Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy

  • Published

Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy by Barry Posen. Cornell University Press, 2014, 256 pp.

Mae West Said it Best:  “I like restraint, if it doesn't go too far.

Professor Barry Posen’s new book, Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy, represents a powerful contribution to the ongoing debate about US grand strategy in the twenty-first century and is worthy of attention from anyone interested in the proper balance of commitments and risk in the current national security environment. Readers who are familiar with Posen’s prior work on sources of military doctrine will recognize the same artful blend of balance-of-power theories with the increasing impact of identity politics in this latest work.  Although he presents a compelling case for limiting certain foreign policy goals, Posen’s strategy oversteps its title and articulates a dramatic restructuring of American security commitments.

Posen begins with a persuasive description of America’s inability to moderate its ambitions in international politics since the end of the Cold War. He traces the origins of our current strategy, “Liberal Hegemony,” to the post-World War II era and the subsequent global battle against Communism. Even after the Cold War, Posen shows that US policy makers purposefully chose to extend nuclear security commitments far beyond the original intent of our core alliances.

Perhaps the most useful aspect of the book is the description of partner countries who act as “cheap riders” and “reckless drivers” under the American security umbrella. As he describes them, “cheap riders” are those US allies such as Japan and Germany, who exploit American security commitments to enable meager funding of their militaries. His concept of “reckless drivers” shows that some security partners like Israel and Iraq act against US national security interests while dependent on the United States for support. The implication of this analysis is clear: these alliances are no longer worth the cost. Posen suggests decreasing our security commitments to these countries and others under the auspices of his grand strategy of restraint, and he offers specific policy recommendations based on this concept.

Posen suggests a maritime military strategy, which he calls “Command of the Commons,” designed to ensure a “disproportionate U.S. influence over global communications.” By leveraging America’s current mastery of the global commons and limiting international commitments, Posen argues the United States can limit defense expenditures to 2.5 percent of annual GDP. While the fiscal benefits of these savings are important, Posen argues that the ultimate benefit of having allies pay their fair share is that our allies will be stronger in the long run.  

At first blush, the exercise of some version of restraint in American foreign policy is long overdue. Posen is correct to assess that America is fundamentally overcommitted. However, the actual policy recommendations he presents might be more accurately labeled retrenchment or disengagement, rather than restraint. By arguing to abandon long-held security relationships, Posen risks undercutting generations of investments in security cooperation and destabilizing the world economy. Posen’s assessment of this approach undervalues the economic benefits of America’s hegemony and underestimates the risk posed by such a shift.

The economic benefits of the current system for America are profound. As the central hub of economic activity and the engine that drives the global economy, America derives extraordinary profits from the free flow of global goods and currencies. Posen accurately describes the value of having the dollar as the world’s reserve currency, but his assessment that “the United States does not depend very much on international trade,” (p. 63) is glaringly dismissive. According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, 50 million Americans work for companies that engage in international trade and produced $1.5 trillion in exports in 2012. Money conveys power as much as military strength, and the more trade occurring in the world, the richer America gets.

For this reason, Posen’s dismissal of the destabilizing effects of retrenchment is also troubling. Although he prudently recommends a gradual paring of some commitments over a decade, the credibility of any remaining alliances could be severely damaged. This shift in commitments could be incredibly destabilizing. Posen claims that, “it would take an unusual series of capitulations, conquests, or just plain market closures to close down enough trade to affect greatly the U.S. economy” (p. 63). Given the recent financial meltdowns in Asia in 1997, America in 2008, and Europe in 2010-2012, this doesn’t seem so unusual. Posen also discounts the economic impact of potential restrictions on access to oil from the Persian Gulf region. He claims that, “it seems to take quite a lot of fear and hostility to change the calculus” of international trade (p. 64). In an era of increasing complexity and volatility, many would argue that changing the calculus in unexpected ways can be dangerously easy. 

Another aspect in which Posen might be overestimating the stability of the international system is his faith in nuclear weapons as a deterrent for major power war. He describes nuclear weapons as the “great equalizer” and even suggests that “should China prove powerful and ambitious, then more nuclear proliferation, not less, will be part of the answer” (p. 132). In this, too, he seems quick to dismiss several key dynamics. He completely discounts the potential that some sort of defense could change the strategic deterrence calculus, either for America or its potential adversaries (p. 71). He also understates the risk of unattributable threats, such as a “cyber Pearl Harbor,” recently described by then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. 

In sum, Posen’s work is informative and thought provoking. His analysis is insightful and worth the read, even if the obscure vocabulary was somewhat distracting at times. Overall, though, he underestimates the economic impact of his strategy and its potential to destabilize the international system. If Posen had limited his strategy to merely restraint, the arguments he makes could be much more convincing.  However, his strategy goes beyond restraining future policy goals and implies a retraction of America’s long-standing security commitments.  Restraint is a laudable goal for US national security, but that’s not what this book is about.

Lt Col Cameron S. Pringle, USAF

U.S. Naval War College, Newport, RI

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."