International relations scholar William Ruger has a nice review of Barry Posen’s book Restraint in The American Conservative that is well worth checking out. Posen’s book is an attempt to sketch out a hard-nosed, moderately noninterventionist grand strategy for the United States. Excerpts:
Restraint, Posen’s alternative to liberal hegemony, is developed in the second chapter. He begins with a discussion of U.S. security interests—which include “sovereignty, safety, territorial integrity, and power position”—and then carefully considers potential threats and how to meet them. Primary among these would be “the rise of a continental hegemon” that upsets the “Eurasian” balance of power; nuclear weapons, especially in the hands of terrorists; and “terrorist organizations that have global ambitions.”
Posen proceeds to define what restraint would look like in the various regions. In Europe, he believes it is “past time to realize the dividends” of our Cold War victory. This means the U.S. can withdraw its forces, transfer NATO-related institutions to the European Union, and rework NATO itself—or even let it lapse.
His analysis identifies East Asia as the “most problematical region” in which to implement restraint, especially with China rising, and he believes that the U.S. has an interest in maintaining a regional balance of power. Yet Posen is not worried about China becoming as big a threat as the Soviets were, and he argues that a Cold War-style approach is unnecessary. Instead, the U.S. should “encourage its allies to assume more responsibility for their own defense,” while maintaining a security-assistance relationship with states like Japan.
In the Middle East, Posen argues that the U.S. should reduce its “salience” in the region in general and in the Israel-Palestine conflict in particular. This means going “offshore” while maintaining an absolute minimum land presence to keep the oil flowing and prevent any single state from dominating the region. It means the U.S. stays out of the region’s civil wars and focuses on naval power in the Gulf. In the case of Israel, Posen thinks the U.S. should “move deliberately” in reducing its subsidy of Israeli policies that are often not in our interests. To him, this means going back to the America’s pre-1967 Arab-Israeli War position, in which Israel received less military assistance and had to fund its own arms purchases.
Posen’s insight into the destabilizing effect of rapid change in international politics shows in his preference for a slow, deliberate transition away from liberal hegemony. But one might be concerned that the U.S.—with an open political system responsive to domestic interest groups—will not be able to stay the course. Given the realities of American politics, it may then be better to err on the side of speed in moving towards restraint. Either way, for restraint to succeed, it will take a serious commitment by a broad enough swath of the foreign-policy elite to see it through without backsliding. This is going to require educating a new generation of thinkers about the perils of liberal hegemony and the virtues of strategic restraint. The battle of ideas will be critical, and Restraint is a major salvo in that war.