Listen to the Restraint Foreign Policy Camp
But take their wispy thin policy recommendations with a big grain of salt
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made a surprise trip to Kyiv with a Congressional delegation earlier this week, pledging to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that the United States would “be there for you until the fight is done… We are on a frontier of freedom and your fight is a fight for everyone.”
Her statement echoes many of the points made by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in his visit to Ukraine with Secretary of State Antony Blinken last week. This position has strong support with the American public – a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that nearly three quarters of Americans (73 percent) say that America is providing “the right amount” or “too little” support.
Taken together, these actions and statements from top officials along with public opinion show just how isolated fringe voices on the left and right that sail under the banner of “restraint” and “realism” are in America’s domestic political debates. That’s ironic given the resources devoted in recent years to amplifying and promoting these voices in elite foreign policy discussions; indeed, it’s not hard to find their arguments published on the pages of prestigious newspapers and foreign policy journals like the New York Times and Foreign Affairs.
In truth, the restraint camp may well have more influence in some corners of the so-called foreign policy Blob than it does with the American people or their elected representatives. Restraint is in many ways a boutique, academic argument emanating from and circulating in elite circles, and this undermines the picture many restraint advocates paint of a closed-off foreign policy establishment unwilling to even listen to their ideas. America’s foreign policy establishment has heard many of the restraint arguments and when it’s tried to absorb and implement them, it’s produced stunning policy and political failures like last year’s botched withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Look at the facts: a strong majority of Americans remain open and supportive of engagement in the world along the same lines the United States has pursued since the end of World War II, and Russia’s war against Ukraine has resurfaced this fundamental. The war in Ukraine has only reinforced these impulses: two-thirds of Americans have a favorable opinion of NATO, for instance, and sixty-nine percent say the United States benefits a great deal or fair amount from its membership in the alliance
For their part, those in the restraint and realist camps often don’t have many constructive alternatives to recommend at this moment of crisis in Russia’s war against Ukraine. In the early stages of the crisis, many restrainers spent a lot of time in mostly academic debates about whether NATO expansion more than a quarter century ago was responsible for the Kremlin raining bombs and missiles down on Ukrainian towns and cities today. They wring their hands about the supposedly dangerous rhetoric coming from American and NATO political leaders and defense officials, warning that any attempt to help Ukraine repel Putin’s aggression could spiral into all-out war and advocating peace at just about any price as a result.
In effect, these voices call on the United States to cut a deal with Vladimir Putin to soothe their own fears of escalation while claiming the policies favored by the more internationalist wing of the U.S. foreign policy community will only prolong the war. Finally, they often ignore the people who are at the center of this fight: the Ukrainians. The clear willingness of the Ukrainian government and ordinary Ukrainians alike to defend their country against Russian aggression is often pushed to the sidelines in their arguments – much like the academic debate about NATO expansion ignored the strong desire of the people of those countries like the Baltic states to join NATO. Restrainers too often ignore the people of other countries and their desire for freedom.
Nonetheless, many in this camp are thoughtful and their voices should remain part of the policy debate. Some contributions include:
1. Warnings against the dangers of overreach. While the restraint camp doesn’t hold a monopoly on warning against overextension in foreign policy, their concern about potential overreach remains salutary and worth considering. The 2003 invasion of Iraq represents the most prominent and damaging recent example of America’s political leaders attempting to do more in the world than is realistic or reasonable. Moreover, most Americans – some 72 percent – oppose “direct military action against Russian forces in Ukraine,” and 80 percent say they’re very or somewhat concerned that the Kremlin will use nuclear weapons. At the same time, though, solid majorities of Americans also say they’d support sending U.S. troops to defend allies and partners like the Baltic NATO member states, South Korea, Israel, and Taiwan. What this data shows is not that most Americans are innately for or against military intervention overseas but that they have a more nuanced view about the use of military force than the advocacy campaigns of many restrainers.
2. A call for stronger checks and balances by Congress. Many in the restraint”camp highlight the need for Congress to take a more active role in overseeing foreign policy, a role outlined in the Constitution itself but rarely taken up by Congress in the years and decades since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Indeed, many in Congress agree that the legislative branch has failed in its duties on this front but Congress as an institution has largely refused to take action to remedy this situation – with the main exceptions of measures to require Congressional approval of any nuclear deal with Iran and a ban on transfers from the prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
3. Sometimes useful ideas for diplomatic engagement and crafting political settlements. Another area where the restraint camp has played an important role is when they offer ideas in support of diplomacy and political solutions. That was the case when it came to ending America’s direct involvement in the war in Iraq in 2011 or building support for the diplomatic process that led to the Iran nuclear deal in 2015. Similarly, some of these voices back rapprochement with Havana and an end to the futile decades-long embargo of Cuba.
But a major problem with some of their proposed pathways is that they often unrealistically assume that peace and stability will invariably follow if America simply disengages from a conflict militarily or cuts its support to one of the parties to a particular conflict. They appear to believe that diplomacy can work miracles without requisite attention to the balance of military power in a given conflict. Ironically enough, this rush to claim there are “no military solutions” only undermines diplomacy by ignoring or gainsaying the role military power plays in conflicts around the world.
In the end, restraint advocates often take their more constructive impulses too far – not every U.S. foreign policy move ends in overreach, for instance, and Congress often plays a negative or obstructive role in foreign policy.
It’s important to keep their contributions in perspective while recognizing this camp’s worldview and recommendations have serious strategic and moral shortcomings.
1. They are often unrealistic about the strategic and moral opportunity costs of the policies they propose. Many restraint voices tend to dodge the moral and strategic questions that lay at the heart of foreign policy. When confronted with the atrocities committed by the Assad regime in Syria, the Putin regime in Ukraine, or the Chinese Communist Party against the Uyghurs, the restraint response often amounts to a shrug – or an insistence that restraint represents a higher form of morality, one based on hard-headed calculations of national interest that only restraint adherents have the courage to make.
In some instances, a few restrainers and realists simply assert that pulling back from the world won’t result in the sorts of atrocities that the world is seeing unfold in places like Ukraine and Syria. For example, in his 2018 book, The Hell of Good Intentions, Harvard political scientist Stephen Walt simply asserts that “offshore balancing does not preclude using American power to prevent wars, halt genocides, or persuade other countries to improve their human rights performance, but it does set a high bar for the use of force.” He then proceeds to offer a somewhat esoteric and academic formula for when and how the U.S. might intervene – but then does not offer concrete ideas on when and where the U.S. might do this. This vagueness is the sort of formula that helped foster the conditions we see in Ukraine right now – if America had responded to Ukrainians’ concerns over the past eight years by helping them more effectively defend themselves before a Russian invasion, it’s quite plausible to conclude that Russia would not have invaded again in 2022.
We also see these opportunity costs in constant recommendations against the phantom menace of new Cold Wars with China or Russia. Beijing’s wild overreaction to the Biden administration’s otherwise anodyne Summit for Democracy shows just how intertwined moral and strategic concerns are in reality – and how hard it is for the United States to simply ignore questions like democracy and human rights in practice. Indeed, we’re seeing these connections right now with Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, itself a direct result Putin’s paranoid fear of a closer relationship between Kyiv and the European Union.
What’s more, this indifference fosters a gated community mindset and hardens the resolve of those determined to tear down an admittedly imperfect and incomplete world order. It’s hard to imagine Putin launching his full-blown invasion of Ukraine, for instance, if he had faced stiffer consequences for his actions in Ukraine in 2014 and Syria in 2015. We’ve seen similar arguments for strategic and moral abdication before, when isolationists and the original America Firsters opposed President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s effort to aid Great Britain in its fight against Nazi Germany – and as a matter of fact, some contemporary restraint voices see FDR’s decision to involve America in the world as a fundamentally “tragic” and wrongheaded choice.
2. They’re clearer about what they oppose than what they stand for as alternatives. A number of restraint voices spend more time opposing others than standing for something clear themselves. They’re against current levels of defense spending, for instance, but don’t offer specifics as to what they’d cut from the defense budget or what international security commitments they’d have the United States forsake as a result. Likewise, rhetoric about “ending endless wars” leaves unanswered the question of how to actually resolve ongoing conflicts in a sustainable fashion. Glance at that 2018 book by Stephen Walt: at least 80 percent of it is a screed against the so-called foreign policy establishment and only 20 percent of it focuses on the way forward – again, in very vague and academic terms.
Simply asserting that Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners have lost to the Houthis in Yemen, for instance, does little to resolve the actual conflict. Similarly, in Ukraine many in the “restraint” camp worry about the potential for escalation and call on the United States to deter itself while pushing a negotiated compromise with Moscow that the Kremlin has expressed little interest in. That doesn’t mean those in this camp never propose alternatives, but that they’re much more certain of what they oppose than they support.
3. Their tone and rhetoric tend to prevent them from establishing constructive political relationships rather than build necessary coalitions. Finally, many individual voices in the restraint camp tend to indulge in rhetorical approaches that alienate other people and stop them from building constructive political relationships. Because they are often hypercritical of an establishment they want to tear down, they frequently resort to tactics like ad hominem attacks that undercut any wider appeal their ideas might have.
Moreover, some in that camp are also inclined to attribute nefarious motives to their intellectual and political opponents. As one recent article on a prominent restraint advocacy institution observed, these voices did not often “try to rebut someone else’s arguments or ideas; they just accused their perceived opponents of being corrupt.” Moreover, many restraint arguments rest on assumptions that effectively portray their opponents as warmongers who want the United States to establish military primacy and maintain armed dominance over the rest of the world.
Furthermore, the ”blame America first” ethos that seems persistent among many in this camp lacks broad appeal in a country where there are still strong patriotic sentiments. Most Americans are proud of the country, and they acknowledge that America has gotten many things wrong in its foreign policy. But most don’t subscribe to a retreat and defeat formula.
Advocates of restraint and self-proclaimed realists will remain an important part of America’s foreign policy debate. Their worldview has deep roots, going back to the emergence of self-conscious isolationism in the United States during debates over the First World War, and it will be with us as long as America plays a leading role in global politics and international security.
All the same, it’s important not to overestimate their wider political and public influence or give their unrealistic ideas more credence than they deserve.
Listen to the restraint camp mostly because their criticisms can help sharpen the way America implements its foreign policy and learn from the mistakes – but don’t expect too much from them in providing a clear way forward in a world that is way more complicated and interlinked for the wispy thin recommendations they have to offer.