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A Call For Restraint.


Posen, Barry R. Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press, 2014. 234pp. $29.95

Sometimes, less is more. "More" may seem the order of the day in U.S. security policy, between ISIS, Ukraine, and other issues, but MIT political scientist Barry Posen offers a powerful cry for "less!"

His book Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy calls for doing less, promising less, and spending less than the United States does today. The book is not a plea for isolationism or disarmament, but it makes a convincing case that Americas current strategy of "liberal hegemony" is both wasteful and counterproductive, creating more problems than it solves. Posen's strategy is not entirely novel--it is a form of offshore balancing--but Restraint is a worthy contribution. The book offers the most thorough and theoretically grounded rationale for offshore balancing to date, as well as practical diplomatic and defense planning recommendations, in a concise and well-organized monograph.

Posen has not always been in the restraint camp. A long-standing scholar of grand strategy, in the 1990s Posen favored "selective engagement"--maintaining U.S. alliances and forward presence in Europe, Asia, and the Persian Gulf, but eschewing liberal interventionism or pursuit of global primacy. Why should America now pull back? First, Posen argues, the relative economic and military strength of the United States has eroded; supplying security while allies take a free ride is not affordable. U.S. soft power has also been diminished by the excesses of liberal hegemony. The Iraq war, the Kosovo war (the geopolitical consequences of which Americans underestimate), NATO expansion, "color revolutions," and the like convinced China, Russia, and even democracies like Brazil that America is not a status quo power, and many nations now affirmatively challenge U.S. activism. Third, nationalism remains a potent force--contra the predictions of liberals--meaning that an anti-United States stance is good politics in many countries, and that U.S. meddling in other regions motivates nonstate extremist groups.

Posen recommends two basic changes in U.S. military intervention and military posture. He believes the United States should avoid intervention by force in other nations' politics-- whether preemptive regime change or "humanitarian" operations in the middle of civil wars. The more fundamental change he advocates is for the United States to withdraw gradually from security guarantees and permanent forward basing of American forces. Pulling back would incentivize allies--NATO, Japan and South Korea, Israel, Saudi Arabia, etc.--to provide more of their own security. Posen recognizes and accepts that some allies might go nuclear in response, but he sees such proliferation as less risky than U.S. entanglement, particularly since some allies treat U.S. support as a blank check for reckless behavior. In Posen's world, the United States would rely on local power balancing to prevent the rise of regional hegemons in Eurasia, on nuclear deterrence as an ultimate backstop for the United States, and on "command of the commons" both to prevent power projection by others against U.S. interests and to facilitate American involvement in Eurasia if that becomes necessary.

Perhaps the most compelling case against this minimalist approach comes from fellow realists like Robert Art, who would agree with the critique of liberal hegemony but argue that the costs of U.S. alliances and forward basing are better than the risks inherent in letting local powers sort out power relationships on their own. The United States might be safe from attack, but regional wars could damage the global economy, bringing painful recessions to American citizens. Posen does address that argument, responding essentially that there is a great deal of ruin in a global economy (apologies to Adam Smith). True, there is much alarmism on the subject, particularly around oil shocks, but one still wonders about applying past examples of neutral countries doing fine during major wars to today's tightly coupled supply chains and financial markets.

Posen also offers force structure implications. Many grand strategy proposals leap directly from foreign policy ideas to laundry lists of weapons to purchase or cancel. To his credit, Posen conducts the intermediate linking step of identifying military missions and broad operating concepts (the guidance provided--in theory--by a National Military Strategy). The core recommendation is to design a force for securing "command of the commons," i.e., sea, air, and space. This is an idea Posen has advocated for some time, but is fully appropriate to offshore balancing. The Navy fares very well in his recommended force structure, e.g., keeping nine carriers, while the Army and Marines take the bulk of cuts. Overall Posen thinks spending 2.5 percent of GDP on defense would suffice, a 25 percent cut from today's base budget.

While it is suited to his strategy, some might criticize Posen's proposed force as too conventional in its details--i.e., emphasizing aircraft carriers in the face of growing threats like the Chinese DF-21 missile. There is room for more attention to such emerging challenges. That said, Posen's strategy would have little requirement for close-in U.S. strikes against the Chinese or Russian homeland versus being able to thwart an adversary's attempts to project power across open oceans at us.

For those familiar with the grand strategy literature, the broad case in Restraint is in line with those of other offshore balancers, like John Mearsheimer, Steve Walt, and Christopher Layne. What Posen adds is a comprehensive theory-grounded analysis of the problems of liberal hegemony and merits of an offshore approach, backed by forty-five pages of endnotes. Uniquely, the book also develops practical recommendations for implementing the strategy with serious attention to timelines and regional nuances. Where Layne's Peace of Illusions traces historical failings of the hegemonic approach, Restraint is a timely, fleshed-out policy proposal.

Ultimately, many policy makers will never get past page 1, where Posen defines American national security interests as the traditional sovereignty, safety, territory, and international power position. Threats to those are modest and Posen makes a compelling case they are best managed through limited overseas commitments. On the other hand, many in Washington believe American hegemony --euphemized as "leadership"--is in and of itself a fundamental interest, and that no economic and physical risks are acceptable. That one televised beheading five thousand miles away can so alarm America suggests this will not change soon. For those willing to think critically about Americas security needs, however, Restraint offers a deeply logical challenge and a thoughtful blueprint.
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Title Annotation:Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy
Author:Burbach, David T.
Publication:Naval War College Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2015
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