Review: Restraint by Barry Posen (or, the On Security gift guide)

Still looking for a last-minute gift for your Dad, your poli sci roommate, or your aunt who listens to NPR? Or perhaps for something to read on a long flight or train trip home for the holidays? Might I suggest Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy, by Barry Posen,[1] the Ford International Professor of Political Science and director of the Security Studies Program at MIT. In this book, Posen explains how the grand strategy of “Liberal Hegemony” has come to dominate the American security establishment since the end of the Cold War, explains why this grand strategy is “more active, and more militarized than seems necessary” (23) given the high level of security that the United States enjoys, and outlines his argument that the United States should adopt a grand strategy of “Restraint.”

Posen defines grand strategy as, “a nation-state’s theory about how to produce security for itself” (1). I think we can be a little more specific. A state’s grand strategy includes both that state’s understanding of its goals and the principal threats it faces, and the means—both military and non-military—by which the state plans to achieve these goals and protect itself from the identified threats. During the Cold War, the United States pursued a broad grand strategy called “Containment,” aimed at forestalling Soviet advances around the world (and in some formulations, rolling them back). When the Soviet Union dissolved at the end of the 1980s, the United States suddenly found itself searching for a new grand strategy to guide its foreign policy, and Liberal Hegemony eventually bubbled up to fill this vacuum.

Restraint is well written and very accessible for those who do not happen to be experts in political science or security studies. Posen tells a convincing and compelling story about how Liberal Hegemony has become the consensus on American grand strategy in the post-Cold War world. Both of the major political parties now agree on the vast majority of the principles embodied in Liberal Hegemony: the belief that the United States should maintain its position atop the global military hierarchy, that it should use its military might to promote liberal values like democracy and free markets, and that the principle threats in the world arise from rogue, failed, and/or illiberal states. Yes, the political parties do disagree on some specifics—notably the role of international institutions—and not everyone thinks we should be keeping all Muslims out of the country as Donald Trump has recently suggested, but with the possible exception of Bernie Sanders, there are no serious candidates currently running for President from either party who are questioning any of these core principles. Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton proved herself to be a key champion of Liberal Hegemony during her tenure as Secretary of State.

Posen argues that instead of Liberal Hegemony, we should pursue a much more restrained grand strategy that acknowledges that the United States is actually very safe. The most important threats to the United States will emanate from strong and powerful nation-states or peer competitors, not from floundering failed states. The United States should pull back from the activist foreign policy that has characterized the last twenty years and has made the United States a more attractive target for terrorism. We should scale back our military commitments overseas, stop stationing so many troops abroad, and instead rely on a maritime, i.e., naval presence, around the world to provide security for global commerce and to facilitate counter-terror and counter-proliferation efforts. In sum, we can continue to enjoy a high level of security at much less cost and without angering so many people around the world. Posen also includes a detailed analysis of the implications of Restraint for key regions around the world.

I enthusiastically recommend this book. I suspect, however regretfully, that Posen’s ideas will have a hard time making headway in Washington. There are a couple of reasons for this: 1. The political consensus on Liberal Hegemony is firmly entrenched within both parties, within the national defense industry, and within much of the military leadership. Liberal Hegemony also permeates the so-called mainstream media to an extent that events and arguments that challenge its bedrock assumptions go unreported or simply do not make it into the discussion. 2. Washington is not staffed by people who want the United States to “do nothing” in international affairs. That is, one does not rise through the ranks at the State Department, the Department of Defense, or any of the other braches of the foreign policy bureaucracy (or even the dominant think tanks) by arguing that the United States should refrain from using its power. That is simply not the message people want to hear, and more importantly, I don’t think it’s the message believed by the kind of person who works eighty hours a week for several years (or decades) for a chance at a political appointment. Arguments for restraint are more often believed by the kind of person who finds herself in academia, writing books and blog posts.

[1] (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014).