guess is that China’s going to be roughly hegemonic in East Asia and the United States is not going to be as embedded in the region as it presently is. The United States will still continue to dominate the Western Hemisphere, even if I wish it was otherwise. Now, maybe there’s going to be some changes. We’ll see once Millennials begin to enter power positions if their perspective will actually result in new foreign policies. That’s what I can’t predict. And that’s what I hope for– that there will be a shift in how the U.S. approaches the world.